By John Reecer
It’s a typical Sunday afternoon and, just like any other day in Tompkinsville, Kentucky, there aren’t too many cars on the roads.
With a small population of just 2,291 citizens, there are only four stoplights in the entire town and the buildings that dominate Main Street are a few churches and the county Justice Center. There are more BBQ joints in town than there are places to shop for clothes.
City squares of small towns in Kentucky like in nearby Scottsville have restored old buildings which are now home to local businesses, but in Tompkinsville only a handful of these buildings remain and some are completely empty with no evidence of any prosperity at all.
In one spot near the square, there used to be an incredibly large sign which stood over 20 feet tall which said in dark red letters, “SAY NO TO ALCOHOL.” Now, the sign can be seen hiding behind one of the buildings near the downtown area, ready to be used again.
Not too far away from the sign sits the Tompkinsville Church of Christ, one of the biggest buildings in the entire county with large concrete columns giving splendor to the downtown area.
Church Preacher Neal Mathis sits in his small but cozy office as he works on his next another sermon. He is surrounded by old religious books but types away on his modern Apple computer. When asked how to describe the city of Tompkinsville he doesn’t hesitate with his answer.
“Oh my, I don’t think Mayberry is a far off definition,” Mathis said. “It’s not the land that time forgot, but it’s the land that doesn’t care what time thinks of it.
“There are things that are still set in the 1960’s and the 1970’s,” Mathis continued. “Some of that stuff is good: helping your neighbors and people usually being pretty friendly and aware of what’s going on. Sometimes that’s a bit of a disadvantage because you have everything you need but very rarely everything you want.”
In early January, the citizens of Tompkinsville had to make a very uncomfortable choice as Monroe County held a county-wide vote that would determine whether or not the sale of alcohol would be allowed in this very rural and conservative community.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, this community mainly consists of white conservatives as 80 percent of registered voters in this area are a member of the Republican Party and 87 percent of the population is Caucasian.
While some citizens didn’t care about what time thought of their city, others had gathered enough names on a petition for the sale of alcohol to be permitted in late fall of 2016.
Mathis had heard rumors of this petition and went to the county clerk to see if it was true. To his dismay, the petition was real and the vote was going to take in place in 60 days.
In response, Mathis helped form a group called “Monroe County Concerned Citizens.” The group was originally formed of preachers from different churches within the county, and they took it upon themselves for a multitude of reasons to keep the county “dry.”
Mathis cited the recent wet/dry vote which took place in neighboring Metcalfe County as a big reason why this group was formed. The vote passed there, but the county will not receive any tax dollars due to the county not having a “qualified city.”
Pursuant to Kentucky State Law, a county must have a city with a population over 3,000 in order for the county to receive any state tax dollars from the sale of alcohol. Since Tompkinsville was the biggest city in Monroe County, no tax dollars would be coming into this community either due to its small population.
Mathis disagreed with the alcohol vote both morally and economically, but he knew the group needed to approach this vote from the financial side to keep the county dry.
“Getting that information into people’s hands was the biggest problem,” Mathis said. “We never used the forum of the moral side of the argument as a pulpit. We felt that it was inappropriate. If you are morally for it, I’m not going to convince you anyways.”
When the votes were all counted, Mathis’ approach would prove to be a successful one as 1,901 people voted to keep the county dry compared to the 1,211 people who voted yes.
The debate was a difficult one for the community. Twenty one year-old Chandler McPherson says that the culture within the town was somewhat hostile.
“People started to pick sides,” McPherson said. “There was the younger group of mid 20-year-olds that were legally allowed to drink that wanted this to be a part of the county. Then you had church organizations and religious groups who started coming together before this whole vote happened.”
McPherson currently goes to school at Western Kentucky University, but is still a resident of Monroe County. He voted “yes.”
For McPherson, he sees this community as very close-minded, as there are only 20 counties in Kentucky that are completely dry, including Monroe County.
He believes that having alcohol in Monroe County would have made things safer because he could remember people driving a long distance across state lines to get alcohol. He personally had known people who had been arrested and even been in dangerous wrecks because of this drive.
Despite the vote not going the way he wanted, McPherson said he saw some good that came from the hotly debated election as he says that the strategies of the Concerned Citizens were effective.
“They made signs and posters and they got out and talked to people,” McPherson said. “They were previously really separated by their denominations, but this brought them together. It really goes to show what happens when you put your mind to something as a group to get something accomplished.”
Not much has changed in this Mayberry-like community, according to long-time resident Joshua Anderson.
“For as long as I have lived here, Tompkinsville is a very conservative, small town and the alcohol vote does not reflect the values that Tompkinsville has to this day,” Anderson said as he slowly leaned back in his recliner at his home within the city limits.
“Over the years our culture has shifted to where we want to be more like our surrounding areas, but I think we have held tight to not going down that route,” Anderson continued. “I do believe that is something to be proud of – to be different and to hold true to something that is not popular anymore. I think that most people in the town would be proud of the fact that we still hold true to those beliefs.”
The alcohol vote can’t be brought up again county-wide for another three years, but the vote can take place at any time for any city in the county.
The Concerned Citizens Group still meets once every week to talk about ways to continue improving this small community, but they always stay prepared for a potential alcohol vote to come up again in their city of Tompkinsville.