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Wet vs. Dry in Kentucky:
Study Looks at County Changes

Date: Oct. 30, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo by: Dottie Stover
Archive: Research News


Kevin Raleigh

A research project conducted by a University of Cincinnati geography graduate student focuses on one of the things that makes Kentucky, well, so Kentucky - its wet and dry counties.

"It is an aspect of Kentucky that seems unique, and it seems to be going away," said 30-something UC master's student Kevin Raleigh, with a touch of sadness. Wetness or dryness in the state that produces Jim Beam and Makers Mark has nothing to do with rainfall - it's about whether a county allows the sale of liquor. In 1977, Kentucky boasted 85 dry counties of its 120. When he completed his senior capstone project in fall 2000, their number had fallen to 75.

Raleigh discussed his research at a 10-minute presentation during the East Lakes Division annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers Oct. 26-28. The meeting, hosted by UC's geography department, was expected to attract more than 100 geographers to campus. Raleigh presented "Beer, Bourbon, Bootlegging, Baptists and the Bible Belt: An Examination of Religious Presence and Alcohol Status in Kentucky Counties."

A native of Kentucky's Perry County who moved to Newport at age 6, Raleigh set out to see if the number of churches in Kentucky counties was correlated to the counties' wetness or dryness.

He found that a high density of churches per people was a good predictor of its dryness. "In most cases, yes, the dry counties have more churches per people then the wet counties," Raleigh said.

For example, Letcher County is home to 149 churches and a population of about 26,069 (or 175 people per church). It's dry. Boone County, where there are 58 churches and a population of 83,356 or 1,437 people per church, is wet.

Dry counties also generally tend to be spatially clustered together, said Raleigh, who worked in the travel industry for 14 years before earning his bachelor's degree at UC in 2001. "Wet counties are in the northern part of Kentucky, all along the Ohio River. Then there are big globs of dry counties in eastern Kentucky and very few wet counties in the south."

This brings Raleigh to a discussion of where the Mason-Dixon Line really lies. "The dry counties are really where the south begins, some people say. I think there is some merit to it," he said. "The larger cities in Kentucky are a little bit northern. They tend to be more aligned with things like industry and transportation, the things that are associated with the North. Then the southern counties tend to have smaller towns, more agriculture and the kind of religious presence the South is known for."

Another aspect of the issue that strikes Raleigh is the speed with which his home state is changing, as economic development pushes more and more dry counties to vote to become wet.

"It's changing so fast...It's changing the culture of Kentucky. I know Appalachia has a lot of problems with poverty and unemployment, but by the same token it seems like the culture is being forced to adapt to something that it may or may not be ready for."

In those counties that have voted to stay dry, Raleigh wonders if the decision to stand firm lies more with the presence of churches or the presence of bootleggers. "It may be that bootleggers are trying to keep them dry, so they don't have to go out of business. But that's kind of hard to research. They don't really like people poking around there." He has no plans to pursue that at this point.

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