Westerville Played Key Role In Prohibition

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Once the national headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League, the building is now part of the Westerville Public Library(Photo: Sam Hendren / WOSU)
Once the national headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League, the building is now part of the Westerville Public Library(Photo: Sam Hendren / WOSU)

Ohio and the city of Westerville played prominent roles in the constitutional ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol.  The city was the home of the powerful Anti-Saloon League which led the fight for the 18th Amendment.  WOSU’s Sam Hendren has the story of the Central Ohio community once known as “The Dry Capital of the World.”

 

For most of its history Westerville has been linked with alcohol – the banning of it. Since its founding more than 150 years ago, the city has been mostly dry.  Beth Weinhardt is the local historian for the Westerville Public Library.

 

“Westerville felt so strongly about this cause, in 1858 when they incorporated, one of the first things they did was to say you couldn’t sell, trade or barter alcohol in Westerville.  So right from the beginning there was a strong dry tradition here,” Weinhardt says.

 

The tradition was so strong that in the mid-to-late 1870s what’s known as the Westerville Whiskey Wars occurred.  A series of dynamite blasts that began in 1875 destroyed two saloons operated by a man named Henry Corbin.  Photographs of the bombed-out buildings are contained in the library archives.

 

“The bricks that made up the building fell to the ground, the roof was on the ground and Henry Corbin was only able to sell alcohol out of one back storeroom which still stood,” Weinhardt says.  “The 1879 explosion; that building has the windows blown out, the doors blown away, the building is leaning and was subsequently torn down.”

 

Westerville’s “dry” reputation was widely known; so much so that the Anti-Saloon League chose the town for its national headquarters in the early 1900s.  The League was a younger organization than the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union or the Prohibition Party.  But when it hit town it began work with ferocity…

 

“They came in 1909.  They cranked up the presses.  They were printing and shipping from here at peak times, 40 tons of anti-alcohol information a month.  It made Westerville the smallest community in the United States to have a first class post office, and put us on the map; we became known as the “Dry Capital of the World” because of the volume of mail that left here,” Weinhardt says.

 

The league’s printed material was sophisticated for the early 1900s.  They used graphs, statistics and bar charts to sell their ideas.  One quotation says “Drink cuts into support of the family.” Another warned that death rates from pneumonia increased with what the league called ‘Alcoholic habits.’  But the organization did not attack the drinker; it focused on eliminating the source.

 

“The group of people who made up this movement believed that if they got rid of the saloon it would solve every problem in society.  They felt that the saloon was the corruptor of youth, it led to disease, crime, dysfunctional families, poverty. So if they eliminated that institution from society, they would cure all of those ills,” Weinhardt says.

 

The Anti-Saloon League’s massive lobbying efforts finally achieved the desired goal. A majority of states ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution; ushering in prohibition.  The event was celebrated in the League’s newspaper The American Issue, a copy of which hangs on the wall at the library.

 

“It’s right over here and it’s pretty spectacular, Weinhardt says. ” It’s dated January 25th 1919.  Has a picture of Uncle Sam on a camel and it says at the top, “His new mount,” and he’s waving his hat in the air saying ‘Top of the world to you.’  They were pretty excited needless to say and they were on the top of the world at that point. It’s not many groups that manage to get a constitutional amendment passed. 

 

But Prohibition met with growing unpopularity especially in large urban areas.  While police conducted raids on speakeasies and moonshiners, people still found ways to drink.  Finally Prohibition proved to be so unpopular that it was repealed by the 21st amendment just 13 years later.

 

But in Westerville, prohibition continued.  Soon after the repeal the city voted itself dry.  And the ban on the sale of alcohol remained in place for nearly 70 years. Craig Treneff is a Westerville city council member.

 

“Westerville being the home of the Anti-Saloon League and really the home of the 18th Amendment, there was for a long time popular opposition to alcohol being served within the city limits.  Population changed over time and attitudes changed over time,” Treneff says.

 

So in 2004 bar and restaurant owners asked voters to lift the ban on alcohol sales for their specific properties. The voters said yes.  Now a few spots serve alcohol.  One of them is Jimmy V’s Grill and Pub in the heart of Westerville; only two blocks up the street from the old Anti-Saloon League headquarters.

 

“Welcome to Jimmy V’s.”

 

Mario Nedelkoski is the restaurant’s owner/operator…

 

“We just want our customers to be able to get a good sandwich or a nice steak and have a glass of wine or just watch a baseball game or a football game,” Nedelkoski says. “What’s more American than watching baseball, having a cold beer?  You know that’s American and here’s where we live – we live in the middle of America or in the Midwest, and I think everyone should have the right to have a beer or not have a beer.” 

 

You wonder what the Anti Saloon League would have to say about that.

 

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