“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.

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2 thoughts on ““Lips That Touch Liquor…”

  1. Mr. Crumrin, the next time you’re in West T stop by Snack’s Café and take a look at some of the old West terre haute photo’s Kenny has up on the walls. Each will be accompanied with a brief narrative.

    1. Brad, that is my plan. As those who have read some of my blogs may know, I spent a lot of time in the back room, but never been in the actual public area. I was hoping to talk to the owner and see if they have any old records, photos I could see. Does anyone know the owners name and contact info?

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