Western New York Heritage

Fighting the Demon Drink in Fredonia: The Women’s Temperance Crusade

This woodcut of devils working a distillery capture the zeal of the crusaders of the war on alcohol in the 1840s during the height of the Washingtonian Movement.The image is the frontispiece of The True History of Deacon Giles's Distillery (1844), a book that had the effect of shutting down some distilleries in Massachusetts.

Courtesy Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

In late August of 1873 George Clark, known throughout Fredonia as an unruly drunk, created a scene during a band concert in Barker Common, dancing up and down the street in the presence of Judge Chandler and Justice Gilman. As reported by the Fredonia Censor, Officer Frank took after him and the dancer gave him the chase. When Frank finally caught him, Clark was taken to the lockup on Center Street and later sent to the jail in Mayville, where he served a sentence of 20 days.

Scenes like this were common in the village of Fredonia, then a small farming community in Chautauqua County. A number of habitual drunkards were creating disturbances around town and ending up in County Court. In the months leading up to the Fredonia women’s temperance crusade, the grassroots movement that led to the creation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.), the long list of offenders included Frederick Wagner, John Manger, Louis Fromm, Alice Bentley, Charles Low and George Holly.

By December of that year, when the women marched on the village saloons, alcoholism had reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Jane Stebbins, in Fifty Years History of the Temperance Cause (1874), called intemperance “the great national curse, threatening the purity and stability of our institutions, secular and religious; the fruitful source of poverty, misery, crime, and degradation of the individual and family.” Women were especially vulnerable to “the curse of drink” if they had husbands who spent their wages at the saloon instead of providing for their families. Most women were not able to support themselves in these Victorian times and, because of the stigma of divorce, were often powerless in the face of the anxiety and penury caused by a drinking husband.

Intemperance: The Social Problem

This sketch from Harper's Weekly shows women confronting a saloonkeeper during the 1874 revolt against drinking establishments.

Library of Congress

Since colonial times, beer, hard cider, homemade whiskey and rum were cheap and easily attainable. Often a regular addition to a family meal, alcohol was also prescribed by doctors as a medicine for adults as well as children. Workers on the farm and in the factory often imbibed during their breaks; and in the aftermath of the wars fought on this soil men sometimes relied on drink to compensate for the horrors of the battlefield. Alcohol was a major form of exchange on the free market, workers sometimes receiving liquor as part of their wages. The problem was widespread. By 1871 there were seven “inebriate asylums” established in the United States, three of them located in New York State.

Contributing to problems with alcohol consumption was a series of bank failures in the fall of 1873 that closed the stock market for 10 days. Labelled “the Panic of 1873,” the economic depression that followed put many out of work. A Fredonia Censor article in December, the very month of the Fredonia Crusade, warned: “Many who are thrown out of employment may be disposed to fold their hands in idleness….To congregate around saloons and nurse your trouble with whiskey or beer, will only make it worse.”

Binghamton Inebriate Asylum, the first institution of its kind in the world, was founded in 1858 and was one of seven such institutions in the United States by 1871.

Private Collection

By the 1850s, beer especially was being produced and distributed widely. In 1869, nearby Buffalo had some of the largest breweries in the country. Moreover, the railroads were in full swing in Western New York. Dunkirk was the terminus of the New York and Erie Railroad, bringing in business people and travelers from Buffalo and the East Coast.

Dunkirk and Fredonia are nestled side by side in northern Chautauqua County, and back then, as now, there was often rivalry between them. In 1873 Fredonia’s population was just under 3,000. Dunkirk was twice that size, having undergone an influx of German and Irish immigrants who came to work on the railroads and other industries. The biggest employers in Fredonia were wagonmakers, the largest being Taylor, Day & Co., but Fredonia was mainly a farming community.

The Gazetteer and Business Directory of Chautauqua County for 1873-74 reported that the Town of Dunkirk possessed two breweries, five wholesale dealers of liquor (including Risley & Co., the largest establishment of its kind in Western New York with a branch in Buffalo) and 19 saloons, 11 of which were located on East Third Street. In Fredonia, on the other hand, Francis M. Kidder on Chestnut Street, who operated a cider mill, was the only recorded producer of alcoholic beverages.

This was something of a turnaround from earlier in the century, when pioneers from New England tended to settle in the Fredonia area rather than Dunkirk. Around the time of the War of 1812, the Fredonia farmers found themselves with surplus crops of grain and, until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1826, no easy way to dispose of it. So they turned to making whiskey, and before 1826 there were 11 distilleries operating in the village. According to Levi Risley, who grew up in Fredonia during those early years, even the children were drinking.

However, by 1873, the railroad had replaced the horse and buggy to become the major means of transporting goods and Dunkirk was the railroad city. Compared to Dunkirk, which had a number of hotels and drug stores in addition to their saloons, Fredonia had only eight public places where one could buy liquor – two hotels (Harrison’s Hotel and the Taylor House), two saloons (Duane Beebe’s and Smeizer & Hewes) and four drug stores (Willard Lewis’s, Maynard’s, O. D. Baldwin’s and Don A. Clark’s).

With so many more places to drink in Dunkirk, how is it that Fredonia became the center of the temperance crusade?

Perhaps it had something to do with their early history as a producer and consumer of alcohol. A more tangible reason, however, is the fact that Dunkirk had more punitive laws, which they enforced rigorously. In March of 1873, for example, Henry Finck, a Dunkirk brewer, was found guilty of selling liquor to minors without a license. He paid a stiff fine of $100 and was jailed for 10 days.

In Fredonia, Nathaniel Frank was the village constable most often cited in the Censor for making arrests. The only other constable listed in the 1873-74 Gazetteer is Duane Beebe. Beebe had a license to sell liquor in his saloon on Water Street, so he was probably not eager to enforce the town laws. Perhaps many residents were frustrated with the work being done by these officers for in February 1874, after the crusade to close down the saloons, Frank lost reelection to his post.

To illustrate the severity of Fredonia’s problem, in July of 1873 the Censor reported that “John McPherson of Warren, Pa. was over on a ‘high’ last Friday and invited Mr. E. Rosenthal to drink with him in the ‘Taylor House Restaurant.’ R. declined; whereupon Mc. undertook to lead him to the bar by the nose, for which insult complaint was made. Officer Frank promptly arrested the nose puller and took him before Justice Mullett. The prisoner waived examination and procured bail of $300 to appear at next court in Mayville.”

Taylor, Day & Co., manufacturer of wagons, was the largest company in Fredonia. Crusader Esther McNeill's husband James, a wainwright, may have been employed here.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library & Museum

The Censor editor was incensed that McPherson was not sent to jail, complaining that “anybody who wants to indulge in a big drunk can come and reel through the streets of Fredonia with impunity….The policy of letting well dressed folks spree it on the streets at will, and arresting only a sick Indian or other equally obscure person once in a great while, is making our town anything but pleasant at times and must give it a disgusting reputation outside. Our own topers used to have part of their sprees out in Dunkirk, but they didn’t like the lock-up apartments to which they were invariably introduced down there….Let every person, rich or poor, old or young, white or black or copper colored be rigorously dealt with according to the law…and things would soon be different.”

A more shocking example of this problem in Fredonia is the case of Charles Low, son of an “Advent” preacher, who was frequently arrested for being drunk. After his wife left him he followed her to Salem, MA to get her to return. When she refused, he shot her and then shot himself. He died, but she recovered from the ordeal.

Clarence Howard, a Fredonian writing home from Stockton, CA in December of 1873, had this to say: “Almost every building [in Stockton] is a saloon, and all over this state everybody drinks, but it is a fact you never see anyone drunk, or not half as often as at home.”

The Temperance Movement

In 1808 the first temperance group in the United States was organized in Saratoga County, NY by Dr. B. J. Clark and the Reverend Lebbeus Armstrong. Forty-seven men signed a pledge to refrain from “rum, gin, whiskey, wine, or any distilled spirits,” or be fined 25 cents, according to Stebbins’ Fifty Years History. Temperance societies soon popped up all over the United States, and by the 1850s thousands of groups on the national, state and local levels were trying to stem the tide of public intoxication. The Friends of Temperance, the American Temperance Society, the Cadets of Temperance, Sons of Temperance, Daughters of Temperance, Good Templars and the Washington Temperance Society were among them.

In the 1850s, many states enacted prohibition laws, including New York State. None were successful, however, in suppressing the liquor interests. During the Civil War years, temperance societies were largely silent, but they came to the forefront of the public conscience again when the war ended.

Throughout the years leading up to 1873, the residents of Fredonia and its adjoining towns joined many of these groups. One of the most popular was the Society of Good Templars. By 1868 there were two Good Templars lodges in the Fredonia area, one in nearby Sheridan and another in Laona, a sister village. They sponsored picnics and dances that attracted a lot of people.

Another group that gathered national attention was the Washington Temperance Society. The Historical Biography of the United States for 1885 reports that on April 2, 1840 six men – a tailor, carpenter, blacksmith, wainwright, coachman and silverplater – met at Chase’s Tavern in Baltimore. During their meeting they made a decision to embrace teetotalism, beginning what became known as the Great Washingtonian Temperance Reformation. The reformed drinkers would get up on a stage and talk about what alcohol had done to their lives, often creating a sensation and drawing large crowds.

The Good Templars, the Washingtonians and many of the other groups admitted women as well as men. The women, however, in most cases were allowed no voice in these organizations. In 1852, Susan B. Anthony, acting as a delegate to a temperance meeting in Albany, was prevented from speaking there. Miriam Gurko in The Ladies of Seneca Falls reports that the chairman of this session, hosted by the Sons of Temperance, told Anthony that “the sisters were not invited to speak…but to listen and learn.” Anthony walked out.

The December Campaign and Crusade

In December of 1873, “the sisters” of Fredonia were the speakers in a temperance crusade that compelled the men “to listen and learn.” The catalyst for their crusade was Dr. Diocletian Lewis, a popular lecturer from Boston, who was invited by the Fredonia Library Association to deliver a talk on December 12, the subject of which was “healthy living for young ladies.” The Good Templars then asked him to talk about temperance on the following Sunday, December 14. Almost 1,000 people showed up at the Fredonia Baptist Church to hear Dr. Lewis tell the story of how his mother and a group of women in a town in Central New York had run the rum sellers out of town.

Fredonia Baptist Church, where the Women's Crusade for Temperance began in December 1873. The church still stands today.

From Frances Graham & Georgeanna Gardenier's Two Decades: A History of the First Twenty Years' Work of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of the State of New York, 1894. Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

The audience, energized by Lewis’ rousing speech, organized a committee of 50 women to create a plan for persuading the local bars and drugstores to stop selling liquor. They agreed to meet the next day to finalize the plan. It was bright and sunny that morning of December 15 when over 300 people met at 10 a.m. at the Baptist Church. After singing and presentations, the women moved to the basement to arrange the details of their march while the men upstairs continued to pray and pledge their support.

Two and a half hours later over 100 women emerged from the church basement to confront “the devil in his lair.” At the forefront were Mrs. Achsah Barker, wife of Judge George Barker, and Mrs. Ann Williams, wife of the pastor of the Baptist Church. Some of the prominent citizens marching that day were Mrs. Emma Benton, wife of the Presbyterian minister, Mrs. Lucy Armstrong, wife of the Normal School principal, Mrs. Helen Pettit Barker, descendant of one of Fredonia’s first families and a woman doctor, Dr. Clarissa A. Fuller. They were accompanied by the wives and daughters of lawyers and judges, insurance agents, storekeepers, teachers and farm and construction workers. Jane Clemens, Mark Twain’s mother, was a marcher, as was Esther McNeill, who was to take a leading role in the years that followed.

Achsah and Helen Pettit Barker were two of the crusaders who marched on the Fredonia liquor sellers.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

The women marched across Barker Common to the Taylor House. In the presence of the three proprietors of the hotel they made their appeal “in the name of God and humanity”:

Knowing, as we do, that the sale of intoxicating liquors is the parent of every misery, prolific in all woe, in this life and the next, potent alone in evil, blighting every fair hope, desolating families, the chief incentive to crime, these, the mothers, wives and daughters, representing the moral and religious sentiment of our town, to save the loved members of our households from the temptation of strong drink, from acquiring an appetite for it, and to rescue, if possible, those that already have acquired it, do earnestly request that you will pledge yourself to cease the traffic here in those drinks forthwith and forever. We will also add the hope that you will abolish your gaming tables.

A hymn was sung, the Lord’s Prayer followed and then Mrs. Tremaine delivered another prayer. In addition to their appeal to morality, the crusaders suggested that they would reimburse the Taylors for their liquor license fee if they took the pledge. One of the Taylor brothers who owned the place said he didn’t drink but felt he needed to sell liquor to stay in business. He agreed to give it up, however, if the others did.

Elegantly refurbished by the Taylor brothers in 1867, the Taylor House sat at the edge of Barker Common in the heart of Fredonia. In 1880 anti-liquor sentiment drove the Taylors to sell the property.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

The women marched on. At the saloon of Smeizer & Hewes they repeated their appeal for the benefit of Mr. Hewes, who said he had a license so would continue to sell drinks. Willard Lewis, next on their list, told them how harmless his beer was, “but finally said if the rest would shut up, he would.”

At Maynard’s drug store Jedediah Maynard told them he was opposed to intemperance but could not run a drug store without selling liquor. He did promise, however, not to sell to drunkards and said he would think about it further. O. D. Baldwin, the druggist, was noncommittal. Levi Harrison said if they would buy him out he would be glad to stop selling drinks at his hotel. Duane Beebe, the drug store proprietor, was unresponsive to their request. Don Clark was the most adamant of the responders. He told them he had no intention of signing their pledge.

The moral imperative exercised by these women on what must have been for them an exhausting day, paid off. That very evening Mr. Maynard agreed “not to sell any more liquor to be used as a beverage.” He was undoubtedly influenced by his wife, who joined the group of women the next day, when they marched again, 127 strong this time. Day three brought out 90 women and on the fourth day, Levi Harrison announced that his bar would be closed. It seems that Harrison wanted to be appointed a deputy sheriff and Sheriff Hitchcock was letting it be known that no one involved in the sale of intoxicating drinks could hold that office.

On December 20, five days later, 90 women were out again on a cold and sloppy day. By that time 208 women had signed the pledge against the demon drink. On Monday, December 22, the Women’s Temperance Union of Fredonia was formally organized. By February of the following year their membership numbered over 300.

Esther McNeill

Esther Lord McNeill was one of the 50 women chosen on December 14 to draw up the plan of action for the crusade. She was not, however, from one of Fredonia’s first families, having arrived just five years earlier. Born in 1812, Esther married James McNeill in 1832 and in the early 1840s they both enlisted in the Washingtonian movement. Because the Washingtonians began as a group of reformed heavy drinkers, their membership in that group suggests that James may have experienced firsthand the effects of intemperance.

Esther Lord McNeill, veteran crusader, ca. age 70.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

Esther and James had no children of their own. They arrived in Fredonia from Wayne County in 1868 so that Esther could take over the care of her brother’s five children. In addition, they brought with them ten of their own foster children. Her younger brother, Edward C. Lord, was thrice widowed at the time and as a Baptist missionary in China, he was unable to care for them himself. At one time or another there were 18 children living at 59 Forest Place in a house that is still standing. By 1880, her brother was back from China living in the house along with Esther and the children. Others in the household included William Zell, a minister, his wife and their baby. Esther’s obituary states that she was known as “Mother McNeill,” “not only in households throughout this State but throughout the nation.”

The house at 59 Forest Place, still standing, where Esther McNeill lived with her large extended family.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

James, a wainwright, who may have found work at Taylor, Day & Company, died of edema two years after they arrived and Esther was left to care for her large family alone. Sixty years old and a widow on her own during the 1873 crusade, she had a lot on her plate. Sometime after 1882, however, she found the time to travel to Japan and China and write interesting letters back home that were published in the Censor. Her brother died in 1887 but she lived on to 1907 and the grand old age of 95.

Years later, during the dedication of her Memorial Fountain in 1913, Louis McKinstry, owner of the Fredonia Censor, called her a woman “who counted no sacrifice too great for her to make in behalf of the Temperance cause.” He added that she had “the same sterling Scotch-Irish ancestry Andrew Jackson had, and she never faltered in the work she undertook.”

Although she was not one of the original officers of the local Women’s Temperance Union formed in December 1873, she increased her activity as the years rolled on. She was 65 years old in 1877 when she took on the leadership of the Fredonia branch of the W.C.T.U. (Although the Fredonia women did not include the word “Christian” in naming their group, the later-named W.C.T.U. considered Fredonia’s W.T.U. their first chapter.) McNeill remained president of Fredonia’s branch until 1894 when she was in her 80s. In that year, in their two-decade history of the organization, the W.C.T.U. reported that Fredonia’s branch was “the leading union” in Chautauqua County. In addition to working with her local branch, McNeill became the first president of the Chautauqua County division of the W.C.T.U. She was Fredonia’s indefatigable pioneer and veteran crusader.

The Last Days of the Campaign

This drinking fountain in Barker Common was erected by the Fredonia W.C.T.U. in 1912 as a memorial to Esther McNeill. These fountains, which went up in communities across the country, encouraged the drinking of water over whiskey. Many, like this one, are extant.

Jim Boltz photograph

There is every reason to view the Fredonia women’s temperance movement a success. Their actions on that sunny day in December ushered in what became the largest women’s movement in the United States up to that time. It was the women, not the men, who took action that day. They did not attack the saloons with hammers and axes as others had done and would do later, Carrie Nation among them. Rather, they approached the liquor dealers with religious fervor and were listened to and treated with respect. As the Fredonia Censor reported, “there is power in such an organization as these women have formed.”

Louis McKinstry, editor and publisher of the Fredonia Censor, who with his father Willard vigorously fought the temperance cause in their newspaper. Both their wives marched in the Crusade.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

Throughout the years leading up to the Volstead Act of 1919, when Prohibition became the law of the land, the women of Fredonia brought temperance speakers to town to keep the issue alive. Esther McNeill, for one, kept busy writing articles for the Fredonia Censor, which always printed them. Concurrent with their marches, the women combined their efforts to help the needy families in the community. The Censor of December 24, 1873 reported that the women’s temperance group was holding a meeting “to lay out the work proposed for poor families.” At that meeting they organized a relief society to gather clothing and bedding for the destitute. By late January they were being praised “for their brilliant example.”

Some of that praise was due to another part of their mission. The pledge they made in December included the opening of a “public Parlor, Reading Room and Restaurant” in order to “lay the foundation for a public Library” and compete with the saloons as a place where people could socialize. In April of 1874 they opened the reading room at today’s 13 East Main Street, which two years later was turned over to the Directors of the Fredonia Public Library.

In addition to these social services, the women of Fredonia took on political battles. As early as April of 1874 they presented to the village Board of Trustees a number of petitions that enjoined the Board to withhold “licenses for the sale of intoxicating Liquors for the ensuing year.” They continued to pressure the Board to prohibit the granting of licenses. Because they couldn’t vote they had to exhort the men to vote for the No-License candidates at election time. Finally, in 1880 Henry B. Benjamin, a No-License candidate, was elected Excise Commissioner and his tenure marked the demise of liquor licenses in the village.

That year the Taylor Hotel was sold to a Mr. Fields of Ashtabula, OH, who tried to run it without a license. Nine months later, unsuccessful in making a go of it, he sold it back to M. H. Taylor. According to Douglas Shepard, a Chautauqua County historian, by 1884 “the local temperance movement had turned Pomfret [Fredonia is located in the Town of Pomfret] dry.”

In the words of Frances Willard, long-time president of the national W.C.T.U., “Fredonia must always be remembered as the home of the first local W.C.T.U.” The women of Fredonia had contributed mightily to one of the major social movements of the 19th century.

Artist's panoramic sketch of Barker Common in 1852. Fredonia Baptist Church is to the left of the center walkway. At the far left is the Johnson hotel, precursor of the Taylor House, the first stop on the crusaders' march.

Courtesy Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum

The full content is available in the Winter 2015 Issue.