The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union made its mark on national history, helping push the United States toward outlawing alcohol in 1919 and giving women the right to vote the following year.
But in Ocean City, the WCTU made its mark on local history even before that. And that mark is still visible today, in the form of a fountain the organization donated to the city. The fountain was part of a national campaign to convince people not to drink alcohol — by giving them the healthful, helpful alternative of water instead.
The famously dry city dedicated the fountain — in a place of honor outside City Hall — on Memorial Day 1915. Local residents and officials are scheduled to rededicate it Monday with a brief ceremony at 10 a.m.
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Eileen Steelman definitely plans to be there. And based on history, Steelman figures she’ll probably surprise some people by showing up — because she’s an active, current member of the WCTU, a group that many people assume is itself ancient history.
“They don’t know it still exists, other than the ones working for it,” says Steelman, a member of the union — WCTU’s official name for its chapters — based in the Cedarville section of Lawrence Township, Cumberland County. “You try to get people interested, and they say, ‘I didn’t even know they were around anymore.’ It’s not an easy thing.”
Steelman moved to Ocean City from Bridgeton a few years ago, and most of the members she knows are from around her old home. She said the group’s activities now focus on “trying to educate children against drugs and alcohol at an early age.” They do that “mostly at Christian schools, but a few public schools, too.”
Other than that, they mainly write letters about similiar issues to state legislators. The Cedarville Union has 37 members, but just about “15 are very active,” says Steelman, 78, who has been a WCTU officer for 20 years.
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She was thrilled when she learned that her new hometown was planning to rededicate its century-old drinking fountain — and in the process pay tribute to the WCTU.
She read that news in the local Ocean City Magazine, in a piece written by the city’s official historian, Fred Miller. He went to the June 3, 1915, issue of the Ocean City Sentinel and started his story with its headline: “W.C.T.U. PRESENTS CITY WITH HANDSOME FOUNTAIN; Mayor Champion Accepts Gift from Mrs. S. S. Warren.”
Miller says the group initially tried to give the fountain to the city in 1912, but then-Mayor Harry Headley “said he would accept the gift when City Hall was completed.” The new City Hall opened in January 1915, “but a few months later, Headley was voted out of office and Joseph G. Champion was elected mayor,” as Miller wrote — “apparently because (Headley) spent too much money on City Hall,” he added in an interview.
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Ocean City would seem to be the WCTU’s perfect partner — the town was founded by ministers and has been proudly dry ever since. Just in 2012, voters overwhelmingly defeated a bring-your-own-bottle referendum promoted by some local restaurants.
But the truth is that the WCTU gave out hundreds of fountains to towns across the country early last century. The national organization keeps a list of dozens still in existence around the United States and Canada at wctu.org.
Miller says today’s event will be “just a brief ceremony, rededicating the fountain and mentioning how Mayor Champion dedicated it on Memorial Day of 1915. ... The mayor said the city was going to take care of it and he hoped it would last a long time.”
It’s been a century and counting so far. But one resident may be happier about today’s gathering than most others.
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“We tried to find information about the fountains,” said Steelman. “We got a lot on Salem” — the home of another — “but not much on Ocean City. We thought they just forgot it.”