The early morning explosion on Sept. 25, 1879, threw Henry Corbin from his bed and knocked out two of his teeth.

His hotel-saloon on State Street in Westerville was a total loss. It was the third time in four years that a Corbin-owned saloon had been dynamited.

The good people of Westerville were staunchly — and apparently, violently — opposed to a bar in their city.

Corbin had tried to defend his establishment — he reportedly carried pistols in each hand when the bar opened each day — but that third bombing was the charm.

“After that, he moved to Columbus and sold vegetables,” local business owner Tony Cabilovski said. “He had had enough of Westerville.”

A member of the Anti-Saloon League, which moved to Westerville in 1909 and worked to get Prohibition passed, once bragged that the city was “so dry that you have to sprinkle the streets after a rain.”

One wonders what Corbin would think of the town today. As it turns out, he was 125 years ahead of his time.

In 2004, Westerville voters for the first time approved a liquor license in its historic Uptown district. Today, more than a half-dozen businesses serve alcohol there.

And this year, the Westerville Visitors & Convention Bureau unveiled a new slogan: “Anything But Dry!” It appears in the bureau’s annual community event guide and also in print advertisements.

So what in the name of Bud Light is going on here?

“We’re certainly not making fun of the past,” said Glenda Mihaly, the bureau’s marketing coordinator. She explained that the slogan is meant to indicate that Westerville is exciting rather than “dry” and boring. “We’re giving a very respectful nod to our history but also celebrating our progress.”

Visitors to Westerville can experience that sweep of history, starting at the Anti-Saloon League Museum at the city’s public library. There, Nina Thomas, manager of the library’s Westerville History Center, explains that Westerville has always been a town of social crusaders.

First, residents were heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement. Next, their passion turned to shutting down bars.

But even as critics bombed Corbin out of town, Thomas said Westerville had a pharmacy at which it was legal to sell alcohol for medicinal purposes.

“Looking at the ledgers, you can see all the prominent townspeople buying alcohol,” she said. “They apparently were very sick. They were buying it; they just didn’t want it in the saloon.”

When the Anti-Saloon League moved to Westerville, its leaders built nice houses in a neighborhood now called “Temperance Row.” They also opened a printing facility that, at its peak, cranked out 40 tons of anti-alcohol mailings a year.

Prohibition lasted from 1920 until 1933. Thomas said there was a five-month window, beginning in April 1933, when beer was sold out of Taylor’s Pool Hall before Westerville quickly voted itself dry again in November.

The town remained dry for more than 72 years.

Even as the 2004 liquor-license vote neared, an opposition group formed called STOP (Safety and Tradition Over Profits).

“With the proximity of Otterbein (University) to State Street, people were scared that Uptown Westerville would become like High Street (on the Ohio State University campus),” Thomas said.

As it turned out, voters by an overwhelming margin — 71 percent — approved the license for the Old Bag of Nails pub. Before the pub could be renovated and opened, though, Michael’s Pizza got a liquor license, too. It was there, on Jan. 12, 2006, that the first beer since 1933 (a Budweiser) was served Uptown.

“At some point, it was about, ‘What does the community really want?’” said Lynn Aventino, executive director of Uptown Westerville Inc. “People want to come down and have dinner and a drink and walk around the historic district.”

Public sentiment may have shifted over the years, but when Cabilovski was preparing to open a deli and brewery in Westerville in 2014, he was nervous about how the town might react to a business not just selling beer Uptown but also making it.

He decided to embrace the town’s Prohibition legacy by naming his brewery Temperance Row Brewing Co. and also by designing the building to look a bit like an old speakeasy. The front of the building reads “Uptown Deli and Brew,” but the bar and brewery are tucked away in the back.

“Initially, I think people were a little bit nervous about us,” Cabilovski said. “But I think they saw that my approach was respectful to the history here in Westerville, and overall we’ve had a very warm welcome.”

By all accounts, going “wet” has helped boost Uptown businesses.

“Ten years ago, if you went through Westerville at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, it was a ghost town,” Cabilovski said. “Now it’s vibrant, and it’s not just the restaurants and bars that are full, it’s the boutiques and shops, as well.”

Mihaly said: “There aren’t too many ways you can deny the positive impact it has had on the business community.”

The city has not forgotten its past. Besides the Anti-Saloon League Museum, visitors can take tours of the homes along Temperance Row.

A statue in front of the city’s administration building features a broken whiskey barrel atop a tall metal wedge, with water trickling down over it. One side of the wedge features newspaper headlines announcing the onset of Prohibition, and the other side marks the amendment’s repeal.

Not long after Cabilovski opened in 2015, he said a descendant of Henry Corbin stopped in and expressed his pleasure at seeing a brewery succeed where his ancestor had failed. Now, two of Temperance Row’s beers are named to honor Corbin: “Corbin’s Revenge” and “Two Pistols.”

“We didn’t do that to be ironic or flippant,” Cabilovski said. “It’s a nod to the history. It’s another link in the chain of Westerville changing from what it was to what it is.”

 

kgordon@dispatch.com

@kgdispatch