Idaho History: Temperance movement drew many converts in Idaho

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANApril 27, 2014 

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Nettie Chipp was president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1916 when Idaho adopted Prohibition.

PROVIDED BY ARTHUR HART

The Independent Order of Good Templars, whose 1870 meeting hall we featured last week, was only one of the temperance organizations active in Idaho over the years.

Attorney Jonas W. Brown, of Idaho City, was a frequent lecturer in Boise in 1871, where he delivered a series titled "The Social Evils of Intemperance." In 1872, Mrs. Carrie F. Young of Silver City, who also had a reputation as an effective speaker on temperance, was invited to come to Boise to address local audiences on the evils of drink.

Undoubtedly the most dramatic convert to the temperance movement in the 1870s was famous U.S. Deputy Marshal Orlando "Rube" Robbins, whose seat of operations was in Boise. Although we find no evidence that Robbins ever had a drinking problem (as Brown apparently did), as a lawman he had certainly been involved in many cases where liquor was responsible for shootings, stabbings and destruction of property.

Even before the Idaho Statesman reported on Feb. 6, 1873, that the marshal had "experienced religion," he had formed his own "Robbins Encampment, Independent Champions of the Red Cross" and had been elected eminent counselor.

On Sunday, Feb. 8, 1873, Robbins was baptized by immersion in the Boise River before a large crowd. In March he was chosen president of the Methodist Sunday School, and when Robbins Encampment of the I.C.R.C. met that same month, there were 115 members present. The Statesman hailed it as "the most flourishing temperance organization ever had in this city." Of the more than 600 members east of the Cascade Mountains, Robbins' group was easily the largest.

That Rube Robbins continued his dedication to the temperance cause is shown by the fact that he allowed the Ensor Institute for curing alcoholism to move into his own home at 520 Idaho St. in November 1892. The first patient admitted for treatment was one "Pancake Bill" Nelson, who died two days later of what the paper described as a "fit" brought on by delirium tremens.

In the fall of 1873, church women in Ohio and New York began the formation of what would become the largest organization of its kind in the world - the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. They organized because of their concern over the destructive power of alcohol as it effected society in general, but especially of what it did to families.

Despite its success in attracting Christian women from Protestant denominations to work for a noble cause, the WCTU was not open to everyone. Catholic and Jewish women were excluded because of their faiths' long traditions of the use of alcohol in religious rituals and tolerance toward alcohol when used in moderation. Black women, excluded at first, were later admitted to membership.

The political goal toward which all of Idaho's temperance groups worked was Prohibition, making the production, sale or use of alcohol in any form illegal. When Idaho became a "dry" state in 1916, one WCTU member hailed it with this poem:

"The drink curse has been doomed at last, Idaho my Idaho,

And Satan's ranks are falling fast, Idaho my Idaho.

Thy people brave have met the foe,

The Cause is theirs they fully know,

And now they say saloons must go, Idaho my Idaho."

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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