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Dayton's First "Wet and Dry" Campaign

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 3, 1931


Dayton’s First “Wet and Dry” Campaign

By Howard Burba


     That old John Barleycorn had his trials and tribulations, his ups and his downs, long before anyone suggested tacking an Eighteenth amendment to the federal constitution is a matter of record.  One has only to thumb the faded files of Dayton newspapers of 57 years ago to learn just how rudely he was jolted.

     The modern racketeer had not then come upon the scene.  No bootlegger hied forth to call upon his customers, with his brief-case for a blind and a superpowered roadster parked against a downtown curb.  No hijacker was lurking along the highway to shake down those who made it a business of shaking down someone else.  Jamaica ginger was used for flavoring cakes and bay rum was applied to the head instead of the stomach.

     Fifty-seven years have brought a lot of changes and a vast number of innovations.  But it doesn’t follow that a “wet and dry” campaign is among them.  Compared in enthusiasm and spectacular methods, the “wet and dry” campaign of the present day is like comparing a spring zephyr with a Kansas cyclone, with the cyclone end of it reaching away back into the ‘70’s.

     To start at the beginning it is necessary to go back to the year 1873, and to the little town of Hillsboro, down in Highland co.  It was there that the most remarkable movement against intemperance in the history of the world originated, and it was out of this same movement and only a few months later that Dayton’s first “wet and dry” campaign sprung.  Unique in its methods, widespread in its results, and generally accepted as a failure in its purpose, that crusade inaugurated by a little hand of Hillsboro women still holds the distinction of being the most spectacular exhibition of its kind ever staged in American history.

     That we may have a better picture of what actually happened in Dayton hard on the heels of this initial crusade in Hillsboro, let us turn back the pages of Ohio history and get a picture of these hectic scenes in Hillsboro in 1873. In this way we can better appreciate the spirit that inspired the local outburst a few months later.

     The crusade down there had its origin in an address delivered in the town hall by one Dr. Dio Lewis, a resident of New York State.  He charged intemperance and the open saloon with a major portion of human woes than existent, and he called upon his hearers to rise in their might and smite it hip and thigh.

     That the seed sown by the eastern orator fell upon fertile ground was quickly apparent, for on the following evening a number of women gathered at one of the village churches and organized a campaign against intemperance.  Primarily it was to be a local affair.  They did not foresee in it a crusade that would encompass the entire middle west and out of which would grow the organization of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the power that actually brought about, after a 40-year campaign, the enactment of the Eighteenth amendment.

     Their plan of operation was to go in a body to the liquor dealers, appeal to their better nature to cease the traffic that was carrying sorrow and degradation into many homes, and to proffer them every possible aid in establishing themselves in some other form of business.  They were successful in Hillsboro.  The sale of liquor was stopped in that village.

     Heartened by reports of the Hillsboro crusade, Mrs. Elizabeth Stewart, in later years affectionately referred to nationally as “Mother” Stewart, carried the plan of operation to Springfield, inaugurated a similar campaign there, with the result that scores of saloonists closed their doors.  At the same time she called a meeting of temperance workers at the First Lutheran church in Springfield and there and then organized the first unit of the W.C.T.U.

     This was a couple of months following the Hillsboro crusade, the date bringing us into 1874.  Dayton was at the moment engaged in a red-hot municipal campaign and, as the temperance crusade spread in interest and enthusiasm candidates for local offices soon found themselves engulfed in a hectic “wet and dry” campaign.  Political forces were not long in aligning themselves.  The Democratic ticket became recognized as one in sympathy with the liquor traffic, as it was then being carried on under legalized regulations.  The Republicans went on record as favoring either the complete abolition of the open saloon or regulations more radical than had ever been attempted up to that time.  Lawrence Butz, jr., was the Democratic candidate for mayor.  He was opposed by David A. Houk.

     By the middle of March the crusade in Dayton was on in earnest, every day finding more and more “praying bands” of women on the downtown streets.  The novelty of such procedure served to attract curious crowds into every square in which the little bands paused to pray and as their visits to the saloons and barrel-houses about the city became more frequent, the crowd swelled in numbers.  Quite often the onlookers, divided in their sentiments regarding the principles for which the “praying bands” were contending, resorted to more drastic means than a mere war of words to settle their arguments.  Fist fights were of everyday occurrence, and black eyes were no longer a novelty.

     Referring to the records we find six of the “praying bands” on the streets of Dayton on the afternoon of March 26, 1874.  The number of workers engaged at any one time did not exceed 150, but the reserve force, composed of women pledged to join the bands in their street work for at least two days in the week, was several times that number.  A brief extract from an old file on the date here mentioned offers a picture of what was gong on:

     “Yesterday Market st. was invaded by the ‘praying bands’ for the first time.  The bands shrank from a visit to that quarter, and it was in consequence spared until this late day.  The attack on this notorious street was regarded as a sort of forlorn hope, and it was at was assigned to the veteran, Mrs. Shafer, with her band.  They started on the south side, going from one end to the other.  Great crowds followed them all day; crowds of rough-looking men, but respectful.  On all the street but one saloonist invited them in.  He expressed himself as dissatisfied with his business and said he expected to retire as soon as possible, but he didn’t want the impression to prevail that he was prayed out.

     “Thirteen saloons were visited by others bands during the day.  At one place the men came near the door and some of them joined in the singing.  There were a number of Jews in the room, and one woman read the 55th chapter of Isaiah to them.  While this was going on they were attentive.

     “In front of one saloon water had been thrown on the sidewalk to prevent the band from kneeling, and when some of them got near the door to get in a dry place the proprietor thrust them away rudely.  They found young women about 18 years old more disagreeable than any others.  They stood around and giggled and laughed during the praying.

     “A band led by Mrs. Dr. Sample visited 11 saloons.  One man signed the pledge to quit business.  While they were praying on the sidewalks at one place the proprietor of an adjoining establishment, which they didn’t know was in existence, came out and invited them in.  He said he would go out of business if they would find him something else to do.  The band led by Mrs. Kiefaber holds the record for breaking more bottles than any other band.

     “While one band was in front of John Fisher’s saloon on Jefferson st., one of the ladies saw her brother go into the saloon.  She turned to her sisters and said, ‘Now let me pray!’  The request was, of course, granted, and no such prayer had been heard as that delivered by this lady for her brother.

     “The first night work was done last night when a praying band met at the Metropolitan billiard hall, kept by William Martin.  They found John Arras in charge.  He admitted them, and service was started by singing and praying.  The young men ceased playing pool and listened.  Then the women went on to Brown’s billiard hall on third st.  The proprietor met them at the door and refused them admission.  He said they could run his place in daytime, but he wanted the night to himself.

     “Being repulsed here they went to the saloon at No. 10 S. Main st., kept by Ritty & Dodd.  They were admitted and services were held in the barroom.  Quite a crowd collected in front of the place, but all were respectful.  From No. 10 they went to the Phillips House bar and found Billy Martin, the proprietor in charge.  He extended them a courteous reception. When the services commenced the lady guests of the hotel came down into the bar.  Men and boys gathered near the door.

     A laughable incident occurred just after they left.  A number of gentlemen who believed the governor of North Carolina was right when he said it was a long time between drinks, went up to the bar and had their glasses filled, when a mischievous wag cried out; ‘Here they come back again!’  There was a scramble for the back door and a half-dozen untasted glasses were left on the bar.

     “Mrs. J. Harry Thomas’ band got William Ross, who keeps a bar at the Mechanics’ hotel, to sign an agreement to quit in 30 days.  After signing up he seemed to feel so good about it that he immediately rolled his stock of beer and liquor into the street and poured it into the gutter.

     “The bar at the Phoenix House, Sixth and Main, kept by Joseph Keller, closed its doors the same day.  At Sanders’ on Third st., between St. Clair and Jefferson, and at Wagner’s on S. Main st. the praying bands were refused admission.

     “The saloons in North Dayton, or ‘Texas,’ were visited yesterday.  At one place the women were removed from the door long enough to permit a man to carry in a keg of beer.

     “The saloon known as ‘Between Acts,’ kept by Daniel Wise, in the Music Hall, a favorite resort of theatergoers, was visited.  It was about 8:30 when a half a dozen women entered the place.  They held a half-hour service and thanked the proprietor for allowing them to remain.  He said they had taken him by surprise, so he proceeded this morning to place pickets about his doors.”

     And so it went on, with saloons closing reluctantly—and most of them only temporarily—and with such excitement as the old town had never known.  The favorite outdoor sport of the moment was bolting an early supper and joining the downtown throngs to follow up and watch the crusaders at their work.  With the arrival of April, 304 saloons remained in Dayton, manned by an ownership that had by this time become thoroughly exasperated.  At that time the editor of a local paper offered this editorial comment:

     “But few believe the crusaders will very soon affect the closing of any considerable number of barrooms, and it is quite likely if the ticket supported by the liquor dealers succeeds at the election the crusade will be checked immediately after April 6.  At Cincinnati the movement has become so boisterous officials have had to clear the streets.  At Cleveland ruffians assailed the praying bands and officials took a hand to prevent open riots.  There are great street displays in Columbus, with bells constantly tolling.  At Springfield the crusade has been going on for two months and the liquor traffic has been greatly reduced, but not one-half of the saloons closed. Xenia reports 100 convictions for violating the law within one week.  At Pomeroy 211 indictments have been returned.  At Youngstown, Akron and Wooster the crusaders predict complete success.  Even the hard town of Lima has enacted a prohibition ordinance.”

     The crusade had not halted at the corporation lines of Dayton.  It spread on out into the county and Miamisburg was treated to scenes fully as colorful and exciting as those witnessed in Dayton.  At Brookville the praying hands ‘worked on’ Riley’s and Heidinger’s hotels.  At the latter place the leader in departing said: “We’ll now leave you in the hands of God.”  One of the habitues of the place replied, “Good for you, old lady; you’re leaving us in mighty good hands!”

     Commenting on the enthusiasm being shown in the smaller towns of the county, our early editorial friend said:

     “In the small towns everybody knows everybody else’s business, and those who engage in the crusade must have ‘clean hands,’ so to speak.  If there are any family reminiscences of an unpleasant sort attaching to anybodys’ skirts they are sure to be brought up in the most provoking manner at the wrong time.  In some instances the recital of family affairs have driven some crusaders from the field.  There is much more bitterness evinced toward the crusaders in the villages than in the cities, but the crusaders, knowing the weak points of the saloonists, bring them to terms quicker than do their sisters in the cities.”

     The first official complaint against the praying bands was filed by one T. K.Kitz, a wholesale liquor dealer on Jefferson st. He complained that the crusaders were centering on him and interfering with his business.  That objection was removed when the bands shifted their operations to take in the “barrel-houses” operated by H. C. Graves & Brother, on S. Jefferson, and McKee, Weakley & Co. on Main st.  Crusaders were not only barred from these places, but threatened if they attempted to enter.  The Beckel House was signalled out for special attention, as many as three praying bands being engaged in holding services in and about it at one time.

     Election day was drawing near.  There was but one issue, and that was “wet or dry.”  Never before had there been a campaign for municipal offices attended by such bitterness and out-spoken partisanship; never before had there been one marked by as many street fights, and frantic argumentations.  Dayton was seething like a cauldron on the afternoon a local sheet came out with this item:


     “That is a question which no reporter in Dayton has yet gathered enough information about to answer.  The members of the praying league are even more determined now than they were at the outset, and there is no information from them that they will abandon the content.  New recruits are being daily enlisted in their ranks, and feeble women who have been engaged in the work say that their health is improving.

     “It seems, however, to be considered certain that the result of the election Monday will end the praying crusade.  The experience of one of the praying bands on Third st. yesterday tends to confirm the impression that the campaign against the saloon is closed.”

     The day of the election rolled around.  Downtown streets were swarming with excited citizens, and while the praying bands kept up their activities to the very hour the polls closed, so did the saloonists.  It was a poor sort of citizen who couldn’t get a free drink or a prayer—or both—on that memorable 6th of April, 1874.  But with it all Dayton kept her head.  There was no violence.  It was in truth a war of ballots and upon that weapon alone both sides depended.

     It did not take long to count the vote on those days, for the Australian ballet system and a string of local and county tax amendments as long as Rip Van Winkle’s dream had not complicated tabulations.

     Then came the announcement that the Democratic party had triumphed from the top of the ticket to its tail.  Every man on that ticket save a single candidate for constable had been elected.  Butz received a majority of 403 over Houk.

     The next day the police board issued orders to the police of the city to prevent” the use and occupancy of the streets and sidewalks of Dayton” for public assemblage.

     The praying bands dissolved.  The wet and dry campaign of 1874 was at an end.  But their hopes and ambitions were not crushed.  They transferred their enthusiasm to the new organization that had been born of the crusade—the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  And the story of what happened 40 years later is not a part of this one.