I’ve not heard from anyone who can identify the author of the account of Denison’s earliest days, so I will continue sharing some of the very interesting information.
Only one paragraph was dedicated to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union although it said that the temperance movement had reached Denison in the early 1880s and that resulted in its organization. I’ve written a couple of times about the WCTU and included in this column is information that I have gathered.
Mary Elizabeth Lease gave women a new “lease on life” when she spoke in Denison in the 1880s at a meeting of the newly formed Denison Women’s Christian Temperance Union. That speech was one of her first moves down the road to national fame, being called the Populist Party’s “Joan of Arc.”
Today it’s not unusual to find a woman in a leadership role in a company, a city, a county, a state or even the national government. Women have been told for many years that they can do anything they set their minds to do. Today we believe it if we are willing to work hard enough.
Roles we play in every aspect of life have reached new heights as what was known as “the weaker sex” has come out of the shadows and taken a leading role. Times were different a little more than 100 years ago.
Mary was born in Ridgeway, Pa. in 1853. Her father and two brothers died during the Civil War, her father at the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia, and subsequently she hated the Democratic Party which she considered responsible for the war.
Shortly after graduating from St. Elizabeth’s Academy in Allegany, N.Y., she moved to Osage Mission, Kan. to teach at St. Anne’s Academy and in 1873 she married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist’s clerk, and moved to Kingman County to live on a farm. They lost their farm and stock in the financial panic and in the summer of 1874 started over in Denison after they were told that “on the other side of the Indian Territory was Texas, according to information in the book, “Queen of the Populists,” by Richard Stiller.
Mary Elizabeth and Charles had hoped that he could find work as a druggist or maybe even own his own druggist shop here. Stiller described Denison at the time as “a town full of rough, wild, desperate men — a thieves’ and murderer’s capitol.” But Stiller also said Denison was a respectable place with Main Street reserved for respectable businesses and Skiddy Street, a block away (now Chestnut Street) limited to “disorderly houses, tippling shops, barrooms, bawdy houses and other tough establishments.
The young couple found a frame house at the corner of Walker Street and Houston Avenue and Charles got a job as a clerk in Dr. Alex Acheson’s drugstore on Main Street between Rusk and Austin avenues. They lost two children in infancy and four others, Charles, Louisa, Grace and Ben Hur, survived. Ben Hur was named for the Christian hero of Lew Wallace’s popular novel.
Dr. Acheson’s wife, Sarah, invited Mary Elizabeth to give a short address at the historic meeting of the newly formed Women’s Christian Temperance Union in her home. The temperance movement was second only in women’s hearts to the growing campaign for women’s suffrage. This possibly was the first public speech that Mary Elizabeth ever made
By 1875 about 150 communities in Texas had adopted local prohibition laws and Grayson County was a stronghold of the temperance movement, primarily because Denison was such a heavy drinking place.
Dr. Acheson, Charles Lease’s employer during the family’s stay here, was one of Denison’s most colorful pioneers whose more than 90 years were highlighted by service as mayor. Sarah Acheson also left her imprint on early Denison as an organizer and officer of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She probably was the influence that brought Mary into the WCTU and thereby launched a career that later achieved national scope.
In 1971 a New York author, Dorothy Rose Blumberg, was in Denison compiling information for a book she was writing on Mary Elizabeth Lease, whom she said “had a beautiful speaking voice.” A check with Amazon.com shows that the book, “Mary Elizabeth Lease, Populist Orator: a profile,” published in 1978, is no longer available.
The women at the meeting found that Mary was not a quiet person once she had the floor and had something to say. She got very vocal when she talked about the evils of drink and the importance of making Denison a respectable and moral community in which she wanted to rear her children. It is said that she enjoyed every minute of the speech and she had a natural gift of speaking. The women made a big fuss over the shy young wife of the drug clerk, who like most men of that time wasn’t overly pleased with his wife’s actions.
In the spring of 1883 Charles and Mary Lease and their children gathered up their savings and belonging and moved back to Kingsman, Kan., where Mary Elizabeth went on to rally the farmers by telling them, “What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more hell,” as she campaigned vigorously for the Populist Party.
She spoke before crowds as large as 20,000 people, both men and women, who gathered to listen. Although her lectures and speeches covered a wide range of subjects, she was a promoter of Women’s Liberation.
An ardent believer in women’s right to vote, she had followers all across the nation. When the National Council of Women had its first meeting in Washington D.C., Mary was invited to speak on “Women in the Farmer’s Alliance,” which also was known as the Populist Party.
Mary told her story which made such an impression on the New York Review of Books that it called her “the Joan of Arc of the farmers and working men in Kansas.”
Soon after 1896 Mary divorced Charles and moved to New York City with her four children, where she worked as a lawyer and lecturer.
She spoke on behalf of Eugene Debs when he ran for president in 1908, then became an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and supported his bid to recapture the presidency under the banner of the “Bull Moose” Progressive Party.
Before she died in 1933 she saw the passage of many of her goals — prohibition and woman suffrage as well as much of the Populist platform.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.