Temperance in Genesee County, NY
From: Gazetteer and Biographical Record
of Genesee County, New York
Edited by: F. W. Beers
J.W. Vose & Co., Publishers, Syracuse, N. Y. 1890

OLD people of this and other counties remember distinctly that in their youth the use of spirituous liquors as a beverage was almost universal. Nor was it confined to the laymen. Very many of the settlers of Genesee County had such a habit, and it was thought no harm in those times, for it would be a breach of hospitality to not offer it to visitors. It was the necessary help at the “bees,” and the failure of such "bees" and gatherings, from its absence, is well remembered.. It was at. home, in the field, everywhere, in olden days, and was the universat panacea for wet weather and dry weather, for real and imaginary ailments.

Distilleries sprang up early in many of the towns, and liquor was cheap and pure ; the country stores kept it for sale the same as codfish and molasses; and its use was sanctioned by all classes—the laborer, the clergy, the bench and bar.

Indeed, the words of a modern poet,
The power enslaved in yonder cask
Shall many burdens bear;
Shall nerve the toiler at his task,
The soul at prayer,”

seem very apropos of the customs of former days. With the well founded ideas of the time is it to be wondered that no moves were made for a reforth in regard to its use? It is not known definitely when stringent measures were taken in Genesee County; the pulpit always taught temperance, but that was not the temperance—strict prohibition, touch not and handle not—of the present day.

It is known that about 1830 a reform gradually swept over the land in the form of signing a pledge; but this was only a general restriction not to use it to excess, and was not sufficiently effective. In this county, in 1836, a society was formed, and after a discussion of two days, with a negative vote of two (who voted so, fearing the advance was too rapid), the total abstinence pledge was adopted. At the present day it hardly seems credible that a temperance reform could have encountered any opposition. It did receive such opposition in 1836 in Genesee County. There were many earnest, zealous workers in the reform here, but after a half century, with no records, it is impossible to name them. Much good was done, and a check was placed upon the increasing evil, which is felt to the present day.

Like all important reforms it has had its revivals, its new methods of advancing the work, and these waves would sweep over the country animating the friends to good works. The first of these waves that so greatly inundated the country was the “Washingtonian” movement, that started in 1840 at Baltimore. A few confirmed drunkards saw their peril and joined together in a resolution to reform; others joined; and the whole country joined in the good work. Genesee County was remarkably active in the move, but like all superhuman efforts a reaction followed. Still much permanent good is directly traceable to that grand movement. Its restriction by statute was then urged, and in 1846 the first law went into effect. It was termed the “license or no-license” law, and sometimes the” five-gallon” law, but could be consistently called a “local option” law. This, for some reason, was not generally successful; not perhaps so much from any defect in the law, or that the evil cannot be restricted by statute; but having invoked the aid of the law the temperance workers relied too much upon its strong arm and relaxed their efforts in educating the public sentiment to sustaining them.

About 1855 the so-called “Maine law” was enacted, and the friends anticipated good results, but the Court of Appeals decided it to be unconstitutional. This was followed by an act appointing county commissioners to grant licenses, but this was not satisfactory.

The next move was the present local option statute that allows each town to determine, by its votes, if the sale of intoxicating liquors shall be tolerated, and the election of the commissioner gives the decision. The towns of Genesee County are no exception to others, and the excesses of either faction can be held in check by the operation of the law.

Within a few years the Prohibition party has come into existence, which claims total prohibition as its platform. Of its merits it is not our province to speak, and its votes will be found under another head. This fact should be borne in mind by its friends in Genesee County: that all laws are not satisfactory in their results unless the pebple. are educated to a sentiment of their wholesomeness, and a strong majority morally pledged to their fulfillment.


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