One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith
XIX Prohibition Picnics
Ever since I was a boy, abstinence from intoxicating liquors had been with me a subject of vital concern. I had seen enough of alcohol's evil effects to want to wage war against it. The Order of Good Templars, which I joined at the age of seventeen, had co-operated with other societies in a great temperance revival all over the state. Temperance reform had followed close on the heels of the antislavery movement. The saloon in its worst aspect was strongly entrenched in many cities of Kansas. Brawls and shooting scrapes were common in wide-open "cow towns" that served as a rendezvous for gamblers, outlaws, and fugitives from justice. In backfiring against the dry sentiment gradually sweeping the prairies, liquor dealers defiantly violated every restrictive feature of the laws, selling liquor on Sunday, selling to minors, and disregarding other ordinances.
The evils of the saloon became so apparent that Governor John P. St. John, a leader of the temperance movement, urged the 1879 legislature to submit a prohibition amendment to the people.
During the frenzied campaign that followed, farmers around Auburn planned a rally to create sentiment for the passage of this constitutional measure. The gathering took the form of a huge picnic in a shady grove on my farm along the south branch of the Wakarusa. We invited preachers of the community to speak.
The struggle between the two factions in the legislature was bitter, women trying to influence their legislative husbands. The Woman's Christian Temperance
Union, convening in Baltimore, set aside a month for prayer, with Kansas' campaign in view.
The Senate finally passed the bill unanimously, sending it to the House, where the vote was close. Mrs. G.W. Greever, wife of a member from Wyandotte County, rushed to the floor, when she heard her husband say "Nay" and persuaded him to change his vote. This made the required two-thirds to carry the measure. The next day the Governor presented Mrs. Greever with a scroll designating her "the Mother of Prohibition in Kansas."
In the general election of 1880 the amendment won by a vote of 92,302 for and 84,304 against, making Kansas the first state in the Union to adopt constitutional prohibition. It went into effect on May 1, 1881, and from that time on alcoholic liquor was legally outlawed in Kansas. We celebrated the achievement of this goal by another picnic in our grove the following year, and continued to hold annual jubilee celebrations thereafter, partly to keep the dry forces on their toes.
We arranged an outdoor amphitheater with seats on the side of a hill and a large stage, equipped with appropriate scenery. The seating capacity was two thousand. A lumberman in Burlingame, nine miles away, donated planks for seats and tables, seven or eight men with farm teams hauling them back and forth.
Women brought flowers, flags, and bunting to decorate the grounds and posted temperance banners everywhere. Soft drinks, lemonade, and ice cream were sold, concession fees just about paying expenses. Children received free ice cream tickets. The Auburn Sunday Schools put on programs, flag drills, band concerts, and other
entertainment, with a home-talent prohibition play after dark. People from far and near came early and stayed late.
We always had the very best speakersgovernors, senators, and other persons of prominence. Prohibition was the central theme of it all. It was at one of these picnics that Charles Curtis, then county attorney, declared, "From this time on, I'm a prohibitionist!"
One year bootleggers tried to sell liquor near the grounds.
"Go buy a bottle," I said to one of our group.
He got it; then three or four of us started after the scamps. We were on foot. They saw us coming and ran for their buggy and clambered in. Just then my nephew came along with a spirited team of horses. We climbed into his wagon and the race was on.
Being a justice of the peace, I ordered "Stop!"
The bootleggers drove all the harder. I whipped out my revolver, intending to bring them to a halt by getting one of their horses, but I missed. We continued the race another mile. Ahead was a bridge with half a dozen boards gone from the flooring. The men drove right on, making their horses jump the gaps. We didn't attempt this hair-raising stunt, and they got away.
We did succeed eventually in catching them, however, by swearing out warrants and having them arrested. Our case was clear, and the man who sold the bottle of whisky near the picnic grounds was duly convicted and punished. They never disturbed us again.
Old-timers in Kansas well remember that adoption of the prohibition amendment was but the real beginning of the fight. It took more than a score of years to make prohibition really prohibit. Liquor dealers did not give up
without a struggle and public sentiment often favored the outlaws. Law enforcement was a farce. The wets were far better organized for political work than the dry forces. Kansas was an "island in a sea of whisky." Not only that, but there were no interstate commerce laws to prevent liquor from being shipped in from all sides. This little ditty of mine describes the situation:
I'm legally dry as a state can be,
But lawlessly wet as the deep, deep sea.
Is that a paradox? Search and see!
During my second term as treasurer of Shawnee County, a "Committee of Seventeen" was organized to aid in enforcing the prohibition laws. We met every Sunday afternoon at four o'clock, and I was elected chairman. Later we increased the membership, calling ourselves the "Committee of Two Hundred."
The saloon-keepers set up a steering committee of their own to keep tab on our activities. They had considerable fun at our expense, but we managed to keep them guessing and rather "got on their nerves." One of their most trusted men brought us information as to their plans and purposes.
Although we became adept at securing evidence, our cause was almost hopeless, and little was actually accomplished in the way of law enforcement. "Hung juries" were inevitable. Many well-prepared cases with names of witnesses given to the county attorney from the police court, as the law directs, were passed on to a grand jury and died a natural death. Such was the state of affairs when I left Topeka in 1898 to return to the farm.
One showery afternoon, two years later, when soggy
fields prevented work with the teams, some of the boys and I were down by the creek, trying to dislodge wasps' nests from the trees. A horse-drawn buggy came through the gate and stopped close by. The Topeka friend who greeted me I knew well as a member of our Committee of Two Hundred and secretary of the State Temperance Union.
"Mayor Drew wants you to come over to the city," he said, "and my instructions are not to return without you."
"What does the mayor want with me?" I asked.
"To appoint you Chief of Police."
"That's impossible!" I replied emphatically. "I'm not going with you."
My friend was so insistent that I finally agreed to ride over the following evening to talk with the mayor.
I met with fifteen or twenty others. Things were not going to suit an honest man like Mayor Drew, who had just been elected by the dry forces. He needed a police chief who would see that the liquor laws were enforced, and wanted me to take the job.
"But I know nothing about police work," I protested, "and if I lived in a city of 30,000 people, I should resent the idea of going to the country in search of a city marshal."
The others agreed that my arguments sounded plausible. Considering the matter settled, I mounted my horse and rode home. Two days later a letter from Topeka urged me to reconsider the position.
Another meeting followed, lasting into the early morning hours.
Jennie and I talked the matter over together, carefully and prayerfully. The farm needed me. To leave it now meant a great sacrifice of time and money. I was
making a good living, and a little more, off the land during a period when farming was highly profitable. On the other hand, the pressure from Topeka was hard to resist. There was an even stronger urge within me that could not be ignored.
Finally, Jennie settled the question by declaring, "Frank, the call is higher than men."
I realized more than ever what a true-hearted, unselfish woman she was. "Yours will be the hardest part," I said, "to stay on the farm and direct things here."