Remembering ‘the cold water pledge’

Nothing quenches thirst like plain and simple water, especially on a warm day. Better yet is slurping it directly into your mouth instead of drinking from a plastic bottle or glass. This is precisely what the old drinking fountain in Fredonia’s Barker Commons has offered thousands of people for the last 100 plus years.

This is not one of the decorative Mark Fountains highlighted in last week’s column, “Fountains of history bubble in Barker Commons,” but instead the elaborate drinking fountain in the southwest corner of the park next to the information booth. This fountain is far from ordinary and represents much, much more than water. In fact, it originally symbolized a very special pledge that scores of people committed to in the 19th and early 20th century throughout the United States.

The fountain was dedicated over 100 years ago. Erected in 1912, it was dedicated on June 13, 1913 to honor a very special person and the work she did.

The name on the fountain’s plaque is Esther McNeill. How many people know what she did? It’s somewhat sad to think about how quickly people and events are forgotten history. A drink and a glance at the ornate fountain may make some people wonder who this local woman was and why a fountain was the chosen memorial.

Who would take the “cold water pledge” became the critical question at the beginning of the 1800s. Such a pledge was a promise to stop drinking alcohol and join the “cold water army.”

Many people drank excessively. According to, such overindulgence was in part due to the stress of rapid inflation as a result of the war for independence and it just became a habit and way of life.

People drank while at work and some were paid with alcohol. As related two weeks ago in the column “Apples of our eyes,” even Johnny Chapman “Appleseed,” born in 1774, was so popular with the pioneers because the apples were used for hard cider, a preferred beverage of the era.

A side effect of all this drinking was that workers were not able to perform their duties, particularly running machines in industry. The man, the head of the household, often spent too much of his wages on alcohol and in many cases become abusive to his wife and family. This is precisely why women of that time were the ones to spearhead the temperance movement.

At first the movement encouraged a more “temperate” or moderate approach to the use of alcohol. Later it embraced total abstinence. One source claims that by 1838, a million people had signed the pledge not to drink and that there were a few thousand temperance societies in the country.

This movement, as well as other efforts at reform, was part of the religious “Second Great Awakening” with enthusiastic preachers and tent revivals. Well before Prohibition became the a federal law in 1919, some state and local laws were enacted to prohibit alcohol, including one for Maine in 1851.

Esther McNeill from Fredonia is remembered as part of the temperance movement. As noted in the genealogical index of the Fredonia Censor, Esther (Lord) McNeill was born in Schoharie County in 1812. She moved to Fredonia after marrying her husband James and was among the first group to hear a visiting inspirational speaker from Boston. The 1934 book “Sixty Years of Action” details the story.

On Dec. 14, 1873, this man gave a lecture on the evils of alcohol. The Reverend Lester Williams of Fredonia Baptist Church urged action. The following day a meeting at the church was held to “inaugurate” the work. An appeal was written followed by a procession out of the basement of more than 100 people. They marched to one of the local saloons and continued daily until every establishment was visited to “cease the traffic” of alcohol.

On Dec. 22, 1873, the women of Fredonia formed a permanent organization and named it “The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Fredonia.” Otherwise known as the W.C.T.U., this was allegedly the first in the nation and is credited as such in the book “Women Torchbearers” published in 1924. Esther McNeill was not the first president, but did serve as president of the W.C.T.U. for 17 years and was the first president of Chautauqua County. After she passed away in 1907, as noted in “Sixty Years of Action,” her friends “erected a handsome drinking fountain in Fredonia in her memory.”

The “Fredonia Censor,” the local newspaper published from 1821 to 1964, covered the dedication of the fountain.

The plaque is inscribed with the year of 1912. Walt Sedlmayer, president of the Chautauqua County Genealogical Society, patiently dug through the Fredonia’s Censor’s archives to discover the details of the dedication.

The Censor announced it for Friday, June 13, 1913 at the corner of Lafayette Park (former name of Barker Commons). Members were requested to meet in the Baptist Church. Reverend M.J. Winchester was the chairman of the program that included singing of “Some Glad Day” by all the white ribboners. The school orchestra played, followed by a scripture reading, prayer, star quartette, and unveiling. The fountain was accepted by the president of the village. Old Fredonia names are recognized in the Censor along with the list of the original members of the W.C.T.U. which may be found in the archives at the Barker Museum with the help of both Dorothy and other citizens doing their own research.

This artifact is more than just a 100- year-old drinking fountain. It is a unique part of the history of Fredonia and our nation. The fountain still offers a drink of water, but remember its origins are from the days of the “cold water pledge” and banding together for reform. Make it a good week and visit our fountain.