Jeff Jardine

Temperance Union quietly pursues its mission

One day last week, Leona Korock of Modesto called. She wondered if I'd be interested in doing a column about the Modesto chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, of which she recently became president.

Wow, now there's a blast from the high school U.S. history class past.

What immediately came to mind? Carrie A. Nation, who harassed bars and saloons and any other place that sold liquor in towns and cities in Kansas. She eventually took her crusade as far as New York City.

In 1880, Kansas banned the making and selling of "intoxicating beverages except for medicinal purposes." That didn't prevent saloons from operating. Nation took it upon herself to stop them, organizing a local chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which had been formed in 1874 in Evanston, Ill., with a goal of persuading all states to ban alcohol.

At first, Nation entered the bars to sing hymns and pray for those partaking in the illegal libations. Then, in 1900, she got physical. She began raiding the drinking establishments, using rocks, sticks and eventually her trademark hatchet to bust up beer kegs, furniture, mirrors and anything else to make her point and call attention to the cause.

Nation was arrested and jailed 30 times in a decade. According to legend, she even scared John L. Sullivan -- the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion -- when she invaded his bar in New York City. I somehow doubt that one because, also according to legend, Sullivan was a notorious drunken thug known to beat his wife with the same ferocity as he belted his opponents.

Anyway, when Leona Korock called, I thought, "This could be an interesting ride-along."

Except that the Woman's Christian Temperance Union never really embraced Carrie Nation's over-the-top methods. The union's women did dump barrels of liquor and run many bars out of business. But its concern soon became more political than physical, and Nation's tactics clashed with the protocol established by the national organization.

The WCTU reached California in 1879 and Stanislaus County in 1887. Chapters sprang up in every community in the county, including two in Modesto. They also formed in San Joaquin and Merced counties. Each meeting, even in the smaller communities, would draw at least 20 people, longtime Empire and Modesto chapter member Martha Kirton said. Regional meetings, she said, often drew 60 to 70 to members.

The national WCTU expanded its scope over time to oppose drugs and tobacco, abortion and gay marriage, while supporting child welfare and women's rights. Even though the organization failed to stop the end of Prohibition in 1933, it still had more than 250,000 members worldwide by 1975.

The number has declined to 20,000 worldwide, according to published reports. Here in the valley, after the Stockton chapter closed a month ago, only one of the Modesto chapters remains, Kirton said. Once in the range of 25 to 30 members, it is down to 17, five of whom are men. Members range in age from 95-year-old Fern Freeman to 39-year-old Kim Knapp.

The local group continues its mission by reviewing ballot propositions and measures to determine whether they meet its moral standards and does the same with candidates for political office. It provides literature discouraging drugs, alcohol and tobacco use, posting it at the Stanislaus County Library for one month each year.

"As a Sunday school teacher, I use the literature in my class," Korock said. "There's just not enough positive awareness in the schools. TV and magazines and everything just glorifies it."

The organization's most visible public activities are the poster, essay and speech contests it sponsors in schools to teach children about the evils of those substances. The speech contest is held each May at Pacific Union College in Napa County, a school headed by Modesto native James Chase.

It's a struggle to recruit members, said Kirton, who, like Korock, joined because her mother was in the WCTU.

"I was pregnant with my first child. My husband and I were staying with my mother while we were building our first house," said Kirton, who joined in 1953 and has served as the local chapter's president. As she neared her due date, she could no longer drive.

"Mom said, 'Why don't you go to a WTCU meeting with me?' " Kirton said. "By that time, I'd do anything to get out of the house."

The women immediately embraced her and offered to give her a baby shower, which she declined. After two miscarriages, "I didn't want one until I had a baby in my arms," Kirton said.

But when she attended the group's picnic that August, a month before the baby was due, they rolled out a bassinet loaded with baby gifts.

After she gave birth, they asked her to be the secretary, offering to take care of the baby while she recorded the minutes.

"All three of my children grew up getting mothered by the women of the WCTU," Kirton said.

Some of the members, including Kirton, Korock and Freeman, had relatives who battled drug or alcohol addiction, and it strengthened their resolve to persuade others not to partake.

Keeping with tradition, its members must adhere to a pledge they sign upon joining that forbids them to use drugs, alcohol or tobacco, and requires them to follow the tenets of the organization.

Kirton hasn't tasted alcohol since the early 1950s, she said.

All that stated, wouldn't they -- just once -- like to go out and smash some bottles, crush some kegs and bust up some furniture, just like the woman who became the historic face of their organization?

"It would create a lot more attention," Kirton said. "But we use legal means."

Because although the word "temperance" can be defined as "total abstinence from alcoholic liquors," another definition is "self-control."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine or 578-2383.