Two years ago, I spent a fine summer day in South Jersey, becoming familiar with Salem City while contemplating research strategies for investigating the community’s recent past. My interest focused on seeking out narratives associated with transformations of this City in the post-World War II decades so I concentrated on identifying archived materials and interview sources.
It was the first time I had walked the streets of this intriguing place and it was a productive, enjoyable day. I talked to helpful officials, paged through aging newspapers, and dug into old bound volumes of public records while visiting the Register of Wills, Clerk of the Court, Sheriff, District Attorney, and Historical Society.
These are all methods I have honed over decades of rummaging around small towns, seeking to understand the distinctive sense of place that gives a community its rich, deep, and varied heritage. However, history isn’t confined to the archives so part of my orientation involved strolling around the old Quaker community, visually sorting out the landscape of the past.
While exploring the remarkable built and natural environment, the close-at-hand markers of yesteryear intrigued me. Broad streets lined with historic homes, which the WPA Writers Guide remarked “would stir the envy in a Williamsburg reconstruction,” and so much more caught my attention in a community that was brimming with history.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union Fountain in Salem City.
Then I made a discovery, a water fountain across from the old courthouse in Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park. Chiseled into the uniquely designed stone were the words, “Let him that is thirsty come. W.C.T.U. 1901.” Probably hundreds of strollers pass this relic off Market Street every day, paying scant attention to it. Perhaps one or two pause to contemplate the unique artifact, a survivor of the passage of generations, and its inscription.
But I wondered about the 115-year-old-monument in the center of the bustling courthouse town and what it symbolized. Who put it there, what was its story, and what did its sponsors want us to remember?
To delve into those questions, I returned to the Historical Society in a few weeks for a second visit as I was becoming Salem County curious. There I discovered a wonderfully resourced organization, staffed by helpful professionals and dedicated volunteers. This amazing team promptly oriented me to a strong group of resources for my little investigation so I was off digging for evidentiary traces of the past.
Here is how my little inquiry unfolded. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union urged its network of local unions to erect drinking fountains in 1874 so “men could get a drink of water without entering saloons and staying for stronger drinks (WCTU website). Designed to do more than quench thirst, it was hoped they would serve as a substitute for the temptation to visit dark saloons or seek out stronger drink.
Around this time in Salem County the sentiment against the liquor trade was growing as people worked to close saloons. A chapter was organized in the county seat in February 1884, when “a little band” of twenty-four ladies met at the Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church (WCTU history).
A Victorian-era trade card for beer.
source: Boston Public Library Online Digital Collection
The municipality had a number of barrooms and saloons, at this time. In 1886, for example, the City granted licenses, under protest, to J. G. Garwood, C. C. Ford of the Nelson House and Schaefer’s Hotel, which was later known as Johnson’s Hotel. Licenses to sell liquor by the quart were granted to Reeves Stretch, Peter Prendergast, and Daniel Brown. Also in 1886, license to sell malt liquor were granted to J. P. Robinson, the Kirkwood House., and Thomas A. Newkirk.
The Union annually “agitated” against new and old licenses and they regularly canvased for voters and women opposed to the liquor business. This vigorous crusading finally caused the City Council to exercise the power of its corporate charter in 1887, which provided complete local control over the retail liquor business. Promptly at noon on the 25th of March, hotels and saloons in municipality closed their bars and stopped selling intoxicating beverages, the Salem Sunbeam observed.
Salem City Tavern Licenses from March 25, 1896. Signed by Jonathan W. Acton From the collection of the Salem County Historical Society
New jug taverns or quart places located conveniently near the city line bustled with trade, during this brief dry spell. Some of the popular watering places included the “Whistlin’ Buoy,” just across from the Penn’s Neck Bridge, Reeves Stretch’s place on the Hancock’s Bridge road, Oakwood Beach, Sam McLoughlin’s and Wilks Willet’s place in Claysville (Salem Sunbeam, April 12, 1933). And there were rumors about floating barrooms.
When a new Common Council organized following the election of 1888, the officials ended the drought (Sunbeam). But the strong group of united women continued the crusade against the evils of drink. By 1894, the chapter discussed the need for a public pump near Market Street to provide drinking water. The members met with Mayor Acton, hoping the City would allow the Union to at least attach a cup and chain to a public pump.
As time passed, the Union became more interested in a dedicated fountain, and a committee of Mary J. Pancoast, Mary E. Lawrence, Letitia Fogg and President Sarah J. Wagg were directed to provide stewardship on this important matter. The Salem Sunbeam observed that the temperance group seemed to be applying the practical illustration of “I was thirsty and ye gave me drink.”
A WCTU Fountain for the City
The time had arrived for the city to have a convenient refreshment for thirsty individuals, a published history noted (First Quarter Century of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Salem, New Jersey, 1909). It was supposed that many would like to share in the expense to “smarten up this city and take pride in doing here what other citizens had accomplished in adjacent town, the history noted. However, this met with only “slender results” so the WCTU developed a new money-making approach, rummage sales. The first one was held on April 24, 1901 and there was a hunt for rummage in general and gifts of merchants and families added fresh stock to the ongoing event.
As cash came in, the ladies examined models and perfected plans for the erection of the town’s “own source of public drinking water.” Anne W. Maylin reminded the eager ladies that one was also needed for horses, the Sunbeam reported. The decision was made in favor of a stone fountain and the offer of the Foster Bros. was accepted. It included everything except the plumbing for $135, less a $3 gift of the marble firm for the inscription.
The stone column was put in place in front of the Surrogate’s Office on September 9, 1901. A triple platted silver cup and strong unbreakable chain was added as the gift of Thomas Hilliard Sr. “The cup was handsomely inscribed “W.C.T.U.” But it was stolen inside of nine months for which “theft a liberal dose of Jersey Justice was hinted as applicable.”
In October 1901, the Union appeared at a council meeting to officially present “to the city the beautiful drinking foundation now in placement on the pavement in front of the county building.” Mayor Gwynne accepted the gift, “saying that the city would prize it not merely for its intrinsic worth and it utility for the beautiful spirt, which promoted it. He had no doubt that for “many years thirsty wayfarers would bless the members of the WCTU for their thoughtfulness. The city accepted it gratefully and would guard it carefully, not the least of their duty, and they would plenty of water and good water,” the Sunbeam reported on October 4, 1901
As the nation edged slowly toward totally outlawing alcohol, the local WCTU had made its mark (a cup of free cold water at all hours) with a permanent monument as the ladies continued to wage war on spirits. This fountain helped conquer thirst, perhaps competing with the saloons. Sometime not too long before December 21, 1978, It was moved “to Salem’s new little park on Market Street,” the Sunbeam reported.
A Symbol of the Temperance Movement in Salem City
Thus my little mystery, a venture into yesteryear, was solved. It wasn’t just any water fountain. It was one of thousands erected across the nation by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as the group that got prohibition passed sought to encourage people to drink water instead of alcohol. Salem had an active union.
But now I was hooked, Salem County curious, if you will. During my brief visits I had become intrigued with the multifaceted history that was all around me in the county, as well as how the past and present intersected. There were surviving traces of earlier times wherever I turned — grand cemeteries, public spaces, old houses and buildings, churches, and monuments — and these survivors of the passage of centuries all stimulated my inquisitiveness.
Along the way, I had learned where to turn for the best help for unlocking the secrets of time. The Salem County Historical Society has an enormous treasure trove of photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, books, and ephemera. This vibrant organization was doing a wonderful job of fulfilling its mission, serving as the heritage keepers in the South Jersey county while helpfully sharing the area’s stories with inquisitive types. It is the place to learn more about the past, the culture, and the people.
So if you are Salem County curious – for whatever reason your interest is sparked — be sure to visit the Society. There a group of helpful volunteers will help you mine a comprehensive collection of sources for nuggets of information as you piece together your puzzle. Since that time two years ago, I have been back many times working on my broader investigation, but now that I am curious all sorts of things are constantly distracting me.
Republished with permission from the Quarterly Newsletter of the Salem County Historical Society. Summer 2016