Nov. 20, 2006

A history of liquor in Cokato

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Cokato hasn’t always been a dry town, but there has been a long history of liquor being on the ballot.

In 1875, the State of Minnesota passed a local option statute giving the residents of cities and villages the ability to dictate whether or not a local unit of government could issue a liquor license, according to Mike Worcester, director of the Cokato Museum.

In order for the issue to be put on the ballot a signed petition of 10 legal voters was needed.

“Almost every single community voted on the liquor license issue for the simple fact it only took a petition of 10 people to put it on the ballot,” Worcester said.

Until 1878, no action had been taken by the voters because the City of Cokato was free to do what it chose regarding the issue, he said.

In 1878, a license was granted to J. B. Runser at a cost of $125, but in 1879 the council rejected all applications for licenses. Two years later, applications were rejected again until a year later when three licenses were granted with a $200 annual fee, according to Worcester.

Records show the liquor issue has been on the ballot every election year from 1889 to 1913.

In 1915, the option was up to the counties in which Wright County voted itself dry. Not long after came Prohibition in 1919, but ended in 1933.

Once Prohibition ended, a standard was set at 3.2 percent as a nonintoxicating malt beverage, and the city was still considered a dry town.

In the six election years between 1946 and 1973, the issue of a municipal liquor store was on the ballot.

“Part of the influence was soldiers returning home from World War II,” Worcester said.

All of these failed by wide margins.

The county option was removed from state statutes 40 years ago, but the local option still stands, though requirements have changed.

Now, instead of only 10 signatures on a petition, 200 signatures are needed or 30 percent of the voter population, according to the statute.

“The statute in many respects, is a throw-back to mid-19th century social mores,” Worcester said. “But at the same time, it still allows people to exercise self governance,” he added.

At the recent election, 687 votes were for the issuance of liquor licenses and 485 were against it for a total of 1,172 which happened to be 59 more votes cast than for the mayor’s race.

The passing of the vote

With the high costs of sewer and water, Cokato resident Matt Stumpf wanted the town to do something that could generate interest for businesses to come to town to help with the tax burdens and liquor could help with that.

With the city council voting against putting liquor on the ballot, the only other way would be for a petition of 200 signatures.

Stumpf along with Adam Heimkes, Billy Carlen, Tom Keaveny, and Frank Cruz, began gathering signatures in June.

“I thought there would be more negative feedback,” Stumpf said.

Although he did have one woman chase him off her property, 90 percent of the reactions were positive, he said.

Some people, though they didn’t sign the petition for religious reasons, still wished Stumpf “good luck,” he said.

A 96-year-old Finnish woman who has never had a drink in her life signed the petition because she said it was time to do it whether it was right or not, Stumpf said.

With more than 200 signatures received, the liquor question, “Shall the city council be allowed to issue licenses for the sale of intoxicating liquor at retail?” was put on this year’s general election ballot and was passed.

Now, Stumpf awaits an interested establishment in Cokato and hopes it doesn’t take too long.

Cokato makes the news

On Tuesday evening’s WCCO news broadcast, Cokato was featured in a story about the recent election results and the liquor passing.

In the program was Mayor Bruce Johnson, owner of Daniel’s, and Cokato residents commented both for and against the issue.

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