MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 18, 2014

Local WTCU did more than battle liquor

Teacher led it to start first school in Muskogee for boys and girls

By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History

— Although the word “temperance” was included in its name, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had many lofty goals besides fighting alcoholism when it was founded in 1874 in Ohio.

The women who flooded the organization with new chapters all across the country also worked for better education, sanitation, tobacco cessation, social reform, women’s suffrage and even “world peace.”

The WCTU used education as well as social and political pressure to advance its causes.

In Muskogee, an organizational meeting for a WCTU chapter took place in January  1884. Laura Harsha, the wife of rancher and merchant W.S. Harsha, was a leader in organizing the Muskogee chapter. It was the host of a WCTU convention in Muskogee in 1888.

Laura Harsha, a mother of nine children, was a teacher in Okmulgee, where she met her husband, who worked at the Turner Mercantile there.

They later moved to Muskogee, where W.S. Harsha took over the local Turner Mercantile in partnership with H.B. Spaulding.

Laura Harsha never lost her interest in education, however, and she made it a major emphasis for the WCTU chapter.

When the Harshas moved to Muskogee, there were few schools. Harrell Institute was a school for girls, although boys up to age 12 were admitted. Will Rogers briefly attended Harrell with his sister, May.

Bacone College taught older boys, but it was so far from town that it was difficult for many students to get there.

That left a serious gap in education for young men in the community, which led them into idleness and a tendency to get into trouble.

To remedy this situation, the WCTU opened a school for boys and girls in 1890.

The land for the school was donated by Robert Owen, who later became a senator.

Hardware merchant Clarence Turner gave the organization generous credit terms for the lumber to build the school.

A two-story structure was completed in the vicinity of Okmulgee Avenue and Cherokee Street.  

Parents who could afford to pay the school’s tuition did so, but no student was turned away because of a lack of funds.

Leading citizens of Muskogee supported the school with donations that helped pay the salaries of two teachers.

Again, the WCTU’s name was a bit misleading. Many men supported it and championed its causes, too.

The Muskogee WCTU was always engaged in fundraising activities.

The group organized entertainment events and dinners, ran contests, operated a booth at the Indian Fair and even sold ice cream on downtown street corners to raise funds to keep its school going.

It also raised money to begin Muskogee’s first free public library. 

One fundraiser involved bringing the national president of the WCTU, Frances Willard, to Muskogee. She gave a lecture that brought out a large crowd. The money that was raised enabled the women to retire the school’s construction debt.

The WCTU school continued until 1898, when Muskogee’s first public schools opened.

The temperance work continued until the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which began Prohibition, in 1919. Women’s suffrage was won in 1920.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.