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Not far from the El Camino Real bell in Center Park (Blog #3), there is another very “familiar,” but “strange” object in downtown Petaluma. It’s a water fountain; but it carries this message for all who drink from it:

Just five years after the national WCTU was founded in Evanston, Illinois, Petaluma was one of the first California communities to create its own chapter of the WCTU in 1879. Local historian, Katherine Rinehart, wrote that “the Petaluma chapter of the WCTU followed the formation of the Petaluma Temperance Union, which was open to all and founded in 1877. Its initial membership consisted of approximately 300 people. WCTU member chose abstinence from alcohol and defined temperance as moderation in all things healthful and total abstinence from all things harmful. The objective of the WCTU was to secure legal prohibition. ” It was reported that in 1880, Petaluma had about 50 saloons serving a population of 3,000.

In a Petaluma Argus-Courier article (10-13-2013) titled, No shortage of booze here during Prohibition, Chris Samson wrote: “Petaluma was no different than most cities around the country during Prohibition – people who wanted to drink alcohol had little trouble finding it. If you knew where to go, no problem.”

Ken Burns, in a PBS documentary about Prohibition, showed that many cities were not interested in enforcing the 18th Amendment (1920), and thereby left insufficient number of federal authorities to go after local bootleggers. In the 1920s, it was commonplace in and around Petaluma for alcohol smuggling and bootlegging.

On August 27, 1979, the Petaluma WCTU Chapter celebrated its centennial anniversary by rededicating its fountain. In addition, they distributed literature and went into Andresen’s bar in order to lecture patrons about the evils of alcohol. It was reported that Chris Andresen, the bar owner, welcomed the women who sang “Amazing Grace” and then knelt in prayer. They also “dedicated a new bench in Walnut Park and then walked along Petaluma Boulevard holding signs that read, Your first drink may be your last.” (Local historians Katherine Rinehart, Harlan Osborne and Skip Sommer assisted Chris Samson with the research for his article.)

Stay tuned for more Strangeness of the Familiar blogs about Our River Town.

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