The mansion that serves as Maine headquarters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union lay largely fallow until recently, with drug needles, liquor bottles and pornographic magazines littering the grounds. Now, in the state where Prohibition had its roots and in a city that just legalized recreational marijuana, the WCTU is overhauling the building and looking to reinvent itself.
Leaders of the organization, which is committed to abstinence, plan to take a lower-key approach, compared with the old days when crusading women terrorized saloon owners.
“We just want to bring a new passion here. It’s not that we want to be self-righteous and condemn you because you’re drinking or drugging or you’re smoking pot,” said the Rev. David Perkins, who is working with his wife to restore the WCTU’s Portland chapter. “It’s not that. We want to love you but tell you that there are ill effects.”
Last week marked both the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition and the legalization of marijuana in Portland.
Neal Dow, a Union general, entrepreneur and teetotaling crusader, led the push for Maine to ban alcohol in 1851 – years before national Prohibition was enacted in 1918.
Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to see tubs of rum on Portland sidewalks, where anyone could use a dipper to indulge. Church bells tolled at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., signaling rum breaks for workers, said Herb Adams, a former state lawmaker and the city’s unofficial historian.
In Portland, members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, weary of alcohol’s harmful effects on families, harassed saloon operators by showing up with Bibles and singing hymns. They refused to leave until they extracted a promise to stop selling alcohol – and they weren’t above smashing bottles if the proprietor reneged, Adams said.
“They were formidable. They were remarkable. They were the glass-smashers and boundary-breakers of their day,” he said. “In their moment, they were the cutting edge of American womanhood, and they changed a nation.”
The WCTU, which went on to become a major voice in the suffrage movement, began using Dow’s mansion as its statewide headquarters in the 1960s. But over time, the WCTU’s numbers have dwindled.
Across the nation, the Illinois-based organization’s ranks in the U.S. have dropped from a peak of 500,000 in the 1940s to today’s level of between 4,000 and 5,000, said national president Rita Wert.
The dwindling numbers coincided with a shift in public sentiment. After the end of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, members watched as the number of “dry” towns declined, wine sales were extended to supermarkets, the state got into the liquor business and brew pubs and breweries popped up all over Portland.
Last month, 67 percent of voters favored legalizing marijuana in a referendum. It’s a largely symbolic victory, since local police will continue to enforce state drug laws.
State Rep. Diane Russell, who supports legalizing marijuana, said city voters approved the ordinance for the same reason Prohibition was ultimately overturned.
Outlawing alcohol and marijuana didn’t stop consumption or substance abuse, she said; instead, it led to a black market with criminals profiting while small-time users were punished.
In Maine, the WCTU’s Portland chapter temporarily closed two years ago, and the Dow house fell into disrepair. Bottles, needles and pornography were strewn about the yard.
Last year, Perkins and his wife, Janet Perkins, the Portland chapter president, began the process of rebuilding the WCTU’s local presence.
Part of that process included overhauling the Dow mansion by replacing the roof, applying new paint, installing new windows and overhauling the heating system.
Substance abuse is an issue near and dear to them. Both have dealt with it in their families. And David Perkins knows firsthand as a former drug abuser and dealer.
“We find that a lot of people who are on hard drugs had started with marijuana,” said Janet Perkins. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t agree with the new law.”
At 55, Perkins presents a younger face for the group.
The group will continue to meet at the Dow house, but there will be more to it than bringing out Dow’s silver tea set.
The group is recruiting new members and looking into social justice issues, including human trafficking.
Mae Billingslea, the oldest member of the Portland chapter, said the group needs to get noticed and get its message out. She agrees with the change in tactics.
“In this day and age, I doubt very much that women praying in the saloons would accomplish much,” the 82-year-old said. “I guess my faith is too small.”