Ken Telfer’s seminar at the St. Marys Museum on the history of hotels and taverns has stirred a great deal of interest. But, as Ken acknowledges at the end of his presentation, there was a dark side. True, some of these licensed establishments served worthy purposes, providing accommodation and nourishment to travellers and convivial society for locals. Others were just drinking holes. Tales of drunken antics and violent behaviour may be amusing from a distance but these exploits sometimes had grave consequences for families and for the community as a whole.
Even as pubs and taverns flourished in St. Marys, they faced opposition. The first tavern in St. Marys was operating by 1844 but two years earlier, the Sons of Temperance had been formed in New York City. Within a few years it had branches throughout Canada. By 1859 there was a group in St. Marys and soon after in nearby communities such as Avonbank. The Sons of Temperance was a fraternal lodge that required an initiation fee and weekly dues and that offered assistance to members in times of need. But its main emphasis was temperance — which really meant abstinence from all alcoholic beverages. All members signed pledges to abstain.
There are many temperance organizations listed in the card index at the St. Marys Museum: Good Templars, Gospel Temperance Club, Loyal Legion of Temperance are some examples. Perhaps the longest lasting and most persuasive was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. First mentioned in local newspapers in 1878, it was still active well within the memory of many of today’s Journal Argus readers.
Temperance was a political as well as social movement. In 1878, the Scott Act, a piece of federal legislation, gave municipal jurisdictions the power to enforce prohibition. Senior governments were at first reluctant to impose complete prohibition but the Ontario Temperance Act was passed in 1916 and, in 1918, prohibition was enacted federally as a war measure. Through the 1920s, restrictions were gradually relaxed although liquor sales and licensing of venues that served alcoholic beverages were tightly controlled by provincial governments — becoming a significant source of revenue.
Today it is easy to make fun of the temperance advocates and their moral stand. But many members of these societies sincerely believed that excessive drinking was a root cause of poverty and held back national progress. As the accompanying poster from the St. Marys Museum’s archives suggests, religion, “family values” and temperance were seen to go hand in hand.
Canada’s famous humourist, Stephen Leacock, did not agree. He considered prohibition intolerable over-regulation leading to criminal activity and to ridiculous hypocrisy. During prohibition, alcohol could still be obtained from druggists for “medicinal purposes.” In 1922, he wrote: “It is necessary to go into a drugstore … lean up against the counter and make a gurgling sound like apoplexy.
“One often sees these apoplexy cases lined up four deep.”