Jerry Summers: Major George R. Fairbanks—Sewanee’s Prohibitionist

Monday, September 23, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

To the surprise of some, the University of the South at Sewanee had as one of its original trustees that created the highly regarded institute of higher learning in 1858 an avowed supporter of prohibition.  Located on over 12,000 acres on the Cumberland Plateau outside the village of Monteagle approximately half way between Nashville and Chattanooga is Sewanee. 

While Sewanee is now easily reached by Interstate I-24 such was not always the case.  The dreary and inclement weather that often resulted in heavy snowfalls during the winter months and lack of social activities produced a student body that was full of hard studying and heavy drinkers. 


The wooded property surrounding the campus provided excellent cover for the local entrepreneurs who manufactured the product known as moonshine.  Legitimate liquor store proprietors in Chattanooga were often willing to provide delivery service to the local fraternities and other establishments on the campus.  Several service stations in the Monteagle township would not only fill up your car with gas and check the oil levels but could also supply a half pint, pint, or fifth of several liquor brands out of their back room. 


The popular beer joint in Monteagle, Tubby’s, and the restaurant, Clara’s, on the Sewanee campus were not very diligent in checking identifications to determine if the young men met the legal age requirement of 18 to purchase and consume beer.  In the event that identifications were checked there were many false ones which did not appear to come within the restrictions of the Honor Code in force for students. 


The lack of co-eds until 1969 and a limited number of party weekends like Homecoming, Mid-Winter, and Spring Weekend did not help to deter the consumption of spirits.  Thus Sewanee developed a reputation for being a great location for partying and drinking and made it a popular destination for not only young ladies from various schools throughout the South but also for male students in Tennessee. 


In the 1950s and 1960s a survey was conducted by a national men’s magazine to rank the universities around the country as to which ones were the best places to party, meet members of the opposite sex, and consume alcohol.  A Southern school was selected as number 1, but with an asterisk by its name.  The editorial comment was that “the selection was based on amateur status but that a little school on the Cumberland Plateau (Sewanee) was disqualified because it was a professional partying school.” 


Such was not always the case when Sewanee was originally created following an inaugural sermon on East Brow Road on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, on July 4, 1857 by Bishop James Otey.  One of the trustees selected to supervise the creation of Sewanee was George R.

Fairbanks of New York who would have a long and distinguished career at Sewanee.  During the Civil War he enrolled as a major in the Confederate Army in the quartermaster department of the Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. 


After the conclusion of the war he became the treasurer and commissioner of buildings and lands at Sewanee and served the university in numerous capacities until he died on August 2, 1906, at the age of 86 in Sewanee.  An avowed prohibitionist, Fairbanks continuously sought to place restrictions on the availability and sales of alcohol within a certain distance from churches and schools, varying from one mile to four miles. 


Although others claimed credit for their efforts in having the Tennessee legislature pass a general law of statewide application with said distance restrictions it was the persistent Fairbanks who was successful in 1877 in getting the Tennessee General Assembly to enact a statewide bill “against selling any intoxicating beverages within four miles of an incorporated institution of learning.”


Beginning his fight around 1870 he pressed for passage of the “Four Mile Law” in order to “improve the general conduct of the people adjacent to the university’s domain.”  By 1900 the law had expanded and eventually resulted in statewide prohibition.  Many local municipalities and counties in 2016 still have ordinances banning the sale of alcoholic beverages within 500-1,000 feet of a church or school, mostly in rural areas. 


Said legislation was upheld against constitutional attacks in an opinion of the Tennessee Supreme Court in September, 1878. 


Each fall, Sewanee holds a brunch in the memory of Major Fairbanks and scholarship holders in the College and School of Theology and their benefactors are honored guests.  Designated student recipients of the scholarships give presentations on their experiences at the University of the South and their plans for the future. 

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Jerry Summers can be reached at

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