Mansfield engages in borough’s most “spirited” debate 50 years-ago this spring.
by Steve McCloskey
For some Mansfield residents, Governor Wolf’s ordering the closure of all the State Stores in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 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 16 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 at their February 3, meeting that he had been informed by three State Liquor Control Board officials that a State Store was imminent for the borough.
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 for a State Store from area residents. Those residents complained they had to travel to Blossburg, Wellsboro or Troy to purchase legal spirts and wines. The officials also reported that the Chamber of Commerce and most business owners were receptive.
It would seem the State Liquor Control 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 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 State 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 writers of those letters were opposed to a State Store on religious and moral grounds, historical tradition or just plain frustrated that they had little or no choice in the matter. By Pennsylvania law, the State Liquor Control had the authority to legally establish a store in any community that had an expressed interest unless there was overwhelming opposition.
The Star-Gazette of Elmira conducted an informal survey and reported that proponents of the establishment of a State Store outnumber those opposed. Another questionnaire was circulated to 100 borough residents as part of a survey class at the college that also showed a majority approved of the establishment a State Store.
Word leaked out that the State Liquor Control Board was in negotiation with the newly built Mansfield Plaza to construct a store connecting to the almost finished Super Duper. That news prompted 16 residents, most of them married couples, who lived within ¼ 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 council – asked the borough council to go on record and vote if they approved or disapproved of the establishment. Council complied to the Mayor’s request by giving its unanimous approval to the proposed establishment of a State Store.
The next morning, Judge Webb opened the hearing by explicitly informing both sides that this 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 consisted of three reasons for rejection of the plaza property that included
the proximity to a church, school and private residences and previous elections that expressed the will of the residents in opposition of the sale of liquor.
The third original reason that was dropped prior to the hearing is perhaps more revealing in a town and gown community –
the student population is more than the population of Mansfield.
The revised rational centered on the site’s nearness to a church which was represented by the pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church located on the corner of North Main and Elmira 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 home from school. Finally, the original concern about the college population was replaced by concern of the proximity of Prospect Cemetery, a “sacred place”, and the location of the store.
After two hours of testimony, including a number of people stating they were against the State Store no matter where the location on moral and religious grounds, 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 when the state stated 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.
The Mansfield State Store opened for business later that year – ironically the first customer was from Wellsboro.
While were waiting for the return of normalcy, get out and take a walk from the State Store in the Plaza to the History Center's Museum of Us, and see if indeed it’s within a quarter-mile.
I’ll drink to that.