“Lips That Touch Liquor…”


Perhaps the issue that most divided the people of Sugar Creek and Macksville was Temperance, the battle between the so-called “wets” and “dries.”  It was a contentious issue that was in many ways one of the rights of the individual versus the “public good.”  It was especially bitter in Macksville, which was often noted for its saloons.  Before delving in to specifics, I thought it might be good to look at the history of temperance to place the Sugar Creek struggle in context.


America was a nation of drinkers. Foreign visitors like Trollope and others commented upon the bibulous nature of the citizens of the New Republic and decried the often staggering quantities of alcohol they consumed.

It is not surprising that alcohol was a feature of American life as it grew from European cultures where drinking also abounded. The Dutch had their genever (gin), the French and Spanish their wine, and the British rum. It is likely that there was at least a medicinal stock of alcohol on ships bring the Puritans to the new world, where it was known as “hot water.”

Who drank is perhaps the easiest question to answer. In short, nearly everyone, all ages and classes, across the nation had a “taste” from time to time. Workmen, farmers, children, women, men all were tempted to lift the cup. Even the clergy drank. In 1800 members of the Presbyterian clergy, gathered for a meeting, drank four bowls of punch, a pint of brandy, a round of grog, two bottles of wine, and four bottles of wine (sounds like a party at Jimmy Swaggart’s house). Thus, drinking crossed all lines in society and casual consumption in itself elicited little comment. It was the quantity that gave rise to the temperance movement.

Americans drank over 5 gallons (some sources believe it was 7.1 gallons) of distilled spirits per capita each year. Additionally, the “average” American drank 15 gallons of hard cider and small amounts of wine and beer. Americans drank more than the British, Irish and Prussians, and about the same amount as Scots and French. Only the Swedes are thought to have been heavier drinkers than Americans. This thirst was serviced by numerous eager suppliers. The 1810 census listed over 14,000 breweries (in this case, “breweries” was not limited to “beermakers,” but included all manner of distilling operations ranging from large distilling businesses to lone “distillers” like William Conner).

Americans drank for many reasons. Technical innovations allowed for increased efficiency in distilling and more ”bang for your buck.” Some drank to “supplement” their diet. Whiskey added zip to the often bland, unvarying meals gracing American tables and provided much needed calories to a meager diet. Many non-alcoholic drinks were considered unsafe or too expensive for some pockets. Water and milk could be “unhealthy” and coffee and tea often cost more than “spirits.” It should not be forgotten that alcohol (in moderation) was thought to be healthful (cf. modern medical thought regarding wine and its role in preventing or ameliorating certain diseases). Alcohol was often “prescribed” for various ailments and afflictions or as a preventative. Finally, as with today, alcohol in the 19th century offered an escape from life’s “troubles.” The view from inside the cup was often more roseate than the shadowed vistas glimpsed from without and drinking became an addiction for some.

Drinking was not limited to saloons. Alcohol was sold in stores, druggist shops, groceries, inns and numerous other outlets. People drank at home, work and play. Public occasions were occasions for drinking. Weddings, funerals, bees and agricultural fairs (Indiana’s most famous 19th century drunkard and temperance activist Luther Benson—see below—first drank at a county agricultural fair) often featured alcohol—either openly consumed or hidden in dark corners.

All the above led to calls for Americans to at least temper their drinking habits. By the early 1800s, a temperance movement began to gather speed.

Drive Toward to Sobriety

There were always those who hated drinking and decried its effects. Religious groups were early leaders in temperance efforts, as were some in the medical profession. Eventually, reformers of all stripes would join in the call for temperance. It is important to note that, initially, most called for temperance, not total abstinence or prohibition. They only asked that Americans drink less, not give up alcohol completely.

Religious voices were among loudest in the temperance chorus (and music was to play a major role in temperance campaigns). Various denominations took the lead, among them the Quakers. Methodists, too, became increasingly prominent in the movement. In 1790 they imposed limits on the use of distilled liquor and by 1816 had barred ministers from distilling or selling it. The church council officially voted to support temperance in 1828 and in 1832 took the ultimate step of calling for prohibition (though some medicinal use might be tolerated). The Methodist temperance message was pushed at camp meetings and by circuit riders.

Some doctors pointed out the health hazards of excess drinking. America’s most famous and prescient physicians, Dr. Benjamin Rush, published an article in 1784 that enumerated the debilitating effects of alcohol. Others in the medical “profession” echoed his warnings, such as health faddist Sylvester Graham (of cracker fame).

The temperance movement existed alongside other reform and self-improvement efforts of the day, sharing the roiling landscape peppered with abolitionists, protean labor reformers, women’s rights activists, and educational revisionists. Many viewed temperance as vital to the economy and society. Industry needed sober workers in its workshops and factories and the nation needed a temperate citizenry so as not to fall into rowdiness and anti-social behavior.

So, it is not surprising that local temperance societies sprang forth between 1810 and 1820. One of the first “national” societies formed in Boston in 1826 when the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, which helped establish a model for other temperance groups by conducting press campaigns and sending out lecturers to harangue audiences about the evils of drink, was begun. Many local efforts followed suit. Though most opted to push temperance, there was also an element within the movement which urged total abstinence (thus “T” for tee-totaler). Disputes over how “temperate” to be sometimes divided groups. At the national convention of the American Temperance Union in 1833 a dispute broke out between the moderates and those seeking total abstinence. The dispute festered for several years, until the moderate wing dropped out of the union to form its own organization.

Indiana’s earliest temperance group was probably the one formed in Richmond in 1819. Their temperance “pledge” was hardly all-inclusive. It only specifically proscribed whiskey and even then individuals were allowed a “dram every morning” for health reasons. Beer was not considered alcohol and wine, gin and brandy were thought too costly to be consumed by those in the area, so were not prohibited. Methodists began pushing for total abstinence by 1824. A statewide temperance group formed in 1829.

Most groups used the same techniques to forward their agenda. They preached, bullied and exhorted laggards to return to the straightened path and to prevent others from first stepping off of it. They pointed to the moral, social, and physical ills caused by drink. Temperance activists also sought practical steps to lessen drinking. They proposed taxes to make liquor more expensive, production limits to make it less available, and selling in quantity to at limit the access of the poor to drink.

Their efforts often paid dividends. By 1860, some estimate, consumption had been cut by more than half among some. Still, many felt much more should be done—and that mere preaching or encouraging temperance was not enough. In a move that presaged later developments, these groups called for governments to take action (Indiana passed a prohibition law in 1855, but it was declared unconstitutional) by enacting prohibition legislation. Little was accomplished at the time.

After a quiescent period caused by the Civil War and other national concerns, temperance voices rang anew after the war.

Politicization and the Rise of Prohibitionism

The temperance movement revived and carried the cause’s banner with renewed vigor after the war, this time with increasing calls for not just temperance, but prohibition. There was also an overt move into the political arena.

The arguments for temperance (and prohibition) were much the same as before. Its pernicious effects on the body, mind and spirit were endlessly cataloged; its negative influence on individuals, families, and society were trumpeted in speech, verse and song. By the 1870s many temperance advocates had a locus upon which to focus, a place against which to plot—the saloon.

The saloon came to epitomize all that was evil about drinking. They were seen as dens of immorality, fosterers of multiple vices, almost palpable “creatures” whose dark hands could reach out to ensnare the innocent and willing alike. They were dark places that took money from the pockets of husbands and fathers, and food from the mouths of babes. Increasingly, they were also viewed as gateways to violence.

The emphasis on the saloons coincided with the increased participation of women and gave rise to an American archetype, the axe wielding temperance woman, later epitomized by Carrie Nation. Such incidents actually began more than forty years before their heyday. One early example took place in frontier Illinois in the 1850s when a group of militant temperance ladies smashed a saloon. They were defended by lawyer Abraham Lincoln, though they lost their case.

Not all saw violence as the solution and there was an increased emphasis on political means to further their agenda. The national Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 and fielded its first presidential candidate in the election of 1872. The Indiana Temperance Alliance was formed to promote efforts in 1870. They supported legislation like the 1873 Baxter law that mandated licenses for Hoosier saloons. The following year the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was to become one of the most powerful temperance and prohibition movements, was formed in Ohio.

The WCTU shared the stage with other temperance movements, like the Washingtonians, Reynolds movement and the Murphy group. Symbolism often played an important role with such groups. In a move that presaged the various modern “ribbon” movements, the groups encouraged supporters to wear various colored ribbons to show their support for the cause. The Murphy supporter wore blue ribbons, while Reynolds supporters had various colors (red for reformed drinkers, white for women and boys). WCTU members wore white ribbons.

Except for local successes, outright prohibition was still decades away for temperance groups. They were more successful at getting specific laws passed in Indiana. Between 1877 and 1883 the Hoosier legislature enacted laws that regulated aspects of liquor sales. These provisions forbade sales on Sundays, election day, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Even druggists could not sell on these proscribed days, unless the patron had a prescription from his physician (which shows that alcohol, properly used, was still considered medicinal).

Other legislation mandated penalties for public drunkenness, selling to drunks or minors, and furnishing liquor to prisoners. No sales were allowed between 11:00 PM and 5:00 AM. Nor could vendors sell within a mile of religious or agricultural meetings unless sold in regular places of business. The prohibition against sales at agricultural meetings and fairs is interesting. The most famous Hoosier drunkard (and one of the nations most well known), Luther Benson, began his life inside the bottle at a county agricultural fair. Benson was known for his continual attempts to wean himself from drink and became one of the country’s most famous temperance speakers. Benson traveled the nation chronicling his struggles with alcohol and his description of delirium tremens is one of the more harrowing passages in temperance literature. He recounted his struggles in 15 Years in Hell, one of the late 19th-century’s most widely read temperance works. He started writing the book after his friends and family committed him to the Indiana insane asylum following yet another hard fall from the wagon. Benson was ultimately out-wrestled by his demons and, never shaking his drinking habit, died in the asylum. Indiana was home to another temperance author and speaker, one who successfully broke his addiction—to multiple vices. Mason Long was a Ft. Wayne resident who wrote of freeing himself from gambling, tobacco and alcohol in Mason Long the Converted Gambler. Long, a prototype Born Again Christian, credited religious faith for his recovery. He, too, cited agricultural fairs as prime venues for drinking and gambling.

Outright prohibition remained a goal for some. Fresh efforts at outlawing drink were made in Indiana. In 1882 and 1883 another attempt was made to emend the state constitution by adding a prohibition amendment. It failed. The State Temperance Union was formed in 1887. By bringing together as many of the local supporters under the umbrella of a statewide organization it was hoped to increase influence with legislators. It was to be two more decades before the temperance (or ”dry”) groups met with success. After years of lobbying and preaching, and with the aid of a sympathetic governor, temperance advocates finally saw a dream fulfilled when Indiana passed a “local option” law that allowed to counties to take prohibition to the polls.


Pioneer Sports and Recreation


Though much of daily life in the early Midwest necessarily focused on survival, sports and recreation were important aspects of pioneer culture as settlers sought respite from their toils. Some recreational activities took place in conjunction with social or work gatherings while others were extensions of protective or survival skills. Some were means to educate the young in necessary skills, others purely for enjoyment. Recreation occurred year round, but was most often occurred during the agricultural year’s slack times of late fall and early winter or on days set aside for enjoyment.
Most pioneer recreation fit Adelman’s definition of pre-modern sports as competitions held only local significance and offered little clear distinction of participant’s roles or between competitors and spectators. Additionally, the contests’ organization was non-existent or informal and they were played by unwritten rules highly variable by location.
A major study has shown that though the pioneer generation was preceded by and had contact with Native American and European cultures there was little direct cultural transference between the groups with regard to sports. Recreation was simply another piece of the cultural baggage settlers brought with them to the Midwest. They normally adapted activities they had known back home, although some who migrated from more settled areas may have taken part in survival-related recreation for the first time after moving into the frontier. It does not appear that any new sports were specifically “created” after the pioneer’s arrival in the Midwest.
Physical strength and dexterity played important roles in pioneer sports, many of which were connected with defense or survival skills. Sport thus became a pleasurable pastime and a method to measure one’s worth. Events like shooting matches, fighting, and horse and foot races were all examples of such contests that could also train the young or hone the survival skills of their elders.
Shooting matches were extremely popular and occurred throughout the year. Typically a target was attached to a tree or post and shooters took three shots from varying distances. Prizes for winners included cash, whiskey, or beef (an early Indiana settler recalled beef shoots in which marksmen shot for shares of a butchered cow). Equally important to most marksmen (and they were almost always men) was the pride inherent in being the “crack shot” in the area.
Though modern prizefighting was unknown in the pioneer Midwest, there were fights and wrestling matches. “Bully” fights in which a local tough picked a fight joined “friendlier” matches meant to settle who was the “best man.” Both drew crowds of spectators backing (and occasionally betting on) their man. Other than prohibiting weapons, there were few rules and custom allowed kicking, gouging, biting and “stomping upon a fallen victim.” Much the same was true for wrestling matches, although they could also be friendlier affairs at social gatherings. Ideally the battles did not result in lasting grudges and combatants and spectators alike adjourned as friends, as in the famous case of a young Abraham Lincoln’s match with “bully” Jack Armstrong in frontier Illinois.
Speed of foot, both human and horse, was an obvious source of competition. Many gatherings featured foot races to determine the swiftest. Allied with these were other games analogous to modern track and field events, such as Jumping the Bar which was akin to modern high jumping and early versions of pole vaulting.
Horse racing was perhaps the most popular sport in the Midwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. Races ranged from informal contests for bragging rights to organized “meets” complete with prize money. The sport’s popularity grew from its long practice in America combined with an intense sense of competition and pride in one’s livestock.
Informal match races usually took place along dirt roads or across farm fields and were held on the spur of the moment or at gatherings like militia musters or July 4th celebrations. The steeds were usually “saddle nags or plow ponies” ridden bareback by proud owners along distances from a few hundred yards to a quarter mile or longer. Most were “match races” between two horses, but occasionally a larger field competed. The spectacle seldom failed to thrill the crowd.
More formalized race meets were held on designated racecourses, often ovals, and offered purses. The first recorded race in the Midwest may have been the 1801 event in Cincinnati that lasted two days and earned the winner a $50.00 prize. The meet quickly grew to a three day fair with a sweepstakes prize of $500.00. By 1840 many other Midwestern towns featured racetracks. The horses that ran on these tracks were many cuts above the nags of earlier times. Horse breeding, long a southern tradition, swiftly made inroads in the Midwest as blooded stock became available in most areas. Indianapolis newspapers, for example, carried ads for a number of stud horses in the 1830s, including one whose lineage was traced back to the famous Godolphin Arabian. Harness racing, later to be wildly popular in the Midwest, made few appearances during the pioneer period.
Early settlers eagerly sought escape from their isolation by combining work and social functions into events such as husking bees or house raisings. At such gatherings work skills, like survival skills, morphed into recreation with a purpose. Log-rollings were popular “work sports” that combined strength and speed. After trees were felled and stripped, two teams armed with hand spikes were chosen. Logs were rolled to a specified spot where they were lifted to erect a cabin. Rollings to clear land continued beyond the log cabin era. Teams rolled unwanted logs to a spot and lifted them onto a pile. The first team to hoist their final log was the winner and the logs were set afire. Related skills were shown in woodchopping contests in which individuals or teams competed in felling and trimming trees.
The highly developed American sense of competition turned even mundane activities into sport. Cornhuskings were good-natured coed, intergenerational contests that took place in a party atmosphere. Teams of men and women, adults and children, competed to remove the husk from the ears of corn. Though there were seldom prizes for the winners, there were rewards. Finding a rare red ear of corn sometimes meant the finder received a kiss from the opposite sex or perhaps was the prelude to the passing around of a bottle of whiskey for the men.
Though hunting and fishing were primarily food gathering activities, they were sometimes recreational as well. Small groups gathered for wolf, squirrel, or coon hunts, as much for sport than meat or fur procurement. Sugar Creek farmers were still organizing township-wide fox and wolf hunts as late as the 1890s.  This time it was to eradicate them from preying on chickens and other livestock.Hunts were also important avenues for educating the young in necessary survival skills.
Not all sporting activities were directly related to work or defense. Some, like pitching quoits, were meant for amusement, sport for sport’s sake. Two versions of quoits appeared in the Midwest. One mirrored the eastern game of tossing an iron ring toward a stake. In the other, quoit pitchers hefted a boulder or flat stone onto their shoulders and threw it to a designated spot. This version of the game, described as being played on the Indiana frontier, more closely resembles the Native American practice and may be one of the few examples of cultural transference. Similar was the game of Long Bullets (not to be confused with the Native American gambling game of Moccasin and Bullet), which was played with an iron ball. Hard evidence about the game is sparse, but it appears to have been played by two teams who tried to prevent their opponents from throwing or rolling the “bullet” across their goal line. How widely the game was played is unknown.
Such “ball” games did not play a significant role in pioneer culture, at least among adults. This was in sharp contrast to Native Americans, who participated in games (often accompanied by gambling) similar to modern soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey. A 1796 account described a game of “football” in Ohio in which a male team competed against a female one, a rarity. The idea was to drive the ball (probably a deer hide stuffed with hair) between the opponents goal. Men were restricted to using their feet to touch the ball, while women were allowed to also use their hands. Lacrosse, the most widely known Native American sport still practiced, was played throughout the Great Lakes area with one contemporary account claiming nearly 2,000 Miami gathered to take part in a game.
The Midwestern frontier was also a scene of blood sports such as cockfighting and gander-pulling. Typically in cockfighting a ring was cleared and the agitated birds battled each other until one died or managed to flee. Even crueler was gander-pulling. With feathers plucked and neck greased, a gander was suspended by its feet from a tree limb. A succession of riders took turns attempting to pull off the bird’s head to win a prize. Shooting matches sometimes featured live geese or turkeys as targets. How prevalent were these “sports” is open to debate, but they existed to such extent that laws were passed in attempts to control them. An 1807 Indiana territorial law levied fines for any person who “shall cause to fight any cock or cocks, for money… , or shall encourage any match, or matches of cockfighting.”
A trait shared by many pioneer pastimes was gambling, which one historian noted was “in the blood of the time.” Gambling was widespread as wagers, friendly and otherwise, were placed on horse races, footraces, billiards, and cockfights. Nearly every sort of contest was a potential venue for betting. Though it appears most wagering was as much for its entertainment value as profit, a strident anti-gambling movement formed in reaction as religious groups and reformers sought to outlaw it. Indeed, most laws concerning horse racing or cockfighting seem meant more to inhibit gambling than prohibit the sport.
One of the few direct recreational transfers from Native Americans to pioneers was a form of gambling called Moccasin and Bullet. Later simply called Bullet, it was an early version of a shell game practiced by many Midwestern tribes and eagerly taken up by settlers. In the game, a dexterous “tout” would gather the players around and show them a large bullet and four to six moccasins. The bullet was skillfully (and deceptively) place under one of the moccasins as “players” bet on under which one it nestled. The game was very popular among wagering pioneers, as were various card game and billiards. Billiard tables, usually found in an inn or tavern, were a presence in the Midwest by the first decade of the 19th century. Contemporary descriptions of the games are rare, but it likely resembled modern pocket billiards.
As always, children found time to play. In addition to typical childhood games they were more likely than adults to take part in ball games. Versions of games similar to baseball were played throughout the Midwest, among them Rounders, Town Ball and One Old Cat. Children emulated adults by competing in foot races or wrestling matches. Boys were indoctrinated into their grown up roles as providers through shooting matches, hunting and fishing. There were also seasonal activities like swimming or iceskating that likely led to competition.
Though some of these childhood activities were coed there was usually a clear separation of genders as females were expected to attempt less strenuous activities thought more in keeping with their delicate natures. Much the same held true for adults. Though women occasionally took part in sporting activities, their usual role was as spectator or food provider, not participant
Pioneer sports may have been limited by time and circumstance, but they did lay the groundwork for the future. The American love of competition, exaltation of physical prowess, and eagerness for recreation exhibited during the era set the stage for the sporting boom, both participatory and spectator, that began in the late nineteenth century.