Stephen F. Austin State University

The Gregg County Election Where No One Voted (July 2012)

The Gregg County Election Where No One Voted
By Van Craddock

Remember the old joke about voter apathy? You know, the one that asks what would happen if somebody held an election and nobody showed up?

Well, it once happened in Gregg County. Even stranger is the fact it was one of those local-option liquor elections, the likes of which generally spark plenty of emotion from folks.

The year was 1883. Twenty-two Kilgore residents had petitioned for a wet-dry election in their county precinct. The petitions were validated by the county judge, who set the election for Sept. 13.

Bright and early that morning, election officials opened the polling place and prepared for the rush of voters. After all, this was a wet-dry election, and everybody votes in those.

But nobody - and I mean nobody - showed up to vote, not even the 22 men who'd signed the petition to force the election in the first place. The election judges just sat around all day, twiddling their collective thumbs.

According to Gregg County resident Earle Watson, who wrote about the election years later, everybody apparently decided to go fishing. "Well, the Sabine River wasn't so oily those days," Watson wrote in 1933, "and the fish were fresh and young."

He noted that the lack of voters was "downright depressing" to the presiding officer, a Mr. Wood, who "sat there at the polls all day, presumably applying himself, more or less assiduously, to whatever served as the jig-saw puzzle of that far-removed era."

Eventually, a second wet-dry election was called. This time, both sides got out and worked hard to get voters to the polls.

The prohibitionists carried the day, 98 votes to only 64 for the wets. It was, as Watson pointed out, "curtains for John Barleycorn in Kilgore."

At that point, a trend developed in Gregg County. In June 1901, Gladewater residents voted their town dry, 104 to 19.

Longview was next. Truly a den of iniquity, the city of 5,000 souls was home to at least a dozen saloons. But that all changed after the drys defeated the booze backers 832 to 733 in a February 1903 election.

A couple of years later the liquor supporters - trying to keep their spirits up, so to speak - circulated petitions and forced yet another vote. Once again, everybody in town chose up sides.

In mid-May a prohibition rally was held at Longview's First Baptist Church where, despite a terrible thunderstorm, attendance was high.
"The storm cloud of the threatened saloon is to them more menacing in its work of destruction than the visitation of the electric storm," said the Longview Times-Clarion, which was unabashedly prohibitionist.

Under a motto of "Prohibition, Prosperity, Purity," Times-Clarion Editor J.W. Johnson wryly noted that while the anti-liquor meetings were opened with prayer, the pro-liquor meetings "were opened with a corkscrew."

On Election Day, the newspaper pointed out that those voting to continue prohibition "will go home happy in the consciousness that they have not been untrue to vows they made at the marriage altar, in the church, and in the lodge …"

However, the Times-Clarion continued, it "will be a day of heart burnings for others and they will cast their ballots for the open saloon and all the evil that follows in its train; and they will go home miserable."

On June 1, 1905, the prohibitionists again carried the day, this time winning with 883 votes. Liquor supporters, once more left high and dry, again numbered 733.

For many years thereafter, jail was the only place in Gregg County you could legally find any bars.