Many would think it altogether appropriate that West Terre Haute was founded by a saloonkeeper. Samuel McQuilkin, one of Terre Haute’s first residents and generally credited with being that town’s first saloonkeeper/innkeeper, platted McQuilkinsville (Macksville), as West Terre Haute was first known, in 1836.
Even before that, one of the first two buildings in West Terre Haute was a tavern owned by a man named Smith Finch. Presaging the working class clientele that would belly up to the later bars that dotted the town, Finch’s first thirsty customers were mainly workers on the National Road. These hardworking crews, often Irish immigrants, did the backbreaking labor of constructing the road (often paid less than 50 cents a day, the workers also had to provide their own tools). As they built the road many also built a mighty thirst that led them to Finch’s door.
As West Terre Haute sputtered to grow, taverns and saloons were always part of its landscape. Throughout its first 75 years they always outnumbered churches and schools. The town had a reputation for hard drinking and riotous living. An 1886 article in the magazine Home Missionary described Macksville as an example of a “destitution of Christian privilege” and observed that “when the enemy of souls finds a human heart or town unoccupied with the gospel, he speedily pitches his tent and takes possession.” That, the writer said (although it must have been hard to compose the article with a nose tilted upward and a pinkie delicately pushed outward), was what happened in Macksville. Saloons set up shop and the peaceful citizenry found it best to stay indoors after dark to preserve “life and limb.” But, he went on triumphantly, thanks to the efforts of a preacher-turned-miner there was now a church building in Macksville and hopefully the battle would continue and tide turn.
The battle did indeed continue. Late 19th-century reform movement like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and others tried to push for sobriety or even prohibition. It became a battle between “wets” and drys.” Each side had it small victories in the ongoing conflict.
But it was not until the century turn that “drys” began to make real progress. Around this time an organization that historian Daniel Okrent in Last Call, his excellent book on Prohibition, called the most formidable political action group in America began to really flex its organizational muscle. The Anti-Saloon League was an example of a single- interest pressure group. Using tactics that would later be aped by mainly conservative organizations (concentration on local elections, targeting for defeat elected officials who did not support their views), the ASL promoted their agenda superbly.
One of their tactics was to push for local option elections. In such elections towns or townships could petition to hold an election so that voters could vote on a single issue.
There were several such elections in Sugar Creek Township between 1910 and 1916. Wets and Drys fought it out and it was often a close call. It sometimes led to some tricky maneuvering. Twice the Wets of West Terre Haute sought to have the town become an incorporated city. This would serve the dual purpose of exempting the “city” of west Terre Haute from being forced to obey township election results, and would prevent those from outside of town (where Dry vote was strongest) from voting in a municipal election. This ploy was defeated, but the wets always won out. In the 1916 election the wet aided the wets. As the area was suffering one of its periodic floods on election day, turnout from the township was low. The Wets, not to be denied, sent out boats to pick up their supporters and get them to the polling place. Sugar Creek was thus one of only four townships in Vigo County to remain wet.
The victories helped solidify the towns reputation. In 1919 at a trial of “booze runners” held in Indianapolis, a judge sardonically asked one defendant protesting his innocence “if it was possible for him to be from West Terre Haute and never have been engaged in the liquor business.”
Ultimately, in the short term, the Drys would succeed when the ASL and its supporters succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment passed (even though it is estimated that only 20% of Americans favored it) and Prohibition began in 1920. That dismal experiment in social engineering failed.