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  • Dale C. Maley

Early Fairbury was a wild town




Alcohol and religion have been a part of Fairbury's life since the town was founded in late 1857. In 1858, the first buildings erected in the new village included a Methodist church and a tavern.


In 1862, John Marsh and his son Henry Marsh sunk a shaft about one mile west of Fairbury and found coal at a depth of 180 feet. Within a few years, Fairbury had five operating coal mines. Men came to Fairbury from Europe and the American East Coast to find coal mining jobs.


Many factors came together in early Fairbury to make it a wild town. The coal miners worked hard and liked to unwind in a Fairbury saloon. Many farmers and their hired hands would come to town and drink in the Fairbury saloons. Railroad men would also frequent the taverns. Fairbury men liked drinking, fighting, gambling, and racing their horses.


Fairbury also had its West End and East End Feuds. John and Henry Marsh developed the west side of town. Robert Bruce Amsbary was the principal rival of the Marshs, and he promoted the east side of Fairbury. Each faction matched whatever new feature was added to Fairbury. Each side had a coal mine, a hotel, and a newspaper.


This intense rivalry eventually led to arson. One side would burn down a building on the rival's side of town. The other side would then burn another building in retribution. Many of these activities were fueled by alcohol consumed in Fairbury's saloons.


Fairbury had no minimum drinking age requirements in the early days. The saloons were swarming with boys. Gangs of drunken juveniles infested the whole village. Some of these boys were under ten years of age. They rampaged the streets until late at night and terrorized the inhabitants with their fighting and vandalism.


In 1878, Fairbury had 2,100 citizens and seven saloons. These saloons were operated by T. T. Babcock, Frank Franzen, J. S. Jamison, Ed O'Malley, Joseph Ritemyer, Shepler & Kavanaugh, and Thomas Scouler.


Saloon licensing fees were the Fairbury city government's most significant money source. In 1885, liquor licenses were 86 percent of the city's revenue. The Mayor and City Council members wanted to refrain from passing any laws that might decrease the income received from Fairbury's saloons.


One of the chief reasons for the general atmosphere of lawlessness was society's attitude in the 1880s about drunkards. People reasoned that when a man was drunk, he did not have his normal faculties and did not realize what he was doing. Consequently, he was not to be held accountable for any of his actions during that time. He could kill a man yet go scot-free, whereas a sober man would be hung.


Excessive drinking and alcoholism were chronic problems of that era. Preachers and medical doctors saw the negative impacts on Fairbury families every day. Women felt particularly frustrated at the excessive drinking problem. If a husband drank excessively, the social norms of that era said a woman could not work outside the home to provide for her family. Women also did not have the right to vote. They could not vote to ban alcohol or vote for Prohibitionist politicians.


In the July 30, 1886, edition of the Blade, the Editor scolded both the citizens and politicians of Fairbury. The Editor pointed out that the Village Board took a great deal of tax money from the saloons each year. None of this money was being used to combat the most significant problems that Fairbury was facing. These problems included churches standing vacant, streets growing up in weeds, boys and hoodlums exercising their own home rule, no fire protection system, and no safe public water supply. The Editor thought this situation ought to make all citizens blush with shame.


Fairbury women started temperance movements to fight the problem of excessive drinking. They had massive attendance at their meetings. They recruited Dr. Carrie Shaw, a Chicago women's activist, and evangelist, as the conference's featured speaker.


On one side of the temperance struggles were the saloon owners who profited from patrons buying alcohol in their establishments. The Village Board had to respond to the Fairbury men who voted them into office. The annual fees from the saloons helped to pay for most of the government activities of Fairbury. On the other side of the battle were the women who encountered the ill effects of excessive drinking. Ministers and medical doctors also favored prohibiting alcohol because they saw the negative impacts on Fairbury families. Because women could not yet vote, they would often stage massive anti-alcohol marches on Main Street at election times.


Eventually, the Fairbury Village Board bowed to public pressure and instituted stricter regulation of the saloons. New village ordinances required each saloon keeper to post a three-thousand dollar bond. Each liquor license had a cost of $600, and it could be revoked. Business hours were shortened to opening at 5 AM and closing by 10 PM. The saloons had to be kept reasonably clean, and the windows had to be washed. Clean windows allowed people outside the bar to have a clear view of the establishment's interior. No pool tables or any games of any nature were allowed. No rowdiness was permitted.


Saloon keepers could no longer sell liquor to minors. Boys were no longer allowed in the place nor permitted to carry buckets of beer to their fathers or any other relatives. Worst of all, according to the saloon owners, they were made to close on Sundays.


In 1919, two new amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified. The Eighteenth Amendment declared the production, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquors illegal. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote. Fourteen years later, in 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending the nationwide prohibition of alcohol.


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