Failure of Prohibition followed supporters’ hard-fought success

Nettie Chipp was W.C.T.U. president in 1916 when photographed in her Boise office.
Nettie Chipp was W.C.T.U. president in 1916 when photographed in her Boise office. Provided by Arthur Hart

When the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect at midnight on Jan. 16, 1920, millions of Americans who had worked long and hard to bring Prohibition of alcoholic beverages into effect were pleased and grateful.

Few, however, were as optimistic as famous minister and former baseball player Billy Sunday when he preached a sermon to a large audience predicting how Prohibition would change America: “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” He could hardly have been more wrong about what the country would be like under Prohibition — a lawless era that came to be known as the “Roaring Twenties.”

A leader among the organizations that had worked for Prohibition was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.), founded in Cleveland in November 1874. In Idaho, the organization’s third annual convention was held in Boise City from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, 1889. Its large ad in the Idaho Statesman read, “The convention will be held at the M.E. Church. All Delegates are expected to be in Boise City by the 29th of August. Every local Union is entitled to four Delegates, and one additional for every twenty members. Delegates will be entertained by the Ladies of Boise City.”

Half-fare tickets on the railroad had been obtained, valid when accompanied by a certificate of membership from the W.C.T.U.’s corresponding secretary.

Other temperance organizations were invited to attend the convention, specifically: “Good Templars, Blue Ribbon Clubs, and all others who love the cause of Christ. DEAR SISTERS: Let us come together with a prayerful spirit; with a burning love in our hearts to save our land and the Lord will bless us.” (This writer recalls that both of his Methodist grandmothers in Tacoma, Wash., were active members of the W.C.T.U. in the 1920s.)

In 1894 Boise had a Prohibition Club, with a membership that included many of the city’s Protestant clergymen: J.D. Wilson, F.W. Walden, R.B. Wright, and H.A. Lee. At a meeting held Feb. 19, 1894, this resolution was passed unanimously: “This meeting extends its sympathies to our worthy chief of police and his first subordinate in their endeavor to maintain order against the violence of the liquor men and promise them our most hearty support in all their efforts in behalf of law and order and public decency.”

The Rev. R.B. Wright and his family had arrived in Boise from Denver on June 3, 1893, after which he assumed leadership of the city’s small Congregational Society. (Many years later when Wright Community Congregational Church was founded, it was named in his honor.)

On Aug. 11, 1893, Boise’s Baptist community held a “gospel temperance meeting.” The announcement in the Statesman read, “Everyone is cordially invited. The friends of the temperance cause are especially requested to be present. There will be a good program of earnest, able addresses and singing.”

Boise’s Methodists, staunch advocates of temperance and Prohibition, were no doubt disgusted to read in the Statesman on Aug. 17, 1893, that at their denomination’s annual conference at Hailey, “H. Sadler has been expelled from the Methodist Church for drunkenness and visiting houses of ill fame.” Sadler had been minister of the Hailey church for the past year. His defense might have been (but surely wasn’t) that he had only visited those dens of iniquity to turn those poor, misguided young women away from lives of sin.

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