“Why let the Wets bluff you? Be informed!”

One of my favorite movie scenes is from On Moonlight Bay, when 11-year-old Wesley Winfield watches a silent movie about the Evils of Drink, uses the plot as an excuse for falling asleep in class the next morning, and then cleverly escapes the consequences of the tall tale that he told his teacher.

The 1951 Doris Day musical and its sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, are based on Penrod, Booth Tarkington’s 1914 collection of stories about an 11-year-old boy growing up in the pre-World War I Midwest. I had a whole new appreciation for that scene, inspired by chapters 7 through 11 of Penrod, after recent visits to the Westerville History Center and Museum at the Westerville Public Library, Temperance Row Brewery and the Temperance Row Historic District.

Prohibiting the sale of alcohol in 1858 led Westerville to develop a reputation as a dry village following the Temperance Movement. That reputation became famous in the 1870s, when Henry Corbin attempted to open two saloons, both of which were destroyed by fellow Westerville residents who opposed his intentions. The New York Times and other newspapers reported on the incidents, calling them the “Westerville Whiskey Wars.” The Anti-Saloon League (ASL), a temperance organization formed to create and maintain anti-alcohol sentiments and legislation, liked what it heard about this wholesome small town located just a half-hour’s train ride from Ohio’s capital city and decided to make Westerville its headquarters. True to its motto, the ASL came to Westerville in 1908 “to solve the liquor problem” and its accompanying evils, caused by declining morals and increased industrialization, urbanization and immigration. It believed that a strong moral society was possible only if a Constitutional amendment was passed to prohibit the evils of drink.

Fulfilling this big assignment was no small task. Many ASL supporters were ordained Protestant ministers, using pulpits to share the messages of and solicit financial support for their grassroots effort. Howard Hyde Russell, who founded the Ohio ASL in 1893 in Oberlin, even enlisted support from Columbus religious leaders like Catholic Bishop John Watterson and Washington Gladden of First Congregational Church.

Russell and other ASL leaders like Rev. Purley A. Baker moved to Westerville, purchasing 11 acres of farmland and building 27 Craftsman-style homes for ASL staff on a few streets just south of Otterbein University. The residential district designed to help establish higher American ideals of architecture and home life soon became known as “Temperance Row.”

Baker called his home at 131 W. Park St., at the corner of S. Grove St., “Greendale,” referring to it as “the last stop this side of heaven.” It also featured a greenhouse, from which he sold tomato and cabbage plants, and a milk house, from which he ran a dairy delivery service. Before he died in 1924, Baker donated his home to the ASL to use as an editorial office and a community library that would eventually become the Westerville Public Library. It was sold in 1935 and was owned privately until 1947, when it became the home of Otterbein’s president. It is used today as Otterbein’s Office of Alumni Relations.

Russell’s home, 79 S. Grove St., was later the home of Ernest Cherrington, an Ohio Wesleyan University graduate and journalist who believed that education would solve the alcohol problem. Today it is Otterbein’s Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house.

From its national headquarters at 110 S. State St., the ASL promoted the evils of liquor through its publishing company, The American Issue. It printed over 40 tons of anti-alcohol literature every month; in fact, it sent out so much mail that Westerville became the smallest town in the country with a first-class post office.

Under Cherrington’s editorial direction, The American Issue produced a slew of persuasive promotional literature using techniques suggested in How to Write Advertisements That Sell, a 1912 book it owned. “Liberal white space about a headline prevents anything else from competing with it,” it says. “Use clear face type, rather than a letter which is hard to read. A picture is probably the best attention-getter.”

Posters, pamphlets, fliers, advertisements, songs, poems, cartoons and children’s stories all appealed to readers’ morals. A magazine, newspaper, yearbooks, and its six-volume Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem shared facts and statistics from economic and scientific studies to demonstrate that people would lead better lives without alcohol.  “Why let the Wets bluff you? Be informed!,” urges its Prohibition Quiz Book: Vexing Questions about Prohibition Asked and Answered.

All this made the ASL a significant player in the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibited the manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages, although it was legal to sell alcohol for medicinal purposes. Westerville, the “Dry Capitol of the World,” became the seat of this national issue that led to organized crime, the rise of jazz music, and greater societal involvement for women, who helped the adoption of Prohibition in 1920 through establishing groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Several factors led Prohibition to be repealed, including the government’s inability to enforce the law and the impact of the Great Depression on the economy, After the 21st Amendment was passed in 1933, allowing Americans to legally buy alcohol once more, financial support for the ASL dwindled. It changed its name in 1934 to the Temperance Education Foundation, devoting itself to education, research and data collection on the problems of alcohol.

The foundation gave its headquarters building to the Westerville Public Library in 1973, including over 200,000 books related to temperance, making it the largest collection of anti-alcohol literature in the world. Today, the building houses the Anti-Saloon League Museum, the Westerville Local History Center and the John R. Kasich Congressional Papers. Its Prohibition! Expectation vs. Reality exhibit explores the ASL’s role in the passage of the 18th amendment, 100 years later, and is on view now through 2020.

In 1999, state law changed to allow Westerville residents to vote individual businesses in their precincts “wet” or “dry.” On January 12, 2006, the first beer since 1933 was served in Uptown Westerville. Now, “wet” Westerville is home to Temperance Row Brewery. Earlier this year, the Westerville Visitors & Convention Bureau started using a new slogan: “Anything But Dry!” In front of Westerville’s administration building, a statue depicts a broken whiskey barrel on a metal wedge, with water trickling down over it. One side displays newspaper headlines announcing the onset of Prohibition; the other side marks its repeal.

Purley Baker and his wife, Lillie, are buried in Otterbein Cemetery, a block south of their home. Their custom-built cobblestone mausoleum, inscribed with “He that soweth righteousness hath a sure reward” (Proverbs 11:18), is easy to find.

Temperance Row Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. To recreate my visit there, download the registration form here.

This entry was posted in Columbus, History, Libraries, Museums, Ohio. Bookmark the permalink.

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