Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Rome.
Rome is a little crossroads village in northern Richland County that has its own unique character. Sadly, through the years its character has been undervalued by those who sought to make account of it.
When at its peak of vitality in the 1870s, the county historian wrote barely more than a paragraph about the little community, and characterized it as “sleepy.”
There was a time however, when little Rome had a short but lively brush with significance.
It was in 1873 when eight men from Rome famously stopped drinking. They entered history as a powerful temperance society known as the Clear Grits.
To be singled out as a noteworthy band of non-drinkers in the 1870s was no small accomplishment. That was the chief era in American history known for folks climbing on the wagon.
It was the 1870s that provided the initial jumpstart to the momentum which led eventually—fifty years later—to the 18th Amendment abolishing alcohol in the US.
Prohibition in the 1920s can be traced directly back to temperance roots in 1873. Yet before the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, before the Anti-Saloon League, before any of the nationally recognized temperance movements: there were the Clear Grits of Rome.
What made this particular tea-totaling society so unique at the time was a small fact that is often overlooked: most of the temperance organizations were founded, organized, and powered by women.
The Clear Grits began with eight men.
And most temperance societies came about from wives who were taking action against their inebriate and degraded husbands by marching from the church and closing down saloons.
The Clear Grits were eight men who joined together for the first time when they were wholly drunk; and they set out together on their journey of reclamation from no less sacred a shrine than the town saloon in downtown Rome.
This historic site was called Loxley’s tavern.
Downtown Rome had a hotel in those days, and this lodging also had a well known ballroom where people from the cities came to dance. It was in this hotel where Loxley Devore kept his tavern.
One night Nelson Ozier, who was the village postmaster, was slamming shots at Loxley’s with his cronies, when he suddenly and unaccountably had a shattering moment of revelation.
He could see how much of his life he was missing by spending so much of his time pursuing intoxication.
He was so moved by this unexpected insight that he immediately shared it with his pals.
The eight of them, there on the spot, decided as one that they would swear off all alcohol for one year.
“For a young man to refuse to take a drink when asked to do so was evidence of clear grit,” he later wrote, “and hence the society derived its name from the principle it sought to cultivate.”
In evidence of their Clear Grit, the eight men thereupon formed a pact and established a plan.
How It Worked
The Clear Grits met once a week—on Saturday nights—at the town hall.
They signed a book. They made inspirational speeches. They encouraged one another. Reading their story, it is remarkable how much like a proto-Alcoholics Anonymous their undertaking was 60 years before the beginning of AA.
Within a month there were a couple more Romans who signed their book and so, encouraged by this small momentum, the Clear Grits had pledge cards printed to pass out at public events.
Before the end of summer there were 845 men, women and children of northern Richland County who counted themselves as Clear Grits, and pledged to abstain for one year.
At the end of one year there were 1,087.
On the first anniversary of their founding, the original Clear Grits had a commemorative portrait made of themselves, and re-upped for another 12 months.
Action / Reaction
The village of Rome had a population of no more than 250 people, so having such an overwhelming army of Clear Grits surrounding the town was certainly sobering.
The abstainers were not without their detractors however. There was a clear and present society of carousers who were known as “Sooners.”
They would sooner drink than not.
A Populous Movement
The high water mark of the Clear Grits influence came when they were a year and a half established.
They sponsored a gala picnic and ox roast in a grove near Rome that was attended by thousands of cheerful dries; and the Governor of Ohio came to make a speech.
High elected officials notwithstanding, the Clear Grits were determinedly free from politics, and would not endorse any temperance candidates.
They also steadfastly refused to be “allied with any religious organization.”
They had no desire to manipulate people: only to inspire them to better living.
If there is one thing that differentiated the Clear Grits from all the other Temperance societies of the era: it was their obvious bent for levity.
They were serious about sobriety, but they didn’t take themselves very seriously.
Having witnessed too many temperance rallies that devolved into condemnation and scriptural brow beating, the Grits were determined to keep things light.
They had a chorus of young girls who sang their anthem before meetings (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic):
It was on the tenth of March in 1873
In the little town of Rome many miles from Italy
That a gallant and a noble band resolved on liberty
Clear Grits go marching on!
They even started their own newspaper, the Ohio Clear Grit. It achieved considerable popularity for a couple years owing to its wholly affirmative content, and mock grandiose tone that sounded like an ironic cross between the King James Bible and Mark Twain comedy.
When the Grits commissioned a portrait made of the ‘original eight’ for the organizational anniversary, their images appeared not as sober founders, but rather as tipsy men in Loxley’s tavern at the moment of their turning point.
The Clear Grits went on for many years through the rest of the 19th century before they faded away, but the culmination of their association together as a society took place when the organization was two and a half years old.
That was the day when Loxley himself signed the book and joined the Clear Grits of Rome.