Templars Hall: A Building With A Sobering Past
More than 65 years, the stark two-story wooden structure stood as a symbol of Visalia’s effort to rid the town of what many believed was the biggest curse to all mankind – alcohol. The Good Templars building sat on the west side of Court Street between Center and Oak, directly across from the Tulare County Courthouse. It is gone now, but during its heyday, it was a lively place filled with regular, impassioned speeches all vilifying the “devil’s brew.”
In the mid 1800s, alcohol abuse reached such levels in America that organizations began to form for the sole purpose of drawing attention to the evil liquid. These temperance groups argued that not only did alcohol harm the individual drinking it, but it destroyed families, led to crime and wreaked havoc on the nation’s economy.
The anti-alcohol sentiment did not escape Visalia. Drunkenness was common in this old west town and was frequently at the root of many social problems. For example, in 1862, the Visalia Delta bemoaned, “Bad whiskey and six-shooters kept up a noisy and disgraceful time in town…”
As a result, Visalia joined the hue and cry against “demon rum” and jumped into the temperance movement with great enthusiasm, often expressed through the local newspapers. After a man who went on a wild and drunken rampage in town was finally arrested, the newspaper reported, “Such scenes are always painful to officers and good citizens, but we shall have them just as long as whiskey drinking is tolerated and encouraged by those who ought to throw their voice and influence against it.” Another Visalia newspaper likened alcohol to a wild animal when it colorfully warned, “It creeps upon a man’s will like a wild beast, slowly and without his realizing its approach. And before he understands the thing that is on his trail, it has him down with its cruel, greedy fangs at the vitals of his soul.”
So, not surprisingly, by 1863, a national organization called the Independent Order of Good Templars (I.O.G.T.) had a chapter in Visalia. That year, 100 women and men, including soldiers from Camp Babbitt, were members of Lodge No. 48 – a large number considering the town’s population totaled about 750. Unlike most fraternal groups, the organization allowed both men and women to become members, pointing out that all were brothers and sisters in one united family. Not only were women encouraged to become members, they were welcomed into positions of leadership. In 1863, both Mrs. F. Martin and Miss E. Byrd were officers.
The local lodge wasn’t at all shy about their position and took every opportunity to state it, especially in recruitment campaigns. On one occasion they wrote, “If every citizen who knows and feels that the whole liquor business, for drinking purposes, is a nuisance and a curse, would take hold of this living, acting agency heartily, and at once giving example, influence and labor to the good cause, it would be but a short time until a drunken man would be a rare sight in our streets, and the few last specimens might be considered beyond the reach of hope.” To that end, they made it clear they wanted the “rum holes” [saloons] of Visalia shut down.
After more than a decade of preaching abstinence, the local group was ready for its next big step forward. They purchased lot #8 fronting Court Street in block #20 and in May of 1875, they hired local builders H. O’Hale & F. Kelten to construct their lodge building. By August, the two-story, 30-foot by 60-foot structure costing about $4,750, was finished. The first floor had three rooms to rent out for office space and the upstairs served as the lodge hall. The community was pleased with the new addition and proud that the project was part of the building boom taking place in town. By 1879, the group opened up the hall for general entertainment hoping to use the revenue to pay off the debt on the building.
For the next several decades, Lodge No. 48 and other prohibitionist groups like the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Good Government League pushed the no alcohol agenda. But the debate had another side. Those who supported keeping alcohol argued that doing away with saloons would hurt business in town and therefore tax revenue would suffer. But the cry for abolishing liquor was loud and relentless.
In 1911, the question of allowing saloons to continue to operate or abolishing them totally went to the voters of Visalia. The campaigning was vigorous, and when the votes were tallied, the majority voted the town “dry,” and the saloons shut down. But the 1911 vote was only the beginning. In 1919, the 18th Amendment (prohibition) was added to the U. S. Constitution and from 1920 to 1933 the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages was banned throughout the U.S.
When the Visalia I.O.G.T. chapter officially disbanded is not clear, but they continued to meet weekly at Templars Hall until at least 1910. The following year, the building was sold to Emma F. Zumwalt for $8,000. From that time on, the old lodge building apparently was residential housing.
By 1940, the 65-year-old building had fallen into serious disrepair and in November, it was torn down to make way for progress. In its place, Firestone built a new gasoline, auto supply and service store. It too is now gone, and an office building occupies the space.