The talk surrounding Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” dislodged a memory from my earliest days as a newspaper columnist, when I wrote about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Jay County, Ind.
This would have been…1984? Not a day later than ’85, certainly. And the WCTU, one of the driving forces behind a century-old social movement almost universally believed to have been a terrible mistake, was still alive and kicking. Even considering that Jay County was decades behind the times, it was surprising.
More surprising was the meeting itself — the members not as old as I expected, but the form of it, the structure, was 19th century. There was a sermonette, a short two-woman play, ending with a call to take the White Ribbon Pledge, a promise to not only live a life of abstinence from intoxicating liquor, but to raise one’s children the same way. I don’t recall if fathers were mentioned, although surely they must have been. The message, however, was that alcohol was yet another mess made by men, to be cleaned up by women.
Those who read “Last Call” know the material in last night’s episode of “Prohibition,” how many parallels exist between that time and ours, not the least of which was the conflict between urban and rural America. Jay County is pretty rural, with a few small towns here and there. The people I’ve known from places like this, the ones who had problem drinkers in their families, describe a pattern of imbibing that more closely resembles crack cocaine than convivial tippling at the local tavern — crack seal, pour glass, repeat until violent, abusive or unconscious.
(Terry Ryan’s father, as described in her most excellent memoir, “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” followed this model as well.)
So it’s not surprising that, faced with this level of consumption, eventually the pendulum swung as far as the Volstead Act. I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but as I recall, much is made in the early chapters of how much Americans drank in the years leading to its passage; visiting Europeans were staggered by it. It was a way to avoid dodgy water supplies and blunt the pain of daily existence, which was grim in both cities and towns — back-breaking labor in farm or factory, a child every year, and of course, a terrible war that stacked bodies like cordwood without resolving much of anything. Average consumption then was about three times what it is now, if I remember correctly.
I’ve been doing some reading on college binge drinking, and it has a ring of familiarity — the pounding of shots, consumption with the goal of getting as ripped as possible as soon as possible. It sounds positively…rural.
Those who watched last night — what did you think? Did it make you want to take the White Ribbon Pledge?
So. Monday. I HAVE to change my life. I never have time for anything, especially on Monday. And Tuesday. And, increasingly, most of the other days, too.
Jim at Sweet Juniper has a photography show coming up. More buildings, I gather, like this one. Never seen that …place before. I bet it’s seen its share of shot-pounding.
On the subject of obesity, a weight-loss story to inspire you on a Monday.
After almost a year of carrying the bag, I turned concert-chaperone duty over to Alan Friday night; he took Kate and a friend to see Wavves down at the Magic Stick. I asked him for the report and he said, “Very young crowd, very intense. I was trying to find Kate up at the front, and the next thing I know, she goes surfing past me.” He got out the camera for the second pass, but she never made one. Fortunately, someone was packing video. I asked, “Do you do that often?” She said, “I needed to get to the back, and that was the fastest way.” I guess. Just try not to get dropped on your head, OK?
Peter said on October 3, 2011 at 9:15 am
I haven’t checked lately, but Evanston’s WCTU chapter was alive and kicking when I was in school, and they had a nice house by Northwestern.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 3, 2011 at 9:20 am
I enjoyed it with a tumbler of Bushmills and three ice cubes.
Carrie Nation was of my denomination, and we had our role to play (Disciples of Christ), a role which I’m convinced, along with WW I fervor, pushed us as a denomination back to the left, for cause (in my not so humble opinion). In the basement of a church I served in Newark, OH is a still dry, as in non-functioning drinking fountain, kept in place because it has a large bronze plaque on it (as do far too many objects in that building). The plaque memorializes the “Rocky Fork WCTU” and their president by name.
Of course, if you look at Frances Willard’s personal history, she was for then and now very open about her preference for women’s friendship, shared lodgings, and she preferred to be called “Frank.” That aspect of the suffrage/temperance/women’s rights vortex makes Willard almost as interesting as Victoria Woodhull — and she has a not-small monument in the rotunda of the Indiana Statehouse. You can tell WCTU had a huge influence in politics back in the day . . . quickly supplanted by the Klan.
Ah, the law of unintended consequences.
Bob (not Greene) said on October 3, 2011 at 9:46 am
There were some pretty obvious parallels being drawn, particularly about an evangelical movement trying to enforce its own personal morality on everyone via secular laws. I think it also makes a convincing case that people cannot take zealots lightly. Because they are zealots, they have no perspective at all and will ruthlessly do anything to win. Despite many examples of this in the past, regular people still think cranks will eventually go away. But the cranks really do want a holy war and are more than happy to wage it, collateral damage be damned.
Oh, and Carrie Nation was a complete wacko. Can you imagine? Of course, passing dry laws and then letting saloons operate anyway just clears the way for lunacy like that, but still.
Nancy Pevey said on October 3, 2011 at 9:54 am
That video is amazing! I’d have to make her wear a helmet next time though….
Kim said on October 3, 2011 at 9:54 am
BobNG – isn’t River Forest’s Willard School really Frances Willard? How ironic. Wonder what her connection is to the village. Looking forward to watching this; I had a (small) glass of wine and promptly passed out on the couch.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 3, 2011 at 9:55 am
Carrie Nation had some mental health issues. “It didn’t help that her mother was often delusional, at times believing herself to be Queen Victoria.” As to Frances Willard, she almost married the president of what became Northwestern while working there, and is the reason Evanston stayed dry until actually quite recently. Evanston was a sort of second home for the WCTU, as nearby (to me) Westerville, OH was the base for the Anti-Saloon League, which as Okrent/Burns point out, was the real political powerhouse that got Prohibition passed.
ASL got a man lynched here in downtown Newark just a couple blocks from my office in 1910. That was a play-for-keeps group which sounds more like Grover Norquist and his Taxpayers’ Union the more you compare them.
Suzanne said on October 3, 2011 at 9:56 am
I watched Prohibition with a glass of red wine. I learned some things I didn’t know. Living in rural America, I did find the fear the rural dwellers had of “them city folk” has not changed a lot. And in these rural parts, over imbibing on a regular basis is not really considered problematic. Frequently heard sentence? “Oh, so-and-so is a great guy. Well, he kinda has a drinking problem, but…”
Bob @3, you are absolutely right about zealots because when God is on your side, you don’t have to fear being wrong which makes everything you do right. The whole prohibition thing is so American, though, isn’t it? Certainly, there was an alcohol problem but why use a flyswatter when a sledgehammer will do?
Kim said on October 3, 2011 at 10:00 am
I just googled Frances and see that she bequeathed her lovely Evanston home to the WCTU, which would explain why they have a nice house. She was one of the founders of the first chapter in Evanston, shortly after she resigned from her Dean of Women post at Northwestern U. The documentary probably says exactly that! I will be quiet now.
Connie said on October 3, 2011 at 10:02 am
The small town of Holly Michigan has a downtown area commemorating “Battle Alley.” It was a railroad worker’s town in its day, and the Battle Alley story involves railroad workers, a circus crew in town, and Carrie Nation showing up.
Bob (not Greene) said on October 3, 2011 at 10:23 am
Willard School jumped to my mind last night, too. I’m not sure what the direct connection is, but I know that the WCTU had a pretty strong presence in Oak Park; hell you couldn’t buy a six pack in Oak Park until, what, the 1980s? Henry Austin designated the village’s first school building (which doubled as a church) at Lake and Forest “Temperance Hall” in the 1890s.
EDIT: River Forest allowed alcohol sales finally in 1990. Here’s a snippet from a Tribune article from that time:
“The strong opposition to liquor sales was rooted in the town’s past. River Forest was founded in 1879, in a rush to stave off the ‘threatened disaster’ of saloonkeepers organizing to sell liquor. The town’s leading citizens back then voted to incorporate despite a court injunction and political contest that ‘even involved some violence’ according to Miss Thatcher, a temperance advocate for whose family a major town thoroughfare is named. The question made it up to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1881, which ruled in favor of the town`s incorporation and, therefore, temperance.”
The article is here: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-11-09/news/9004020769_1_liquor-temperance-river-forest
Julie Robinson said on October 3, 2011 at 10:33 am
We watched what we could in between a constantly ringing phone and had a good chuckle at the line about Lutherans drinking in public and praying in private, and Baptists praying in public and drinking in private. Or some such derivation. But tonight is the Sing Off and I will be in rapt attention thereto.
Update on the Maker Faire: it was a bit of a bust–no fire-breathing dragons and the cold, wind, and lack of sun dampened my enthusiasm considerably. After a three hour shift at the admission booth we made a quick circuit and went home to get warm. There were some neat displays, and I’m hoping more people came on Sunday when it was warmer and sunny.
Is anyone else loving the Rick Perry debacle? And Herman Cain finding his manhood? Not that I’d vote for him, but it was refreshing.
coozledad said on October 3, 2011 at 10:43 am
Well, there’s alcohol and there’s alcohol. We’ve got a scuppernong vine the women that lived on this place planted and tended and turned into one of the vilest liquors on the planet (Try some muscadine wine sometime, just for kicks).
At the height of prohibition you could still order juice extracted from these green vegetables, and the yeast packets to turn it into a low kill-rate bugspray. One of the companies that sold this stuff went on to develop Richard’s Wild Irish Rose. Great Humanitarians.
Julie: The white victimhood card will only help Perry with Republicans. He’ll start to catch up with Romney, who’s going to have to do a few Jolson numbers to retaliate.
What television needs is a good old-school reality show featuring Rick Perry and George Allen. Every week, they climb in a plane and travel somewhere to kill some kind of mammal, trading off-color jokes and playing grapplefinger back at the lodge.
Bitter Scribe said on October 3, 2011 at 10:59 am
I reread “Appointment in Samarra” recently and was surprised by how much of (certain) Americans’ lives seemed to revolve around alcohol in those days. It seemed that even if you were a minimally established member of the middle class, you had access to all the alcohol you could drink (even though it often was of dubious quality). It must have been a little hard to maintain respect for the law in general under those circumstances.
Dexter said on October 3, 2011 at 10:59 am
Very efficient nightclub rapid transit system, indeed.
When our daughter was a teenager in 1985 or 1986, we took her to a teen club in Fort Wayne…somewhere north and near “the 30 bypass”, but I can’t remember exactly where. All the kids wore over-sized sun glasses.
We took her and some friends there several times, let them off, and returned at the appropriate closing time to get them.
A few years later she brought up her “good old days” at that club and flat-told us what went on there. While breaking out a joint was a kick-out-now violation, there was also a balcony of sorts, some very dark area in the back where kids would pair off and go for some quality time. I mean, a kid can’t dance ALL night long, right? I remember we asked her if she felt safe there, everything was cool, I mean…they advertised it ON THE RADIO, fer crissakes, right? But kids on their own make their own choices.
moe99 said on October 3, 2011 at 11:04 am
Terry Ryan was my camp counselor at Camp Palmer in Defiance, OH
adrianne said on October 3, 2011 at 11:13 am
Watched Prohibition Sunday night, think I’ll stick it out tonight and Tuesday. One of my favorite moments was a snippy quote from a Brit about how inebriated those ‘mericans were back in the 19th Century. Of course, these days, the amount of drinking that goes on routinely in upper-class England overwhelms what most Americans consume (excluding college students and alcoholics).
MichaelG said on October 3, 2011 at 11:18 am
My first wife remembered being indoctrinated by WCTU people when she was a kid. The refrain she recalled was “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” That was all fine and good until she reached puberty.
Cooze, I had some Wild Irish Rose one time. All I can say is “Whew!”. That was the night a guy ran a stop light and I T-boned him with my VW. As a matter of fact, it happened in Laurinberg, N.C.
One of the things the right wing nasties are very good at is playing the victim. The uglier they get the more they wail and moan beg for relief from the oppressive forces of the socialist left.
LAMary said on October 3, 2011 at 11:37 am
The WCTU had a big nursing home in my neighborhood until about 20 years ago when it was declared unsafe in earthquakes. Some other organization has taken it over after making some repairs and the building has historic landmark status. They still have properties in northeast LA.
Jeff Borden said on October 3, 2011 at 11:49 am
One of the things I’m glad “Prohibition” noted was the ugly tension between nativists and immigrants even though most of the newcomers were Caucasian. As bad as racism and discrimination based on skin color remains, I find it kind of fascinating that the Irish, Italians, Germans, et.al. experienced many of the same issues.
Rick Perry is going down in flames. It’s going to be Mitt Romney. It has to be. There can be no other conclusion. $heWho is not going to run and neither will Chris Christie.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg has a very detailed story out in one of its publications about those great patriots and friends of the working man, David and Charles Koch. It probably will not surprise anyone around here that these loathesome fuckweasels have been selling petrochemical equipment to Iran in direct violation of the U.S. embargo. The Kochs used a couple of European based subsidiaries to pull this off.
Perhaps I’m too hard on these plutocrats. After all, when Dick Cheney was a high muckety muck at Halliburton, it followed a similar path in dealing with Iran.
Connie said on October 3, 2011 at 11:52 am
MichaelG: “lips that touch liquor touch others quicker.”
Julie Robinson said on October 3, 2011 at 11:56 am
Some years ago I read a book by a Moscow correspondent who traveled through rural Russia in pursuit of fly-fishing. I think it was this one: http://www.amazon.com/Reeling-Russia-American-Angler/dp/031220809X/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2
The author learned that outside the cities, most Russians lived as their peasant forebears had–ox carts, scratching out a few cabbages in any plot of land they could find, and drinking. Their lives were short and miserable; why not use whatever anesthesia could be found.
Government salaries and pensions were often unpaid. Sure, the train conductors had to be bribed to get a ticket–they were six months behind receiving their pay. I wonder how much, if any, of this has changed.
devtob said on October 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm
I always wondered how Prohibition happened politically, but not enough to look it up on the Google.
Now I know — decades of county-by-county, state-by-state organizing by religious zealots, and then a rush through Congress before the 1920 Census further diluted rural political power in the House.
The use of anti-German propaganda, so soon after the Great War, to move the bill was also new to me.
derwood said on October 3, 2011 at 1:51 pm
Dexter: I think it was called Rock America. I never stepped foot in the place but I had friends that did.
Marc G said on October 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm
Julie – Yes, it is still pretty much the same in rural Russia, it is not uncommon to see horse-drawn carts going down the road, with folks on their way to town sitting on the carts and sharing a bottle of…home-made vodka! The same goes for the poorest parts of far-eastern Latvia. In Russia most of the kids head for Moscow or St. Petersburg as soon as they can, there are no jobs in the country to keep them there and the poverty is suffocating. Drinking seems to be the main occupation for the men, at least. And you can’t even begin to imagine the corruption and bribery, it is just a way of life. Sound familiar? But rural Russia is far poorer than the poorest EU countries or US states. Fancy a country house for less than a thousand dollars? No problem! The remaining population is getting quite old, and eventually some of the smaller villages end up as clusters of abandoned, overgrown houses. One example: http://www.pyromasse.ca/articles/watd_e.html
Jeff Borden said on October 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm
In his Arkady Renko novels, Martin Cruz Smith has done a masterful job of conveying life in Russia from the earliest days of detente to the current time. “Dogs Eat Wolves” contains almost painful descriptions of the blighted areas around Chernobyl and the descriptions of the people who were affected by the infamous meltdown. Looking at the photos in the link from Marc G. made me think back to Smith’s passages about entire cities left abandoned to radiation.
Most of you likely are familiar with Smith’s work, but for those who are not, he is a marvelous writer and a terrific researcher. His novels always have a ring of truth and Renko, a put-upon, cynical yet deeply human Moscow police inspector, is a truly great creation.
coozledad said on October 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm
Marc G: Those images remind me of some of the abandoned farms around here- minus the masonry stoves. The images of the girls in their mini-skirts could be my mod cousins attempting the Carnaby Street look. Their fathers would be some of the guys in the WWII vintage pictures. The similarities are very striking and very sad.
It’s weird to consider that all of us poors were poised to wipe each other out on behalf of our predatory classes.
John C said on October 3, 2011 at 3:30 pm
I recall Mike Royko referring to the WCTU as “a society of women who nagged men about liquor,” or something like that.
Also, the Sweet Juniper picture reminded me of one of my brother-in-law’s observations on a driving tour of Detroit. He’s a native Hoosier, now living in Boston. He’s a quiet guy, and very, very smart. But he’s also an ex-college football player who has seen his share of nickel beer nights. We passed a spare, menacing looking tavern like the one in the picture. “If you go into that place,” he said, “you’d better go in strong.”
Kirk said on October 3, 2011 at 4:54 pm
The Mother Thompson House in Hillsboro, Ohio, where I once worked, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Mother Thompson was among the founders of the WCTU. Last month, some people down there re-enacted the temperance march that got the ball rolling.
alex said on October 3, 2011 at 6:39 pm
Ah, Jay County, Indiana. It was largely populated by Quakers in the mid-nineteenth century, and the town of Camden (now Pennville) was a free love colony whose citizens were all excommunicated. (There was a lot of this sort of experimentation going on in the midwest in those days. Esther Whinery Wattles, in her memoirs, wrote of the jealous spouses who didn’t work out as members of a commune she and others inhabited near Cincinnati. Spouse sharing was supposed to break people of the sin of jealousy, but not all Quakers were in agreement with it.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if that WCTU chapter in Jay County is a vestige of the Quaker culture once so dominant there.
caliban said on October 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm
Secret Santa. Just say YO!
alex said on October 3, 2011 at 7:38 pm
Wow, more about Wattles history and attempts at communal living. These folks didn’t give up.
coozledad said on October 3, 2011 at 7:50 pm
Is this the only way Republicans can get fucked, or does cash add to the frisson of just being dead wrong and essentially evil?
I’m just sorry he took off his tricorner hat for his mug shot.
Sally said on October 3, 2011 at 7:54 pm
I grew upin River Forest. You couldn’t buy liquor there nor in neighboring Oak Park, but you could have it delivered by an unmarked vehicle.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 3, 2011 at 7:54 pm
Adrianne, it was Capt. Frederick Marryat, a forerunner of Patrick O’Brian and a buddy of Charles Dickens.
Kirk said on October 3, 2011 at 8:42 pm
The story on the hypocritical teabagging whoremonger is hilarious. It reminds me that I should look at Wonkette more often.
moe99 said on October 4, 2011 at 12:05 am
Joe Cocker’s lyrics misheard. Made me laugh–a great feat on chemo night.
maryinIN said on October 4, 2011 at 12:48 am
Jeff with the mild manners —
You said “Patrick O’Brian”! You are meaning the Aubrey-Maturin POB, aren’t you? I have a low-grade obsession with the canon. You also?
If you are, have you seen the handwritten manuscripts at the Lilly Library at IU in Bloomington? They even let you turn the pages.
Dexter said on October 4, 2011 at 2:12 am
With baseball my focus this month, I passed on the Temperance show, but that stuff runs in repeats usually, so I will look for it. Since we live in what is called “one of those old Adelphia areas”, Time Warner won’t tear it up and re-wire this area for DVR service, which is a major pain in the ass for anyone who would use DVR service a lot. I still tape shows when I feel I can’t miss something.
Many years ago I read a story , probably in Da Trib , about Frances E. Willard. She wrote a book called “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle”. The book was written in about 1893,when the bicycle was changing society in a big way, in the decade before automobiles changed everything again.
The book had little to do with any technical bicycle issues at all, and of course was a book about women’s advances in the struggles we all are familiar with here at nn.c.
I did buy the book and it was one dull read. Oh well.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 4, 2011 at 7:04 am
Mary, no, but I should! My sister is on the faculty there and one of my two brothers manages a deli downtown, so I get to Bloomy often enough. Even more ironically, my sister’s husband, a PhD in vocal music in one of the few towns where throwing a brick over your shoulder will either hit a master’s in journalism or a PhD in vocal music, is now teaching just south of me in NN.C’s favorite university, a semi-willing Bobcat who is going to see this spring if Athens, Ohio is ready for Brecht. Anyhow, the eastern Ohio to southern Indiana conveyor belt is rolling, so I need to remember I can do that! Thank you.
And make sure to hunt up (it’s online at Gutenberg.org) “Mr. Midshipman Easy” by Capt. Marryat, without whom Aubrey & Maturin & Hornblower might never have trod the Royal Navy decks.