The Temperance Movement in the Town of De Kalb
By Bryan Thompson, De Kalb Historian
|The Good Templars of De Kalb Junction
Huntress Carney Glass Plate collection circa 1900
Of all the various social reform movements of the nineteenth century the temperance movement was the only one that drew and held the attention of the citizens of De Kalb for over a century. The Temperance Movement was a social movement against the use of alcohol and tobacco.
Lyman Beecher organized the first national temperance organization, the American Temperance Society, February 13, 1826. By 1829 the organization had spawned an St Lawrence county group and many local chapters. The object of each organization was to promote the entire disuse of ardent spirits by its members.
The De Kalb (Old De Kalb) Temperance Society was organized in February of 1829. The officers were: Seth Pomeroy president, L. Warner vice-president, and James Burnett secretary. In one year the organization boasted 66 members who had signed pledges of personal temperance.
The Richville Temperance Society was formed October 17, 1829. The officers were: Salmon Rich president, Marshall Allen vice-president, and William Brown secretary. By February of 1830 the group had 47 members.
A report in the St. Lawrence Gazette boasted of the two De Kalb groups “The Society is doing much against strong opposition and ridicule.” The same report noted that only one of three buildings raised in the town that season had ardent spirits at the raising and only one death in the town was the result of drink.
These early temperance efforts did reduce the consumption of alcohol. In 1830 the average weekly consumption of hard liquor per person in the town was 1.7 bottles by 1910 this average was 6/10 bottle of liquor per person.
Excise licenses (liquor licenses) were the responsibility of the Town Justice of the Peace under New York State’s first two constitutions. In 1845 the issue of temperance, which was to be contentious for over half a century to come, appears in the town records for the first time. Resolution 11 for 1845 stated, “Resolved that the Board of Excise grant no licenses for the ensuing year.” A special town meeting was held on the issue in May 1846 and the same resolution was carried 114 to 80. In 1847 at another special poll on this issue 129 voted for granting licenses and 116 against.
Under subsequent NYS constitutions the authority was delegated to the county. A revenue stream in the form of excise taxes accompanied the issuing of excise licenses. In 1866 the St. Lawrence County excise commissioners issued two licenses in the town of De Kalb: One tavern license to D.J. Kimmerly for $30 and one store license to Moore and Kingsbury for $30.
Interest in the temperance issue reached a low point nationwide during the Civil War; only to resurge during the religious revival’s of the 1870’s. With the renewed interest many new local temperance societies were formed. And the various groups split into two camps, the Temperance forces emphasizing personal pledges and reforming of the individual citizen and the Prohibitionist working to ban all alcohol consumption from society through legislation.
The Sons of Temperance, a national organization, founded in New York City in 1842 sought personal reform of its members. Membership was restricted to brothers nominated for their temperance by fellow brothers. Membership was 6 cents per week and guaranteed burial for all its members. A local Sons of Temperance chapter was organized in De Kalb Junction by 1870.
The International Independent Order of Good Templars, founded in Utica, NY in 1851 modeled its structure after that of Free Masonry. The organization always admitted both men and women with no racial distinctions. Their goal was the outright prohibition of all alcohol from society through political means. The motto of the young woman’s league of the organization is the title of this article. The first chapter in the town was organized at Richville in 1866. Soon after chapters were organized at De Kalb Junction and Old De Kalb.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was organized December 23, 1873 in Hillsboro, Ohio. Their goal “Create a sober and pure world”. The first chapter in the town was the Richville chapter organized March 10, 1884. This group thrived under their first president Mrs. O. E. Merriman but when she moved to Minnesota in 1889 the group soon folded. The next WCTU chapter was organized at De Kalb Junction with Mrs. Josephine Locklin as president for over 19 years.
The first legislative achievements of the reenergized prohibitionists were Chapter 175 of the Laws of NYS for 1870 returned to issuing of excise licenses to each town in the state and Chapter 444 of the Laws of NYS for 1874, which made the excise commissioners an elected position rather than an appointed position. The act required each annual town meeting to elect commissioners of excise to determine how many liquor licenses to issue each year. One commissioner was elected each year to serve 3 years.
This simple act opened the floodgates of local prohibition organizing in De Kalb. A mass meeting of prohibitionist was held at East De Kalb. It was agreed to hold a series of temperance meetings at every rural school district in the town. Temperance lectures became a regular occurrence through out the town.
The first few years the issue was made a town issue were hotly contested with licenses winning in 1875 but losing in 1876, 1877, 1878. In 1882, 1886 and 1889 licenses were granted but the results were not always clear-cut as the Richville reporter to the Gouverneur Free Press reported in 1886. “ The De Kalb board of excise met last week and granted licenses to two hotels at De Kalb Junction and one hotel in this village (Richville). A wet blanket was then thrown over the drugstores and a deaf ear turned to their applications. The best citizens of the town are indignant at the course taken by said board in granting licenses to the hotels so that all the bummers in town can get drunk as Lords, whereas a person requiring spirituous liquors for medical or mechanical purposes must go out of town for it. If the above arrangement is the pool they have entered into, the voters of the town should make the blanket large and cool enough to cover the whole business next town meeting.” No license won in 1887.
Being an excise commissioner was not a position for those who did not enjoy the hot seat. The WCTU had adopted what they called the bulldozer method of attacking town excise meetings. In 1891 A. D. Lawyer resigned his seat without taking office. The town board then in succession appointed three different men to take his place all but the last, James Cook, declined the position. In 1892 the no license candidate carried the town election. The local newspaper carried the following commentary, “ Town meeting peaceful. We will have to go to Hermon after the first of May for our Tangle foot (a British bitters beer dating to 1847). There would be no legal alcohol sold in the town of De Kalb after May first 1892 until the repeal of the 18th amendment in 1933.
With the adoption of the 1896, New York State liquor tax law each town was required to put four ballot propositions up biannually. One: The selling of liquor to be drunk on premises where sold. Two: The selling of liquor to be consumed off premises. Three: The selling of items containing liquor by drugstores or physicians. Four: Hotel Keepers licenses. None of the measures ever passed in the town of De Kalb.
With the strong local support for temperance and the convenience of De Kalb Junction as a railroad hub the hamlet was often crowded with people wearing the white ribbon of the temperance movement. The Junction was the sight of numerous county and regional temperance meetings. April 24, 1888 saw the semi-annual session of the State grand Division of the Son’s of Temperance held in De Kalb Junction with visitors from through out the state. The county lodge of the Good Templar’s met numerous times at De Kalb Junction, as did the County convention of the WCTU. These meeting were held at the Methodist and Presbyterian churches.
Although De Kalb was a dry town after 1892 the neighboring towns were not, which allowed residents to cross over the town line to obtain their alcohol. The De Kalb Junction area prohibitionists were especially troubled by The Maple View Hotel also known as the “Bungalow”. This establishment was located just over the town line into the Town of Canton on the main road. It provided easy access to alcohol for the residents of De Kalb Junction. The hotel was owned over the years by: Simeon Fishbeck, J. H. McLear, and G. M Thomas who leased the premises to W. H LaVine, and Lawrence Russo among others. In 1913 the local temperance forces found a way to strike at the Hotel. The proprietor, Russo was reported for selling liquor to an Indian, which was against state law at the time. The Bungalow was fined for the infraction but did not close until Canton also banned the sale of alcohol.
During the First World War the national prohibitionists forces passed the War Time Prohibition act banning the sale of beer stronger than 2.75%. This went into effect June 30, 1919. The eighteenth amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol went into effect January 17, 1920. The lifetime goal of many local residents had finally been accomplished.
Almost immediately local smuggling networks appeared to bring liquor over the border from Canada. Along with the smuggling came an increase in local law enforcement and the presence of federal officers. We are all familiar with the nationally famous stories of rumrunners and crime. The town of De Kalb was the location of one such tragedy in April 1924. Five federal agents were on break at a hotel in Canton when Cadillac and Buick touring cars raced through the village. The officers immediately jumped in their car and began to pursue the cars. They called ahead to let the NYS State Troopers in De Kalb Junction know of the approaching cars.
As the cars passed through the Junction the troopers tried to stop them. When the cars did not stop the troopers fired at the second car. The hotly pursuing federal agent then began firing at the cars as they passed along Main Street. About one and a half miles west of the Junction the Buick ran into the ditch. Nineteen year old, Fred Trombley, of Benson Mines, leapt from the car and ran into the field where he collapsed. The Federal agents carried the boy back to De Kalb Junction where he was left in the care of the troopers as the federal agents unsuccessfully pursued the Cadillac.
Trombley soon died. One of the agents, William H. Stanley was indicted on manslaughter charges pressed by St Lawrence County DA Vern Ingram. Ironically Stanley was a former saloonkeeper who had joined the federal forces when prohibition closed his business in Malone. He was acquitted on all charges as it was determined that Trombley was hit by a bullet that bounced off the pavement of Main Street and struck Trombley.
By 1930 opposition to national prohibition was growing in both major political parties. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in November 1932 with strong support of the repeal faction. March 22, 1933 the Roosevelt-Cullen Harrison Act legalized the sale of 3.2 % beer. Meanwhile conventions were being held in each state to consider the passage of the 21st amendment to repeal the 18th amendment.
In New York State the prohibitionist forces mustered their forces to slow the process. The Buckley repeal law enabling the state constitutional convention to take place was amended to require a paper ballot to be used for the first time in many years. The ballot was required to list all the delegates state wide. The resulting ballot was four feet long. The Town of De Kalb was one of six towns in St Lawrence County to vote against repeal of the 18th amendment 281 to 187. The county repeal delegates were Lawrence J. Mc Carthy and Edward P. Lynch. National Prohibition officially ended December 5, 1933.
On November 5, 1936, the town of De Kalb Prohibitionist made one last attempt to reinstate a town dry law. The local ballot proposition to ban the sale of alcohol was offered in 6 St Lawrence County towns. The De Kalb proposition was defeated by a majority of 119 votes. The era of De Kalb as a dry town had come to an end.
De Kalb Town Clerk Town Meeting Book Four 1867- 1905 De Kalb Town Clerk’s Office.
De Kalb Town Clerk Proceeding of the Town Board Book Number 6 1905-1917 De Kalb Town Clerk’s Office.
De Kalb Town Clerk Record of Minutes Town of De Kalb County of St Lawrence November 7, 1917 to May 6, 1939 De Kalb Town Clerk’s Office.
Northern New York Historic Newspapers Database various dates.