Westerville's role in the Temperance movement spurred Ken Burns to visit the city Sept. 22 as he promotes the release of his documentary, "Prohibition," set to air on WOSU Oct. 2-4.

Editor's note: An examination of Westerville's role in Prohibition will appear in the Oct. 6 edition of ThisWeek Westerville.

Westerville's role in the Temperance movement spurred Ken Burns to visit the city Sept. 22 as he promotes the release of his documentary, "Prohibition," set to air on WOSU Oct. 2-4.

Burns, along with director and producer Kim Novick, visited the Westerville Public Library for a luncheon with about 100 residents before heading to Otterbein University to teach a master class.

Materials from the library's Anti-Saloon League Museum are used in the documentary.

While in central Ohio, Burns and Novick also attended events at The Ohio State University and WOSU.

At the luncheon, they answered questions about why they chose to do a documentary on Prohibition and about what goes into creating a three-episode, five-and-a-half hour documentary.

Americans tend to be ill-informed about their own history, Burns said, and Prohibition generally appears as one paragraph in high school textbooks, meaning much of the country's youth doesn't understand what the movement was about.

"Prohibition is they don't even know," Burns said. "We don't make films about stuff we know about. We make films about things we want to know about."

Novick said she didn't even know how Prohibition came about, the roll of the Westerville-based Anti-Saloon League in the movement or how big a problem alcoholism was in America at the time.

The Temperance movement is important to American history, she said, because citizens were able to band together to pass a Constitutional amendment.

"That's an incredible moment in our history," Novick said.

The Temperance movement also showed the attitudes of Americans toward the Constitution at that time, Burns said.

"It was so important to the movement that (Prohibition) be enshrined in the Constitution," he said. "We really thought that the Constitution could be more perfect."

The failure of Prohibition and its repeal also changed America, showing how laws can have unintended consequences - like the creation of organized crime and an increase in alcoholism that came from Prohibition - and by showing that society's problems don't have one simple fix.

"(The movement claimed) families would be better; there would be no more crime," Burns said. "You could have a better community. The slums would empty. There would be no more poor people."

In creating the documentary, he said, his team looked for individual people and stories that came from the movement in an attempt to humanize the era.

"We're in the story business," he said.

As with all of his documentaries, Burns said creating "Prohibition" was more about narrowing down the facts and stories rather than digging up information to include.

He said his challenge was to "select information out" to create an "emotional archeology" of the time period.

After the luncheon, which was attended by local officials and about 50 people given tickets through a lottery at the library, Burns was presented with a Westerville Temperance blanket from the Friends of the Library Gift Shop.

"On those cold winter nights in New Hampshire, I will wrap it around me as I enjoy my hot toddy," Burns joked.


Westerville's role in the Prohibition era

Westerville's role in Prohibition as the home of the Anti-Saloon League has long been part of local lore.

The city now is gaining national attention for that role as famed documentarian Ken Burns prepares to release his "Prohibition," which will air on PBS Oct. 2-4.

In creating the documentary, Burns' team of researchers traveled to Westerville to visit the Westerville Public Library's Anti-Saloon League Museum, where local history coordinator Beth Weinhardt and assistant Nina Thomas helped them scour the archives for materials that could be used in the documentary.

Weinhardt said a researcher visited the library in early 2009 and spent a week going through all of the Anti-Saloon League materials. Over the next year and a half, the researcher followed up occasionally to request high-resolution images from the archives or to ask questions, she said.

"It was a fun process," Weinhardt said. "It's always exciting to think that the materials are going to end up in something like a Ken Burns' documentary."

The upcoming documentary also led a team from CBS' "Sunday Morning" to the library.

The documentary prompted the show's producers to look for a Prohibition museum to do a piece on the topic. A Google search brought them to Westerville's Anti-Saloon League Museum, Thomas said, and a film crew, with TV personality Mo Rocca, visited the library earlier this month.

Thomas said she gave Rocca a tour of the museum and answered his questions while the film crew shot footage of Westerville, the museum and its collection. The segment is expected to air the morning of Oct. 2.

Over the years, Weinhardt said, the library has been contacted by documentarians from The History Channel, textbook writers, graduate students and others from across the country and around the world looking for Anti-Saloon League materials.

Nevertheless, she said, there are many in the community who don't know that the library's Local History Center exists in what was once the headquarters of the group that was one of the driving forces behind Prohibition.

"I bet no week goes by that we don't have someone walk through the door and say, 'Oh, I had no idea what was back here," Weinhardt said.

Thomas said people are often led down the library's hall to the history center's entrances.

"A lot of people don't know that we're here, one. Two, they don't know that this was preserved as a museum," Thomas said.

With the release of Burns' documentary and the attention it will generate, Weinhardt and Thomas said they expect to see more people contacting the museum for information and coming in for tours.

"It's one of those things where it's like a snowball, and once we get the exposure, more people come in," Weinhardt said. "I think it will be great. It makes our day when more people come in."

Thomas said she hopes the attention will raise awareness locally about the Westerville library's historical resources.

"I'm excited that the library is going to get recognition for the fact that we have this and it is used all over the world, and people here don't even know we're here," she said.