The Sin City of West Texas
By Sara Johnson
The frontier town of San Angelo, Texas was established in 1865 two years prior to the construction of its most notable historical monument, Fort Concho, which was completed in 1867. The town itself was known for its saloons, which offered patrons prostitution and gambling. The more civilized folk resided in the town of Ben Ficklin just south of the Concho River. In 1882 a major flood engulfed the area, washing away numerous businesses, homes and the official county seat of Tom Green county. Thus the civilized folk relocated to San Angelo, a settlement called “over the river.”
It is the acts of nature and man that together established this frontier town that remains today with a history flowing beneath it’s city streets. Most notably, separate from the fort is the area of Concho Avenue which clutches most of the city’s history. Now lined with antique shops, brewpubs, and unique gift shops, one can nevertheless step back and imagine the frontier and the remnants of a dirt street lined with saloons, hotels and brothels.
The consumption of alcohol in town was a cultural affair that even Prohibition could not extinguish it. The townspeople of San Angelo are familiar with its sinful history of the Old West and their pride shows in the area of downtown along Concho Avenue. If traveling to the downtown area of San Angelo one will most certainly recognize its historical past by the murals painted on the exterior walls of city buildings that line the downtown area. Those murals paint the picture of the history of San Angelo while glossing over its Sin City truths.
The national Presidential Election of 1880 between the Republicans and Democrats, included a Prohibition Party member from Maine, Neal Dow. Nicknamed the “Napoleon of Temperance” and the “Father of Prohibition,” Dow gathered thousands of signatures on a petition demanding his state legislature enact a law to ban the sale of alcohol. That act grew to a movement that stretched across the country to include the San Angelo and the state of Texas. Prior to the appearance of the Prohibition petition was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union that sparked the hatred of alcohol in the hearts of this young country’s citizens.
The figurehead in San Angelo, who established a location for Temperance gatherings was Parson Potter. It was rumored that he obtained enough money from playing poker to afford the future worship structure. The earliest known meeting of a Temperance movement in San Angelo according to an article in the Standard Times was in the Spring of 1884 in a 40′ x 60′ structure called Methodist Church. This church, though rebuilt from more formidable materials, remains in its original location on the corner of Oaks Street and Beauregard Avenue known as the First United Methodist Church. An excerpt from the Standard Times on January 22nd, 1887 reads, “The Temperance Society was again treated to an excellent evening’s entertainment last Monday night, marred only by the extremely bad behavior of several boys and one young man, possessed of chestnut bells. They are all ‘spotted,’ however, and it will be seen by the Society that no such conduct occurs again.” The Temperance meetings regarding the Prohibition movement continued in San Angelo through the Spring of 1887. They did not cease based on the outcome of the Prohibition Election in August of 1887, as the Temperance Society and Prohibitionists continued their efforts to better the souls of the citizens in a direction away from alcohol. The predominant family names that appears in the roster of the Temperance meetings are the; Armstrongs, McCunes, Millspaughs, Sherwoods, Guthries, Cains, and the Moores. Many of these names are major streets in San Angelo at present day.
The Anti-Prohibitionist society was formed in San Angelo in the fall of 1885. There is not a printed list of the Anti-Prohibitionist names in a roster format as were the Prohibitionists, however there are several names printed in the Standard Times that shows big business was on the side of the Anti-Prohibitionists; Judge Milton Mays, T.A. Harris, R.S. Tarver, E.A. Nimitz, J.W. Johnson, J.G. Murphy, and J.H. Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick owned the building that housed the Arc Light Saloon that was bought by Thomas H. McCloskey. The Arc Light Saloon became one of the most prominent saloons in West Texas. McCloskey’s name never appears in any article on the side of the Anti-Prohibitionists, but it is fair to say, he was probably against the movement as his business and livelihood depended on selling spirits to the San Angelo drinkers.
The Anti-Prohibitionists organized their society much later than the Prohibitionists but their membership was the most prestigious members and business owners in town. They gained an almost immediate advantage over the Christian based society throughout the state and not by the count of membership. The platform on which the Prohibitionists stood was one of Christian moral values, a society not influenced by the sinfulness of alcohol, and a purpose to cure the current society of ramblers and drunks to be ridden from the streets. This was not the platform for only the city of San Angelo but the national platform for the petition of Prohibition. In an article of the Standard Times on the side of the Prohibitionists date April 30th 1887; Rev. Major W.E. Penn recalled his trip to Leavenworth, Kansas regarding his observance of the lack of Prohibition in that town; “When I went to Leavenworth I found a large number of saloons in full blast–said to be about two hundred, mostly owned and run by foreigners–which was of course in direct violation of the law. Here I saw more drunken men and heard many oaths which caused me to feel very much like I was at home in Texas.” His last comment was clearly intended to same the alcohol-loving Texans by comparing them to the denizens of Leavenworth.
Anti-Prohibitionists did not defend the drunks and rowdiness of the town, but instead defended the inalienable rights of man. In an article from the Standard Times dated April 23rd 1887, the Anti-Prohibitionists stated their stand on the statewide petition to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. Number three of the nine statements of opposition reads, “We oppose this amendment because it is at war with the fundamental principles of Anglo-Saxon civilization and will destroy that inalienable rights of the citizen to determine for himself by what method he shall pursue his own happiness without interference with the rights of others, which principle is the basis of our liberties and the sole hope for the perpetuity of our institutions.” The other eight written statements of the Anti-Prohibitionists platform read with just as heavy notions of the pride the people of San Angelo had regarding their private businesses and institutions, be it with or without the sale and purchases of alcohol.
The results of the referendum for the Prohibition Amendment were reported in the August 6th 1887 of the Standard Times. The headline read: “The Prohibition Election,” followed underneath with, “Decisive Victory for the Anti’s.” Further in the article is listed the number of votes in total, for and against the amendment in areas surrounding San Angelo and including San Angelo. They are:
Total Against For
San Angelo 405 343 62
Ben Ficklin 9 4 5
Sherwood 47 13 34
Millspaugh’s Store 26 24 2
Knickerbocker 52 41 11
Not all of the returning polls that are listed in the Standard Times are listed above. From the numbers above we can see that the Anti-Prohibitionists took an early lead with little to any challenge from the side of the Prohibitionists–only in the tiny communities of Sherwood and Ben Ficklin did the amendment gain a majority. The Amendment did not pass in San Angelo, nor in the State of Texas, nor in the nation. Not until December 1st of 1918 did Tom Green Country become dry. Both sides put in great efforts to their respective petitions, but in a nation and especially a state of outlaws, soldiers, law men, business men and women, the concept of the state at this time period without alcohol, can not be imagined.