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A LOOK BACK: The WCTU

Wadworth

One of Springville’s active and oldest residents, Mrs. Charles Wadsworth was very active in the Springville WCTU and served as its president for many years; she died in 1935.

By Derek M. Otto

We are now well into the Lenten season and many people have given up various vices. For some, they have voluntarily given up beer or other libations.  Not that long ago, there was a period of prohibition in our country that banned the sale and possession of alcohol in the United States.  The years from 1920 to 1933 are the historic period of forced sobriety in our country.  A Look Back asks what caused this illegalization of alcohol and why didn’t it last?

The United States historically relied on alcohol as a beverage, medicine and currency throughout the earliest colonial periods.  Whiskey and rum were extremely valuable, and were used in exchange for other goods or services on the early American frontier. Many farmers had been distilling their surpluses of grains for many years, so it wasn’t surprising when you see the original survey map of Springville in 1818 that a distillery was one of the earliest structures.  (The location of the distillery would be the Concord Mercantile building today.)

Even before that, David Stickney had the first log hotel in Fiddler’s Green where they served whiskey in a hollowed out oxen horn.  And throughout early Springville’s history, different religious societies and churches developed to tame the frontier. Many of the civilized citizens remained dry and throughout the various religious revivals, abstinence and temperance were major themes of the Second Great Awakening. The Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians all held to these core themes. Alcohol abuse was rare or at least not discussed.  The reforms in this era were focused on the abolition of slavery, the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement and the quality of life in the United States.   

When the United States Civil War broke out in 1861, it became a testing ground for newer practices and theories in medicine and pharmaceuticals.   Morphine laudanum, cocaine and new procedures allowed more injured soldiers that survived to return home feeling less pain. Though even in victory, soldiers returned home broken, suffering from depression, PTSD and most likely physical pain from wounds.

Newer distilling practices made distilled spirits stronger. Trains made shipments quicker. Snake oil salesmen, quack doctors and even the local druggists could supply the addict with morphine, cocaine and laudanum.

Alcohol was becoming accessible, a new generation had been exposed to war and different attitudes were more lax to alcohol abuse than previous generations.   However, the wives and families of this generation would feel the greatest affect. Domestic violence was high, loss of reliable workers was becoming noticeable and The United States had its first encounter with the opioid addict. An 1888, a health textbook for juveniles quoted, “The opioid problem today began as well-meaning doctors giving opioid for their patience’s pain.”  Something had to be done, and it would be our women to do it:

According to their website, ”The National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in November of  1874. It grew out of the “Woman’s Crusade” of the winter of 1873-1874. Initial groups in Fredonia, New York and Hillsboro and Washington Court House, Ohio, after listening to a lecture by Dr. Dio Lewis, were moved to a non-violent  protest against the dangers of alcohol. Normally quiet housewives dropped to their knees in pray-ins in local saloons and demanded that the sale of liquor be stopped. In three months, the women had driven liquor out of 250 communities, and for the first time felt what could be accomplished by standing together.”

The movement spread quickly and different towns, counties or states would go dry.   However, an interesting phenomenon occurred: the neighboring town and village would go wet.  According to Burt Spaulding, “When Concord went dry, someone built a bar on the Sardinia town line.   At one point, someone built a bar on the opposite side of the B.R. & P. rail bridge.”  Something had to be done on the Federal level.  In 1919, the Volstead Act was passed prohibiting the sale and production of alcohol in the United States.

The Springville Chapter of THE WCTU started in 1885, and was made up of the most prominent area women: Mrs. Chaffee, Mrs. Warner, Mrs. Wadsworth, etc. At its peak in the 1920s, the Springville WCTU had 131 members.  Meeting on the first Tuesday afternoon each month, the group would have Christian devotions and a discussion on a topic relevant to their cause and mission.  It was not just the prohibition of alcohol that the group discussed and advocated for:  non-narcotic medicine and women and children’s rights were featured often, as were other health issues.   

Membership in the group required $1 in dues and to sign the following pledge: “I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented, and malt liquors including wine, beer, and cider and to employ all proper means to secure the enforcement of the Eighteenth amendment to the Constitution.”  Even after its repeal, the group keep the phrasing “uphold the Eighteenth Amendment.”

Though the Springville Chapter didn’t lead the nation, Springville itself produced a leader in Emor Luthera Calkins, who was born in Springville in 1855.  Her father was a local merchant who at one point owned the Springville House and was the man that sold it to H. G. Leland.  After marrying Earl Calkins, Emor and her husband moved to Battle Creek, MI and then later Ypsilanti, where she was very active in college life and eventually became the president of the State of Michigan WCTU.   The high point of her activity was running for a board of regents in Michigan on the Prohibition ticket.  She returned to this area according to the Ellicottville Post and Springville NEWS in July of 1908: “The state president of Michigan WCTU, Mrs. Emor Calkins lectured at the East Ashford ME Church on June 28.  She was at the Saratoga Convention and came this way visiting and meeting Rev. Tubbs and was invited to lecture.   Her lecture was enthusiastic and well received by all who heard it.”  Mrs. Calkins remained active and was the signing of the Volstead Act and later passed away in 1933 at the age of 77.

Even though the Volstead Act was repealed and the Springville Chapter of the WCTU dissolved in 1937, the organization is still active promoting temperance and women’s issues.

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