SWEDEN — At Pietree Orchard’s friendly farm stand recently, customers could snap up homemade blueberry whoopie pies, juicy slicing tomatoes and all sorts of yummy treats.

It’s the only place in Sweden, with a population of less than 400, where it’s possible to buy anything at all.

One thing that nobody can purchase in Sweden, located between Bethel and Fryeburg in western Oxford County, is alcohol.

That’s because Sweden, like three dozen other little towns in Maine, maintains a prohibition on the sale of alcohol almost a century after America gave up on the idea. More than 12,000 Mainers live in municipalities that ban people from buying booze, beer and wine.

A tree-lined road in Sweden, a pretty western Maine town that doesn’t allow the sale of alcohol. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

But small-town Maine doesn’t stand alone.

Alcohol remains banned in a number of counties across the United States, especially in rural Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Kansas, which kept up a total ban on alcohol until 1948, also remains a prohibitionist hot spot.

Part of the reason is religious sentiment against drinking, once one of America’s great progressive crusades. But in many places, and certainly in Maine, jurisdictions that maintain statutes against alcohol sales mostly leave them in place because it’s easier than changing them.

In Machiasport — with almost 1,100 people, the second largest town to ban the sale of beer, wine and booze — the reality behind its stance on alcohol is that nobody has ever seen a reason to bother changing the law.

“We don’t have any retail,” said Machiasport Town Clerk Marcia Hayward. “We can’t even buy a quart of milk. You can’t get a loaf of bread.”

Hayward said residents typically pick up groceries in nearby East Machias since the only commercial activity in Machiasport comes from the fishermen at the docks.

“Lobster’s cheap,” she added. And it’s possible to get fish there, too.

But anyone looking for a cold beer after a day on the water has to head over to Archibald’s One Stop on Main Street in East Machias, which is licensed to sell beer and wine.

Jim Hedges, a Pennsylvania man who was the 150-year-old Prohibition Party’s presidential candidate in 2016, said that across the country, dry towns tend to be small and lacking any tourism.

Even in those places, though, residents “go to the bigger towns and bring it back” so they can drink at home, Hedges said.

Maine has a distinctive place in the history of prohibition because its law went into effect in 1851 to make it the first dry state in the country and perhaps in the world.

Though it tweaked the law repeatedly in the decades that followed, alcohol bans proved one of the hot issues in the state until the passage of the 18th Amendment after World War I sought to make the entire country dry.

Maine didn’t instantly repeal prohibition after the 21st Amendment nullified the 14-year experiment in the United States in 1933.

Instead, the state left prohibition in place and gave every municipality in the Pine Tree State the chance to repeal the ban locally through a public referendum starting in 1934. Local-option votes now decide everything from whether to allow alcohol sales on Sunday to the legality of opening a brew pub.

In the larger towns and cities, residents long ago cleared the way for alcohol to be sold freely, in keeping with state regulations. In the parlance of prohibition, that makes them “wet” towns.

Smaller towns, though, run the gamut of “wet,” “moist” and “dry,” depending on how much, or little, they allow.

In general, the trend has been ever more “wet,” but it’s notable that 85 years after towns could have ended prohibition, more than 36 of Maine’s smaller, rural places remain dry.

The Sweden Community Church, one of the few gathering spots in the tiny Maine town. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The largest dry town in the state is Charleston, which had 1,409 residents counted in the 2010 census.

Located 25 miles northwest of Bangor in Penobscot County, the town’s first settler arrived in 1795 and it incorporated in 1811 as New Charlestown, to avoid confusion with its larger counterpart across from Boston. After Maine became a state, Charleston shortened its name.

One of Charleston’s selectmen, Keith Scott, said the town has been dry “for years and years and years.”

Scott said he figures it’s mostly due to the strong religious beliefs of many of its residents.

More than that, though, “it’s been so long that people have got used to it.”

He said the town has voted on the issue in the past, but opted to remain dry.

As it is, Charleston doesn’t have any place that would sell alcohol if it was legal because it doesn’t have a single store.

Scott said residents who want to get a drink typically drive to nearby Bradford or maybe pick something up when they’re in Bangor.

“It’s not like they’re stuck in Charleston all the time,” Scott said.

Hedges said that from the beginning, prohibitionist sentiments ran strong in agricultural areas because rural residents recognized that a drunk factory worker might miss a few days’ paychecks if he went on a bender but a farmer doing the same could wind up ruined.

If a farmer misses two or three key days in the fields, Hedges said, “when he should be out there plowing or planting, he’s lost a year’s production.”

A tractor in a field in Sweden, Maine. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In Sweden, there are no factories and not much agriculture either, Pietree excepted.

What it has are some beautiful old homes and a whole lot of trees. Crumbling stonewalls line the edge of the forests, a sign that years ago farmers labored on many plots that have long since been given back to nature.

That’s true of quite a few little Western Maine towns, however, yet nearly all of them have taken votes to allow alcohol sales. It’s a 90-minute drive to reach another town in the state that hasn’t repealed prohibition, with Vienna, near Augusta, the closest organized place where the ban remains.

A few Sweden residents, each of them wary of having their name in print, said it’s not a surprise that their town hasn’t voted to repeal prohibition since it wouldn’t matter anyway.

They said their community hasn’t had a general store in decades. They said people buy alcohol if they want in grocery stores in nearby towns where they go to get just about everything they need.

Hedges is realistic about his party’s prospects of restoring prohibition across the land.

He said there “certainly ought to be more” places that ban alcohol because of what it does to people’s health in addition to the havoc it can cause when drunken drivers hit the road.

But, he said, it’s more likely that increasingly health-conscious Americans will avoid alcohol by choice rather than government mandate.

Whatever happens, Hedges said, he’s sure the Prohibition Party — the nation’s third oldest political party — will hang in there for the long haul.

“It has become living history,” Hedges said. “The people who are running it now value history and don’t want to lose the record. It’ll be tiny, but it’ll be here.”

And the way things are going in small-town Maine, where populations are dwindling, it’s entirely possible that prohibition itself may remain for the long haul as well, at least in a few out-of-the-way locales.

Maine’s dry towns:

AMITY
ATKINSON
BLAINE
BOWERBANK
BREMEN
CARY PLANTATION
CASTLE HILL
CHAPMAN
CHARLESTON
CHARLOTTE
CODEYVILLE PLANTATION
DEBLOIS
DYER BROOK
EDINBURG
ELLIOTSVILLE PLANTATION
FRENCHBORO
GRAND FALLS PLANTATION
HERSEY
LINCOLN PLANTATION
LITTLETON
LONG ISLAND PLANTATION
MACHIASPORT
MARIAVILLE
MAXFIELD
MERRILL
NO. 14 PLANTATION
NO. 33 PLANTATION
PERHAM
REED PLANTATION
ROQUE BLUFFS
SEBOEIS PLANTATION
SMYRNA
SWAN’S ISLAND
SWEDEN
TALMADGE
VIENNA
WADE
WESTFIELD
WHITNEYVILLE
WILLIMANTIC


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