Objections to Alcohol: The Rise and Fall of Temperance in Winkler
A Google search using terms related to Mennonites and alcohol leaves the internet surfer with the impression that Mennonites are an austere group for whom many things are proscribed.1 Abstaining from alcoholic beverages is certainly one characteristic that many “outsiders” consider to be part of what it means to be a Mennonite. One internet writer points out, however, that historically Mennonites “have always enjoyed producing and distributing alcohol, only interrupted by temperance.”2 As the writer suggests, Mennonites have a long history of producing brandy and other liquors, and for most of their history the consumption of alcoholic beverages was part of Mennonite individual and community life. The reputation that Mennonites have acquired for being teetotallers, at least officially, can be blamed on the temperance movement that was embraced by some European Christians and by North Americans more broadly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The migration of Mennonites to Manitoba in the 1870s took place during a rising wave of sentiment in North American society that lamented drunkenness and the related damage done to families and communities. While Mennonites generally stayed away from joining temperance societies, they were heavily influenced by these societal trends, which sharpened their consciences on the question of alcohol. The town, now city, of Winkler in Manitoba offers a window on the tensions and debates that accompanied the rise and fall of temperance and its varying influence among Mennonite groups.
In the nineteenth century Mennonite-owned distilleries and drinking establishments were a feature of many villages in Russia. Despite involvement in alcohol production and consumption, Mennonite piety consistently pronounced excessive drinking, drunkenness, carousing, and partying as sinful behaviours. One only needs to read the diaries of Jacob D. Epp and his father David, both ministers in Russia, to appreciate that moderation was not an attainable goal for everyone; religious leadership and congregations regularly disciplined members for a variety of alcohol-related transgressions.3
The Kleine Gemeinde and the Mennonite Brethren were each formed to some extent in reaction to alcohol abuse. The Mennonite Brethren secession document, for instance, decried the “many covetous, drunkards and blasphemers with whom one shares the Lord’s Supper, for not only those are drunkards who are almost continually under the influence of liquor, but also those who occasionally gorge themselves with food and drink at markets and taverns.”4
Mennonites who came to Manitoba in the 1870s were primarily from the Kleine Gemeinde, and from the Bergthal, Fuerstenland, and Chortitza colonies. The Kleine Gemeinde, who had already embraced temperance, but not total abstinence, settled on the East Reserve and Scratching River (Rosenort) settlements. The Bergthaler settled on the East Reserve, with some of them moving to the eastern half of the West Reserve a few years after they arrived. The Fuerstenland and Old Colony migrants settled the western half of the West Reserve. The more conservative Fuerstenland, Bergthal, and Old Colony settlers had been less influenced by temperance when they arrived in Manitoba in the 1870s. These patterns of settlement and subsequent visits from temperance-minded evangelists from the United States in the 1880s gave rise to the establishment of a Mennonite Brethren church on the West Reserve and stimulated temperance attitudes among the Bergthaler church members. These developments complicated attitudes towards alcohol among Manitoba’s Mennonites.
In the 1890s, the CPR consented to establish a siding midway between the existing stations of Morden, eleven kilometres to the west, and Plum Coulee to the east. The siding was called Winkler, after the Morden politician and businessman Valentine Winkler. The early settlers of Winkler were Jewish and German merchants who established businesses at the new siding to capture the commercial trade generated by the numerous Mennonite villages lying to the south and east of the new siding. There were numerous efforts to obtain a liquor license for the new town. However, the Mennonite Brethren and Bergthaler residents who had started to move into Winkler were opposed to the sale of liquor. By the late 1890s the elders of these more liberal Mennonite groups decided that the evils of alcohol consumption were not consistent with modern and progressive views of Mennonite piety.5 While the Mennonite Brethren on the West Reserve promoted abstinence, the 1900 decision by the Bergthaler church leadership to remove Henry Rempel from its membership list if he continued to work in the Altona liquor store suggests that the Bergthaler had also become temperance-minded.6
Among the first commercial buildings established in Winkler was a hotel built in 1894. Over the next several years, hotel operators applied for but failed to obtain a license to sell liquor. In 1897, Alex Kennedy was granted a liquor license at Stanley House and this hotel offered Winkler residents their first opportunity to consume and purchase liquor in the town.7 In spite of the opposition to alcohol by the Mennonite Brethren and, to a lesser extent, the Bergthaler church groups, Winkler voted decisively against prohibition in 1898 and again in the 1902 provincial referendum, as did the rest of the West Reserve.8 J. W. Thompson’s study of prohibition in Manitoba suggests this early opposition was rooted in Mennonite suspicion “of attempts to subordinate their communities to government authority.”9
Increasing Mennonite reservations about alcohol coincided with a rising temperance movement in the rest of Manitoba and all over North America. Although there were prohibition plebiscites in 1892, 1898, and 1902, the temperance movement had its first success during the First World War with the Manitoba Temperance Act. Under this act, people could no longer sell or purchase alcohol for consumption. Alcohol availability on the Prairies was reduced to 2.5-percent “prohibition” beer, and what could be obtained from illegal sources such as home stills and bootleggers.
Returning war veterans were instrumental in the reconsideration of prohibition laws in the early 1920s. The Moderation League argued for a relaxation of prohibition laws, and a province-wide referendum was held in June of 1923. Although the Jewish and non-Mennonite German communities of Winkler were still a significant cultural force in the town, Mennonites now accounted for over 70 percent of the population by the 1920s.10 Temperance activity increased in Winkler in the years leading up to the 1923 referendum, especially among the Mennonite Brethren youth group. Newspapers reported that the young people’s society held temperance programs in 1913 and 1914, and at least three meetings were held in 1920.11 In the month before the referendum the Morden Times reported a larger meeting of temperance enthusiasts in the schoolhouse. In spite of considerable promotion of temperance in Winkler, the 1923 referendum resulted in the village going “wet.” Of the rather small number of people appearing at the polls, 202 were in favour of liberalization, while 142 were against.12
The “wet” vote in Winkler did not result in an increase in publicly available liquor. The subsequent 1928 Government Liquor Control Act allowed serving “by the glass.” In Winkler, liquor was only served in the men’s parlour in the Stanley Hotel.13 This hotel would become the focus of those who liked to have their drink, and of others who viewed alcohol as evidence of evil in the world. People who frequented the pub in the Stanley Hotel were considered to have cast their lot with the world – certainly not members of church-going Mennonite society.
While attitudes towards liquor changed little in the thirty years after prohibition, the complexion of the town changed dramatically. Winkler grew rapidly during the period after the Second World War with its population exceeding 1,600 in 1956. The village became a town in 1954 and by this time the community was over 90 percent Mennonite in its ethnic composition.14 Changes were not limited to Winkler; there were also changes in the attitudes of neighbouring communities. The surrounding Anglo-Saxon municipalities gradually lost their early temperance orientation and eventually voted for liberalization of their liquor laws. Among Winkler’s Mennonites, however, temperance attitudes remained strong. This was illustrated by Winkler’s second liquor referendum in 1957.
The 1957 liquor referendum was called in response to recommendations of the Bracken Commission, which had been appointed by the Manitoba government to study liquor laws in the province. The commission recommended that new liquor referendums be held in the province in any municipality where the local council passed a bylaw requesting such a referendum. Winkler’s town council voted to have a referendum on the question of expanding liquor outlets. Some of the town’s residents were insulted that the council would consider a vote necessary, but on June 26, 1957, the editor of the Winkler Progress remarked, “Although we are a Mennonite community, this newspaper believes as did the Town Council that it is our duty as citizens and residents of Manitoba to express our wishes on the liquor question just as well as other Manitobans.” The paper also reminded its readers that Winkler’s voting “wet” in the referendum of the 1920s had been due to apathy and low voter turnout.15 The results of the 1957 referendum left no doubt: Winkler became decisively “dry.” The Mennonite majority in the town voted solidly against liquor, and while the vote varied slightly with the four questions on the ballot, only fifty to sixty people registered their support for increased availability of liquor, whereas over 480 were against.16
The decisive results of the 1957 referendum ruled out any expansion of liquor availability in Winkler; however, the Stanley Hotel continued to provide its male customers with a place to quench their thirst. The men-only pub remained a feature of Winkler life until the 1970s. It provided a place for young Mennonite men to experience their first, and often only, taste of life outside the narrow confines of Mennonite post-war religious culture. The men-only pub also illustrated the undesirable aspects of male drinking habits. In the 1950s, Mennonite women usually did not drive and were dependent on their husbands for the once-a-week trip into town for groceries on Friday or Saturday. Some of these women ended up waiting with their young children in parked vehicles outside the hotel, while their husbands drank inside with the men. Such scenes left an indelible impression on the rest of Winkler society and furthered the conviction that alcohol was evil.
The 1957 liquor referendum in Winkler laid the question to rest for fifteen years. During this time the hard-working town attracted many industries, particularly in the 1970s, which resulted in a doubling of its population between 1957 and 1976. Along with growth came a new owner for the Stanley Hotel who wanted to expand his operations. In 1971, this new owner initiated a liquor referendum by collecting the required names of 20 percent of the voters, and the town council duly called a referendum to coincide with the municipal and school trustee elections in the fall. Municipal and school issues dominated Winkler’s attention and the liquor referendum went down in resounding defeat. In an editorial after the referendum, the editor of the town’s Pembina Triangle Progress suggested that “the mellow taste of a good drink” had given way to “the bitter taste of defeat.” He went on to suggest in sardonic language that Winkler residents would now be advised to press for a four-lane highway to neighbouring Morden: “The added lanes would make the 7-mile sojourn to the fine ‘drinking and dining’ establishments in our neighbouring ‘backward town’ so much more pleasant.” The editor could not, however, deny the voice of the people and was forced to conclude that “the democratic process has spoken.”17
The 1971 referendum was the first in a series of attempts by the hotel owner to expand the varieties of liquor that could be served in his establishment. In addition to the 1971 referendum, he initiated referendums in 1975, 1978, 1982, and 1985. He argued that the town would benefit from the presence of new and expanded hotel facilities and suggested that to be viable, such new facilities needed to have more opportunities to serve liquor. Despite the negative votes in the early 1970s, a new hotel was built in 1975 and the old Stanley Hotel was demolished in 1977, ending an era, and the men-only pub. The license issued to the new facility, while abiding by the Winkler liquor restrictions, permitted women to join men in Winkler’s only public drinking establishment.
The hotel owner continued to appeal to Winkler’s desire for modernity and progress with promises of further expansion and more improvements to his establishment if restrictions were relaxed. In 1978 he hired a Winnipeg public relations consultant to manage the pro-liquor campaign. The consultant attempted to advance the arguments of his client while placating the religious sensibilities prevalent in the town. He suggested that the hotel owner’s “respect for his customers and also the religious beliefs of the predominately Mennonite community is still number one in [his] mind.”18 The besieged hotel owner also hired a private detective agency to monitor the counting of ballots, revealing that he had heard that church leaders “would try something.” The hotel owner’s fears were somewhat confirmed by the local police chief’s comment that a lot of senior citizens had been bussed to the polls. A local Mennonite farmer alleged that people who voted against the referendum “were told right from the pulpit” how to mark their ballots.19
The idea that liberalization of alcohol availability was synonymous with progress starkly contrasted with the view of the 1890s when progress was equated with temperance. Much of Winkler’s Mennonite community remained unconvinced, arguing that family life and morals could not be sacrificed for progress and prosperity. The opposing view was that alcohol problems stemmed from abuse rather than use. The chairman of the town’s Ministerial Association, although himself not the pastor of a Mennonite church, was at the forefront of the campaign against liberalization. The debate generated a great amount of interest, particularly in the 1985 referendum campaign. Winklerites were often assisted in their considerations by contributions from neighbouring towns. A writer from Morden spearheaded the pro-liquor campaign in the Pembina Times, suggesting that the choice of whether to drink should be left to the individual. On this basis he believed that Winkler residents should consider a “yes” vote in the referendum as a vote in favour of individual rights.20 A resident of neighbouring Altona thought that alcohol was most certainly a poison and that “descriptions of people ‘enjoying’ a ‘pleasant glass’ of poison are absurd.”21 The debate went too far for some local clergy. The Lutheran pastor was compelled to write a letter indicating that “too long, in my opinion, have the Christians of Winkler been told that [it] is their religious duty to defend the faith and fight the demon of alcohol by rejecting the liquor referendums.” The pastor went on to agree that scriptures made a distinction between use and abuse of alcohol, clearly condemning the latter and not forbidding the former. He also thought that he should be permitted to exercise his freedom to choose to drink “without having to go to another town first.”22
Moral aspects of the argument were countered with the fact that people in Winkler were drinking anyway. They were just travelling to Morden to do it. This theme ran through many of the arguments in favour of broadening liquor availability in Winkler. A Morden resident pointed out that the moral arguments could be more appreciated if “it were not known that some people who vote against the sale of liquor and wine in Winkler go to other communities to do their drinking.”23 Throughout the debates of the 1970s and 1980s people suggested that a lot of money was going to the neighbouring town of Morden. The hotel owner suggested in the 1978 debate that more than 60 percent of the alcohol purchased in the Morden liquor store was sold to Winkler drinkers.24
Increasing tolerance of alcohol consumption in Winkler began to make people feel uncomfortable with their position when they faced the question at the polling booth. The inconsistency of regularly voting against the expansion of liquor availability while travelling to Morden to purchase liquor may have contributed to a decline in voter participation at the polls. While opposition to the liberalization of liquor was steadily declining, people appeared reluctant to cross the moral line to vote in favour of liquor. Increasingly, people accepted the likelihood that in time the liquor referendum would be accepted. In 1982 the town’s secretary-treasurer and returning officer suggested that another nine years, or three more referendums, should result in a positive vote.25 Community growth and the increasing population of non-Mennonites would certainly produce a positive result; it was only a matter of how much time it would take. The editor of the Pembina Times prophesied in 1985 that Winkler’s “new generation will have resounding impact on the next liquor referendum.”26
The liquor referendum debates of the 1970s and 1980s were important indicators of changing attitudes of Winkler’s Mennonite population. The desire to be seen as a progressive, growing community was in tension with traditional values of family and faith. Although many of Winkler’s people no longer felt that alcohol was inherently evil, they could not bring themselves to vote to liberalize its sale. The way this growing part of Winkler’s population expressed their views was by staying away from the polls.
In 1991 Winkler had another in its long series of referendums on the liquor question. The interval between referendums had increased from the three years of the previous decades to seven years, and ironically the vote was held while construction crews were hard at work building a four-lane highway to Morden. The hotel owner who had initiated the earlier votes had moved on to Winnipeg and the hotel’s new operators again suggested there would be expansions and further improvements if the result was favourable. Many of the same arguments that had been heard before were repeated, although with less intensity. The cartoonist whose drawings graced the pages of the Pembina Times summed up the question of the referendum in his October 9, 1991, cartoon, which had a drawing of a ballot with the choices: “Yes, I want to be able to buy alcohol in Winkler” or “No, I want to continue getting it in Morden.”27 The referendum again turned down almost all the proposals that would have authorized increased availability of alcohol in Winkler. On the question of the issuing of licenses for dining rooms, however, 50.5 percent of the voters indicated their approval. Winkler had gone “moist.” In 2003, Winkler residents voted to further open the city to the sale of alcoholic beverages, and 2013 saw the opening of a Liquor Mart. The long path back to the earlier position of acceptance that Mennonites had held regarding alcohol was completed.
The alcohol question as it played out in Winkler presented a unique ethical problem for Mennonite Christians in Winkler. In the years from Winkler’s establishment to the 1920s, the response to the alcohol question seemed to have more to do with resisting government interference and other influences of the “world.” Alcohol seemed not to represent the “world’s” influence for many and the villagers did not endorse prohibition. Beginning in the 1970s the desire to be viewed as a growing and progressive town combined with a gradual waning of abstinence as the only acceptable position for Christians began to erode the prohibition forces in the town. By 2003, the question had largely disappeared from the public stage and had become an individual ethical choice.
- Portions of this article were published previously in Hans Werner, Living Between Worlds: A History of Winkler (Winkler: Winkler Heritage Society, 2006).
- “Do Mennonites Believe That?,” https://dbldkr.com/do-mennonites-believe-that/.
- John B. Toews, trans. and ed., The Diaries of David Epp, 1837–1843 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000) and Harvey L. Dyck, trans. and ed., A Mennonite in Russia: The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851–1880 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).
- Global Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), s.v. “Document of Secession (Mennonite Brethren Church, 1860).”
- A brief discussion of the position of the Bergthaler church can be found in Esther Epp-Tiessen, Altona: The Story of a Prairie Town (Altona, MB: D. W. Friesen & Sons, 1982), 97–98. See also the entry for “Alcohol” in GAMEO for an overview of Mennonite views of liquor consumption.
- Epp-Tiessen, Altona, 98.
- See Albert Siemens, “Liquor Licenses: Winkler of the 1890s,” Preservings, no. 43 (2021), 9–10, and “84 Year Old Landmark Demolished in Winkler,” Pembina Times, Feb. 23, 1977.
- Der Nordwesten, Apr. 10, 1902. The vote was 22 in favour of prohibition and 97 against.
- J. W. Thompson, “The Prohibition Question in Manitoba, 1892–1928” (master’s thesis, University of Manitoba, 1969), 28.
- E. K. Francis, In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba (Altona, MB: D. W. Friesen & Sons, 1955), 155.
- Morden Times, July 17, 1913, Apr. 9, 1914, Aug. 5, 1920, Aug. 19, 1920, Oct. 2, 1920, Oct. 21, 1920, May 30, 1930.
- Morden Times, June 27, 1923.
- Thompson, “Prohibition Question,” 105.
- Population taken from “M.S.T.W. Development Plan Study: Background Studies for the Town of Winkler” (Manitoba: M.S.T.W. Planning District Board, 1980), 8.
- “Local Liquor Option Friday,” Winkler Progress, June 26, 1957.
- Town of Winkler Council Minutes, June 28, 1957.
- Andy Elias, “How dry it still is!!,” Pembina Triangle Progress, Oct. 27, 1971.
- Wes Rowson as quoted in “Future of Winkler Motor Inn Dependent on Liquor Referendum: Owner Calls Press Conference,” Pembina Times, Oct. 11, 1978. Emphasis in original.
- “Fourth time in 21 Years: Winkler keeps bottles corked,” Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 26, 1978.
- Ray Timmerman, letters to the editor, “Use, Not Abuse,” Pembina Times, Sept. 24, 1985, and “A Personal Decision,” Oct. 15, 1985.
- John E. Wall, letter to the editor, “Abuse of Body,” Pembina Times, Oct. 8, 1985.
- G. A. Pera, letter to the editor, “Assumptions Challenged,” Pembina Times, Oct. 15, 1985.
- Walter Latter, letter to the editor, “Replies Contain Errors,” Pembina Times, Oct. 15 ,1985.
- “Will Winkler Go ‘Wet’?: That Same Old Question Just Keeps Coming Back,” Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 12, 1978.
- “Winkler Voters Deny Liquor Sales,” Pembina Times, Oct. 20, 1982.
- “Bury the Hatchet,” Pembina Times, Oct. 29, 1985.
- Pembina Times, Oct. 29, 1991.