Kane County History: At Elgin Polls, Temperance Crusaders Crush Beer Fans

Kane County History: At Elgin Polls, Temperance Crusaders Crush Beer Fans

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Elizabeth Marston of the Elgin History Museum.

Liquor control has been a controversial issue in Elgin since the beginning in 1835.

Elgin’s first mayor, Dr. Joseph Tefft, was a determined “dry” (supporters of Prohibition were nicknamed “dry”; opponents were called “wet”). In 1854, soon after Dr. Tefft was elected, a prohibition ordinance was passed.

The law was enforced while Dr. Tefft was mayor, but in 1856, the year after he left office, saloons began appearing again, and in 1858 the first license ordinance was passed.

Nationally, the temperance movement started in the 1830s. Initially, they supported the drinking of beer and wine in moderation and abstention from hard liquor. By the 1870s, however, the views of the temperance movement changed from alcohol in moderation to total prohibition.

Spurred on by the establishment of the Prohibition Party (founded 1869) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (founded 1873), a major temperance crusade spread across the U.S. in the 1870s. From 1872 to 1875, four temperance organizations formed in Elgin.

One of the results of the temperance pressure locally was the raising of licensing fees for saloons, from $50 per year in 1873 to $500 per year in 1879, in an effort to limit the number of saloons. By the 1880s, however, the temperance wave had subsided, and the saloons were back stronger than before.

The number of saloons in Elgin increased from 21 in 1880 to 25 in 1888 to 34 in 1908.

Women’s Suffrage

Many suffragists fought for the right to vote in municipal and township elections in order to attack the saloon.

As early as 1888, when a local suffrage group was formed in Elgin, one speaker stated, “Woman suffrage should go forward with the temperance movement.”

The approval of the Illinois Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Act was with the help of “drys,” in 1913.

This Illinois law was the first real suffrage measure adopted by any state east of the Mississippi. It allowed women to vote for president; city, village and township officials; and, significantly, in local referendums. However, they still could not vote for state representative, congressman or governor.

Elgin women were prompt in taking advantage of the new law. In less than a year after the expansion of female voting power, Elgin Township voters were asked the question, “Shall this township become anti-saloon territory?”

The same proposition had failed to carry in 1908, 1910 and 1912, but in 1914, women were exercising the franchise (right to vote) in a township election for the first time.

Women led the ensuing dry crusade. Women and men who participated in the referendum were about equal in number, but they differed politically on this question. Sixty-five percent of the women voted “dry,” while only 40 percent of the men voted “dry.”

The drys won, 6,504 to 5,918, and 34 saloons in the city of Elgin and three in South Elgin had to close their doors.

Carry Nation and Elgin’s Arwin Price

Carry Nation was a national temperance reformer from 1890 through her death in 1911. Arwin Price was Elgin’s mayor six different times, from the 1880s through the 1920s, and an outspoken drinker.

Chosen by his fellow aldermen to occupy the vacated office was Arwin Price, a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking champion of the people. One of the most colorful characters ever to parade across the local political stage, he was elected mayor more times (six) and defeated trying for the office on more occasions (five) than any other man.

A marble cutter by trade and of limited formal education, Price was loved by many, a large portion of whom were champions of the freedom to imbibe. He was detested by others, particularly church women.

No one could be neutral about Carry A Nation. Lauded by reformers, damned by politicians and often courted by saloon owners who knew a “smashing” by Carry could bring acclaim to their establishment, Carry made an impact on the temperance movement.

College boys lined up to have their picture taken with her and shelled out their allowances to buy one of her souvenir hatchets. Yes, she took a hatchet to bars, snatched cigars and cigarettes out of the mouths of people on the street, kneeled, and prayed every time she went to jail.

Carry Nation entered the temperance movement in 1890, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the importation and sale of liquor in “original packages” from other states weakened the prohibition laws of Kansas, where she was living. In her view, the illegality of the saloons flourishing in that state meant that anyone could destroy them with impunity.

Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women, Nation, who was typically dressed in stark black-and-white clothing, marched into saloons and proceed to sing, pray, hurl biblical-sounding vituperations, and smash the bar fixtures and liquor with a hatchet.

At one point, her fervor led her to invade the governor’s chambers in Topeka. Jailed many times, she paid her fines from lecture tour fees and sales of souvenir hatchets, at times earning as much as $300 per week. She herself survived numerous physical assaults.

Was Carry Nation the Wicked Witch of the West? Or, was she a loving caring mother and grandmother who cared deeply about the evils of intoxication and tobacco? You can decide when you meet her at the Elgin History Museum Benefit on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 at the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. Tickets at https://elginhistory.org/shop-category/event-tickets/

Enjoy a full dinner buffet with cash bar, entertainment and a fabulous silent auction to benefit the Elgin History Museum. Tickets are $45 for members, $55 for guests. Your support will help the Museum continue its mission to collect, preserve and interpret Elgin’s heritage.

Historian and actress Ellie Carlson portrays Carry in the early 1900s when she traversed the Midwest and even the British Isles to spread her message of temperance, sobriety, and Home Defense.

Be prepared to be transported to a time so different from our own, when Demon Rum was an evil that could be fought with a hatchet because the ballot box was not yet an option.

Read The Kane County History Series!