Mansfield’s Temperamental History with Alcohol

Each of us has a personal and very individual relationship with alcohol: how much we can take, what it does to us, what it means to us.  A community is just a person times thousands, and so every community also has its own story of how it gets along with alcohol.

The story of the uneasy bond between Mansfield and liquor is definitely a love-hate relationship, and this is a brief summary told in four chapters.

Chap. 1:  The Settlers

It is easy to tell what the problems were in any early town by simply looking at the laws they enacted in order to control those problems.  For Mansfield it is probably enough to start by relating a telling anecdote from early pioneer days:

When the town was young and barely carved from the wilderness, the punishment for drunk and disorderly was a number of hours doing public service in the town Square removing stumps.  One day there was a sweaty man out in the Square hacking away at a beech stump and the judge walking by says, “Hey Joe you haven’t been sentenced to any hard labor for drinking,” and Joe replies, “Yeah but I plan to make a spectacle of myself tonight so I’m paying my fine in advance.”

We can also surmise what kind of a liability the influence of liquor had on pioneer Mansfield by noting that the very first merchant on Main Street, who set up his store in 1808, was run out of town pretty quickly for ‘selling whiskey to the Indians.’

It’s evident enough from all the colorful tales of epic brawling matches recorded in our county histories that frontier Mansfield regarded alcohol as not only an indispensible commodity, but as an integral way of life.  It seems as if life barely functioned without spirits.   On the day scheduled to raise beams for the church building on the Square, the Presbyterian Church announced that no whiskey would be permitted at the event—so no one showed up.

The following week they tried it again with a couple kegs propped up prominently on South Park Street and a rousing crowd appeared who quickly got the rafters up and the roof on.  Barkeeps on Main Street were always quick to remind teetotalers in town that the most prominent church in Mansfield was actually built by whiskey.

Chap. 2:  The Reformers

Certainly we know that for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action.  Mansfield was famous for drunken wild times: it was also, subsequently, a hot bed of Temperance, Religion and Reform.

It was clear enough to leaders in the young town that the public ramifications of excessive whiskey were not having a stabilizing effect on the community, or enhancing the prospects of prosperity through diligent hard work; and in their eyes the alcohol was an impediment to progress and cultural evolution.

So once there were churches established in Mansfield, work began in earnest to eliminate the influences of liquor from civic life.  As early as 1828 there was a prominent and highly regarded Temperance Society in town campaigning against the increase of public saloons. 

Adverse reaction to the prevalence of a drinking culture in Mansfield was loud and persistent throughout the 19th century.

By way of judging the integrity and zealous influence of the organization, it is a matter of record that the national Prohibition Party—who still to this day fields Anti-Saloon candidates in every Presidential race—was officially founded at a convention in Mansfield, Ohio in July 1869.

The first convention of the National Prohibition Party was held in Mansfield on July 14, 1869. They have nominated candidates for every Presidential election since 1872, although they have never recieved a single electoral vote.

Naturally Mansfield had its own local chapters of various national temperance organizations, like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but it was—outside of the church sanctuary—a touchy civic issue because the city was largely dominated by a population descended from Germany, and in Mansfield this cultural pride was manifest through very successful breweries, producing seas of German beer.

On top of this, Mansfield’s burgeoning industrial profile had attracted to the city a significant blue-collar population of immigrants, whose chief recreation outside of work, home, and church was drinking beer at the corner saloon.

Mansfield was known as a beer city.  When the nationally celebrated radical saloon-basher Carry Nation came to town in 1902, there were no fewer than 51 saloons in the city.

These young women of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were photographed on East Fourth Street wearing decorative and symbolic battle hatchets in honor of their hero Carry Nation, who wielded hatchets in breaking up saloons.

Chap. 3:  Prohibition Era

It is a sober testament to the city’s earnest heritage of resisting alcohol that, during the period of United States history when the use and manufacture of liquor became illegal, the man who was appointed by President Wilson as Federal Prohibition Commissioner to enforce the Dry Laws was John Kramer: an attorney from Mansfield, Ohio.

In January 1920 when the “Great Experiment” went into effect, Kramer stood at the head of an army of more than 30,000 officials across the country ready to crack down on bootleggers.

Having earned the nickname “Honest John,” both locally and in the US Capitol, Kramer was at one time custodian of 60 million gallons of impounded liquor.

He lost the Prohibition Commissioner job in 1921 when the Harding Administration took over the federal operation, but by then it was obvious to everyone that enforcing the Dry Laws against such terrific odds was virtually impossible.  From the beginning Kramer recognized this when he was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We cannot pass a law and expect to change people’s habits over night.  It must be a matter of educating the future generations.”

Attorney John Kramer (1869-1956) was born in southern Richland County, graduated from Bellville HS, and taught school around Butler before serving in the Ohio House of Representatives.

When he died the New York Times called him “the man who launched America on the ‘Geat Experiment.’”

When the end of Prohibition came, and the right to drink was enshrined back into the Constitution, it seems as if the tale of Mansfield and liquor would be over…yet even in the next evolution of alcohol in America our city has a notable and remarkable role.

Chap. 4:  Self-governed Prohibition

Temperance activists who outlawed alcohol in the 20th century betrayed their misunderstanding of the true nature of alcoholism by thinking that making it scarce would eliminate the societal and familial problems it can cause.  They failed to recognize that society is composed of nothing but individuals who all have their own level of tolerance with liquor.

Interestingly, in a sort of poetic twist of history, only two years after the end of federally-instituted Prohibition there arose in the US, from a grassroots level of society, a new method of addressing the problems of individuals with alcohol-use disorders that requires not the imposition of limitations by the government, but rather a self-imposed prohibition that is nurtured within individuals who need it.

Perhaps the only person who actually understands the problems attending alcohol abuse is the one who suffers from the problem, and that is why Alcoholics Anonymous gained a foothold in American life and flourished so astonishingly after its birth in 1935: because is was founded for those who suffer by those who suffer.

The very first AA meetings in the US took place in Ohio, and among the earliest on record was a group in Mansfield that first met on November 11, 1941 at Grace Episcopal Church.  They had a shaky start—with only 7 members, 4 of whom were there as support from a sponsoring group in Cleveland. 

Since that first organizational gathering in Mansfield countless thousands of people recovering from alcohol use disorders have attended over 3,800 consecutive meetings in this same location, a record that places it among the top historic meetings in the country.

The first AA meeting in Mansfield, one of the earliest in Ohio, was held at Grace Episcopal Church in 1941.
Among the longest continually-running meetings in the US, it is still serving Mansfield more than 4,000 weeks later.

Within a few years, local membership in Alcoholics Anonymous had grown enough to necessitate several more meeting locations, and a Mansfield Central Group was established on Main Street above Gray Drugs.
The building is long gone.

For nearly 40 years from 1967-2005 Mansfield Alcoholics Anonymous was legendary across the US among 12-Step groups, because Central Group was located above Coney Island on the Square reached by a long stairway broken in the middle by a landing; and if you counted the steps going up it was Twelve & Twelve.
The Central Group has been reestablished at this landmark location once again in recent years.

Chap. 5:

Today in Mansfield there are more liquor stores than ever, fewer bars than any time in recent memory, and more varied resources for those whose lives are adversely affected by their association with alcohol.  By this tally it appears as if the 21st century chapter of this story represents a new balance in the scales of an issue that has been, historically speaking, divisive and temperamental.

For more on John Kramer check out: Ten Days When the Federal Government’s Biggest Office was on North Main Street: 1919

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