Carrie Nation in York, Pa.: ‘I told them that they were maintaining a drunken men’s club’
Shrewsbury (Pa.) Township’s Leon Saubel shows a bottle of Foust whiskey, still filled with whiskey, from his collection. He collects Foust products because they were distilled near where he lives and the items are attractive, according to a York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News story. The William Foust distillery, which started operating outside Glen Rock, was a village in itself. Only a smokestack, deteriorating superstructure and houses remain of this once-bustling company town. It is perhaps York County’s best-known ghost town. The stack serves as a reminder that the whiskey-making industry was a major cash producer in 19th-century agricultural York County. Also of interest: With all those stills, the York County hillbillies? and Cigarmaking Red Lion on top of York County and Brewer Hannes’ bout with an aged hermit.
Alcohol and tobacco use, the sin taxes they produce and the goofy state store system and other such government intervention often makes headlines.
So I pulled together several past blog posts into a York Sunday News column that explores the topic of whiskey, beer and tobacco production in York County throughout history.
In my research, the date 1907 kept appearing.That was the date Carrie Nation came to York decrying alcohol and tobacco use.
That was about the high point of cigarmaking in the county, as well as whiskey making. The onset of Prohibition dampened the distilling of spirits in large quantities about a dozen years later.
So, here’s an advance look at Sunday’s piece:
York resident F.H. Hartley recalled years after Carrie Nation’s visit to West Manchester Township’s Highland Park in 1907 that a young man stoutly stood in front of her puffing on a cigarette.
He blew smoke directly at the reformer, known for smashing whiskey bottles and slashing bars with her hatchet.
At one point, she turned to him and said: “Young fellow, if you keep on smoking those things, you’ll have as little brains in your head as you have moisture now.”
Perhaps the young man’s hard-headed presence that day at Highland Park was appropriate.
The park is gone, covered by a rock quarry.
And the man might well have been smoking a cigar, considering their pervasiveness around the county at that time.
His boldness indicated the support of many in the county for lucrative, home-grown cash products — beer, whiskey and cigars.
A bit more than 100 years before Carrie Nation’s visit, county residents were grumbling about the Whiskey Tax, imposed by an increasingly strong federal government.
Their protests didn’t turn violent, as in western Pennsylvania, with its Whiskey Rebellion. But it turned the vote in York County toward states-rights candidates and created a deep vein of local support for a hands-off government that exists today.
About 100 years after Carrie Nation’s visit, alcohol-related controversies still make headlines.
The recent York Sunday News headline “Fight fueled by alcohol” and its accompanying story told about beer distributors battling to protect their franchise versus the sale of beer in supermarket chains.
The fact is that York County and Pennsylvania have long been a battleground for such controversies that involve the type of products that generate “sin taxes.”
York County had the fresh water and plentiful grain crops and transportation systems needed to produce a sea of distilled products and beer.
The climate, soil and access to markets were assets needed to grow and import tobacco and turn that product into cigars.
So in the 1800s, Railroad borough boasted a brandy distillery and produced a family, the Helbs, that operated the six-story Keystone Brewery in York.
Nearby, William Foust started a distillery in a hollow near Glen Rock that produced the nationally known Springfield Copper Distilled Pure Rye Whiskey.
In the year Carrie Nation visited York, that distillery topped 3,000 barrels annually with some of the product stored in a six-story warehouse.
As for cigarmaking, home-based business and factories flourished in practically every York County town at the turn the 20th century.
In 1907, about 1,200 cigar factories operated in the county, rolling 300 million cigars and producing about $1 million in tax money for the federal government.
Such goods produced cash, and that cash produced controversies.
The Foust distillery made headlines and contributed to Glen Rock lore after a Baltimore gangster raided the closed warehouses during the Prohibition era. One history noted that the raid netted “almost 300 barrels of the best firewater the Foust family had ever made in the pre-Prohibition days.”
In Depression-era Red Lion, hand-rolled cigar making in backyard sheds was giving way to the installation of machines in company-owned factories.
Striking workers squared off against sheriff’s deputies in one memorable event. The workers were trying to stop the shipment of finished cigars from a large factory.
The fight began.
Workers contended that deputies fired tear gas into the faces of workers to try to open the road. About 20 people were injured in the riot, including several women who were knocked to the street and trampled.
“However, when it came to the physical fighting in Red Lion in 1934,” a Red Lion history states, “The women were in the forefront, taking tear gas and billy clubs in perfect equality.”
For years, products associated with sin taxes have fueled York County’s economy.
Their presence suggests that, however many Southern tendencies the border county of York has picked up over the years, it was not part of the Bible belt.
The religious backgrounds of the local German and Scots-Irish settlers did not hold firmly to the moral view found in the Southern Baptist -influenced South against alcohol and tobacco use.
One wishes our forebears in York County would have been a bit more principled in what we produced, rather than to pragmatically cave in to the call of cash. One hundred years ago, for example, people around here knew the high nicotine content of county-made cigars and suspected smoking them could cause health risks.
York County is not particularly different from the rest of Pennsylvania in what its residents drink and smoke and make and buy.
We have nasty battles over who controls the sale of beer or liquor statewide rather than whether it’s advisable or right to imbibe in the first place.
Given this past, hot-blooded Carrie Nation experienced some chill in York County.
She exacted no physical damage during her week-long stay, but she took oral swipes at saloon owners in numerous York County towns.
One Sunday afternoon, for example, the uninvited Nation attended a meeting of the local bartenders’ union in York.
“I told them that they were maintaining a drunken men’s club and that it ought to be wiped out,” she later told a newspaper.
A large audience attended her last lecture, possibly the one at Highland Park, where, in an amiable moment, she stated, “I like York especially for its laboring classes. Everybody seems to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.”
But too many York residents smoke, she said, and quite a few drink.