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For decades, visitors to Rehoboth Beach have gazed quizzically at the water fountain located on the town’s famous Boardwalk at the foot of Rehoboth Avenue.
From first look, one can see that this is no ordinary drinking fountain.
Compared to its more modest brethren, this fountain is a colossus. It stands 6 feet 6 inches tall with its spigot mounted on a white-marble slab spanned by a massive granite arch. Hundreds of thousands of thirsty passersby have sought refreshment there over the years but few know its backstory. The only clue to its identity is a brass plaque on its eastern face which reads “Erected by W.C.T.U., Rehoboth Beach, 1929.”
The story of the fountain parallels Rehoboth Beach’s origins as a site for Methodist camp meetings and that denomination’s opposition to the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Camp meetings are among the oldest institutions of the Methodist Church dating to the era when itinerant ministers preached in the open air to large congregations who sometimes traveled long distances to hear services that often lasted several days. Such “bush” meetings were held under temporary shelters made of boughs lashed together. As the bush meetings became institutionalized annual affairs, camp meeting grounds were established, permanent tabernacles were erected and regular members began to build structures to accommodate their families. The first camp meeting tents were rude temporary structures, as the name implies, but they were soon replaced by permanent cabins.
During the last half of the 19th century, camp meetings could be found in all parts of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland where Methodism was the dominant religious denomination. That included Rehoboth Beach which was founded in 1873 as the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association by the Rev. Robert W. Todd of St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church of Wilmington, Del. “Rehoboth,” which translates from Hebrew as “broad spaces,” was created in the spirit of similar resorts on the New Jersey shore such as Ocean Grove. The Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association disbanded in 1881 and ten years later, the location was incorporated by the Delaware General Assembly as Henlopen City. Shortly thereafter it was renamed Rehoboth Beach.
Today there are only a few active camp meetings in Delaware including Carey’s United Methodist Camp west of Millsboro and the Union Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church camp-meeting ground in Clarksville.
Concerned about the spiritual and physical costs of addictive behavior, Methodists have long supported abstinence from alcohol, illicit drugs, tobacco and gambling “as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons.” In his mid-1700s sermon, “The Use of Money,” the denomination’s founder, John Wesley, wrote that “we may not sell anything which tends to impair health. Such is, eminently, all that liquid fire, commonly called drams or spirituous liquors.”
As Methodism expanded in the United States after the Civil War, adherents—especially women—began to steer the denomination toward a harder line as the temperance movement gained steam. By the early 20th century, the church had endorsed Prohibition and required Methodist ministers to pledge abstinence from alcohol.
Inspired, in part, by the abstinence principles of Baptists, Methodists and other denominations, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was organized in Ohio in 1874, one year after the founding of the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association, by women who were concerned about the destructive power of alcohol and the problems it was causing their families and society.
Among the WCTU’s primary objectives in temperance reform was “protection of the home.” The slogan “For God and Home and Native Land” (“Native Land” was later changed to “Every Land”) expressed the group’s priorities. Through education and example, the WCTU obtained pledges of total abstinence from alcohol, and later, tobacco and other drugs. The white ribbon bow in the group’s logo was selected to symbolize purity, and the group’s watchwords were, as they are today: “Agitate—Educate—Legislate.”
Beginning in the 1880s and continuing through the early 1900s, Delaware women banded together, formed their own WCTU committees and demonstrated their ability to function as effective lobbyists. Through their organized efforts and legislative interactions, they successfully persuaded the Delaware General Assembly to institute changes in a variety of political arenas including women’s suffrage, prohibition and prison reform. In 1893, the Delaware Industrial School for Girls was established with WTCU leaders placed in key positions.
After decades of activism by religious denominations, the WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League and others, the U.S. Congress proposed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on Dec. 18, 1917. The amendment sought to prohibit the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States. After significant debate, the Delaware General Assembly ratified the amendment on March 18, 1918 and it was ratified by the requisite three-quarters of the states on Jan. 16, 1919. On Jan. 17, 1920, it went into effect as the law of the land and remained in place until it was repealed with the passage of the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.
The WCTU initiated the practice of erecting public water fountains across the country in 1874 as a visible means of quenching one’s thirst with water instead of alcohol. Delaware’s WCTU committees erected the Rehoboth Beach public water fountain in 1929. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Note: Sections of this article were excerpted from the 2009 Women’s Christian Temperance Union Fountain nomination to the National Register of Historic Places written by the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs‘ then National Register coordinator Robin Krawitz, with assistance from Mrs. Evelyn Dick Thoroughgood of Rehoboth Beach and Gregory Ferrese who was then the resort town’s city manager.