Ephraim: Last Dry Town Standing

In recent years, visitors to the small town of Ephraim, population 288, have noticed that shrinking water levels have left parts of the town’s waterfront high and dry. When it comes to alcohol sales, Ephraim has always been a dry town. In fact, it’s the last remaining dry town in the state of Wisconsin. Ephraim’s cherished quaint and quiet atmosphere is a point of pride for locals. And locals know that this character results, in part, from the fact that the town allows no bars, taverns or liquor sales of any sort.

Ephraim’s unique status goes back to the village’s founding in 1853 by a Moravian minister, the Reverend Andreas Iverson. “He was a pious man, with a strict set of values,” says former Village President and author Paul Burton. “Those values have held on.”

EHF 7 Campers from Meenahga arrive for RegattaBurton sees the tide finally starting to turn, after 150 years. “I used to take a sort of perverse pride in the fact that Ephraim was dry,” he says. “But the town’s status is an anachronism.” Burton believes that lifting the ban on alcohol sales and allowing the town to be “damp,” that is, selling beer and wine in eating establishments, would enhance the town’s economy. “I’m a Moravian, by the way,” Burton says. “But you can’t wash down a brat without a beer.”

Twice in its history, in 1934 and 1992, Ephraim has put referenda on the ballot to change the ordinance. The most recent attempt failed by a margin of three to one. Ephraim is famously known throughout the county as the town that holds fast and furiously to its traditions through stringent building ordinances, and generally resists change. Ephraim also has a reputation as a place with its own fair share of imbibing. “I don’t know any teetotalers in Ephraim,” says Burton. “Then again, I don’t know any drunks either.”

Restaurant owner Todd Bennett of Chef’s Hat in downtown Ephraim agrees that allowing class B and C licenses (for wine and beer) in eating establishments would be a boon for business. “I hear from hotel owners that customers – after finding out that Ephraim is a dry town – sometimes say next time they’ll find someplace different to stay.” Todd and his wife bought the business knowing that the ordinance would limit their income. “So we offer breakfast, to make it up on the other end.” But Todd sees times are changing. “With more cracking down on drinking and driving, people don’t like to drive if they’ve been drinking. They like to stay somewhere where they can walk.”

Bennett often has customers who are disappointed when they are told that no, they can’t see a wine list, because there isn’t one. “People are on vacation, they want to watch the sunset, or the boats on the water, and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer.” He agrees that nobody in Ephraim wants to see “a two o’clock in the morning bar” in town. Despite the fact that, by his estimation, perhaps 70 percent of business owners would like the law changed, Bennett isn’t sure if the referendum would fly. “Most business owners don’t live in town,” he says, “so we don’t have voting rights.”

Tim Christofferson owns the Ephraim Inn with his wife Nancy. The couple also formerly owned Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, an iconic destination in the heart of the village. He says that late nights at Wilson’s brought a new meaning to an “all ages” gathering. “Wilson’s has always been a wholesome gathering place. People come back generation after generation to the place.” But he also concedes that Ephraim is mostly a quiet place late at night, and that visitors value that. “People love Ephraim because it’s a quiet, peaceful place that they feel hasn’t changed. That’s something to be protected.”

Ephraim’s status as a dry town doesn’t much affect visitors at the Ephraim Inn. “Most of our people are wine drinkers,” he says, “and they bring their own.” He concedes that if Ephraim didn’t have the picture-perfect location on the bay, the town might not have the luxury of limiting liquor sales. Christofferson believes that changing the ordinance will be a hard sell. “I can’t imagine it passing. There’s a certain fear of the unknown, you just don’t know where it would lead.”

Brian Fitzgerald is an Ephraim resident, and owns a pottery shop located in the village. “I don’t see the harm in considering a change,” he says. “We’ve really taken a hit in the last few years with tourism. It’s competitive out there, and this could help.” Fitzgerald would like to see a change in the law explored in a way that “wouldn’t change the overall atmosphere of Ephraim.” And Fitzgerald admits he enjoys drinking a few beers now and then with friends. “People who drink want to do it responsibly, and if they’re on vacation they want to walk to their hotel.”

Dick Luther, owner of Joe Jo’s Pizza and Gelato in North Ephraim has mixed feelings about Ephraim’s ban on alcohol sales. “I have customers who leave the restaurant when they find out we’re dry. But on the other hand, we have people who come in with families because we are dry.” Luther concedes he would make more money if he could sell alcohol. “But is also increases our liability.”EHF 1 Wilson's

If a referendum vote were held, Luther says we would “probably vote yes, so that restaurants could have their choice.” For now, Luther is content to offer a selection of non-alcoholic beers for patrons who might be craving a hoppy beverage with their pizza. Joe Jo’s also does a booming business with carryout sales, and you can bet that plenty of those customers are taking their pies home where they can enjoy a cold brew or glass of wine with dinner, in private.

Rachel Willems is Ephraim Business Council’s (EBC) coordinator, and she sees the issue of Ephraim’s alcohol ordinance as one that’s hotly political and divisive. “People are either passionately for it, or passionately against it.” The EBC takes no position on the issue, but prefers to act as a resource for business owners who may or may not be in favor of changing the ordinance. “Maybe it’s time for the village to take another look at it,” says Willems, “but we truly are neutral on this issue.”

Passions may run high for many, but Joel Bremer, owner of Good Eggs restaurant in Ephraim is philosophical about Ephraim’s dry status. “What would Ephraim be like if the ordinance were changed?  More fun,” he laughs. “But honestly, as a terribly small business owner, I feel that there’s some protection offered by the current situation. No one’s going to open a million dollar restaurant next to mine, because no one’s going to open a million dollar restaurant without a liquor license.”

“It’s been this way for a long time,” Bremer adds. “It’s charming, and there’s a place for that.”

Steve Sauter, who currently serves on Ephraim’s board of trustees, sees the matter in a different light. “The conversation is all wrong,” he says. “From a marketing perspective, we need to look at what we have in Ephraim, what we do really well.” Sauter sees the serene, family friendly feel of Ephraim as unique, and believes that the town should capitalize on it. “We shouldn’t be arguing about the fact that we’re a dry town,” says Sauter. “We should be advertising it, and making it work to our advantage.”

Ephraim’s population has a higher than average median age, 58.8 years, compared to Wisconsin’s average of 44.3 years. And Ephraim’s residents also have considerably higher average income, compared to their statewide counterparts. Does a wealthier, older population have anything to gain by changing their time-honored traditions? Perhaps not, if the rumor is true that the garbage collectors in Ephraim collect more empty liquor bottles than in any other town in the county.

But change is creeping into Ephraim, starting at the top of the hill which leads down into the heart of the village. This spring, the Wisconsin state legislature voted to allow alcohol sales at the golf course at Peninsula State Park, a practice that until this year was banned. “This legislation is good for tourism and good for business,” said Rep. Gary Bies of Sister Bay. Time will tell whether this change will set the stage for a new law in Ephraim, or whether Ephraimites will simply need to go to the golf course to buy a beer.

Prohibition by the Numbers

Compiled by Jim Lundstrom

1926  The year Wisconsin voters approved a referendum amending the Volstead Act to allow the manufacture and sale of beer with 2.75 percent alcohol; in 1929 Wisconsin voters repealed Wisconsin’s prohibition enforcement law, which caused Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine to propose a Constitutional amendment for the repeal of prohibition. The rest is history.

1,000 The percentage increase spent on federal prisons during Prohibition due to the 561 percent increase in federal convicts during that time.

519 Number of votes Prohibition Party candidate Lowell “Jack” Fellure received in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

80 Number of years since Prohibition ended. It was repealed on December 5, 1933.

78 The percentage rise in the homicide rate during Prohibition.

18 The number of the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that mandated Prohibition, ratified on January 16, 1919, and set into effect one year later, on January 17, 1920.

46 The number of states that ratified the 18th Amendment, which mandated Prohibition; only Connecticut and Rhode Island voted against it (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet attained statehood).

13 The number of years Prohibition lasted in the United States (it was actually 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours and 32.5 minutes…many people counted).

11 Number of federal agents assigned to the elite Bureau of Prohibition unit that came to be known as The Untouchables, led by the incorruptible Elliot Ness, whose mission it was to bring down Chicago crime lord/bootlegger Al Capone.

1 The number of times a Constitutional Amendment has been repealed. The 21st Amendment put an end to the 18th Amendment on December 5, 1933.



Len Villano

Photo by Len Villano

1836: Congress creates the Wisconsin Territory.

1848: Wisconsin Territory is designated a state; the peninsula is considered part of Brown County.

1851: Door County has enough settlers to be declared a separate county.

1853: Ephraim is founded as a Moravian religious community by the Reverend Andreas Iverson.

Dec. 18, 1859: Ephraim Moravian Church opens for business, becoming the first church on the Door County peninsula.

Jan. 17, 1920: The 18th Amendment to the Constitution authorizing the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol goes into effect. However, Ephraim is unaffected because it has been a dry community from the start.

1934: A referendum to allow the sale of liquor in the village was rejected by 59 percent of voters.

1948: Ephraim establishes the first zoning ordinances in Door County.

1992: A referendum to allow the sale of liquor in the Village was rejected by 74 percent of voters.

1994: Ephraim becomes the sole dry community in Wisconsin when voters in Port Edwards and Richland Center opted for wetness in 1994.