A century ago next week, Mainers went to the polls to approve a direct primary law allowing them to vote for the nomination of political party candidates in primary elections, including seats in the U.S. Senate and House and the state Legislature. Democracy was on the march. But did anyone care much? The issue received little discussion in the newspapers compared to another question on the ballot — the state’s notorious liquor laws.

Maine was famous for passing the first prohibition law in the nation, in 1851. It was known nationally as the Maine Law. Thirty-three years later, in 1884, Mainers engraved it in legal concrete by inserting a prohibition amendment in the state’s constitution. Now, in 1911, voters were being asked whether they wanted to repeal the amendment.

The results of this referendum on Election Day, Sept. 11, demonstrated that the rock-ribbed state of Maine was going soft on prohibition. Although the vote narrowly favored statewide prohibition, the numbers showed the Pine Tree State was divided down the middle politically into two Maines, one wet and one dry. Wet Maine was getting bigger, while dry Maine remained barely in charge.

Even if the constitutional amendment went down in defeat, the law in the statute books prohibiting liquor sales would continue to exist unless the Legislature repealed or changed it. Supporters of the amendment, however, feared the law would be repealed or watered down if the amendment were repealed.

Many repeal advocates supported changing the law to “local option” — allowing towns or counties to decide for themselves whether liquor would be sold. This change could not be made in the Legislature as long as the amendment existed.

People opposed to state prohibition, including most Democrats and a growing number of “wet” Republicans, had wanted to repeal the amendment for decades. An effort by “dry” Republicans to enforce the law by creating an unpopular cadre of state liquor detectives (called the Sturgis Commission) had only riled up more opposition. The anger helped Democrats seize the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature in the last election. The stage was set in 1911 for a major test of state prohibition, but only if the amendment was defeated.

After 60 years, it was clear that the Maine Law was ineffective. Bangor in particular lacked the willpower to enforce it, in part because of the thousands of loggers and other transients who congregated there seasonally and the many people who made money from their presence, including the rich property owners who leased space for saloons, seedy boardinghouses and the like.

Dozens of Bangor opinion leaders weighed in pro and con on whether to repeal the amendment. One of the most thoughtful was the Rev. Charles Cutler, pastor of the First Congregational Church. He supported prohibition, but only if it was tied to the local option route. The current law promoted “lawlessness” and eroded self-government, he said in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Sept. 6. In effect, Maine already had “lawless local option” because local law enforcement officials including judges decided for themselves whether to enforce the law.

The current system resulted in “spasms of enforcement” that drove the problem underground, resulting in pocket peddlers, drinking clubs and “dives … in every dark corner.” Cutler also targeted the infamous Bangor Plan under which anyone could sell liquor as long as he followed certain rules such as curfews and paid a small fine each year. (This system, as reflected in newspaper accounts, seemed to come and go with the political breezes.)

Frank Davis, Bangor’s new police chief, continued enforcing the liquor law in Bangor in the same haphazard way as his predecessors right up until Election Day. He declared that barrooms must close at 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday, it was announced on April 10 in the Bangor Daily News. That included “all-night restaurants” with a “bar annex.” This arrangement antagonized some looking for a drink late at night, and “those who were real thirsty had to hunt around as much as 10 minutes before they could find anything,” the Bangor Daily News reported sarcastically on April 13.

Davis and his men conducted a few raids singling out operators such as Pope McKinnon and Billy Townsend, who were favorite targets. Another such victim, Hugh Jameson, was erecting a “handsome new saloon” on Harlow Street. Jameson’s place, “resplendant in mahogany and glass,” was raided on Aug. 30 and again on Sept. 9, yet he was still able to open for business “shortly after the raid … there apparently being sufficient stock left over to supply the trade.”

Meanwhile, the results of the statewide vote on Sept.11 proved a surprise to many. The amendment was retained by a slim majority of fewer than 800 out of more than 120,000 votes cast. While prohibition still ruled, its dominance appeared shaky and segregated mainly to rural areas. In most cities repeal won by a landslide.

Bangoreans endorsed repeal 3-to-1. The newspapers noted that, unlike in past elections, liquor and money to buy votes were absent at polling places. Also, many female temperance advocates, representing such groups as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, lobbied voters with signs and personal appeals even though they couldn’t vote.

Once again the old saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” held true. Many other states were jumping on the prohibition bandwagon that Maine had started rolling 60 years earlier. In just a few years federal prohibition would add a whole new layer of confusion to the effort to control demon rum.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.