Mansfield's Most "Spirited" Debate
Jun 30, 2020 01:42PM
By Steve McCloskey
It was fifty years ago that the Pennsylvania state store opened in Mansfield after many decades as a dry town. It closed in March because of the state shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic, and reopened May 8. The line on the last day it was open in March went from the counter to the back of the store, back up the aisle, and out the front door. ~ Joyce Tice
For some Mansfield residents, Governor Tom Wolf’s ordering the closure of all state stores in the Commonwealth on March 17, as a preventive measure in limiting the spread of COVID-19 virus, was fifty years too late. The governor’s executive order effectively prohibited the selling of packaged liquor in Mansfield, a course of action that escaped a dogged group of sixteen area residents who appeared before Tioga County Judge Charles G. Webb during a hearing in Common Pleas Court the morning of April 8, 1970. The hearing was the final showdown in a community-wide debate that had raged since Mayor Ernie Vosburg informed borough council members at their February 3 meeting that he had been informed by three State Liquor Control Board officials that a state store in Mansfield was imminent.
Those three officials had visited Mansfield two months earlier to conduct an informal survey of community and business leaders after the agency had reportedly received numerous requests from area residents for a state store. Those residents complained they had to travel to Blossburg, Wellsboro, or Troy to purchase legal spirits and wines. The officials also reported that the Chamber of Commerce and most business owners were receptive.
It would seem the LCB guys may have missed a few folks in their survey. Mansfield had a long history as a dry, and moral, community.
Well before the advent of social media, letters to the editor published in the local papers were the most popular and effective way to express one’s opinion. Judging by the volume and intensity—although civil by today’s standards—of anti-state store letters posted in the Mansfield Advertiser and the Elmira Star Gazette, there was substantial and passionate opposition. The Advertiser, in its near final days of local ownership, penned an editorial strongly opposed to the sale of liquor in the borough.
Many of the letter writers were opposed to a state store on religious and moral grounds, because of historical tradition, or due to frustration over their perceived lack of choice in the matter. By Pennsylvania law, LCB had the authority to legally establish a store in any community that had an expressed interest—unless there was overwhelming opposition.
The Star-Gazette conducted an informal survey and reported that state store proponents outnumbered opponents. Another questionnaire, circulated to 100 borough residents as part of a survey class at the Mansfield State College (now Mansfield University), also showed a majority approved of the establishment of a state store.
Word leaked out that the LCB was in negotiation with the newly built Mansfield Plaza to construct a store connecting to the almost finished Super Duper grocery store. That news prompted sixteen residents, most of them married couples, who lived within a quarter mile of the site to present a petition disallowing the store in their neighborhood.
The evening before the hearing date in Wellsboro, Mayor Vosburg—who was in favor of the state store but had no vote on borough council—asked council members to go on record and vote if they approved or disapproved of the establishment. Council complied, giving its unanimous approval to the proposed establishment.
The next morning, Judge Webb opened the hearing by explicitly informing both sides that the issue to be determined was not if Mansfield should by wet or dry—the judge claimed he was personally one of the driest of the dry in Tioga County—but only why the store should be prohibited from opening at the location in the plaza. Despite his best efforts, he proved less than successful in limiting the scope of the debate.
When first filed, the petition against the store consisted of three reasons for rejection of the plaza location. One, which was dropped prior to the hearing, is perhaps particularly relevant in a town and gown community—the student population is more than the population of the borough.
That original concern about the college population was subsequently replaced by concern of the proximity of Prospect Cemetery, a “sacred place.” The other concerns included the prospective store’s proximity to a church, a school, and to private residences, and that previous elections had expressed the will of the residents in opposition of the sale of liquor.
The revised anti-liquor store rationale centered on the site’s nearness to a church, represented by the pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of North Main and Elmira streets (a location that now houses the History Center’s Museum of Us). He spoke about his concerns of increased traffic on Saturdays, their day of Sabbath. He was also worried about people drinking as they walked by the church.
The second issue presented was residents’ concerns that children would have to walk past the store on the way to and from school.
After two hours of testimony, including a number of people stating they were against the state store on moral and religious grounds, no matter where the location, the counsel for both groups presented their final arguments.
The Liquor Control Board, represented by an assistant state attorney, carried the day, arguing there were plenty of established state stores located much closer to churches in other locations throughout the Commonwealth. The state also insisted the plaza parking lot provided a long buffer between the store and the sidewalk.
Their final argument buried the opposition with the statement that “it would be impossible for the state store to have any effect on the residents of the cemetery.”
Judge Webb concurred, and the case—if not the debate—was finally over.
Mansfield’s state store opened for business later that year. Ironically, the first customer was from Wellsboro.
While we’re waiting for the return of normalcy, get out and take a walk from the state store to the History Center’s Museum of Us, and see if indeed it’s within a quarter mile.
I’ll drink to that.