The Vagabond - History of the drinking water fountain on First & Broad streets in Gadsden

January 22, 2016 chris
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Have you ever wonder about the little marble water fountain on Broad Street near the Emma Sansom statue and in front of Gadsden City Hall? 

Recently on the Welcome to Gadsden Facebook page, a photo was shown of the old fountain and folks were asking about it. The Vagabond did research and found that the fountain had a very interesting history that included a movement that was a part of the history of the United States.

It all started back in many towns of Ohio and New York in the fall of 1873. Women who were concerned about the destructive power of alcohol met in churches to pray. They then marched to the saloons to ask the owners to close their establishments.

After listening to a lecture by Dr. Dio Lewis, initial groups were moved to a non-violent protest against the dangers of alcohol. Normally quiet housewives dropped to their knees in pray-ins in local saloons and demanded that the sale of liquor be stopped. In three months, the women had driven liquor out of 250 communities, and for the first time felt what could be accomplished by standing together.

The movement met with success but only temporary so, and by the next summer the women concluded that they must become organized nationally. This decision led to the founding of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the oldest continuing non-sectarian women’s organization in the world.

In the great temperance crusade of 1874, a national convention was called to meet in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 17 of that year, at which 16 states were represented and the NWCTU organization formed. By 1916, every state and territory in the nation was organized. 

Conditions of membership were signing the total abstinence pledge and paying annually into the treasury of the local union a sum of not less than 50 cents. Part of the money was retained for local work and a part was used for auxiliary offices, state, national and world needs. The total paid membership in the United States in 1919 was about a half million. The badge of the society is a bow of white ribbon.

At the 1874 organizing convention of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the members were urged to erect drinking fountains in their towns so that men could get a drink of water without entering saloons and staying for stronger drinks. The drinking fountains that were erected often offered a place for horses to drink, another for dogs, and of course, a place for humans to drink.

Like many women in small Southern communities, the women of Gadsden knew nothing of the existence of the W.C.T.U. In a local newspaper, Marietta Sibert (the mother of Gadsden’s William Sibert of the Panama Canal fame) contacted the National Un-ion, which sent national member Sally Chapin to affiliate the group with the N.W.C.T.U.  Marietta died in 1909 and never got to see the final results in this area.

In 1880, a number of citizens of Gadsden and Etowah County petitioned the legislature for local option for the county, which aroused an interest in the subject of temperance. In May of 1882, a small local union was organized with Mrs. L. C. Woodliff as president along with 14 charter members. In December of 1883, the women of Tuscaloosa organized a local union under the name of “Woman’s Home Union.”

In January of 1884, a state meeting was held in Tuscaloosa. Besides representatives of the unions from Selma, Gadsden, and Tuscaloosa, national officers Mrs. Sallie Chapin of Charleston, S.C. and Miss Henrietta Moore of Ohio, were present. The State Union was organized at that convention, with Mrs. L.C. Woodliff of Gadsden as the first president and Mrs. Charles Sibert, of Gadsden as secretary.

In October of 1884, Mrs. Woodliff attended the 11th National Convention of the W.C.T.U., which was held in St. Louis, Mo. In November of that year, the second annual Convention of the Alabama Union was held at Selma, to which Mrs. Woodliff brought great inspiration in her report of the proceedings of the national convention. The third annual state convention was held at Birmingham in November of 1885, at which time a Mrs. Bryce was president.

By November of 1907, Alabama Governor B.B. Comer called a special session on the relation of the railways to the state. An opportunity was seized to press statewide prohibition, and there was no difficulty in getting the two-thirds vote required.

One Alabama newspaper reported that “Alabama is soon to become one of the dry states. In 1908, the legislature enacted a state prohibitory law, to take effect January 1, 1909. Local option had previously driven the saloons out of fifty of the sixty-seven counties. At the last previous session of the legislature, laws were enacted giving county local option and preventing shipment of liquor from wet territory to dry.”

Another newspaper reported, “Our larger towns – Birmingham, Decatur, Gadsden, Huntsville and Dothan – under prohibition have greatly decreased their criminal record. We estimate that with a few years of prohibition, our penitentiaries will show a marked decrease in the number of their inmates.”

Even later another newspaper stated that, “Reports are uniform that there is less drunkenness and less crime. 

In many counties the jails are practically empty. In several cities the police force has been reduced. Many croons most pathetically, with strange intonation, Old Booze is dead.’

“The Chief of Police of Birmingham reports a decrease in crime and improvement in public order. The State Superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League estimates that general crime has been reduced more than 60 percent, and drunkenness 85 percent. The judge of the Criminal Court of Gadsden says [that] the influence that led to the passage of the law was good women and bad whisky.”

Prior to all this, we already found that Mrs. A.L. Woodliff was already president of the Alabama Women’s Christian Union, the first president of the organization in the state, and that the group in Gadsden was the second to be organized in the state.

Gadsden soon found out that a law not backed by public sentiment meant but little. It was at this time that that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union took root in the city, led by such women as Mrs. Woodliff, Mrs. Barrett and Mrs. Stevenson, who never knew defeat and never gave up the fight, even when it seemed that the cause was lost.

Mrs. Woodliff had known Carrie Nation as well as Dr. Anna Shaw. She found them inspiring, and her own belief and work were founded upon what she personally believed to be right, and this was true of Mrs. Barrett and Mrs. Stevenson, although Mrs. Stevenson was not an advocate of “votes for women.” She was just as firm against woman suffrage as she was against liquor, and simply could not see that by giving women the vote would change anything. This difference in opinion never affected her friendship for the other two ladies of our story, who went on talking to their friends on the subject of suffrage even as they worked for prohibition.

A 1914 editorial from a local publication was made: “Too much credit cannot be given the members of the Gadsden W.C.T.U. for the efficient work they have accomplished in making of Gadsden one of the cleanest and most moral cities in the state. Gadsden and Etowah County are held up as examples throughout the state…we are glad that the visiting members can see for themselves that this claim is not unfounded.”

In another article in the same paper, we read: “The members of the local organization today pointed Gadsden out as a model prohibition city and were given a practical illustration of what can be accomplished when men of honor are put into office to enforce the laws.” 

The work of these ladies caused all the saloons to close down in Gadsden, as well as the closure of the Spoon Motlow (Jack Daniel) Distillery Plant on Tuscaloosa Avenue. 

The article also reads: “Women have not stood solidly for those better things for which such women as Laura Barrett, Chester Woodliff and Florence Stevenson worked and prayed, but let us thank God for the work and the prayers, and the dream. Without them we should have lost the hope for better things, which still is ours, and the means to bring these things about which is in our hands, if we will only use it.”

So there you have it – the history of the little marble fountain in the front of Gadsden City Hall. The fountains erected by local WCTU chapters throughout the U.S. are still in existence, some still giving water. A number of them have been restored within the last few years. A few fountains remain in their original location but many others have been moved to parks or other public spaces.

It would be nice if our city fathers would repair our fountain and turn the water back on.