[Saturday, October 2nd marks the 50th anniversary of a drinking bout between members of two Knox fraternities which led to the death of three young men and a change in the college and town whose effects continue to this day.]
Part One: the Early Battles Against Demon Rum
When Galesburg was founded in 1837, it was an island of Yankees in a sea of Hoosiers. Much of the Military Tract to which Knox County belonged had been settled by immigrants from Kentucky and Indiana (or both, like Abraham Lincoln).
The missionary zealots of Knox College hoped to establish a college to produce teachers and preachers surrounded by a city as liquor-free as the college. But their Hoosier neighbors in Knoxville, the county seat, and Hendersonville were imbibers as well as gamblers and slavery supporters.
Both villages had taverns and groceries which sold corn whisky at the countys established price of two bits a pint. As Hoosiers moved to Galesburg, they turned to bootleggers to provide for their needs.
To keep their town "dry," Knox College trustees inserted clauses into contracts for the lots they sold to support the college which forbade the production or sale of intoxicating liquors on the property. This was rarely enforced, though.
Moreover, liquor was sold "for medicinal purposes" in the local drug stores and also served at the towns sole hotel. Still, legend has it that when Fink and Walkers stagecoaches arrived at Main Street and the Knoxville Road from Peoria, the driver halted to warn the passengers: "Better put away them cards and hide your flasks and keep from swearing if you kin; this is Galesburg, the pious teetotal abolition town."
William (Uncle Billy) Ferris was probably the best-known early settler to openly defy local custom. He grew grapes on his property across Cedar Fork from the cemetery and made port wine. Some of the local churches used it for communion, but mostly William and his friends drank it scandalous behavior!
The first train on the towns new railroad rolled into town in 1854 and the people who arrived on the line ever after brought worldly tastes and desires. The population climbed from 800 in 1846 to 4,000 in 1856, and the battle of booze was on. An important salvo was fired by the city founders. The first city charter in 1857 allowed for an election to determine whether such beverages could be totally forbidden or controlled by annual licensing as in the rest of the county. Prohibition won 462-104, and Galesburg was legally "dry" until 1872.
But drinking still flourished in the back rooms of social clubs and in saloons just outside the city limits. Gradually, the local view swung from prohibition to licensing. The city council did try to keep saloons off Main Street, but the saloons simply set up on side streets usually south of Main. Cherry, Prairie, Kellogg, Seminary and Simmons all had their grog shops and some still do.
And of course, there was Boones Alley whose major purpose seemed to be indulging the cravings for booze, whores and gambling. Just a couple minutes walk from City Hall, police headquarters and the jail, the Alley was flagrant evidence of the towns disagreement over vice.
So was the southeast corner of the Public Square. Saloons dominated it right across Broad Street from the founders church Central Congregational. For almost a century, the churchs members were confronted with the sight as they came out of worship services.
Of course, the saloons were closed; the citys Sunday Closing Law kept them shut on the Sabbath. A determined thirst might be quenched, however, by a short buggy ride to the Fourth Ward, where bills and bottles might be exchanged at the back door of an otherwise shuttered saloon.
The city police did their part by sweeping up the Saturday night drunks so people could attend downtown churches without seeing the human debris left over from the boozy bacchanal. They also made sure that the saloon windows were painted over or covered with opaque screens so a chance glance might not reveal the sinfulness within.
Throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, the saloon-keepers held sway. In 1914, however, women got the right to vote; and locally, they turned Galesburg "dry." But in 1925, the Chicago Tribune still named the city one of the four "wettest" cities in the state and this at the height of national Prohibition. Not even visits by evangelists like Gypsy Smith and Billy Sunday could close Boozeburg completely. And when Prohibition ended nationally in 1933, Galesburg went back to its hard-drinking ways with gusto.
In the early 40s, my family lived on N. Cherry St. near Main St. I went to Mary Allen West grade school named after one of Galesburgs most prominent temperance crusaders. Yet there was no way for me to get to school without passing a saloon. It was either down Cherry to Simmons or through the Square four times every school day. (I came home for lunch.) I can still remember the smell of old beer, cigarette smoke and sawdust that emanated from their dark interiors.
Until World War Two, drinking in saloons was largely an adult activity. But the war relaxed the rein on under-21 drinking; and this continued a problem right into the 1950s. It was particularly true of Knox students who drank openly at the Broadview, Boones Avenue, and supper clubs. If the police cracked down temporarily, the students could drive to county roadhouses or Peoria.
The combination of cars and booze was to prove fatal in the mid-50s.
TO BE CONTINUED