The Changing Climate of Oregon's Driest Town : Monmouth's Prohibition Ordinances, 1859-2001

Article excerpt

MORE THAN A DOZEN WOMEN, MANY WEARING long, dark skirts, white blouses, and fashionable Victorian hats, walked single-file through Monmouth City Park on a summer afternoon, carrying signs that pleaded "Please Protect Us by Voting against the Sale of Liquors." The women, members of the Temperance Singers, paraded onto a stage in the center of the park and sang political songs such as "Marching through Rumland" and "Hurray for Prohibition." What may appear to be a scene from nineteenth-century Oregon is actually from August 1994, when the Temperance Singers joined Monmouth -- Oregon's only dry town -- to celebrate a century of prohibition at the town's first Purely Victorian Tea Festival.

Monmouth has been legally dry -- that is, the sale of alcohol is prohibited within the city limits -- for most of its history, and prohibition is the town's most deeply rooted social issue. Initiated by people who wanted to shelter their families in a Christian community, the issue gained support in the 1880s as residents anxiously reacted to changes -- such as industrialization, the growth of the liquor industry, and the increasing power of state and federal governments -- that were taking place in Oregon and across the nation. Monmouth citizens have voted at least twice in favor of the statewide prohibition of alcohol and five times in support of local prohibition, most recently in 1976.[1] In each case, changing combinations of moral, economic, historical, and quality-of-life arguments have been used to justify their position.

Prohibition in Monmouth can be traced to what was perceived as the alcohol-based culture of the United States in the early 1800s and the social and religious organizations that sought reform. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, every American over the age of fourteen consumed an average of six to ten gallons of alcohol annually, about three times today's consumption. Entire families drank beer at home with their meals or in taverns with neighbors, seeking to relieve physical and emotional tensions. Temperance movements that emerged in the 1820s, however, convinced many Americans that drinking and public drunkenness caused social problems such as poverty and crime and were incompatible with the conduct necessary to create a great nation. Protestant churches and members of the expanding middle class led these new temperance groups. Temperance advocates argued that temperance was necessary to protect the new freedoms of their country and to create people who would responsibly lead it.[2] Influenced by temperance reformers, towns, cities, counties, states, and territories began to adopt laws and ordinances to regulate alcohol consumption and sales. In 1847, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the right to ban liquor sales, and thirteen states adopted prohibition laws between 1851 and 1855.[3]

AMONG THE MANY TOWNS THAT CHOSE TO REGULATE alcohol was Monmouth, Illinois, at least in part influenced by members of the Christian Church, more commonly known today as the Disciples of Christ denomination, who had settled there. The Disciples' philosophy focused on Christian unity and the restoration of a fundamental or primitive Christianity. In other words, they believed in individual responsibility -- the notion that individuals could bring about a Christian world through simple acts, such as abstaining from alcohol. Abstaining from unnecessary activities such as drinking and dancing would allow people to focus their efforts on improving culture through Christian unity and education.[4]

In 1831, Elijah Davidson and his family moved from Kentucky to Illinois and set up a home and business in Monmouth. That year the Davidsons became charter members of the Christian Church in Cameron, the township adjacent to Monmouth. In 1839, when another church was organized in Monmouth, Elijah donated land for the building and was elected the church's first clerk. A supporter of prohibition, Davidson was a trustee on the town council in 1836 when it approved its first ordinance forbidding unlicensed tippling houses and groceries, being drunk or intoxicated, or keeping tippling houses open on Sunday. …