LITTLETON, Maine — The Littleton Pit Stop, a small gas station and diner located along Route 1, is the sole convenience store and restaurant in this small Aroostook County town. It serves breakfast all day, plus lunch items such as deep-fried pickles and hot dogs. The convenience store sells soft drinks and local beverages such as Houlton Farms milk and lemonade.
But one thing it doesn’t sell is alcohol. That’s because the town of Littleton is a “dry” town — any sales of alcoholic beverages are prohibited, according to a referendum voted on by the townspeople.
Today Maine is known nationwide for its craft breweries, and has more per capita than any other state in the U.S. But across its rural countryside, vestiges of the Prohibition era remain.
More than 100 towns in Maine, most of them small rural communities with populations of fewer than 1,000 people, maintain some sort of ordinance that forbids operation of agency liquor stores within their borders. Many others have variants of restrictions on the use of alcohol in public places or on selling it, such as forbidding consumption in restaurants and selling alcoholic beverages on Sundays. Some have ordinances forbidding the sale of malt liquor, but not wine — and others vice versa.
Of the dry towns, 35 are completely dry, with no sale of alcohol whatsoever. Most are located in the more rural northern and western parts of the state, according to data from Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services. Thirteen of the dry towns are in Aroostook, the most of any county, with another seven in Washington County and four in Penobscot County.
In many of these small towns, the ordinances may just be a formality, or a remnant of a bygone age. Many lack any type of establishment that sells and distributes beverages, let alone alcohol. But the remaining dry towns are evidence that Maine, now one of the kings of craft breweries, was once a hotbed of prohibitionist sentiment in the United States.
In fact, Maine was one of the leading states in the cause to ban alcohol consumption in the 19th century — enacting the first statewide ban on liquor sales in 1851, a full 69 years before Prohibition went into effect. Led by Portland mayor and staunch prohibitionist Neal Dow, sometimes called the Father of Prohibition, the “Maine Law” served as a model of the nationwide prohibition laws that went into effect in the 1920s.
The Maine Law proved to be unsuccessful. It was hard to enforce and culminated in the Portland rum riots of 1855, when residents stormed city hall in the belief that alcohol was being stored there, and were met with deadly force from the police.
Several other attempts to limit alcohol consumption were reintroduced in Maine over the decades before federal prohibition went into effect in 1920.
With the end of Prohibition in 1933, alcohol could once again be consumed legally — at least nationwide. But Maine, like other New England states, often enacts their own ordinances, which means that different towns create their own rules on how to regulate and limit the sale of alcohol.
Records from the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which oversees the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, show that many towns first put forward a vote on various liquor ordinances in 1968, as part of a local option referendum during the 1968 general election.
Towns voted on several questions, such as whether to allow sale of liquor and wine to be consumed on premises, operating agency liquor stores and restricting sales on Sundays. Towns voted in various ways, with some adding more allowances in the decades that followed. To this day, some of the smaller towns continue to amend policies regarding alcohol distribution.
The small Aroostook County town of Hodgdon just this year repealed its ordinance banning Sunday liquor sales, in a closely contested vote of 105 in favor and 91 opposed during its annual town meeting. The town now allows liquor and alcohol sales, but beverages cannot be consumed on site where they are sold.
Hodgdon Town Manager Jim Griffin said the decision to put the question of Sunday liquor sales on the ballot came at the request of local business T & S Market, one of two convenience stores in town.
“It helps businesses in town that want to sell alcohol,” Griffin said. “Instead of those people going to some other town to buy it, it’s a business they know, and when they come they usually buy pizzas or they buy chips. It’s a business opportunity.”
Some of the small communities may even be unaware that their towns still have Prohibition-era ordinances banning the sale of liquor. The Waldo County town of Monroe did away with its liquor restrictions in 2020, after it was discovered by local businesses trying to apply for liquor licenses that they in fact could not do so because of such an ordinance.
Greg Purinton-Brown, who runs Toddy Pond Farms in Monroe with his wife Heide, applied for a state-issued liquor license when their farm started farm-to-table dining services in 2019, only to be informed that the town was dry, unbeknownst to anyone in the town office.
“It was a law on the books nobody was aware of,” Purinton-Brown said. “There wasn’t any opposition to getting it overturned.”
In order to undo the dry town statute, businesses in Monroe had to gather signatures on multiple petitions on various alcoholic drinks and other aspects from the original 1968 referendum, as well as options for wine and malt liquor and to sell on Sundays. Once that was done, the town was able to officially become wet.
“We had some obscure laws we were trying to get rid of,” Monroe selectperson Jackie Robbins said. “We’re a town that likes to drink.”
But other towns remain entirely free of alcohol, with no sign of changes to the rules coming.
Littleton, located two towns over from Hodgdon, remains an entirely dry town. With a population of fewer than 1,000 people, there aren’t really that many opportunities for the sale and distribution of alcohol, other than the Littleton Pit Stop.
“Our mindset’s always been not to do it,” said Gordon Hagerman, the store’s owner. “We’re not drinkers, I guess for religious reasons. Not that I’m a prohibitionist.”
Hagerman said he supports the town’s choice to remain dry. While the town’s dry status means that technically no one can apply for a liquor license, Hagerman said he’s never known of any attempt to challenge that ruling.
The Penobscot County town of Charleston, located about 25 miles from Bangor with a population of more than 1,400, is one of the largest towns to remain completely dry. Selectperson Terri Hall said there are no plans to change it any time soon.
“This has been a dry town forever. It’s a small farming community, with a lot of older people and a lot of churches,” Hall said. “Nobody has a desire to change that.”
The town doesn’t have any grocery stores or any establishments that could sell alcohol, meaning the ordinance has little impact on the town, Hall said.
“We don’t have any mom-and-pop stores in town,” she said. “It’s truly a bedroom community.”