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Elizabeth Preston Anderson


We’ve spent the last two days talking about events connected to alcohol in North Dakota’s past. Today we bring you the story of Elizabeth Preston Anderson, who was at the other end of the spectrum. She was born on this date in 1861 to Elam Stanton Preston, a Methodist pastor in Decatur, IN. His ancestors were “Friend Quakers” who came over from England sometime before 1750.

Elizabeth said her first memory was at the age of two, when she was awakened to say goodbye to her mother as she lay dying. Elizabeth’s next memory was of getting a new mother, then of the celebration when the North won the Civil War. “Then,” she wrote, “followed days of unutterable sadness and despair, which I could feel but could not understand...beloved Lincoln had been assassinated.”

When she was 18, the Prestons moved to Dakota Territory and homesteaded near what is now Tower City. In the midst of a raging prairie fire that fall, Elizabeth made a vow to “have an object in life; to work for that object by making the most of every power; every advantage or opportunity God should give me.”

Soon after, she became ill and had to take a year off from teaching in Sanborn. The doctor prescribed alcoholic stimulants, and after a number of months she became “aware of a growing appetite for it, an impatience for the hour to strike when the next dose should be given.” After some serious reflection, she told the doctor she would take “no more of it.”

While teaching in Page, Preston’s hotel room overlooked the back door of a saloon. One morning she spotted a man passed out on the ground. “The sun was shining in the young face, over which the flies were crawling,” she wrote, “the mouth was open. That picture of some mother’s boy could not be erased from my mind. As I looked over my school room, I studied my fine, bright, promising boys, wondering which of them would take this young man’s place.”

Preston had found her object. She organized a local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, began making prohibition speeches and managed to get the bar in Page shut down. By 1891, she was on a roll but feared she’d have to give up her prohibition work and go back to teaching. At the first world’s convention of the WCTU in Boston, she summoned the courage to ask for an introduction to Frances Willard, the group’s head.

Preston later wrote, “When she turned her blue eyes upon me and spoke a few words, I knew that she not only saw me but that she saw my background – the wind swept, sun-drenched prairies of North Dakota, and understood our problems.” That year, Preston says, “I began my legislative work at Bismarck, which continued for more than thirty-five years... They knew that a great company – the WCTU – the cream of North Dakota women – was back of me.”

Elizabeth Preston worked tirelessly on behalf of children and women’s right for women to vote. She was served 40 years as president of the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Historian Clement Lounsberry later wrote, “(She) always attended the legislative sessions, where she worked without cessation, night and day, to prevent the repeal of the (prohibition) law... The friends of temperance owe a debt of gratitude to this fragile little woman who successfully combated every movement of the liquor forces.”

Source: Elizabeth Preston Anderson, Sketch of my Life (written by request of Minnie J. Nielson), 1939

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm