Wets Versus Drys
The Temperance Movement in 19th Century Prestonsburg
by Robert Perry
Catlettsburg historian William Ely, author of The Big Sandy Valley (1887) says that while the people of Prestonsburg were noted for intellectual culture, the town was also, during its early years, "somewhat given to dissipation." Disturbing as this statement is, it is supported by an eyewitness account written by another Eastern Kentucky historian, Thomas W. Parsons, who as a young man spent the month of February, 1845 living on Abbott Creek with his mother's Floyd County cousins.
But before I tell you Parsons's story, I will briefly review the history of the Floyd County Methodists. I am doing this because I want to place Parsons's story in its proper context.
According to a booklet published by the Prestonsburg Methodist Episcopal Church in 1937, the first Methodist sermon ever preached in Floyd County was delivered by a Methodist circuit-rider sometime around 1825 at a meeting in the home of Tandy and Elizabeth "Betsy" Layne. The 776-acre Layne Farm was located at modern-day Justell, Kentucky.
Today all that remains of Tandy's and Betsy's house is a crumbling rock chimney. They are buried on the hill above the site, and the inscription on Tandy's tombstone (Tandy Layne, 1805-1841) is still legible. The location of Betsy's grave is unknown.
In 1838 William Landrum, a Methodist minister from Shelby County, was placed in charge of the Louisa Circuit. He toured the valley on horseback, conducting a series of meetings. He preached at Prestonsburg and near modern-day Emma, where he spent the night at the home of Rebecca Witten Graham, widow of Judge John Graham. John and Rebecca are buried in the Graham Cemetery on the hill above Emma, and their graves can still be visited.
In 1853, the Methodists established Snively Chapel on Johns Creek, on land donated by Martin and Sarah Leslie. The chapel is still standing today. It is named for Rev. W. J. Snively, a Methodist circuit-rider during the early period.
After the Civil War, the Methodists established Trimble Chapel on Bull Creek, Auxier Chapel at the mouth of Johns Creek, Robinson Chapel on Abbott Creek, Elliott Chapel on Big Mud Creek, and Keith's Chapel on Little Paint. Some of the ministers who traveled this circuit were Rev. Henry Hager, Rev. "Peach Orchard" Johnson, and Rev. A. B. Stamper of Morgan County. When ordained ministers weren't available, local men like Samuel May (1820-1904), George May, Aquilla Harmon, and Joe Lafferty filled the pulpit.
In the 1840s it was the custom for Methodists and other denominations to hold camp meetings in the big bottom at the mouth of Abbott Creek. Meetings were also held in the bottom at the mouth of Beaver Creek, near present-day Allen.
The rowdy characters who patronized the Prestonsburg saloons feared these meetings, because they knew that a growing populaton of church-goers meant that, sooner or later, the temperance movement would come to Floyd County. Sometimes, when meetings were in progress, they would mount their horses, ride out to the campground, and try to break them up. They would fire their pistols in the air, overturn tables, knock over tents, and shout profanities at the God-fearing Christians.
My main source of information about early-day Floyd County camp meetings is Thomas W. Parsons of Mount Sterling, Kentucky. Parsons's manuscript, entitled "Incidents and Experiences in the Life of Thomas W. Parson," is on file in Special Collections at the University of Kentucky Library in Lexington. Parsons composed the manuscript in 1900, when he was 74 years old. In 1844 he was a teenager living with his father and mother on their farm in Breathitt County.
Found in Winnie Johns'  trunk, this photo shows the Thomas W. Parsons family of Mt. Sterling. Standing, from left, John B. Parsons, Jesse N. Parsons, Charles W. Parsons, Roger D. Parsons. Seated, from left, Viola McIntire, Clay Trimble, Thomas W. Parsons, Emma Butler, Mattie Rogers. While visiting relatives on Abbott Creek, Thomas witnessed the Prestonsburg Riot of 1845.
Parsons tells us that in the Fall of 1844, his father was invited to attend a camp meeting in Floyd County "some seven miles above Prestonsburg on the Big Sandy River." Since his mother had some relatives in Floyd County who could provide him with a place to stay, he decided to accompany his father and spend the winter attending the subscription school then being taught in Prestonsburg by Professor Lewis Mayo.
Parsons says that while he was attending school in Prestonsburg, he witnessed the Prestonsburg Riot of 1845. He prefaces his story with this statement:
There was a large number of the very roughest class of men in and around the town, and during the camp meeting previously mentioned, these men, led by one Joe Harris and others, would assemble on the streets and drink and swear, and sing and pray, and preach, and gave out that they were going up to the camp-ground to break up the meeting. So strong were the threats that the men at the camp ground, preachers and all, prepared to give them a warm reception.
Three Prestonsburg men, Isaac Friend, David Cooley, and Lewis Todd, were deeply offended by the behavior of the mob, and when the Circuit Court was held, they went before the grand jury and got Joe Harris and several others indicted. Parsons doesn't say what they were indicted for, but presumably it was for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace.
Thirsting for revenge, Harris's gang surrounded Todd's house one night and tried to decoy him so that they could mob him. He outwitted them, however, and met them at the door with his pistol drawn. When Joe Harris opened his front gate, Todd fired. Fortunately, a rock thrown by one of the mob hit Todd on his wrist just as the gun fired, and as a result, he missed Harris. Then the mob began to bombard Todd's house, throwing stones, stone coal, and anything else that they could find. They smashed the front window and scarred the house pretty badly.
Todd managed to get his wife and children out the back door and over the fence to a neighbor's house. Then he stood his ground until he got a second shot at Joe Harris, this time cutting him across the back of his head. Fortunately, the bullet only creased him, as the old hunters liked to say. In a few minutes the mob carried him down the street to his brother James's saloon, which was headquarters for the gang. According to Parsons, James P. Harris had a tavern license, sold whiskey, and "controlled the worthless class."
Though they had his house surrounded, Todd dodged the mob that night by slipping out the back door to his neighbor's house, dressing up as a woman, and going out among them accompanied by his neighbor's wife. When he was out of their sight, he crossed the Big Sandy in a skiff and walked down the bank to the John Friend Farm on Abbott Creek, where he knew that he had friends.
At the Friend Farm Todd related his adventure to John Friend, Justice of the Peace. Wishing to protect Todd from harm, Friend issued a writ for his arrest and gave it to his nephew, Charles Friend, Jr., who was a constable. Charles immediately summoned a guard and placed Todd under arrest.
James P. Harris was also a Justice of the Peace, and one of the gang members, a man by the name of Vaughn, was the Town Constable. Judge Harris issued a writ against Todd soon after the shooting, and the gang then marched to Todd's house to arrest him. While this was taking place, Todd was looking down on them from the attic window of his neighbor's house, where his family had found refuge and from where he subsequently passed out among them dressed as a woman.
When news of the riot reached Frankfort, the Governor called out the local militia and stationed it in Prestonsburg until Todd could be tried for shooting Joe Harris. Commander of the militia was Johnson County Sheriff Daniel Hager, who operated a hotel in Paintstville.
When the grand jury investigated the case, they praised Todd for what he had done and issued four indictments against Joe Harris and several more against other members of his gang. According to Parsons, "This settled the social and moral atmosphere in and around Prestonsburg for several years."
However, public drunkenness and rowdy behavior continued to be a problem in Prestonsburg for the rest of the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century. Newspaper clippings from the 1880s show that the problem was in full flower during that decade. On August 3rd, 1882, the Ashland Independent published this report from its Prestonsburg correspondent:
Occasionally a spirit of pure rascality manifests itself in certain individuals, as was the case recently with a young man by the name of Brown, who went into the meeting grounds on Abbott Creek a few days ago, with pistol in hand, and disturbed and partially broke up the meeting. Such chaps need heroic treatment.
In 1885 a Prestonsburg merchant by the name of Morgan Lackey, appalled by the drunkenness that was poisoning the town's moral atmosphere, led a temperance crusade to stop the sale of alcohol and drive the saloon-keepers out of town. William Ely says that "by marshalling the forces of temperance, law and order, every grog shop was driven from the town, where the poisonous fluid had for sixty-five years held one continuous carnival of death." By 1887, as a result of his efforts, "not a drop of liquor was sold in the county."
On June 14th, 1883, the Ashland Independent ran this news report from its Prestonsburg correspondent:
The Messrs. Greer, assistants of Marshall Heflin, are again installed at the Bonanza Hotel. We say God speed you in your good work. Leave not an illicit still in the bounds of your work or anyone contemptible enough to use one, and we do hope that those having charge of Licensed Stills may become so disgusted with the fruits of their labor that they will abandon the work. It has been arranged to take a vote on the local option in ten of the thirteen precincts in this county.
In the Spring of 1880 Dr. W. C. Condit, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Ashland, toured the Sandy Valley looking for a place to establish a college. He was shocked to discover that there was not a single church standing within the town limits of Prestonsburg. He decided that the best place to establish a Presbyterian college was Pikeville, where the moral atmosphere was more to his liking.
In 1883 the Methodists established Prestonsburg's first permanent church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Founding members were Mary A. Davidson, Josie D. Harkins, F. A. Hopkins, Alice G. Hopkins, H. H. Fitzpatrick, Sallie Fitzpatrick, Walter S. Harkins, J. N. Schmucker, Annie M. Schmucker, John W. Mayo, Sr., and Thomas J. May. A modest brick building with a steeple, it stood on Court Street in downtown Prestonsburg on the lot later occupied by the B. F. Casuals Store.
The May Memorial United Methodist Church at Langley, Kentucky was established in 1868 by three brothers, George A. May, John May, and Jack May. They named the new church Reuben May Chapel in memory of their father, Reuben May, brother of Samuel May, the builder of the Samuel May House in Prestonsburg.
On June 7th, 1883, the Ashland Independent reported in its Prestonsburg column that "Mr. James M. Lackey is getting the temperance movement under good headway (Praise the Lord!)."
James Morgan Lackey (1812-1889) is buried in the May Cemetery above Mays Branch. His grave is located several hundred feet above the old Bascom May House, now occupied by Hager White, widow of Snow White, the man who donated the land for the First Presbyterian Church. Lackey settled in Prestonsburg in the Spring of 1839 and engaged in stock driving and selling goods in partnership with John Preston Martin. He was the son of Floyd County Pioneer Alexander Lackey, who owned a farm at the forks of Beaver Creek.
Up to this point, I haven't said anything about the Baptists. However, I want to make it clear that they, too, were actively proselytizing during the county's early period. The man who spearheaded this work was William "Elder Bill" Salisbury (1793-1871), who owned a farm on Left Beaver near Drift, Kentucky. He is buried on a point near the old Salisbury homeplace at Hunter, Kentucky.
In 1812 the Baptists established the New Salem Old Regular Baptist Church at Harold, Kentucky. This church, which is still being used today, served as the mother church for all the Old Regular Baptish Churches in Floyd and surrounding counties. Another early Old Regular Baptist Church is the Stone Coal Baptist Church at Garrett, Kentucky, which was founded in 1888.
The First Baptist Church of Prestonsburg was organized in 1907, under the leadership of Rev. Charles Martin of Paintsville. Founding members included Surilda Hughes, Emery Hale, Eliza Hale, David Perry, Alice Perry, Saul Perry, Tenn Sammons, and William Dingus. The group was held together by Rev. Martin and William Dingus until 1908, when Rev. W. H. Sledge held a three-week revival in Prestonsburg. This formed the foundation on which the church was built.
The First Presbyterian Church of Prestonsburg was organized on December 31st, 1890, in the home of John Witten Layne, owner of the Bonanza Hotel in downtown Prestonsburg. Earliest members included John Witten Layne and wife Angeline Auxier Layne, William H. Layne and wife Elizabeth Hopkins Layne, John E. Layne and wife Emily Bolling Layne, and their daughter Annie, who married Joe M. Davidson. John and Angeline Layne were the parents of William  H. Layne and the grandparents of Frank Layne, founder of the Prestonsburg Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Shown at left are Frank Layne (1907-1983) and Mary Lou Layne of Prestonsburg. The Laynes lived in the old Harmison-Davidson-Layne House at the corner of Arnold Avenue and Graham Street, which Frank had inherited from his parents. During 1880s and 1890s Frank's grandfather John Witten Layne (1839-1923) owned and operated the Bonanza Hotel in downtown Prestonsburg. Frank's father, Prestonsburg attorney Will H. Layne (1874-1944), headed the first electric power company established in Prestonsburg and was famous locally as the man who brought electric lights to Prestonsburg. For an enlarged picture, click here.
Frank Layne (1907-1983) was educated at Prestonsburg Elementary and Prestonsburg High School. During his senior year he was elected captain of the school's first football team. In the 1930s and 1940s, during the period when the town was legally wet, he owned and operated the Club Rustique, a night club located in Black Bottom in what was then the northern outskirts of Prestonsburg. In later years he owned and operated the Layne and Layne Insurance Agency.
In 1949 Frank founded the Prestonsburg Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Early members were Wesley Howard, Ray Howard, and Clayborne Stephens. Through the missionary work of these men, the Prestonsburg chapter became the founding chapter of all the AA Chapters in the Big Sandy Valley.
On November 11th, 1977, Frank was honored by the Kentucky Alcohol Forum with the Minette Cup Award, the highest honor given by that organization. A recovering alcoholic himself, Frank devoted 34 years of his life to helping men afflicted with the disease.
"To achieve the ability to live a life of total abstinence is not easy," Layne told a reporter in 1977, "but it can be done, and the difference it makes in a person's life and the lives of those who are close to him is well worth the effort."
The Prestonsburg Alcoholics Anonymous meets weekly in the Fellowship Hall of the First Presbyterian Church on North Lake Drive. Meetings are held every Saturday night at 8 pm.
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