Saturday, October 15, 2011
Rev. Powelson's Last Temperance Rally in Mystic!
The Rev. Charles W. Powelson
His Last Temperance Rally in Mystic
The Rev. Charles W. Powelson served the Jerome Methodist Church from 1886 to 1892 as its pastor. Jerome was one of the churches on a circuit that included Plano, Cincinnati and other Methodist churches in western Appanoose county. Much detail of his life and family is included in an earlier post on The Jerome Journal. His daughter Ethel was born during the time they lived in Appanoose County. She later became a well-known, best-selling author, writing under her married name of Ethel Hueston. The following excerpt is from Chapter One of Ethel Hueston's Preacher's Wife [Indianapolis & New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers, 1941] which details the happenings on the day after Rev. Powelson learned at the Southeastern Iowa Annual Conference of the Methodist Church that he would be assigned to the Mt. Pleasant circuit for the coming year and had returned home to the parsonage in Cincinnati to tell his family about his new appointment.
Rev. Charles Wesley Powelson
On that morning all she (Rev. Powelson's wife) said was, "It'll be better for all the children, getting them away from this mining crowd and all these saloons."
"I'll miss the temperance rallies, " Father said. "There won't be any need for temperance rallies in Henry County, since they have prohibition."
"There's plenty of the Lord's work to do, wherever you go," Mother said tartly. "And I guess you'll find plenty of drunkards to work on, even if they have got prohibition."
"I shouldn't wonder," he assented. "I would certainly miss my temperance rallies."
Minnie and Mary, our two oldest sisters, would miss them, too. Father's temperance rallies were the nearest approach to "theater" that we were permitted to witness. We found them far more emotionally dramatic than Epworth League entertainments or Sunday-school cantatas at Christmas and Easter. We younger ones were seldom allowed to go, as Mother considered us too young for such things, but we enjoyed hearing about them. Minnie, who was sixteen, went to play the portable organ and lead in the singing of rousing hymns and temperance songs. Mary, who even at twelve, was an outstanding elocutionist, was allowed to go to speak her temperance pieces, both thus playing their part in the good cause.
Usually the temperance rallies were held in meeting houses, schools or public halls but frequently on street corners or in public parks. Nearly always they were scheduled for Saturday night, when the miners received their weekly pay and could look forward to a quiet Sabbath to recuperate from a debauch. Father himself, not satisfied with street corners, often followed his prospective converts into the saloons to fling his spirited harangue right across the bar at them. And many a Bible he sold there, and many a temperance pledge he got signed, though sometimes the Bible was left on the bar and the signature dishonored before the ink was dry.
So effectively did Charley Powelson wage war against the liquor interests and win signers to his temperance pledges (many quite hardened drunkards said they had so good a time at his temperance rallies as they had at the saloon) that the "whiskey element" from being tolerantly amused became surly and presently threatening. They figured that it was all right for people to get religion if they wanted to and sign as many pledges as they liked so long as it did not cut into their revenue. But increasingly it did cut into their revenue.
Before long, they were making open threats against Charley Powelson. They said they would "get him." They would run him out of the county. They would tar and feather him.
Charley Powelson used their own threats against them as fresh fodder for his fiery campaign. There was nothing he liked better than a red-hot, knock-down, drag-out tussle with the Devil and his agents. And people liked him. Most of the drunkards in the county were personally devoted to him and it infuriated them to have him threatened on their account. In a way, it was an aspersion on their strength of character. It insinuated that they were not able to run their own affairs to suit themselves, that they could not take it or leave it alone, as they felt inclined. Almost daily he won more signers to his pledge and his pledges were better kept.
For one Saturday night he had announced a mammoth rally to he held in Mystic. He was warned to stay away from that meeting. His friends, the Christians, were advised to keep him away unless they wanted him to get hurt. His other friends, the drunkards, warned him on their own account uneasily. The "liquor crowd" had spread the word that there was not going to be any rally at Mystic. But Charley would not be scared off.
Mother refused to let Minnie and Mary attend that meeting. She said they were too young to get mixed up in a public brawl even in a good cause. Throwing a few stones and epithets was one thing, but when it came to breaking up a meeting it was no place for young girls. The girls were distressed about it, for Minnie loved to play the organ and lead the singing and Mary had a brand new temperance piece she had been practicing on. But Mother was firm. They could not go.
Charley piled his temperance magazines and pamphlets into the buggy along with an extra supply of pledge cards. He sharpened his stubby pencils, for he was foresighted enough to have pencils ready to take advantage of a momentary moving of the Spirit. He whistled as he hitched his team to his top buggy and was in high spirits as he drove off.
When he reached the schoolhouse in Mystic there were many men lounging around the steps and the gate and along the hitching rail. They surrounded him as he secured his team. These were his friends. They said they had arranged to patrol the grounds during the meeting to protect the teams and buggies. They said there were a lot of rowdies on hand.
"My Missis says you to come and spend the night with us, Brother Powelson," said one hospitably. "Those rapscallions have got guns. They say they are laying for you on the road home."
Charley laughed. "They can't bluff me.!"
"I do not think they are bluffing. They are in a mean mood."
"When a man means business, Brother, he does not go around blowing about what he's up to. He goes ahead about his mischief and does it and keeps his mouth shut."
"Have you got a gun, Brother Powelson?"
"No, I haven't and I do not need one. I've got all the ammunition I need, though." He patted his well-worn Bible with confident assurance.
His friends did not like it. They grouped about him to escort him into the crowded meeting house. Every seat was filled. Boys were perched in the open windows and girls clustered along the edge of the platform. The space around the doors at the back of the hall was packed. He spied several of his own "church crowd" doggedly holding their places among the rowdies near the door. A tenseness of excitement, of grim foreboding, hung in the air.
Charley made his way down the aisle toward the platform, shaking hands as he went, speaking cheerily and not forgetting to pass out temperance pamphlets. Several detained him long enough to whisper, "Be careful! They are laying for you!" or "Better go easy on them tonight." "You come to our house tonight," was the frequent invitation. "Don't you drive back that long dark road alone."
"It takes more than the Devil and a few of his hired men to scare me out," he said gaily. He was rather pleased than otherwise. Nothing put such rousing spirit into a temperance rally as the prospect of a good row before it was over.
He went triumphantly through the meeting, reading Scripture appropriate to the theme in his most resonant voice, lustily leading the singing. His prayers were as challenging as they were intercessional. He did not go far as to pray for the Devil in person, but he offered ringing petition on behalf of all rowdies, drunkards and the keepers of saloons and brothels.
In the singing,that priceless adjunct to the movement of the Spirit, even with a less experienced aid at the organ in place of the banished Minnie, he outdid himself. Constantly he exhorted his hearers to sing louder, sing as though they meant it. "Let the Devil know we mean business!" he shouted! Tear the rafters down if you have to!"
"Throw out the Life-line!
Throw out the Life-line!
Some one is sinking--today."
He enlivened his lecture with anecdotes, some so humorous that they made his listeners laugh in spite of themselves; others so pitiful that they wrung tears from their eyes and set them blowing their noses; but every one with a well-barbed shaft straight to the heart of the liquor traffic.
Then he got them all singing again while he walked, singing, up and down the aisles, distributing pledges and pencils, urging all to sign.
There was no disturbance. He rocks were thrown, no benches broken. Not one indecent epithet was hurled. They rowdies muttered a little. They took pledge cards, tore them to shreds and tossed them derisively at Charley's feet. However, the meeting came to a peaceful but enthusiastic close.
Again his friends urged him to go with one of them for the night, and again he laughed at their fears. "When they mean business, they keep their mouths shut," he said.
"They say they are lying in wait for you along the road. Why don't you fool them and take the long way home?"
"Not me! When anyone takes a shot at me I want to be on hand to see the fun."
Someone untied his horses and fastened the tie straps. Another handed him his reins and whip.
"God bless you, Brother Powelson," said one.
"God bless you, brothers!" he responded heartily. "Good night!"
They stood in silence as he flicked his reins and the horses cantered off. But he was not silent. He called good-by in a ringing voice, and as the buggy rolled away into the darkness, he broke into one of his favorite temperance songs:
"Oh, no, boys! Oh, no!
The turnpike's free wherever I go!
I'm a temperance engine, don't you see,
And the brewer's big horses can't run over me!"
Crossing a low bridge he saw a couple of men loitering half out of sight behind the rails. "Hello, friends!" he saluted them cheerily, "Nice night! Looking for frogs' legs?" And then, "'The turnpike's free wherever I go!'"
At a shadowy place beside the road, a buggy was drawn off close to the fence. In it sat two men, motionless, not talking.
"Anything wrong, neighbors? Need any help?"
"No, we don't need any help," was the snarling answer.
"Nice night! 'I'm a temperance engine, don't you see--'"
In the corner by the cemetery, under a thick cluster of brush, stood a small group of men. As he approached, suddenly a shot was fired into the air. "Pretty dark night for target practice!" he hailed them. "'Oh, no, boys! Oh, no!'"
As his team cantered briskly by, another shot was fired into the air, another and another.
"'And the brewer's big horses can't run over me!'"
There were no more shots that nigh and there were no more threats in the days that followed.
A few nights later, after the family had retired, sleeping all over the place as was necessary, Jo in her cradle, the twins and I in trundle beds, and the rest distributed about in beds, on cots and couches, suddenly we were awakened by a dull yet resonant explosion in the cellar beneath us. We children crouched low in our beds and pulled the covers over our heads until Mother could come and take care of us. She came at once, she and Father having landed on their feet almost simultaneously with the explosion. Mother lighted a lamp and began a swift tour of the beds, counting noses, relieved to discover all intact. Father lighted a lantern, took his shotgun and went to the cellar.
A nondescript, home-made bomb had been tossed through the open cellar window and had exploded there. The was was shattered on one side. A wooden partition had collapsed. Pieces of the crude bomb were strewn about on the floor and Father brought some of them upstairs, to show the family.
"The liquor interests," he explained briefly. "Still trying to scare me out."
"Did you close the window?" Mother asked briskly, for she felt that some decisive action should be taken in every emergency.
He went down again and closed it, a futile precaution, since half the wall was blown out. He fastened the rusted padlock on the cellar door. Then he went outside with his lantern and shotgun and walked around the house and out to the stable for a look at his horses. He found no sign of prowlers.
For the first time, I believe for the only time, Mother locked the doors. She left a couple of lamps burning the rest of the night as a sort of hint to further intruders that we were all up and wide awake. She moved my trundle bed into her him, too, along with the twins' and with the baby's cradle.
"A nice way to bring up a family," she remarked exasperatedly as she got back into bed.
With all this burning fresh in her memory, it is a small wonder that she regarded with quiet equanimity the prospect of our removal from iniquitous saloons and various fast sets to the quiet culture and prohibition of Mount Pleasant. Even if we had to buy new furniture to equip the big parsonage, she counted it an expenditure well worth while. We were not so sure. We were willing to subject ourselves to culture in a mild way, but temperance rallies were by far the most exciting phase of the Lord's work.
"We'll still have camp meetings and revivals, won't we?" we asked wistfully, for if they, too, were to be taken from us, we would willingly have forgone the onward push of civilization.
"We'll have revivals," said Mother. "I'm not sure whether camp meetings will be dignified enough for Henry County."