Mom and the WCTU

Mom and the WCTU

When I was a child, my mom attended the WCTU, and received the monthly magazine, but the days of active involvement for children was over, at least in our area. We kids kind of got a kick out of the whole thing, as our mom was at least 20 to 30 years younger than all the other ladies that attended, and they would always be so happy when a “young woman” turned up. Of course to us kids, our mom seemed pretty old, so the other ladies seemed positively antique, with their white hair and conservative old-style outfits they dressed up in for meetings. In the summer, they would hold their meetings in one of the local parks by the lake, and sometimes mom would take us along and we could play on the swings and teeter-totters while the ladies held their meetings. We watched curiously from a distance, and it seemed kind of funny to us that they would all be so dressed up, with their little hats and pins and proper dresses and pumps, in the park in the summer! They would sing old time style hymns, often with the words changed to extol the merits of avoiding alcohol, and they would all recite “the pledge” loudly together for the benefit of passers-by. Since the ladies did not have any instruments, and for many of them their voices had passed their best days, and they sang and spoke loudly so others would hear, I’m afraid a lot of the passers-by were more amused than impressed, but certainly the ladies meant well.

One time, when I was about 13 or 14, the ladies pressed my mom into taking a copy of the “new” pledge home, to convince us children to sign. She dutifully showed it to us, but did not press the matter. My brother, who was about 12 at the time, thought it was absolutely hilarious, as in an attempt to update the pledge, a line had been added about “drugs like STP.” We had been raised in quite a sheltered existence, and knew very little about alcohol (other than that it should be avoided!) and even less about illegal drugs. However, my brother was already very knowledgeable about cars, and to him “STP” was a well-known oil treatment. He couldn’t believe anyone would ever consider imbibing that, much less signing a pledge not to partake!

Sometime during my middle-teens, the WCTU group in our town closed down, as too many members had passed away. However, there were still some stalwart women who carried in on in our province, and when my husband and I were in our mid-30s, the provincial president (whose son is my uncle) offered my husband, on behalf of the WCTU, to attend an international drug-and-alcohol-counselors conference, which he did attend. There were close to 500 delegates – but I think he was the only one with any “connection” to the WCTU. Not long after that, even the provincial level closed down, as there were only a half dozen members, and most of them were well into their 90s!

Recently, I have been going through my mom’s things. In her jewelry box was a silk pin-cushion with quite a collection of WCTU pins, including awards for faithful attendance, and for elocution contests, which were a big event in her youth. There were also 3 scrap books from the early 1930’s, featuring the “WCTU Press Contest” for each year in the local communities (Penticton and Summerland, British Columbia). I gave one to my aunt (whose mother-in-law was the Provincial President) and still have the other two. The WCTU was a very lively and well-attended group in those days.

In the 1932-1933 book, a picture of the LTL group shows 17 children, both boys and girls, which was quite a large group considering the small size of the Summerland community. WCTU meetings were apparently held every Friday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., and were well attended by many women in the community. Newspaper clippings indicate that a regular meeting included an inspiring devotional from scripture, readings from the “White Ribbon Tidings” magazine, addition of newly pledged members, and business such as the production of the “Press Book” each year, writing contests, elocution contests, educational endeavors, and so on. My great aunt was the local president, and my grandmother was often on the executive. The LTL (Loyal Temperance Legion) meetings for the children were held “fortnightly” and the children were taught from a book called “The Three Partners,” and then each produced a workbook featuring drawings and cut-outs on the topics. An annual convention was also held, which would be attended by about 50 local members, plus special delegates including the provincial president and the Dominion (of Canada) president. Some years there were even international guests, from countries such as Scotland. Medal contests were a special feature of the conventions. Another event that year was the “tenth national Sunday School temperance study course” taught in the United (Methodist) and Baptist Sunday Schools, the two main churches in the community, which was taken by “approximately 150 scholars” of which 32 wrote examinations and all “received either pass or honor certificates of their standing.” The 12 best papers were forwarded to the district level, and my mom placed first in the “Junior, ages 10 and 11” level. My mom attended the Baptist Sunday School in her small community, and it won the provincial challenge shield for the highest average marks on the examinations, several times in the 1930s. So the WCTU must have been a very important social group in the little town of West Summerland. Mom also won several “elocution” awards for recitation of poetry and speeches, and musical programs were another activity for the young people. The scrapbooks are full of photographs and newspaper clippings from those years, which I think must have been the “golden years” for the WCTU, at least in our area.

Tucked in the front of one of the scrapbooks are notes my mom must have made many years later, probably at the time of my memories of the WCTU. I know that the elderly ladies were very concerned with the dwindling numbers of members, but I suppose they had wonderful memories of the “golden age” of the organization, and simply could not imagine changing things a little in order to interest a new generation. I do remember they thought my mom was a bit radical, coming up with new-fangled ideas that they simply couldn’t accept. Her notes, in part, read, “If a nucleus of women got interested in WCTU, how could it be run to keep their interest – so they would feel it was worthwhile and relevant? What about the revered ‘trappings’? – all the ‘departments,’ bits and pieces? (“Frances Willard Day organization… so we must do it her way?). I am not a ‘do-gooder’ talk-your-ear-off type – that drives people to distraction (drink?)!” Then she listed a variety of new-style activities, such as cooperation with MADD, use of films and other visual aids, taking a stand on relevant current (1960s-1970s) issues (abortion, capital punishment, pornography, “peace” and “liberation” movements, etc). She also listed what she felt were still valuable aspects of the WCTU (no political affiliation, international and Christian, educating society of the effects of drugs and alcohol, protection of children and family life, the preservation of purity in society leading to freedom for all people, working with families to cut down on family breakup and its causes, etc). However, it seems that in the end, the “revered ‘trappings’” won out, and so an organization that had done many wonderful things in its time finally faded. It seems kind of sad, but at the same time, reading through these scrapbooks, and hearing others’ memories, as well as my own, has made me wonder if, in our day and age, we might want to follow their example of determination and action to build stronger families, communities, nations and world. How might we do that?

Date March 2008

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