December 22, 2013

Commentary: Portland, champion of temperance

How a city that just enacted the East Coast’s first marijuana legalization law was once at the forefront of national prohibition.

By Paul Mills

(Continued from page 1)

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This 1911 photo shows a pro-Prohibition parade float. Portland was once in the vanguard of enacting the country’s first laws outlawing liquor.

Courtesy photo

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The Rum Room in Portland City Hall, where confiscated liquor and liquor-making equipment was stored, from a postcard mailed in 1928.

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About the author

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail:

Dow died at age 93 in 1897. The Congress Street home where he, his son Frederick – who became a longtime owner of two of the state’s largest newspapers, the Sunday Telegram and Portland Evening Express – once resided is now preserved as a museum.

The year after Dow’s death, another well-known Portlander assumed the mantle of national temperance leadership. This was in 1898 when Lillian Stevens became the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest organization of American women up to that time, one that would grow to more than a half-million members under Stevens’ leadership over the next 16 years.

A major figure in the Prohibition movement and a frequent collaborator with Dow long before Dow’s death, Stevens had, for example, been the state WCTU president since 1878, and joined forces with Dow in the successful campaign to elevate the state’s existing Prohibition law to constitutional status.

Like Dow, however, Stevens merged her passion for temperance with an advocacy for other issues. Among them: crusades against domestic violence and for giving women the right to vote. (The latter was not an easy sell in Maine, where even by 1917 a statewide referendum repudiated such an overture.)

Stevens also pursued Dow’s interest in the plight of the country‘s minorities, supporting roles in the organization for African-Americans, despite the risk this posed to winning the support of Southern whites.

Under Stevens, the WCTU helped bring about passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Prison reform was another focus of Stevens. Stevens’ campaign to make sure that the administration of such facilities be entrusted to more women and to seek a separate prison for them finally came to fruition in Maine in 1919, five years after her death. The reformatory’s main cottage was named for her as a tribute to such efforts.

The esteem in which Stevens was held is further signified by the statue in her honor in the front courtyard of the Portland Public Library, one of the few in Maine to celebrate a female leader. (Those commemorating Samantha Smith, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joan Benoit are among the few others.)

It’s perhaps problematic to presume that if Dow and Stevens were alive today, they would support the recently passed marijuana ordinance of their home city even though assailing alcohol was a theme of those backing the ordinance. Their interest in civil and women’s rights, prison reform and other causes that were companions of the early Prohibitionist movement, however, would suggest that Dow, Stevens and today’s reformers might find more than a few things in common.

— Special to the Telegram

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Additional Photos

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Neal S. Dow of Portland led the temperance movement.

Courtesy photo

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Illegal liquor is removed from a ship docked in Portland in the 1920s.

Portland Press Herald file photo

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David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, speaks at a Yes on 1 gathering in Portland on Nov. 5.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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