A portrait of Neal Dow in the Neal Dow House on Congress Street in Portland. Dow was architect of a law that banned alcohol in Maine decades before the federal government followed suit. His son willed the home to the Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which used it as a meeting place and headquarters. The dwindling membership of the WCTU has not met in more than two years because of the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The black-and-white photo was taken in this exact spot. In the image, a stately Neal Dow sits in an armchair next to sunny parlor windows, a book open on his lap. In the same corner, nearly 130 years later, Ella Wagner and Matt Murawski bend closer to the picture to look at his face.

“He’s still looking pretty good for 90 in the 19th century,” Wagner said.

In fact, Dow lived until 1897, nearly four years after the photo was taken.

“Good genes,” Wagner speculated.

“And a temperate lifestyle,” Murawski added.

Dow was fire chief and mayor of Portland, an abolitionist and a supporter of women’s suffrage, and a brigadier general in the Union Army who was wounded and captured in the Civil War. But his most famous role was as “the Father of Prohibition,” the architect of a law that would ban alcohol in Maine decades before the federal government followed suit. His son willed Dow’s home on Congress Street to the Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which for years used it as a meeting place and headquarters.


Today, however, the Neal Dow House is mostly quiet. The dwindling membership of the WCTU has not met in more than two years because of the pandemic. The house is open to visitors by appointment only, and the Rev. David Perkins leads tourists like Wagner and Murawski through the rooms a couple times a week. He is the office manager and tour guide there, and he isn’t sure how to get more people interested in a crusader for sobriety. In a city now known for craft beer and a state where marijuana is legal, where does Dow fit in?

“I want to get this place alive,” Perkins, 72, said. “I don’t know how to go about doing it.”

Wagner, 31, and Murawski, 30, made an appointment for a tour because she is a history scholar and recently completed her dissertation on a topic related to the WCTU. She talked with Perkins about the difficulty of making people interested in a bygone era and how to turn the focus to themes, such as women’s rights, that might be more interesting to modern visitors.

“People aren’t really sure why they should care about temperance,” Wagner said. “What parts of the story can we emphasize to connect with what people are interested in and want to know?”


Dow was born in 1804 in Portland. His parents were Quakers, and he worked in his father’s tanning business when he came of age. He built the Federal-style house at 714 Congress St. in 1829.


On the wall in the foyer are historic photos of the home and a framed certificate from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There is also a selection of postcards and pamphlets, including one advertising the house as “Portland’s Hidden Gem” and another titled “Abstinence – the only safety net,” with statistics about the dangers of alcohol. An old poster from the WCTU is propped up on a table with the slogan, “Lips that touch Whiskey will Never touch Mine.”

The Neal Dow House on Congress Street in Portland was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Perkins said Dow formed his beliefs about drinking at a very young age. He lived at a time when historians say alcohol consumption was at its peak in the United States. In 1830, the average adult drank the equivalent of 7 gallons a year, more than three times the average in 2020. In Portland, the bells would ring at 11 a.m. to signal a midmorning rum break for workers.

“He would walk down the street and see not only men but young boys drunk,” Perkins said.

As an adult, Dow became a passionate advocate for temperance and eventually traveled around the world to share his message. In 1851, during his tenure as mayor of Portland, he wrote what would become known as “the Maine law” and pushed it through the Legislature. The state was the first to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages (with an exception for “medicinal, mechanical and manufacturing purposes”). Other states followed suit. The movement ultimately led to the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 – prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” starting the next year – and national Prohibition in 1920.

That’s not to say the law was popular in Maine, even at the time. Dow had both admirers and enemies. In 1855, his opponents stormed Portland City Hall because they thought the mayor had liquor stored in the basement. Dow eventually ordered local militia to fire on the crowd. Seven people were wounded and a young sailor named John Robbins was killed.

“Neal Dow was neutral about few things, and few people were neutral about Neal Dow,” said Herb Adams, a former legislator from Portland and an adjunct professor of history and social science at Southern Maine Community College.


On the desk in Dow’s study is a copy of the investigative report about the riot. The house is full of antiques: original furnishings, impressive portraits of Dow, gifts he received on speaking engagements (among them a set of china with his face on every piece), even his death mask.

David Perkins oversees and gives tours of the Neal Dow House in Portland for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The banner at right was carried in parades by the Cumberland County chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which is the last chapter in Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But the study is perhaps where the visitor can most clearly envision the man. The shelves are crammed with books in English and French – “the last intact 19th-century gentleman’s library in Portland,” Adams said. Several shelves are dedicated to his primary passion, with titles like “The Liquor Problem In All Ages” and “The Divine Law as to Wines” and an illustrated copy of “Fifty Years’ History of the Temperance Cause.”


Prohibition ended in 1933, with the 18th Amendment’s repeal.

But Dow’s legacy is still recognized, even in the most unlikely quarters: The Maine Brews Cruise offers tours that bring more than 4,000 people every year to local breweries, distilleries and wineries. General Manager Don Littlefield lives near the Neal Dow House and has visited. He read Dow’s autobiography as research for his tours.

“I just want to spend time in his library,” Littlefield said. “I want to read those books from the 1800s. I have made it my personal issue to learn more about the man and try to commit a little bit of his beliefs into each of our tours.”


It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. (After they talk about Prohibition, the tour guides say, “And now, Maine is making up for lost time.”) But Littlefield said he believes it is important to understand the city’s complicated history with alcohol and Dow’s cause, even if one doesn’t share the same beliefs.

A testimonial to Neal Dow from multiple Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions for his 90th birthday in 1894. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Neal believed that alcohol was the reason for the entirety of society’s improper ways. There was a single source,” Littlefield said. “And I think human beings are more complex than that.”

There are other throwbacks to Dow’s time to be found in Portland. Liquid Riot on Commercial Street, for example, is named partly for the Portland Rum Riot, when the crowd stormed City Hall. Matthew Marrier, vice president of operations, said the brewery and distillery has tried to bring more attention to the story of John Robbins, the sailor who was killed that day.

“If we didn’t stand up to the people who were trying to control us, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Marrier said. “We wouldn’t have all the breweries and distilleries … and all different types of beverages to choose from.”

Those choices, he noted, increasingly include non-alcoholic drinks for our more temperate times. Liquid Riot has a menu of mocktails and is working on a non-alcoholic beer.

Adams, the historian, said he teaches his students about Dow and his wide-ranging legacy, and he is sometimes met with laughs.


“Some of them say, ‘Gosh, I heard about him on the Brew Bus,'” he said. “I say, ‘Do you know what he did in the Civil War?'”

Books in the library at the Neal Dow House. Dow was well read and the library is one of the largest personal libraries in Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Dow had a vivid personality and a dramatic impact on society, Adams said, and he should be remembered for that.

“Our times are difficult and conflicted,” Adams said. “His times were difficult and conflicted. And yet it’s very few of us that can, because of strong convictions, completely change the world into which you were born.”


In 2013, the Neal Dow House was nominated to Greater Portland Landmark’s list of Places in Peril for its national importance to the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, women’s history and Civil War history.

“The Neal Dow House is a hidden gem that lacks visibility and is largely unknown to the public, despite its nationally significant ties to major movements in American History,” the historic preservation group says on its website. “While the owner, the Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, has done a good job maintaining the house to date, like other house museums across the country, the museum cannot support its operating costs or capital needs with admissions revenue alone. The historic building needs a broader base of support to supplement the WCTU’s scarce resources.”


The WCTU asked Perkins to take over as office manager 15 years ago. As a young man, Perkins said, he struggled with alcoholism and used drugs, but he has been sober for 40 years. He previously ran recovery residences and is the pastor of Living Hope Church on Portland Street.

“I had a heart for it, and they had no one else,” he joked.

His wife, Janet, is the current president of the state chapter of the WCTU. In an email, she guessed the Maine chapters had hundreds of members at their peak and were active in many areas of society. Today, the state’s chapter of the tax-exempt social welfare organization has 17 members who pay $20 annual dues and pledge to abstain from alcohol, drugs and tobacco. The Neal Dow House is still owned by the WCTU, and Janet Perkins said expenses are covered by tours ($10 per person), dues and investment income.

The group has not been active in recent years because of the pandemic. Janet Perkins said the members plan to try to use Zoom, email, maybe a blog to gather interest. The organization has always advocated on social causes beyond temperance and she hopes the present-day iteration will work on issues such as human trafficking, drug use and homelessness.

Her husband also wants to try new things at the Neal Dow House. He displayed a resolution signed by former Portland Mayor William MacVane Jr. declaring Oct. 18-24, 1971, to be General Neal Dow Week “in tribute to a distinguished citizen.” Perkins talked about reviving that holiday, stretching a banner across Congress Street to advertise, hosting an open house with (non-alcoholic) refreshments and offering half-price tours.

Perkins also is trying to emphasize other aspects of Dow’s life.

He is updating the sign outside the house to add “Abolitionist” to Dow’s attributes (“Father of Prohibition,” “Civil War General”). He highlighted a room of Civil War memorabilia; Dow was a prisoner in a Confederate jail for months but eventually returned to Portland to fanfare at the train station. The house also was a refuge for those fleeing slavery.

But Perkins also still sees a place for Dow’s message of temperance in today’s world. He lamented the beer cans and needles he finds in the neighborhood around the building, the societal impacts of drug and alcohol use, the people he recently found sleeping in the house’s entryway. He guessed that a modern-day Dow would oppose the use of marijuana and other drugs.

“If Neal Dow was here today, this is probably what he’d be doing,” Perkins said.

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