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Remember This? Newmarket long battled, banned 'demon' booze

The current debate regarding whether or not to permit retail cannabis outlets in town has History Hound Richard MacLeod recalling the days of Prohibition and the powerful temperance movement that ensured Newmarket was a 'dry' town until the 1950s brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

With the debate over whether or not Newmarket should allow the sale of recreational cannabis in retail locations being front and centre over the past few months, I was reminded of Newmarket’s history with the other major regulated substance in its past: alcohol.

When people asked me if I thought council would permit marijuana shops, I answered with a resounding no. In this article, I will tell you why I felt we would not proceed, based upon our history and the prevailing attitude in Newmarket that our history provides.

After the incorporation of Newmarket as a village, one of the first petitions presented to the new council, on Feb. 15, 1858 by Rev. Thomas Baker, was associated with the supply of alcohol in the community. He had a 74-signature petition protesting the granting of saloon licences. Determined to take a stand, he returned soon after with a second petition bearing 52 signatures. Our early forefathers, faced with so many signatures, felt they could not ignore the petitions and refused to grant any licences for the period of one year to re-examine the issue more fully. Sound familiar?

In 1876, William Cane presented a petition to council on behalf of Mrs. Ashworth, Mrs. Cane, Mrs. Henderson and Mrs. Cook with 203 signatures urging council to stop granting shop licences for liquor and to suppress public gambling rooms.

Incredibly, in 1882 alone, more than 600 barrels of liquor were imported into Newmarket, an average of two barrels a day.

On Feb. 12, 1885, Danford Roche and J. J. Pearson, two leading citizens, petitioned council with 174 signatures for a bylaw be passed before the first day requiring “the shopkeepers to confine their business to the shop solely and exclusively to the keeping and selling of liquor”. On Feb. 19, council responded with a bylaw, passed in accordance with the petition.  

During the late 1880s and continuing right through the 1890s, efforts were stepped up to wipe out this diabolical trade, as its detractors called it. Articles appeared in the local press, public lectures were held and committees were formed with the sole intent of keeping a sharp eye out for any infringement of the law.

The local temperance movement was circulating a petition asking council to reduce tavern licences and disallow shop licences altogether. Let us be clear, prohibition was their aim and a separate ballot was asked to be taken at the next parliamentary election. Another petition was presented for a bylaw that would confine the sale of liquor to only one business.

There was a general feeling that a deplorable state of drinking was prevalent throughout the town and a proposal was also made to raise the licence fee to $200 — a considerable amount at that time.

It was common for the time that men would “come into town and returned loaded with whisky, shouting and singing, lashing their horses unmercifully, and relying only upon their intelligence to take them safely home”. With the advent of the car, which quickly replaced the horse, rather than getting them home, only too often were they the instrument of their death.  

Newmarket’s first murder, at the Dye’s Inn on Eagle Street, is attributed to a drunken man who accidently shot a passerby.

We have been left with stories of men, while thoroughly drunk, driving along the tracks ahead of the oncoming train, often singing a solemn hymn, of suicide from despair, of two cronies carrying a pail of grog from the liquor store, of the drunken brawls Saturday nights when Main Street was turned into a donnybrook, of blinds across the bar room windows where boys took their first secret glass in an effort to become men.

On the other side of the picture painted at the time were the children, shoeless, ragged and hungry, and the women, faded and jaded, disillusioned, broken-hearted, facing an empty cupboard but bravely striving to keep the home together. Propaganda at its best.

People spoke of “the poor merchant, his books indicating columns of credit granted in charity and the sad employer whose business was going to rack and ruin because of the binges which became all too frequent”.

When the Salvation Army arrived in Newmarket in 1883, these were the conditions they faced, according to the accounts of the day. They, to their credit, set out to alleviate these perceived cases of suffering and it was not long before a change in the community began to take shape.

By 1892, in the interests of morality and business, there began a movement to advocate and work for a "local option", which permitted counties and municipalities to make their own decisions on certain controversial issues based on popular vote within their borders. Sound familiar? Local option regarding alcohol bylaws was first used in the temperance movement as a means to bring about Prohibition gradually.

Since Aurora and Newmarket were both eager participants, they decided to work together and eventually a well-attended meeting was held in the Newmarket Town Hall in May 1909.

The movement gathered support and the innkeepers in Newmarket soon threatened to close their houses and sheds if this local option was adopted. The hotel business was important to our local economy then — Newmarket was a regional leader in the quality and diversity of locations — particularly to the farmers who came to town to sell their produce and purchase supplies, and to the variety of commercial representatives who visited.

The Temperance Committee had a score to settle with the liquor traffic and so took prompt action to guarantee proper hotel accommodation would continue. The following declaration was read by Aubrey Davis on Dec. 15, 1909.

“Having received a petition from the proper number of ratepayers, the council of the Town of Newmarket have decided to submit a Local Option By-Law to be voted upon, Monday, Jan. 3, 1910, by those entitled by law to vote on such a By-Law.

“During the discussions which naturally have arisen among citizens of the town as to the advisability of adopting the aforesaid By-Law, those who are opposed to it have used as their strongest argument the statement that in case the By-Law should pass, there would be no proper public accommodation for farmers and others coming to Newmarket on market and other days.

“In answer to this, we, the undersigned, make this declaration and promise to the citizens of Newmarket and the people of the surrounding country that, when Local Option is adopted, and the present licence holders refuse to furnish accommodation to the public, we shall enter into negotiations with the owner of one of the present hotels for the purchase of the hotel, and shall continue to furnish accommodation sufficient for the requirements of the town and the general public; and in case the hotel keepers refuse to meet us in a fair and equitable manner, in the matter of sale, and also refuse to furnish accommodation to the public, we guarantee to erect without any unnecessary delay and maintain a well-equipped modern hotel sufficient for the needs of the town and the travelling public, with proper shed and stable room for the farmers’ horses and rigs.

“(Signed) J.A. Cody, L.G. Jackson, Aubrey Davis, H.S. Cane, P.W. Pearson, E.J. Davis, W.H.S. Cane, J.R.Y. Broughton, C.S. McCauley, B.W. Hunter, W.H. Eves, C.H.R. Clark, A. Howard.”

By all accounts, it was a lively campaign in which the whole community took an interest and the public meetings were unusually well attended. It must be mentioned that prominent businessmen and the clergy of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches would contribute their active support, with experienced temperance workers descending from other towns to help organize. Among these “outsiders” were Father Minehan of Toronto and Mr. Tudhope of Orillia, both famous prohibitionists.

The local option was voted on Jan. 3, 1910 and was carried by 492-252 majority. The bars were slated to be closed the following May. Immediately, hotel owners closed the ladies’ sitting rooms and the prices of meals and yard and shed accommodation were raised.

The businessmen of Newmarket made good on their promise. Dr. J.H. Wesley, a leader among the pro-temperance men, purchased the old Forsyth Hotel for $8,000 and the committee proceeded to sell shares. From the beginning, the shareholders were paid six per cent and the balance of the profits were returned in improvements. George Brown and his wife were engaged to take charge and throughout their long management the place maintained a high reputation.

Before I close, let us take a look at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) that was the organizing force behind this movement that overtook Newmarket. It is best known today for its project to place a huge fountain in front of the Methodist (now United) Church on Main Street. It was a reminder to all in town of how we successfully “vanquished the demon rum” within our community. It was removed in 1953 when Main was widened.

The WCTU was formed officially in 1885 to advocate for legal prohibition. Its victory in 1910 was perhaps its crowning glory, but its voice for the “morality of our community” would continue on well beyond the initial victory.

WCTU opposed the “establishment of wet canteens for our men protecting our country during WW1” and in the 1920s and ‘30s, it took up the fight against such social evils as “tobacco, gambling, lotteries, and the disgusting dress of the modern young women of the Town”.

Make no mistake, this organization was a political and social force to be reckoned with in this town. My grandfather, even in the 1970s, always maintained that their power was ingrained within our town’s psyche. Throughout history, distilleries and taverns have been one of the bedrocks of our economy. My walk on Feb. 23, in support of Inn From The Cold will feature those inns and taverns that once dotted Main Street and area.

During the Second World War, Newmarket was dry and the only place one could obtain alcohol was at a canteen on Newmarket's military campgrounds and at the two military watering holes on the base, Club 14 on Millard Avenue — the old Temperance Hall, strangely — and the Bucket of Blood on the southeast corner of Mulock Drive at Yonge Street. Given this fact, you can imagine just how popular an invitation to visit the Army Camp must have been for the local population.

As the years passed, the town seemed to lose its interest in the whole issue of temperance. However, it wasn’t until 45 years later, in 1957, that the people of Newmarket finally, overwhelmingly, embraced the sale of liquor and spirits in government-run outlets.

While the WCTU lost much of its influence after the 1950s, its last official meeting was held in the 1970s at York Manor Home for the Aged.  

So, when people began to ask me if I thought Newmarket council would support the establishment of a bricks-and-mortar location for the sale of cannabis here, I felt fairly certain that the logical answer would be no. The ghosts of the WCTU are still walking among us today. 

Sources: The Minutes of Newmarket Council – Newmarket Era, Social Commentary on Newmarket – Newmarket Era, Stories of Newmarket by Robert Terrance Carter, The Temperance Movement in Canada by Peter Oliver, History of the Town of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella