John Barleycorn Must Die: Alcohol and Temperance in Early Rochester

“There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.”

– Opening of “John Barley Corn Must Die,” traditional English folksong

We saw in an earlier post how drunken revelers disrupted theatrical presentations in early Rochester. Many may not be aware that distilleries were  some of the first industries in this area. Although early Rochester is often seen as a wheat-growing and flour-milling area, many local farmers found growing corn and rye for sale to distilleries more profitable.


Wolcott Distillery (Clarissa Street, Rochester). Company founded in 1827. Building built in 1840 and razed in 1917.

Alcohol of various kinds had a prominent place in early Rochester. Taverns were among the first local businesses. In an era before hotels and motels, taverns served as boarding houses and restaurants for travelers passing through the area. They were also community gathering centers, where neighbors could drink, share news, tell stories and generally entertain themselves.

Liquor was considered indispensable to daily life. A jug of rum, whiskey, beer or other spirits was commonly passed around while raising a roof, harvesting a crop or working on other community projects. Troops in the Revolutionary War were frequently given a ration of 1 gill (4.16 fluid ounces) of whiskey per day or 1 ½ gill (6.25 fluid ounces) of rum per day. By comparison, most responsible contemporary drinkers of hard liquor only consume 1 or 2 fluid ounces per day. In areas where the water quality was questionable (giving rise to typhoid, malaria, and other diseases), the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages (involving, as it does, boiling of water as an essential step) was considered healthier. In a time before the wide availability of prescription drugs, alcohol was even considered of medicinal value, for which many local grocers sold ardent spirits.

As we have seen, however, some people were more prodigal in their use of alcohol than others, leading to disruption of public activities and arrests for public drunkenness. By the late 1820s, public tolerance of the use of alcohol began to change. In 1827, the Rochester Presbytery (following the example of its national body, the Presbyterian Church) passed a resolution that “temperate use of ardent spirits … is to be avoided and discouraged.”  The following year the first public meeting was held at the Monroe County Court House to discuss the issue. Dr. Joseph Penney of the First Presbyterian Church urged his fellow clergy to ban social drinking altogether from church gatherings. In 1829, there were 14 grocers on the east side of the Genesee River, 12 of whom sold alcohol. The following year, only 6 did so.

The number of grocers on the west side selling alcohol was not reported, but many (including Austin Steward), voluntarily refused to sell alcohol, even though the profits from such sales were high. William Bloss dumped alcohol from his East Avenue tavern into the canal. P.G. Jones got rid of the alcohol from his bar in the National Hotel and reopened it as a temperance house. Several other temperance houses opened as well. Although they were frequented by temperance advocates, these alcohol-free establishments’ profits were lower than conventional taverns.


William Bloss (1795-1863) Temperance Advocate, Abolitionist and Women’s Suffrage Advocate

Of course, drinkers, tavern owners and other citizens did not necessarily agree with the growing temperance and abstention movements of the era. Debate over the role of alcohol in national and civic life would continue throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the passage of the 18th amendment (which prohibited the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors”) in 1919 and its repeal 14 years later with the 21st amendment.

-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on May 23, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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