MARIA WATERBURY had wakened to the familiar sounds of her mother puttering in the kitchen. It was still dark outside. Only the lamp on the cabinet in the hall provided a dim guttering light, guttering because of a draft up the staircase. Maria would have liked to close her eyes again to sleep in but if Mam was already slicing fresh potatoes into the bacon grease, breakfast must be early for some reason. Something was afoot.
She slid from beneath the blankets and put her feet into slippers, threw her dressing gown over her shoulders and shuffled to the door, swinging it back quietly, without a sound.
Thinking it would be another quiet day in “New Town,” as she called Polo, she was immediately surprised to hear a gabble of voices, high-pitched young men’s voices talking over one another. They burst in the house exclaiming about the aroma of the fry on the range.
The group called themselves the “Knights of the Gimlet,” perhaps mocking themselves.
They announced over each other that a delivery had been made at the depot of the Illinois Central Railroad and it was a big freight of whiskey for a store in town. Continuing, someone, off-hand, said that most of the barrels of liquor had been breached, all except two casks.
Elizabeth Waterbury turned from her chore at the range and said firmly, “Quick, get an ax and go break up the other two. Strike again and again at the barrel heads, that’s how they’ll be more easily be broken in. It’s how I open pork barrels.”
The excitement of the Knights and mother’s seriousness had stirred me to become involved. I went outside without hesitation, remembering I was in my night robe and slippers and without a hat. Ladies did not go out with no hat or sunbonnet but I marched along the wood plank sidewalks, calling as I went for others to join me.
Women emerged from this house and that in a varied array of attire, gowns or housedresses thrown on, they, however, wearing hats. They’d been wakened by the distant noise from the depot where the Knights and others were breaking into the whiskey barrels.
We marched along two by two, calling over the shoulder what our objectives was and what we’d do.
We wanted to arrive at the depot before the grocer got there; he must have overslept. A clerk opened the store for business, however. A large crowd of men and boys were there, milling around, talking and shouting. There might have been two or three hundred.
The wife of Zenas Aplington, founder of “New Town,” Polo, was at my elbow, wondering aloud who had an ax. Male voices called out saying that there was one in the south room of the depot. It was Walter Pierce and Daniel Burke with the instructions.
It didn’t take long to fetch the ax but it did take time to screw up our courage to strike. Many of the women wouldn’t think of touching an ax until the TALL girl heard her mother’s voice echoing in her head, telling her to swing the ax over and over again in the same spot. So the writer swung to cries of “Hit it again and again.”
The railroad employees stood in a huddle by themselves, not stirring, permitting the whiskey to spill.
To the right were a few lovers of the drink who hated to see the whiskey wasted.
Over went the first cask, two-thirds full, tipped and pushed by two or three women. A cheer. The second was full and took a while to be broken. Finally a couple women hit the right place and the women had another cheer from the crowd but the whiskey splashed on the ground and came back up to wash over their heads, gowns and slippers making them look as if they’d been to a log rolling.
Many were the threats of punishment by the law. Muttering and asides!
After the incident, the writer (Maria) was for years called “Whiskeybury” instead of Waterbury. She waited for a trial and jail.
After the case was called to court it was adjourned time and again for over a year. And when there was a hearing the station agent testified that the barrels had been delivered to the grocer who ordered them. The case was ultimately dismissed because the public was so strongly against liquor in “New Town,” Polo.
After the upset no grocer could sell liquor without there being a boycott when it was learned he was selling.
After the “raid” the women marched home, two by two, retracing their paths on the wooden plank sidewalk singing: “We are Washingtonians; We are Washingtonians; And we’ll sound it through the land.” Singing it repeatedly until, peaceably, we went to our separate places of abode but the Temperance Spirit filled the atmosphere!
Mother had a hot breakfast waiting when the Writer got home. Father with his Bible in hand, was reading and his talk was much better than any preaching—doing as we would be done by to the man with a drunkard’s appetite; saying, too, that whiskey was a nuisance and was to be treated as such as we’d exterminate a mad dog.
We must keep whiskey out of New Town or God would hold us accountable.
For only one year was there a license with the tax collected used to help repair the wooden plank sidewalks. If Father came upon a gap or a broken plank he’d say, “The town officers better stuff a drunk in here.”
Rev. William Todd preached in Mosher’s Hall for the Presbyterians. He’d been a missionary in India for ten years and now preached at both New Town and Grand de Tour. He was at the latter when the whiskey raid took place. He said he wished he’d been here to help. Rev. Todd preached a “double distilled Temperance sermon.”
Whiskey was kept out of Polo by strict vigilance. (signed) Maria Waterbury.
• • • • • • • • • • •
The above was taken from a handwritten copy (seen here) of a program given to the Polo Historical Society in 1904 by “New Town” resident, Maria Waterbury who led the “raid” on the whiskey delivery to the Illinois Central depot in 1856, an early date in the decades—long temperance campaign against alcohol.
The IC Railroad had knifed up the entire center of the state to plat a town about every ten miles and whose main streets led straight to the depot. It created Polo in January of 1863 which was built along the tracks, a convenient market in the neighborhood.
It was “New Town” yet in 1856 when this incident occurred, a women’s activists event here on the prairie, under cover of darkness!
In contrast to the new town was “Old Town,” Buffalo Grove, that was a stop on the Galena Road more than twenty-five years before. In the ‘50’s, by which time there were six stores, school, churches, a steam sawmill and a distillery in Buffalo Grove.
A small reference gives that the distillery lasted until 1856. Is it a coincidence that it folded at the time of the whiskey raid?
Still protecting New and Old Townites against liquor in 1865, a saloon just happened to be burned, taking with it, however, fourteen stores and one residence. Reference doesn’t say if it might have been arson or accidental. But the Temperance people held the line against alcohol until 1933 ... A dry town until then.
“New Towners” prevailed all along against liquor. When the Presbyterians organized in May of 1848 one of the rules was that they must sign a statement that only persons who agreed to abstain from alcohol and they must refrain from making, vending, or using intoxicating beverages. Temperance was a major issue, for certain. Another hard fast rule they must agree to and to sign to become a Presbyterian was that no one must be an advocate of slavery, or to own slaves. Surprisingly, perhaps, abolitionism was a major issue this far north and there were many “depots on the Underground Railroad” in this area, those at Eagle Point, Polo and other sites are known.
Following the Civil War Maria Waterbury traveled to Dixieland to work for the Freedman’s Bureau, a kind of welfare/educational society to assist the residents of the South to learn and adapt to their new freedom.
The Waterbury families were early settlers in Ogle County and their homes were stops on the Underground Railroad. Maria’s story has been told previously in PDQ Me. This whiskey raid was but one incident in her busy and contributary life. It was recently “uncovered” at the Lanark Library by its director, Janie Dollinger. Thanks for sharing.