"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Temperance Societies

Can you imagine it! Great Village a den of iniquity, a time when our prosperous, sober citizens faced the scourge of the demon rum, and the rum had the upper hand. Read this account from the Colchester Sun, September 26, 1877, and wonder at how things have changed: “With pleasure we note the many scenes of drunkenness and concomitant evils of intemperance, with which we regret to say our beautiful village was polluted, are becoming things of the past, and the flag of temperance is proudly waiving in the breeze of popular sympathy, the dens of iniquity which infested the place have become focused, thanks to the efficient Clerk of License, and a determination on the part of a few that intoxicating liquors shall not be sold in our midst. As a result we find our temperance societies reaping the benefit. The Lodge of Good Templars is increasing in membership and if I am rightly informed nearly 40 new names have been sent to the Division Sons of Temperance the first of the month.”

In pioneer days there were several wayside inns and taverns in and near Great Village where alcohol flowed freely. The tide began to turn in the late 1870s when the Scott Act laws came into effect in the Dominion.(1) Though the bad old days are now long before the memory of most Great Villagers, some of the old folks remember a time when the temperance society had its work cut out for it. But the temperance forces were up to the task and have more or less prevailed.

The Degree Lodge of Colchester County, Good Templars, were around for many years; but no group has had more longevity and been more active than the Sons of Temperance. This organization was first formed in Washington D.C. in 1848. Only two years later Great Village organized its own Sons of Temperance. On January 25, 1850, the Iron Age Division of the Sons of Temperance was established by some of the leading citizens, such as A.W. McLellan, R.N.B. McLellan and Amos Hill.

The Sons of Temperance motto

The Iron Age has been a vigorous institution in the village ever since. Oh, sometimes activity has waned a bit, ebbing and flowing like tide; but this January the Iron Age celebrated its 66th anniversary with a big banquet in the Temperance Hall. After the appetizing supper the members presented a lively programme of music and readings, and the requisite speeches.

Iron Age built its hall in 1860 in partnership with the School Trustees, and it has stood at the centre of the community for over 45 years, a location not only for Division meetings, but also for every kind of lecture, social, supper, play and concert imaginable. For over ten years the lower floor was used as the school house, until the number of scholars outgrew the premises and a new school was built on Hustler Hill.

The Temperance Hall in Great Village. It was used as the I.O.O.F. Hall for awhile and today it is the Community Hall.

Since the first days of the Iron Age, its membership has been steady, averaging 80 (meetings averaging around 50, so the occasions are truly social events). The Iron Age did not admit women until 1871, though prior to this time women could attend as visitors. The admittance of women was controversial, and some members withdrew rather than submit to “petticoat government.” But now women are full members, holding many of the offices, and no one thinks anything of it. Indeed, many of the men acknowledge that without women the Iron Age Division would not be as active as it is now.

The Sons of Temperance also supports the Band of Hope for the children and young people. Great Village has always had an active band pointing youth in the community in the right direction.(2)

The Iron Age is more than just a temperance organization. It has always strived to be a social and educational force in Great Village. There is a good deal of socializing with other divisions in the area ─ the Steel Edge Division at Acadia Mines, the Riverside Division at Portapique, or the divisions from Bass River, Glenholme and Truro. Great Village has also hosted meetings of the District Division and the Grand Division of Nova Scotia. One of the most popular activities is for members to pile into a sleigh or hay wagon, or, in these days of modernization, to motor to a neighbouring town where the local division will host a supper or an evening musicale. Such invitations are always reciprocal.

In 1878 the Iron Age established a newspaper, The Stray Sunbeam, which was filled with interesting matter, composed of “prose, poetry and funnyisms.” In the 1890s, it published a weekly newspaper called The Iron Age Intelligencer, a successor to another short-lived journalistic effort, The Cork Screw, which the division published in 1888-1889. The division no longer publishes a newspaper, but it sponsors many lectures and debates at the hall. This evening the members have organized a series of spelling matches for the young folks who do not want to go to the missionary lecture at the Presbyterian church. Spelling bees are so popular in Great Village that some of the best, most competitive spellers in the county live here. The division’s weekly meetings, Thursday nights, are suspended for the summer; but it will continue to have special events, like this “bee” until fall resumes the regular schedule.

In November 1889 a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was organized in Great Village. While women are active members and officers of Iron Age, the W.C.T.U. has not wanted for members of its own, and has been a steady organization since its founding. While its focus takes in temperance issues, the W.C.T.U. also engages in charitable activities. One of its programmes is the Flower Mission, and the attention to the sick and shut-ins of the community is laudable. The W.C.T.U. also has close ties with the Women's Missionary Societies of both the Baptist and Presbyterian churches and often co-sponsor lectures from visiting missionaries. The W.C.T.U. usually meets Wednesday afternoons, but because of the lecture this evening, the ladies have decided to waive the gathering until next week, and support the lecture with as many of their members as possible.

Temperance in Great Village continues to flourish. There are no establishments in the area which sell liquor. The Elmonte House is respectably dry.(3) There are bootleggers and moonshiners in the mountains around, and drinking has not vanished completely. Indeed, even some of the most abstemious Baptists will have a hot toddy on cold winter nights, strictly for medicinal purposes, of course; and sometimes on a hot summer afternoon, when the ladies gather for this or that meeting, a raspberry cordial or dandelion wine is served. But with the Iron Age and the W.C.T.U. doing its steady work, drunkenness is the exception rather than the rule in the village.


1. The Canada Temperance Act or Scott Act (so named because of its sponsor, Secretary of State R.W. Scott) became federal statute in 1878. It provided the framework for communities to hold elections to bring the act into force. The act was quickly adopted by many Maritime municipalities, though enforcement was always problematic and inconsistent (Davis, 46-7).

2. In her memoir, “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” Elizabeth Bishop remembered the pledge of the Iron Age Band of Hope, which her uncle, Arthur Bulmer (called Uncle Neddy), could recite to her from memory, “although he had broken it heaven only knows how many times by then”:

Trusting in help from heaven above
We pledge ourselves to works of love,
Resolving that we will not make
Or sell or buy or give or take
Rum, Brandy, Whiskey, Cordials fine,
Gin, Cider, Porter, Ale or Wine.
Tobacco, too, we will not use
And trust that we may always choose
A place among the wise and good
And speak and act as Christians should.

Bishop wrote, “but why ‘Iron Age’? Uncle Neddy didn’t know and I never found out” (Collected Prose, 234-5).

3. The Royal Canadian Legion in Great Village is a dry legion even today.

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