Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Henry Corbin & the Westerville Whiskey War



Early on the morning of July 3, 1875, two explosions rocked Westerville, Ohio. They must have awakened everyone in town, including Henry Harrison Corbin. In that fiercely prohibitionist town he had open the saloon shown above.  Corbin understood the noise. The Westerville Whiskey War had begun in earnest.

Henry was born in May 1834 into a Virginia farming family, the son of William and Barbara Corbin.  His father appears to have been a renter, moving to new land with some frequency.  The 1850 census found the Corbins living in Licking County in Central Ohio.  Sixteen-year old Henry was working as a farm laborer. 

By the 1860 census the Corbins had moved again to a farm in nearby Delaware County.  The 1860 census found Henry still living at home, farming, but he was recorded with assets equivalent to $36,000 today.  He also had married in June 1858, an Ohio-born woman named Phloxena “Polly” Walker.  Henry was 24; Polly was 18. She is shown here in middle age.

The arrival of children in the Corbin household may have prompted Henry to decide to abandon the plow, move into nearby Westerville, and open a hardware store.  It was a good choice.  By the 1870s, Westerville was developing into a modern community. Streetcars ran along the major streets, and a railroad connected Westerville to Columbus,15 miles to the south. As population grew, residents needed hardware.  Corbin’s store was a success and allowed him to purchase real estate around town.

In 1875, Corbin decided to open a saloon in a building he rented at the corner of Knox and West Main Street, shown above.  He did so in full knowledge that it would prove controversial. As early as the late 1850s, Westerville residents had earned a reputation for opposing the sale and consumption of alcohol.  Otterbein College (now “University”), affiliated with the conservative Church of the Brethren, dominated the local culture. Town voters passed a law that banned the sale of "fermented spirits," becoming one of the first communities in Ohio to do so. 

Recognizing that the local ordinance, in fact, could not be enforced, Corbin opened his saloon in June, 1975.   A retrospective news article recalled the scene:  “Westerville residents awoke one morning to find a “LAGER BEER” sign flaunting in their faces….Business during the day was good, but that same night certain unappreciative members of the populace entered the place and emptied the contents of Corbin’s casks and bottles on the floor.”   Undaunted the owner replenished his whiskey and beer and continued in business.

A few days later, on July 1, 1875, at 9 A.M. a crowd estimated at some 1,000 met to protest the saloon. They then marched to 36 West Main and demanded that Corbin close his doors.  He refused.  Many residents wanted him to stay, he contended.  Expecting trouble, Corbin had armed himself with two pistols. The protesters on that occasion limited activities to speeches, prayers and hymns.  The orisons did not move the proprietor.  

The protesters, facing defeat, met again that night in the Presbyterian church where they raised $5,000, equivalent to almost $120,000 today.  The money was to be used as incentive to persuade Corbin to quit.  But hotter heads were not to be denied.  The next night, the saloon was pelted with stones for half an hour, breaking windows.  Nonetheless, Corbin reopened the next day.

Enboldened, the perpetrators struck again the following night, this time using dynamite in the blast heard all around town.  Corbin’s saloon was bombed, tearing down two walls and blowing off the roof.  Only one room remained intact.

A newspaper photo captured the damage.  The crowd that gathered at the wreckage the next morning noticed that the “GER” had been blown out of Corbin’s large “LAGER” sign, leaving only the “LA.”  Newspapers nationwide dubbed the conflict the “Westerville Whiskey War.”

Despite this setback, Corbin repaired his drinking establishment and tried to stay in business, but ultimately gave up.  Reasons differ for his capitulation.  Some say it was discouragement at being forced into costly court battles; others contend it was a second explosion at his Main Street saloon.  He and his family were reported to have moved at least temporarily to Columbus.

Corbin was a hard man to discourage.  Some said “a slow learner.” Four years after his Main Street saloon had been blown up, he was back in Westerville, having bought and renovated the Clymer Hotel, a small hostelry on North State Street, shown here.  Expecting that a hotel setting would discourage an explosive response, he opened a saloon in the basement. 

In early September, a mysterious theft of two 26 pound kegs of gunpowder from a Westerville hardware store occurred.  On September 15, 1879, at 2 a.m, another explosion shook the town “with earthquake violence,” said a local newspaper: “The noise was heard seven or eight miles away; some accounts said it was heard in Columbus.”  The explosion threw Henry Corbin out of bed and knocked out two of his teeth.  The hotel-saloon, as shown here was made uninhabitable, an adjacent house sustained damage and nearby stores had windows blown out.  Hopes gone, the Corbins moved permanently to Columbus.

The Town Council offered a reward of $300 for information leading the arrest of those responsible, paltry beside the $5,000 raised to run Corbin out of town.  In 1923 an anonymous article appeared in a United Brethren publication in which an individual confessed to the bombing.  He claimed he did it to protect a friend studying for the ministry who like to drink there, presumably to keep him on the straight path to “taking the cloth.”

In any war, there are losers and winners.  The clear winner was Westerville, now nationally known as “Dry Capital of the World.” Describing its residents as "socially clean and morally upright," the Anti-Saloon League in 1909 moved its headquarter there from wicked Washington, D.C.  Westerville became the publishing center for the Leagues’ anti-alcohol pamphlets, books and posters, including one entitled “Death, Defects, Dwarfings in the Young of Alcoholized Guinea Pigs.”  Women were key employees in the printing processes.

After abandoning Westerville, Corbin apparently lived the rest of his life in Columbus with wife Polly and his family. In neither the 1900 nor 1910 Federal census does he appear to have had an occupation.  Henry died in October 1910 at the relatively young age of 52, after a two-year siege of heart disease. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery, Columbus.  His and Polly’s grave monument is shown here.

Until recently, Westerville remained “dry” well after the repeal of National Prohibition and into the 21st Century.  Today the town celebrates its heyday by sponsoring an Anti-Saloon League Museum.  Moreover, a large sculpture in front of City Hall appears to show a liquor barrel that has been blown to pieces, suggesting techniques similar to those that destroyed Corbin’s saloons during the Westerville Whiskey War.

Note: This vignette was drawn from a rich trove of material abut the Westerville Whiskey War. Two principal sources were an undated story from the Westerville Monitor headlined “Townspeople Dynamite Saloon and Drive Wets Out of Westerville for Good,” and an October 8,1987, article from “The Public Opinion” publication of the Westerville Library written by Harold Hancock of Otterbein College. Renovated as shown below, Henry Corbin’s first (bombed) saloon building still stands in Westerville.  In recent times plans have been announced to use it as a drinking establishment.




  1. Michael Evans (dba Pizza Mike)March 23, 2023 at 11:40 AM

    I (Michael Evans) sold the first legal alcohol since the 1879 Corbin bombing at Michaels Pizza Kitchen on January 12th at 1:49 in Uptown Westerville. Auctioned off to Westerville Jeweler Bill Morgan and money donated to W.A.R.M. Ending Uptown Westerville’s being the “Dry Capital of the World”

  2. Pizza Mike: You are a trend-setter of the highest order. Just watch out for the zealots carry explosives.