Monday, August 7, 2017

When Carrie Nation Smashed into Oshkosh

A regressive movement needs its geek. Prohibitionists had Carrie Nation.

Carrie Amelia Nation
Born in 1846, Nation was strong, six-foot tall, and often unhinged. When she turned violent she grew famous. Her act was to smash saloons. It began in 1900 in Kiowa, Kansas. She said God told her to go there and throw bricks at taverns. So she did.

Nation moved on. She attacked saloons in Wichita and Topeka. The press loved it. She refined her game. She began using a hatchet. Her tool of choice came to symbolize her one-woman war against saloons and alcohol.

A Carrie Nation Souvenir Hatchet
By 1901, Carrie Nation was known nationwide.  She took her act on the road. It was inevitable she'd hit Oshkosh. She was said to have grumbled it was the wickedest city in the State of Wisconsin, if not the entire Northwest. She'd never been to Oshkosh. She'd heard stories, though.

Oshkosh came to Nation's attention early on. In 1901, she'd met James G. Clark, vice president of what is now Oshkosh B’Gosh. Clark was visiting Kansas. At the time, Nation was being held in a Topeka jail for running amok in saloons there. Clark went to see her.

"I was permitted to do my talking through the iron bars of her cell. She asked me about Oshkosh, and I told her that it was a beautiful city… and that it is true that we have saloons, both good and bad ones... I told her the rumors that she had heard about ladies dancing on hotel tables in Oshkosh must have originated in the fertile brain of an outsider... I told her there are some of our saloons that are disreputable places and had brought disgrace on the fair name of our beautiful city."
   – James G. Clark, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; March 16, 1901

Carrie Nation praying in her Topeka jail cell.

A year later, Nation paid a visit to the “wicked” and “beautiful” city of Oshkosh.

In the summer of 1902, Carrie Nation came barnstorming Wisconsin. Oshkosh was on her list. Her sojourn here was arranged by E.E. Downs, manager of the Winnebago Traction Co. He paid her $50 a day to spend a Saturday and Sunday – July 19 and 20 – in Oshkosh. Downs acted as her booker. He scheduled two speaking events for her in parks owned by the Traction Company. Nation would give her spiel, meet the locals, and make some cash selling her trinket hatchets.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 15, 1902

As the date approached, anticipation grew. "The saloon smasher of Kansas is coming to Oshkosh," the Daily Northwestern bellowed. "This may cause the some odd-127 saloon proprietors of this city to lock up their places and take to the tall timber." Carrie Nation was on her way.

She limbered up for Oshkosh by throwing a tantrum in Fond du Lac. There, she frothed rabid about Wisconsin drowning in beer. "Every German in Wisconsin should be blown up with dynamite," she raged.

Nation marched down Fond du Lac's Main Street hissing at saloon men and their patrons. At the E. J. Schmidt saloon, she produced a hatchet and smashed a bottle of whiskey. It was all show. Schmidt grabbed her axe and threw her out. Next morning, she headed north by rail.

Commemorative sign at Main and Division in Fond du Lac.

Carrie Nation arrived in Oshkosh on a rain-soaked Saturday; July 19, 1902. She checked in at the Athearn Hotel as "Carrie Nation, the Home Defender."

Nation took a room on the second floor. She was preparing for a nap when a reporter from the Northwestern came knocking. She immediately put him at ease. "Her smile was enough to reassure him if he had any misgivings as to her temper.” But it was all downhill from there.

"I wish I could find a hotel here with no bar in it," she groused. "There are none here? That is what I expected. You have a very beautiful city here. I understand, though, that it is a very bad, wicked city."

It rained all morning. The weather kept Nation confined to her room. By noon her mood had cratered. In the Athearn dining room she went ballistic when a waiter handed her a menu that included a wine list.

"This aroused her wrath and in loud tones she gave an argument in favor of prohibition and said it was a shame and a disgrace that hotels sanctioned the serving of liquors in the dining room or anywhere else... She said it was ruining the girl waiters, making bartenders out of them. She 'roasted' a group of men for ordering liquor served with their meal."
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902

While the staff scrambled, she barked at a group of men drinking beer at a nearby table. Finally, someone found a menu without a wine list on it. Nation momentarily quieted.

After eating, she spewed more insult. Nation railed at a young lady working the Athearn's cigar case. She said it was "A shame that a handsome girl should hand out cigars to vile smokers." She accused the girl of  "Helping to wreck the lives of the men."

She abused a bartender then turned to a clerk demanding to know if he was a Christian. The clerk wasn't intimidated. He smiled at her and said he thought he was. Nation stormed out.

It kept raining. Her first public appearance was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Sub-Station Park (at the intersection of County Rd. JJ and Breezewood Lane). But the weather was too harsh for it. The event was hastily relocated to Armory B Hall at the northeast corner of Merritt and Jefferson streets.

Armory B Hall
The crowd was smaller than E.E. Downs and the Traction Company hoped for. Rev. Edward H. Smith of the First Congregational Church introduced her. Nation took the stage at 8 p.m. She wasn't there to make friends.

"These brewers are nearly all Germans," she roared at a city heavily populated with German immigrants. "They come over here and are drugging the American people. Tonight this city is a place of crime, of murder. Even your hotels trap men and murder them with the drink they furnish."

She pulled out the Athearn menu that had set her off earlier in the day. She recited its wine list and the names of the different beers offered.

A 1902 ad for the Athearn Hotel, including its beer list.

It was a floundering mess of a speech. The Daily Northwestern remarked, "She is not a literary woman and her lectures are more or less rambling and disjointed."

Sunday was supposed to be better.

Nation was scheduled to appear at Electric Park in the afternoon and evening. Until then, she had time to kill in Oshkosh.

Around noon, her anger flared again. From the steps of the Athearn she could see Oshkosh paid no heed to Sunday closing laws. Saloons were running wide open. Nation had been threatening to go "slumming" since coming to town. It was time she hit the pavement.

From the front door of the Athearn she could see the Opera Buffet, a saloon run by William Bedward. Nation made a beeline across Opera House Square.

Opera House Square – later known as Monument Square – with Bedward's saloon indicated.
For Carrie Nation’s purposes, the ideal saloon was a hellish dive roiling with immigrant drunks slurring in their native tongue. Bedward's place was the antithesis of that.

William Bedward was born in Wales in 1852. He was in his early 20s when he reached Oshkosh. He worked as a railroad brakeman before going into the saloon business about 1899. The saloon Bedward ran on Opera House Square was anything but a dive. It was well appointed. He catered to the downtown clientele and business travelers.

Inside Bedward's Opera Buffet Saloon.
Carrie Nation was fuming as she advanced over Opera House Square. The Bedward place was in her sights. Nation later admitted she "had a mind to smash the place." She barged through doors and broke into a temperance rant. Bedward would have none of it.

As his patrons looked on, Bedward took Nation by the arm and led her back out the door. He told her he never allowed women in his saloon. And that she was no exception.

Nation turned tail. She headed north and up High Ave. This was more her style. The saloons and hotel bars along lower High were the sort of places Nation made a career out of railing against. Among them was the William Koch saloon across from the Grand Opera House. Koch had long been a sponsor of alcoholic mayhem. Serving minors was among his specialties.

But Carrie Nation couldn't make a go of it strolling on High Ave.  She stopped to harangue saloon keepers along the way, but each time was rebuffed. They told her to keep moving. None would let her inside. Worse yet, they seemed to view her with amusement.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902.

Any remaining illusions Nation may have had about her standing in Oshkosh were finally shattered when she ran into a beer peddler. Seeing a beer delivery on the Sabbath triggered her. Nation lit into the man, spitting that he was a fool. The beer man gave it right back. “Well, you are a damned fool,” he shouted at her.  “And everybody knows it.”

Nation's High Ave. campaign ended near the corner of Jackson St. at the home Rev. James O'Malley of St. Peter's Church. At the time, O'Malley was the leading light of Oshkosh's beleaguered temperance movement.

James O'Malley
The conversation Carrie Nation had with James O'Malley went unreported. And O'Malley’s opinion of the Kansas Saloon Smasher remained his own. At least publicly. Others in the local anti-liquor brigade were not so reserved.

"The sentiment of most of them is probably contained in the remark made by one of the leading ministers of the city, who is an earnest temperance worker. Said he: "No. I did not go out to hear the famous Mrs. Nation. I have no sympathy with her since she allowed herself to become a dime museum freak and is endeavoring to exhibit herself for the money there is in it." 
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902

After her visit with O'Malley, Carrie Nation headed back to her room at the Athearn. It began to rain again.

Her afternoon appearance at Electric Park was supposed to be the highlight of her Oshkosh visit. The amusement park just south of the city would be an ideal fit for her routine. "Farmers for miles around are planning to see her," the Northwestern reported. "The crowds that will gather to hear her lecture and get a sight of her will undoubtedly be very large."

Electric Park, later known as White City.

Carrie Nation never made it to Electric Park. The rains proved too severe. Again she was moved to Armory B Hall. The farmers stayed home. The audience was sparse. Oshkosh had heard enough from her.

Newspapers across the country had followed Nation as she made her way to Oshkosh. Expectations ran high. The "wicked city" with the unruly saloons was bound to send her off the deep end. But folks in Oshkosh didn't take the bait. When they weren't laughing at her, they ignored her. Disappointment followed in her wake.

"Carrie Nation didn't draw well In Oshkosh, which indicates two things. First, that more people might have gone to hear her had it not rained, and, second, that Oshkosh people are not so blamed anxious to be humbugged as one might think to look at them."
   – Janesville Gazette; July 29, 1902.

When she left town Monday, the weather improved. The clouds followed her. Her next stop was in Madison. While giving a speech there, the stage she stood on collapsed.

Carrie Nation blundered away and into obscurity. She died in Kansas in 1911. Her obituary in the Northwestern was perfunctory. The paper made no mention of her failed visit to Oshkosh. Did anyone remember?

William Bedward was still behind the bar at the Opera Buffet when Carrie Nation died. And at the Athearn the menu still featured plenty of beer and wine. The saloons and hotel bars on High were still thriving, and the beer peddlers still made Sunday rounds. The Kansas Smasher came and went. She didn’t even leave a dent.

“Faithful to the Cause of Prohibition. She Hath Done What She Could.”


  1. Lee,

    Excellent as usual. Are you related to her in any way? I think there is a strong resemblance.

    1. Thanks Dave. No relation whatsoever. She wouldn't have lasted a minute in the family I grew up in!