About the South Dakota Woman's Christian Temperance Union

The History of WCTU in South Dakota

The History of WCTU in South Dakota

A few years after National WCTU was founded, the work spread to the prairies.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—specifically called “woman’s” not “women’s” to show that WCTU represents each woman’s personal decision to stand for freedom from alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs—has been said to be the oldest continuous, voluntary, dues paying woman's organization in the world.

National WCTU’s history goes back to 1873. Dr. Dio Lewis gave a temperance lecture in Fredonia, NY and told of his mother, who, in desperation over the family situation and her husband’s drinking, marched with a group of women to local saloons in a protest against alcohol. The day after Dr. Lewis' speech, women who heard the lecture marched on local saloons while their husbands prayed. The Crusade caught on and spread to 31 states. Crusaders faced persecution, but they also saw saloons closed and drinkers accept Jesus Christ as Savior.

In 1874 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was officially organized to promote abstinence from alcohol.

Under the leadership of Annie Wittenmeyer, 1874-1879, and Frances C. Willard, 1879-1898, WCTU spread across America and became a world organization. By the late 1800’s, WCTU was in 51 countries.

While the WTCU was primarily interested in the temperance movement, WCTU was a “Do Everything” organization.. See www.wctu.org/earlyhistory.html.

WCTU comes to Dakota Territory in 1877

In 1877, Mrs. Thomas L. Riggs, missionary to the Sioux, Fort Sully, Dakota Territory, was named as the superintendent of WCTU work. Yankton was the territorial capital and the next year Mrs. S. Sheldon of Yankton became superintendent. She was succeeded by Mrs. Howard, the wife of the governor in 1880. When the governor died that same year, Mrs. Howard returned east.  

Miss Willard appointed Miss C. E. Cleveland as organizer of Dakota in 1880. In Jan., 1881 Miss Cleveland wrote that she “was blockaded seven weeks in a frontier town in Nebraska. Four of the seven weeks the settlement was without flour, having to grind their corn and wheat as well as they could in a large coffee mill. Just before the winter broke up, I started for Dakota, getting there just in time to be a prisoner of the Missouri floods several weeks longer. From the flooded section I went to central and northern Dakota, laboring in the Black hills, at the military posts and in the railroad and river towns. The work has been mostly missionary, laying the foundation for an effective organization later. The press has everywhere treated me kindly and the people have welcomed me with true frontier hospitality.” 

“Great Dakota Boom” builds the WCTU

Dakota Territory WCTU reaped the benefits of the “Great Dakota Boom” from 1870 to 1880. The population exploded by 734 percent during that time and another 255 percent during the next decade as settlers came for the free land. Many strong, intelligent, earnest workers joined WCTU. In 1882, Miss Cleveland issued a call for the first territorial WCTU Convention at Canton. Miss Cleveland was elected president. From 1880 to 1882, she had organized 22 local unions, held 216 mass meetings, 65 children’s meetings, 22 social meetings and secured 3,242, signatures to the total abstinence pledge.   

1884 saw an enthusiastic Dakota Territory WCTU convention. New unions and more pledge signing was reported. Work was divided into 20 departments, including Juvenile Work, Sunday School Work, Scientific Instruction, Unfortunate Women, State and County Fairs, Prison and Police Stations, Work among Foreigners, Temperance Literature and Legislation and Petitions. Local unions held monthly gospel temperance meetings and supported reading rooms and coffee rooms open to the public. Women circulated petitions to keep the new towns springing up "dry".  

By 1886, 48 unions and several young people’s temperance groups were active. Women distributed 24,000 pages of temperance literature. Three new superintendents were named for 3 new departments, Railroad work, Work among Miners and Social Purity. 

In Fargo in 1888, at the last Territorial Convention, the corresponding secretary reported 66 new unions, and enthusiastic work among the youth and children. Children’s work was called the Loyal Temperance Legion, LTL, and youth work became YTC, the Youth Temperance Council. Children whose parents promised to teach them to abstain from alcohol were called White Ribbon Recruits from the band of ribbon tied around their wrist at the time of the promising. 

WCTU divides as the Territory splits into two states

In 1889, Dakota Territory divided into North and South Dakota. Frances Willard came to the 1889 Convention, in a “meeting that will be long remembered and we will always have tender memories of those who attended it . . . we now come to the parting of the ways.” North and South Dakota delegates divided up and each group chose its officers. SD kept the president, Mrs. Barker, as she was moving soon from Fargo to Huron. Miss Willard “in her happy humorous style introduced the SD president saying, ‘. . . you have launched your bark and put a Barker on board, now let her bark,’ and she dropped the meeting into Mrs. Barker’s hands.” 

Defeats and victories

The work against alcohol was on in earnest as women signed petitions to present their point of view because they were not allowed to vote. “Our faithful leaders, president and vice president, worked bravely and heroically at Pierre (capitol of the new state of SD) to defeat the passage of the bill (favoring alcohol) but were compelled to submit to the inevitable and realize that the name of one voter is worth more than 10,000 names of women.”

The women pressed on. WCTU had notable success with legislation, even though women could not vote. By petitions and diligent personal work with the legislature, women saw the age of consent raised from 10 to 14 and later to 16.  The women also secured the scientific temperance instruction law and the law to prevent the sale of tobacco to minors under sixteen, and school suffrage for women.

As far as suffrage (women's right to vote) was concerned, it was because of petitions and pressure on the legislature that suffrage even got on the ballot.

Fighting the booze problem, the petitions the unions circulated helped win local option during territorial days. WCTU did get prohibition into the new state constitution and successfully battled its repeal for one year as the liquor lobby, well heeled and powerful, distributed free beer and whisky at “their headquarters at the Locke Hotel” in Pierre.  

In 1895, “the saloon or no saloon” was the issue again. Pastors and WCTU workers went into the country places and held meetings in school houses to persuade the people to vote against the licensed saloon. Again victory was on the side of the saloon.

The blessing of WCTU

Daughters of Dakota, Volume IV, edited by Sally Roesch Wagner gives glimpses into the lives of German, German-Russian and Scandinavian immigrants in South Dakota. It tells of the challenges of pioneer days, but recounts also (on page 136) one family’s growing social opportunities by 1895. “We were now one-half mile further from the schoolhouse, which was used for church services, as well as educational and recreational purposes, programs, Lyceum, Literary Society meetings including debates, basket socials, and Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in which there was a good membership for many years.” 

“We can never give up our union, though we feel very discouraged at times,” wrote a SD WCTU member. “There is no other society that offers such growing advantages to those who wish to be educated in all lines as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.” 

The Eureka Reporter of Nov. 7, 1902, wrote about the Type of Western Woman:

     "Mrs Alice D. Gossage of Rapid City SD is a type of western energy and pluck. She can edit and
     print a newspaper and has frequently shouldered the work of the Rapid City Daily Journal which
     her husband edits. She is an expert typesetter and as a writer has a crisp epigrammatic style. She is
     also a fine cook, an active worker in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, vice president of
     the Current Events club in her city and for nearly twenty years has been primary Sunday School
     superintendent of Rapid City."

Mrs. Gossage 

In 1898, the SD WCTU president spent much time doing field work in preparation for the coming vote on an equal suffrage amendment. She gave public addresses, attended district and county WCTU conventions, gave helpful talks to children and young people in Sunday Schools, spoke to ladies at parlor meetings, held receptions for teachers and held more “mother’s meetings” than in any other year of WCTU work. The earnest campaign for the right to vote ended in defeat at the polls.

WCTU—a lifestyle for an honorable society

WCTU was and is basically a family organization. The motto,
“For God and Home and Every Land” says it all.

WCTU members want to bless the world they live in by applying the principles of “Pray, Educate and Legislate,” and in a word that expresses action, “Agitate.” 

Throughout SD history promoting legislation for the benefit of the family and society has always been an important priority, but WCTU puts prayer and education first. Education in early days came through many WCTU departments that reached out to people and had a steady and beneficial ongoing effect on life in South Dakota. Members looked to God for direction and encouragement.

WCTU women of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s never considered themselves in the fight alone. Taking their position as an “arm of the church,” they felt that the church stood behind their efforts for moral uprightness. They met in churches, they were church members, and they saw their pastors speak out on moral issues. Many had their husbands solidly behind them, and supporting the work financially.

A Dakota pioneer couple

Major John Alfred Pickler and his wife, Alice Mary Alt Pickler, were prominent Faulk County pioneers. He was a member of the territorial legislature and South Dakota’s first representative to Congress. Both John and Alice were active in the temperance and suffrage movements in the state.     

Alice M. Pickler, SD WCTU vice president, 1915, reports on both the Suffrage and Alcohol issues:

“. . . I attended State Fair where with Miss Wilkinson’s assistance, we held down our franchise work in the tent . . . We worked together, talking to and pinning button-hole ‘Votes for Women’ pennants on hundreds of voters (men only).  . . . Many . . . promised to vote for us.”

“After the fair I spoke in my own county (and outside the county) where the pulpits on Sunday morning and afternoon were open to us. I interviewed practically every voter in my own precinct and served judges and clerks dinner at my own home on election day.”  

“In Pierre, in April, our WCTU president and I were guests of Governor and Mrs. Byrne and Judge and Mrs. Polley. While the Governor and Mrs. Byrne have always been temperance folks, Mrs. Byrne, to our great joy, put on the white ribbon and signed her name to the membership of Capitol City union. The Pierre WCTU, Gov. Byrne, Judge Whiting and citizens of Pierre, all spoke for a ‘dry Pierre,’  . . . .” (SD reported 106 unions at this time.)

Prohibition and Suffrage

On March 20, 1918, the SD legislature approved the national prohibition of booze amendment by unanimous vote. In January 1919, ratification was completed and the eighteenth amendment became part of the US Constitution. Prohibition began at midnight on January 16, 1920.

The national WCTU president spoke to members about “Today’s victories and tomorrow’s obligations.” She urged continued teaching of abstinence principles, and warned that the appetite for alcohol and the liquor dealers need to sell for profit would not be extinct.  

Women gained the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment, adopted on August 26, 1920.

In 1923, WCTU's 50th year, Miss Grace Abbott, chief of the federal Children's Bureau, told the national WCTU convention delegates that "The 18th amendment is perhaps the most important child welfare measure in the country.

Repeal of Prohibition

Fletcher Dobyns, a Chicago lawyer, wrote a book in 1940 called The Amazing Story of Repeal, An exposé of the Power of Propaganda. In it he tells of the greatest propaganda campaign in history leading up to the repeal Prohibition in 1933.

With 70 years of work and sacrifice seemingly wiped out with prohibition repeal, and the US president speaking up for liquor, the WCTU said, “No time for tears.” Now more than ever scientific alcohol education in the schools was important. Film strips, and a professionally filmed movie were shown in classrooms. Radio programs, newspaper advertising, road signs, posters, and exhibits reminded the public of the dangers of alcohol.

WCTU Faces a Changing Morality

Per capita consumption of distilled liquor increased from .70 gallons in 1935 to 1.65 gallons in 1946. WCTU spoke about the “new morality” as drinking and drugs began making their impact on the nation and most citizens regarded it with indifference. 

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Bible preachers and teachers, including some Hebrew and Greek scholars, taught the truth about the word “wine” in the Bible.  They showed that the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and even the English word “wine” had always had two meanings: 1. unfermented nonalcoholic juice and 2. fermented or alcoholic juice. In the Bible, the Hebrew word used and the context of the word showed whether the wine was alcoholic or nonalcoholic. Christian leaders spoke out fearlessly because they understood that the wine God condemned was alcoholic wine. What He approved was nonalcoholic or grape juice.

When prohibition ended, liquor companies began boldly advertising the benefits of alcohol. Older research from the Bible almost disappeared. The clergy in general, swept along with parishioners’ acceptance of alcohol, began to change the message of the church from abstinence to moderation.

WCTU needed more than ever

WCTU has slowly declined in membership. Part of this is due to the fact that today thousands of organizations exist, each designed to meet a special need—unlike the old days when one organization embraced so many causes. Another reason for WCTU’s decline is that it has steadily been losing its position as an arm of the church. It is, too often, the enemy of moderationist pastors and church members. Behind that scene is the biggest reason of all for the faltering stand against alcohol: the lack of real Bible knowledge and the declining morality of the nation. 

WCTU members have endless opportunities for work before them. Drug use of any kind is abuse to the body. Alcohol attacks the brain first of all. And the Journal of FAS International, Feb. 2005, says 52.6% of women of childbearing age use alcohol. For the unborn, alcohol is the no.1 tool of abuse.

WCTU members today are members because, as past president Edith Stanley said in 1974, “I’m never embarrassed to say no (to alcohol). As a Christian I do not hesitate to say no to sin. It doesn’t bother me to stand alone.” (The White Ribbon Story, Sarah F. Ward, 1999, p.85.)

WCTU for Life at its Best

The Bible says, “Do everything for the glory of God.” No one can drink alcohol or do other drugs for the glory of God.

The alcohol scene is not the scene God blesses. But He does give man a free-will. WCTU members continue to trust God, pray, talk and work to help everyone who will choose to do so "to live life at its best . . . free from alcohol."   





Copyright 2005
Woman's Christian Temperance Union
of South Dakota