The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
“In the early days … Elora shared, with its sister village of Fergus, a somewhat unenviable reputation for the bibulous propensities of its people.
“Private social parties were little in vogue, and public amusements in the way of lectures, concerts and the like were not; consequently small provocation was necessary to induce Elorians, after the labours of the day were concluded, to assemble where alone social intercourse could be enjoyed: and if a larger dose of toddy or a weaker head than average occasionally produced an unsteadiness of gait, huskiness of voice or duality of vision, public opinion was indulgent, and few could afford to be censorious in view of unremembered lapses of a like nature.”
Walter Newman, the private banker who can be regarded as Elora’s first historian, wrote these long-winded comments early in 1866. He was recalling the village as it was when he arrived here in the mid-1840s.
His argument, that people drank a great deal because there were few alternative social activities, remained a central one in temperance movements through the 19th century.
A second point we can perceive in Newman’s words is that the social conditions in Elora changed dramatically over a short span of years.
In 1866, the 1840s had already become the distant past. This is understandable during a period when Elora was growing rapidly and people looked to the future, not the past. This was an era when everyone believed in progress: material progress, social progress and moral progress.
We have no precise knowledge of how much people drank in the 1840s, other than anecdotes such as Walter Newman’s and a few scattered comments in letters and diaries of the time.
We do know that whiskey was readily available and cheap. In the 1840s, it was often cheaper than tea.
In the 1840s, many people believed that drinking whiskey was beneficial; it was made from grain and therefore must contain all the nutrition of grain. There was also a belief, supported by many doctors, that whiskey helped ward off colds and other illnesses.
A great deal of the grain grown in this area of the province was manufactured into whiskey in the 1840s and 1850s. Before the railways, it was very expensive to ship grain for export. Making it into whiskey added value to the product. A bushel of grain produced about four gallons of whiskey, which could be stored and shipped more easily than grain. There was also a local market for the product.
The price of whiskey and the presence of local distilleries had a major impact on grain markets, as did the taxes on whiskey imposed by the government. Initially, the taxes on whiskey were only nominal. Then, in 1847, the provincial government imposed an excise tax of two pence, or 3.8 cents per gallon. At the time, whiskey sold for about 35 cents per gallon. Local farmers became enraged at the tax. They believed that the end effect would be to reduce the price of grain by 15 cents per bushel.
Some commentators argued that the tax would encourage the smuggling of whiskey from the United States, where whiskey sold for about 25 cents per gallon in 1847. Critics of the government argued that the cabinet ministers responsible had secretly joined the temperance movement.
Temperance societies were already active in the 1840s, and their presence was felt in Elora as it was elsewhere in the province, and indeed all over North America.
Whiskey taxes were one of the means advocated to discourage drinking. From the beginning, the temperance movement covered a wide range of opinion. In addition to the “excise tax” faction, there were those who tried to use moral suasion and alternative social activities to discourage drinking.
At the other extreme were the prohibitionists, who sought a legislative ban on all distribution of liquor.
Methodists dominated the temperance movement in its early years, and as a consequence, temperance groups emphasized their non-sectarian character to attract a wide membership.
Elora’s first temperance group, the Elora Temperance Society, formed in the late 1840s. James Middleton, a farmer and part-time preacher from the Bon Accord settlement, organized the group and served as its leader.
The Elora Temperance Society found few members, but it sputtered on into the 1850s. In the context of the time, Middleton was an extremist. He opposed alcohol in all its forms, and required members to sign a pledge not to drink.
A more moderate position was taken by the Elora Friendly Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, founded early in 1851.
Most of the leaders of Elora’s business community became members, including Walter Newman, Charles Allan and James Middleton’s son, William, a doctor.
This group promoted drinking in moderation and shunned the tight-lipped, humourless attitude of the Elora Temperance Society.
The Elora Friendly Society did not enjoy a long life. Its low-key approach did not attract the fanatics necessary to keep a temperance organization active. That it met at the Commercial Hotel did not help its reputation among temperance people. As well, it had no real aims or objectives other than moderation.
The final blow, though, was struck by its vice-president, the usually hard-drinking Edwin Kertland, the local surveyor. Near the end of one of Kertland’s boisterous three-day binges in the barroom of the Commercial, the executive of the Friendly Society met in an upstairs room and expelled him for “an outrageous violation of his solemn vows,” according to the minutes of the society.
A third temperance organization formed in Elora in 1851. This was the Sons of Temperance, an American-based group that organized chapters throughout North America. The Elora chapter, number 272, received help from the existing Fergus chapter in getting started. At their organizing meeting, members hired the Elora Brass Band for a parade through the streets, with banners proclaiming “Love, Purity, Fidelity.” Despite these fine sentiments, the group encountered much opposition, including insults and derision from those watching the parade.
Hardliners such as James Middleton were part of this organization, but so was Florence Smith, who at various times operated taverns in Elora and Salem.
Smith’s mixed sentiments on the liquor question were typical of this time period. Part of the opposition to the Sons stemmed from the fact that this was an organization controlled by outsiders – and in particular, Americans.
A fourth temperance organization existed in the 1850s — the Elora and Salem Total Abstinence Society. We know little of this group, but it seems to have been largely or even entirely composed of women. From its title, it was probably the most extreme of the four organizations in the village.
None of these temperance groups thrived during the 1850s. The Sons of Temperance remained active the longest.
By 1853, they had an associated women’s group, the Daughters of Temperance, and were assisting other communities in forming chapters. By the late 1850s they were inactive, but the temperance movement would soon resurface.
(The story of the temperance movement continues next week.)
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 11, 1994.