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November 2005
Westerville, Ohio

    On Interstate 71, just north of Columbus, we pass by the city of Westerville. In 1940, Westerville was named by the Ohio Guide as “the most straight-laced town of its size in the state.”  Now how, we might wonder, does a community win that prize?

    Well, it got an early start. Westerville was incorporated in 1858 and that same year passed some of the nation’s first laws prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages: beer, wine, fermented cider and spirituous liquors. In the 1870s, the ordinance was challenged when an entrepreneur opened a saloon right on Main Street. This act of defiance touched off the so-called Westerville Whiskey War, which was decided when somebody blew up the saloon.

    Maybe the Westerville Whiskey War was a factor in convincing an organization called the Anti-Saloon League to establish its national headquarters in Westerville; they knew this town was not temperate about temperance.  With the arrival of the Anti-Saloon League, Westerville buzzed with activity aimed at convincing people of the evils of drink. The organization’s publishing house printed letters, books, and brochures and mailed them all over the country—one estimate is that at its peak, the Anti-Saloon League produced 40 tons of printed material each month. As a result the
Westerville post office got busy.  Mailings went out in such volume that Westerville became the smallest town in the country to have its own first-class mail station. As the nation marched toward passage of the 18th amendment to the United States Constitution—the Prohibition amendment that banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—Westerville helped lead the charge.

    The era of Prohibition was good to Westerville; the village thrived. Not only was the Anti-Saloon League doing well, the 3-C Highway also came through, which was the road connecting Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. It became the most heavily traveled route in the state, bringing prosperity to those communities it touched.

    When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Westerville stayed dry. The Anti-Saloon League changed its focus and founded the Temperance Education Foundation whose aim was to research and disseminate information about the alcohol problem. But as leaders of the organization aged, retired, and died, the ranks were depleted. The Anti-Saloon League finally turned its headquarters building over to the Westerville Public Library. The records of the Temperance Education Foundation and the Anti-Saloon League were given to the Westerville Library and the Ohio Historical Society, where they reside still—probably the most comprehensive collection of material anywhere about this country’s temperance movement.

     Westerville is the home of Otterbein
College, where Benjamin Hanby was a student during the 1850s. You might not recognize his name, but you know his music. Benjamin Hanby wrote more than 70 songs, including the Christmas standard, “Up on the Housetop.” You know, “Up on the Housetop reindeer pause, Out jumps dear ol’ Santa Claus.”

     Another of his songs was among the most popular of his day, and it had its beginning in personal experience. Ben Hanby’s father was a bishop in the
United Brethren Church and an active participant in the Underground Railroad, that is, the network of trails and contacts that helped fugitive slaves escape from the South to freedom in Canada. The Hanby home was a safe house on the Underground Railroad where escaped slaves rested before taking the next step of their journey.   

    One of the escapees was ill when he arrived at the Hanby’s. His name was Joe Selby, and he was on his way to Canada to earn money so he could buy freedom for his sweetheart, Nelly Gray. He never made it. He died at the Hanby household, but the story so moved Ben that the young composer incorporated it into a song called, “Darling Nelly Gray.” In the days before the Civil War, that sad song spread far and wide, north and south. It is said to have inspired many slaves to chance their own escape to the north.

“Darling Nelly Gray”
by Benjamin Hanby, 1863

There's a low green valley
On the old Kentucky shore,
There I've whiled many happy hours away.
A sitting and a singing
By the little cottage door,
where lived my darling Nelly Gray.

Oh! My poor Nelly Gray,
They have taken you away,
And I'll never see my darling any more.
I'm a sitting by the river
And I'm weeping all the day,
For you've gone from the
Old Kentucky shore.

One night I went to see her
But "she's gone," the neighbors say,
The white man bound her with his chain,
They have taken her to Georgia
For to wear her life away,
As she toils in the cotton and the cane.

For more about Westerville and its surrounding communities, see the CD for I-71 North, Columbus to Cleveland. 

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