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April 6, 2013

Oneontans voted for a 'dry' city in 1918

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The Daily Star

---- — Imagine if a proposal was out there for Oneonta to become a “dry” town, free of alcohol sales or consumption in the present day, just as there was in 1918. The debate would probably be right up there with the same high intensity as the present-day issues of hydrofracking, a gas pipeline, a large housing complex on Blodgett Drive, gun control or gay marriage.

If all of these had been issues in 1918, we certainly wouldn’t have had much longer to debate them over a beer or favorite alcoholic drink at a downtown Oneonta watering hole after April 17 of that year. Many upstate New York cities went dry ahead of the national passage of the Volstead Act, or Prohibition in October 1919.

The debate in Oneonta was clearly much stronger on the side of the “drys.” Day after day in early April 1918, readers of The Oneonta Star read several commentaries from well-known people in the city in a feature called, “Why They Are For A Dry Oneonta.”

Dr. Percy I. Bugbee, then Principal of the Oneonta State Normal School wrote on Friday, April 5, “I believe that the welfare of Oneonta would be greatly enhanced if the waste resulting from the use of intoxicants were eliminated. I believe we would have better buildings, better streets, more prosperous stores, better schools, better churches. I believe we would have better clothed and better fed men, women and children.”

Owen C. Becker, Oneonta City Attorney wrote on Saturday, April 6, “I know of many men in this city, once looked upon as brilliant and promising citizens, whose lives have been blighted and whose wives and families are going through life with bowed heads and heavy hearts because these men fall victims to the liquor habit. If we continue to license liquor traffic in Oneonta, each generation must have its liquor-drinking recruits, its blighted and wasted lives.”

The sentiment in daily commentaries was very similar each day leading up to a citywide vote on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 16-17. Mass dry meetings were held on Sunday, April 12 at the First Presbyterian and First Methodist churches.

What appeared to be only a single paid ad against going dry appeared in the Star on Wednesday, April 10. It had a title, “WHY? A Challenge To The Drys.” It asked 12 questions, the last being, “WHY haven’t you told the people that they are being asked to Prussianize themselves by adopting your despotic dogma? BECAUSE YOU DARE NOT.” It was signed by F.S. Pattridge, Oneonta.

When residents went to the polls, they had four decisions to make. It was a yes or no on whether to sell liquor to be consumed on the premises where sold, selling liquor not to be consumed on the premises where sold, selling liquor as a pharmacist on a physician’s prescription and selling liquor by hotel keepers only.

The Star described the first day of voting on Wednesday as having a heavy turnout. “The weather was considered favorable for the drys, the number of elderly women who appeared being large. Motor cars were kept busy flying all about the city and the wets even sent a car to the county farm to bring three voters,” presumably as city residents, “two of whom it is said, have spent money enough for booze to support them a considerable time.”

By the time voting ended on Thursday, the results on all four questions were decisive majorities, all dry. Binghamton, Norwich, Cortland, Ithaca and Elmira joined Oneonta in going dry. The closest places one could still purchase alcohol were Little Falls, Rome, Syracuse and Schenectady.

The cities voting to go dry had to cease selling alcohol as of Oct. 1, 1918. Those remaining wet cities and towns had about another year before the Volstead Act took effect.

On Monday, zoning changed the look of Dietz Street beginning in 1948.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.