The card rooms and saloons that once lined the north side of the 100 block of East Main Street are long gone, but there are still those who will never forget Whiskey Row as a thorn in the sides of those who vigorously campaigned against it.
Whiskey Row was a man’s world and from the beginning, like most newly formed Western towns, Santa Maria had its wet and dry factions.
For as long as anyone could remember, the saloons served as social clubs where men could go to have a drink or two, play friendly card games and talk politics. Local saloons could pretty much run their businesses without any interference, and the wets wanted to keep it that way. They just didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.
When the fire of 1884 demolished several saloons on The Row, the owners lost no time in rebuilding.
The two factions met on hostile ground when the question of incorporation was placed on the ballot in 1895. The dry faction did have a point. With county government and its men of the law mostly confined to Santa Barbara, local barkeepers could pretty much run their businesses without any interference.
Campaigning was vigorous but the wets proved to be shrewd. In scattering handbills throughout the town warning of the higher taxes that always went hand in hand with incorporation, they hit the townspeople where it hurts -- in their pocketbooks.
To prove their point, they warned that incorporation would not only mean higher taxes but sidewalks would have to be installed and the streets paved. Who would have to pay for all of this? The property owners, of course!
After all of the votes were counted, the bill went to have gone down to defeat 100 to 90.
However, the handwriting was on the wall. It would only be a matter of time when their little town would become a city.
Incorporation came up again for a vote on Sept. 18, 1905, and this time the wets lost by a vote of 202 to 139. Thus, the city of Santa Maria was incorporated as a “Municipal Corporation of the Sixth Class, under the name and style of the ‘City of Santa Maria.’”
Members of the board of trustees (now the City Council) included Samuel Fleisher, Emmett Bryant, Reuben Hart, A.W. Cox and William Mead.
The first meeting of the board took place Sept. 21 in the First National Bank, where Cox was elected president and Thomas Preisker was elected city attorney.
The first city ordinance imposed a $75 municipal license on saloons, payable every three months. In addition, if the owners were found guilty of running their saloons in a disorderly manner or the saloons became public nuisances their licenses would be revoked.
To the dismay of the WCTU and the city’s Improvement Club, people made their living there and those who liked that sort of life spent their time there.
While Whiskey Row remained a thorn in the sides of most of the townspeople, Santa Maria’s popularity grew by leaps and bounds and its prosperity became legendary. Some built more pretentious homes and some were able to send their children away to college.
Despite the city’s growing prosperity for more than 50 years, the City Council was faced with the problem of what to do with the blight on East Main Street called Whiskey Row.
Finally, in 1959, both the council and Mayor Curtis Tunnell put their cards on the table. That block had to go!