Fisher – The Builder – Part 2

During the first year in office, Governor Fisher mastered the details of his job and pushed passage of the legislation which he had advocated in the campaign. Early in his term, he established a habit of spending weekends at his Indiana home where he relaxed with his daughter, Mary, and son, Robert, who by now was a successful practicing lawyer.

During the early part of his term in office, the legislature passed the Corrupt Practices Act which the Governor had championed as a reform bill designed to provide stricter control over voting registration, campaign expenditures, and voting procedures. The League of Women Voters staunchly supported him in his fight for this legislation.

Governor John S. Fisher during his inaugural address outside the State Capitol on January 18, 1927.

Governor Fisher was also successful in having the legislature pass an amendment to the Administrative Code which streamlined the administrative organization and added much needed agencies such as the Department of Revenue to collect fees and taxes. The same bill also created the State Farm Products Show Commission to conduct the annual farm show. He was also gratified by the passage of the Armstrong-Quigley Bill which appropriated $450,000 for the purchase of Cook’s Forest, the largest stand of virgin pine east of the Mississippi. The state’s contribution was augmented by $200,000 raised by private citizens.

It was during this first year that gave the governor an opportunity to demonstrate his firmness and independence. Early in the session he had to fight off a strong move by party stalwarts to repeal the direct primary and return to the old convention system controlled by the bosses. Fisher staunchly opposed any such action which would remove the selection of the nominees from the people and he vigorously countered by advocating that the act be strengthened rather than repealed.

The 1927 legislature adjourned in a carnival atmosphere permeated with sneezepowder and floating balloons, and Governor Fisher commended the legislature for a job “remarkably well done,” thoughtfully adding, “I am grateful to them for the spirit of cooperation which was manifested throughout.”

The strain of the first few months in office was relieved on June 16, 1927, when Governor Fisher’s daughter, Mary, was married to Henry Tatnall Brown. The afternoon wedding was the first to be solemnized in the Executive Mansion which dated back to the Civil War. The ceremony was performed by Reverend John C. Pinkerton, Pastor of the United Presbyterian Church of Indiana. The wedding was attended by 200 guests including state and national dignitaries and was the glittering social event of the season. Following the marriage, Mary lived in Haverford, and she frequently returned to the Capital to preside as official hostess at her father’s state functions.

Governor Fisher and his daughter, Mary, at the time of her marriage to Henry T. Brown on June 16, 1927. Mary Fisher was the first daughter of a governor of Pennsylvania to be married during the father’s administration since Harrisburg became the state capital. She served as official hostess for her widowed father at state functions.

Following the legislation session, the governor utilized the time to ascertain the grass roots sentiments of his constituents on the vital matters affecting their interest. While in Harrisburg he would frequently spend evenings sitting on the steps of the brownstone Executive Mansion on Front Street facing the Susquehanna River. With his shirt sleeves rolled up, he would converse informally with passers-by who cared to stop and express their views on various issues.

He also frequently hoped in his car and have his chauffeur, Victor Harlacker, drive him throughout the various areas of the state so that he could form his own firsthand impressions of conditions. Much to Victor’s consternation the Governor made a habit of picking up hitchhikers to elicit their opinions on assorted matters.

Governor Fisher traveled without fanfare and acted in his natural democratic manner. During one trip to the Bedford Springs Hotel, Fisher became upset upon discovering that Victor would not be eating at the same table with him. During one stopover at a Huntingdon hotel, he and Victor mounted adjoining stools at a lunch counter to eat a meal. One of the women at the diner recognized the Governor and was delighted when Victor, observing her interest, introduced the woman to him.

An immediate result of the Governor’s expeditions, which can still be seen today, was the erection of 4,000 signs marking the entrances to all towns and identifying scenic streams and mountains. (You have likely seen these keystone-shaped blue and gold markers.) He also involved school children in historical research by having them compile lists of names on the headstones in all of the cemeteries.

Governor Fisher tosses out the first ball to open the 1927 World Series game in Pittsburgh. That year the Pirates lost four straight to the New York Yankees.

During the 1928 presidential race, Governor Fisher served as chairman of the Pennsylvania delegation and attended the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. He strongly supported Herbert Hoover, and the convention acknowledged his role by naming him to the committee which official notified Mr. Hoover of his nomination.

The Governor’s first biennium was marked by the passage of significant legislation, a $23.5 million surplus and general prosperity, but the state was plagued by a bitter, protracted coal strike which began on April 1, 1927. The larger issues responsible for the widespread dispute between the coal miners and the companies were overproduction following World War I, increasing competition from competing fuels, discriminating freight rates, and the emergence of organized labor as a potent force in labor management relations. The specific grievance which precipitated the 1927 strike was the unilateral breaking of a wage contract known as the Jacksonville Agreement of 1924 by the Pittsburgh Coal Company which ordered a 33 per cent cut in wages which was followed by a subsequent reduction of 20 percent. The miners struck and the strike spread rapidly through the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania. In the Pittsburgh district alone 45,000 union miners were idle.

The situation worsened when the companies evicted union miners from their homes to accommodate non-union strike breakers. To make matters worse, newspapers reported that police and guards were employed by companies to maintain law and order brutally man-handled non-union miner and their families. These incidents mounted to an emotional climax on February 10, 1928 when John Berkowski, a miner-farmer of Tyre, died following a beating by three coal company policemen.

Governor Fisher rejected appeals to intervene in the dispute for almost a year; he claimed he could not interfere unless some crime had been committed, adding, “If any move is made, the Federal Government should be the agency.” The inactivity by Governor Fisher evoked a storm of criticism spiced with accusations that he would not initiate any action inimical to the coal companies because of his former associations with the non-union Clearfield Bituminous Coal Company. Governor Fisher finally issued a call for a conference of all parties in the dispute on March 12, 1928, but he received no response.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government commissioned committees to investigate conditions in the strike-torn regions. Among the investigators were such prominent legislators as Representative Fiorello LaGuardia of New York and Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. At Rossiter the senatorial delegation was aghast to find that an injunction had been issued which prohibited group hymn-singing. To show their displeasure at this outrage, the Senators joined the miners in defying the order by singing in a local church. Upon returning to Washington, the special Senate Committee invited Governor Fisher to testify before it, but he declined.

The strike continued until July 18, 1928 when the United Mine Workers lost their case and John L. Lewis directed each district chapter to make its own settlement. Most of the strikers returned to work without union contracts at a reduction of one-third their pre-strike wages.

Due to the strike, Governor Fisher’s image had been damaged, and he retrieved some of his popularity by singing the Mansfield Bill which corrected the gross abuses of the coal police which had engendered violent resentment among the miners, public, and press.

Fisher’s woes were not confined to the coal fields. In the political realm, he was embarrassed by the refusal of the United States Senate to seat William S. Vare following his election in 1926. Although Vare had won the senatorial race by a substantial majority, the Senate was astounded by Vare’s astronomic campaign expenditures and adamantly refused to seat him by a vote of 58 to 22.

Bowing to the inevitable, Governor Fisher searched for an alternate for Vare, coming up with Joseph R. Grundy, a wealthy Republic industrialist, who regularly contributed heavily to Republican campaign chests. Some Senators grumbled about Grundy’s appointment but the Senate eventually confirmed him in 1930. In the meantime, relations between Fisher and Grundy perceptibly cooled as the latter attempted to dominate state affairs and the selection of Republican candidates. The smoldering feud came to a head on June 9, 1930 when Grundy endeavored to oust Edward L. Martin as State Chairman of the GOP. Governor Fisher and William L. Mellon moved to counter Grundy’s action and succeeded in retaining Martin as Chairman.

Except for a few reverses and frustrations, the Fisher Administration compiled a remarkable record of accomplishment, with the Governor himself emerging in the words of the Lancaster Journal as “one of the most lovable characters who ever occupied the governor’s chair.”

The most outstanding characteristic of Governor Fisher’s tenure was the emphasis on building. He took special pride in the title “Fisher the Builder.” During his four-year term, the Fisher Administration spent $235 million on a mammoth highway program which added over 4,000 miles of new roads and also repaired and replaced innumerable old ones. At the same time the inadequate physical facilities which had housed the various state departments in Harrisburg were greatly augmented by large architecturally attractive buildings.

Governor Fisher personally campaigned for the establishment of a magnificent 9.5 acre Farm Show Building to replace the farm products show which hitherto had rented quarters in scattered locations throughout Harrisburg. Despite his absorbing interest in the building improvement program Governor Fisher unselfishly resisted all proposals to build a more imposing Executive Mansion.

The Fisher Administration also improved the facilities in mental and criminal institutions. Particular attention was devoted to expanding the state’s institutions of higher learning. The two-year normal schools were converted to four-year State Teachers’ Colleges with the attractive feature that the state would provide free tuition for students who promised to teach in Pennsylvania for at least two years following graduation.

Fisher also maintained fiscal solvency. He assumed a $98 million debt from his predecessor and left his successor with a $29 million surplus after having spent a record $635 million during his term. These heavy state expenditures greatly alleviated the unemployment problem created by the economic depression following the 1929 crash.

Governor Fisher left office on January 21, 1931; upon leaving office he confided to a friend, “I must confess to a feeling of relief…” This feeling was heartened when he returned to Indiana which gave him a hero’s welcome. A mammoth homecoming dinner was held in the Sutton dining room of the then Indiana State Teachers College where 1500 enthusiastic admirers accompanied by a band heralded his arrival by lustily chanting and playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” Speeches extolling his accomplishments were delivered and the following telegram from President Hoover was read:

“I have learned with deep interest of the plans to welcome the Honorable John S. Fisher back to his home town of Indiana upon completion of his term as Governor of Pennsylvania, and I will be obliged if you will use a suitable moment on this occasion to express to him my cordial congratulations on a task well done, and say to his old neighbors that I share their pride in his record of distinguished public service.”

Two days after the dinner, the Ritz Theater showed the movie “Here and There with the Governor” – a sequence of film clips taken by the Governor’s chauffeur, Victor Harlecker.

After returning to Indiana, Governor Fisher stayed with his son, Robert, and daughter-in-law, Gladys, at the family home on North Sixth Street. After fulfilling his avowed mission to be “a good governor in a good state,” he appreciatively but firmly rejected numerous urgings to continue in politics. Instead he resumed his business activities in which he was so successful earlier in his career. He was re-elected President of the Beech Creek Railroad and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Union Fire Insurance Company in Pittsburgh. This latter participation necessitated his moving to the Schenley Apartments where he lived until his death on June 25, 1940. Funeral services were held at Graystown United Presbyterian Church with interment in Greenwood Cemetery. The most fitting epitaph for this distinguished son of Indiana is the widely quoted statement that he was “the most lovable character who ever occupied the governor’s chair.” It is this characteristic by which he himself undoubtedly would like to be remembered.

Fisher – The Builder – Part 1

On Tuesday, January 18, 1927, as church bells tolled on Capitol Square in Harrisburg, the huge bronze doors of the Capitol swung open to permit a precession of dignitaries to walk down the steps to the inaugural platform where John S. Fisher, flanked by his daughter, Mary, took the oath of office as thirtieth Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The press lauded his inaugural address for its “unprecedented brevity,” Governor Fisher pledged “to apply common sense as the guide to all activities and to devote my full time, energy, and capacity to the duties of office.”

This began the governorship of Indiana’s only native son to occupy the highest elective office in Pennsylvania. John Fisher’s journey to the Executive Mansion was a tortuous one which originated on a farm in South Mahoning Township two miles north of Plumville. It was here that John Stuchell Fisher was born on May 25, 1867 to Samuel and Mariah Fisher.

Growing up, John performed the customary farm chores and walked three miles to a one-room schoolhouse at Ox Hill. John’s teachers were impressed by his aptitude and application; they therefore arranged for Fisher to further his education by working for A.W. Taylor, an eminent Indiana lawyer, while pursuing his studies at the local high school and subsequently Indiana State Normal School.

John graduated from the Normal School at the age of 19, and then secured a teaching position in the same country schoolhouse which he had attended at Ox Hill. He taught classes of 60 to 80 students for two years at the end of which he obtained a better position in a two-room school in Plumville. It was here where Fisher shared his teaching responsibilities with a young woman and former neighbor, Hapsie Miller, who also had attended Indiana State Normal School.

The 1886 graduating class of Indiana Normal School. In this picture, taken on the steps of Sutton Hall, John Fisher is the young man at the top right with his arm resting on the post ledge.

In 1891, Fisher joined the Indiana School system as a teacher and principal. During his vacations and his spare time, he studied law in the office of Samuel Cunningham, Esq., a prominent Indiana attorney. John became fascinated with the law that in 1893 he resigned his teaching position and entered into partnership with his mentor, Sam Cunningham. The new firm prospered and acquired one of the largest practices in the County.

John pressed his courtship with Hapsie Miller, and the couple was married on October 11, 1893. The couple had four children, two of whom died in infancy. Of the surviving children, Mary, born in 1898, was to become her father’s official gubernatorial hostess and Robert, born in 1894, followed in his father’s footsteps by taking up the practice of law.

John Fisher prepared to embark on what proved to be an effective and exciting career. His soft voice and quiet, unassuming manner evoked confidence and attracted followers. He was a devoted and generous husband, father, and grandfather, often babysitting with his grandchildren. He was also a dedicated Presbyterian, he was active in the church affairs lending invaluable assistance in the campaign to build the Graystone Church.

This picture of Mrs. John Fisher was taken in the living room of the Governor’s Indiana residence on North Sixth Street. Mrs. Fisher died in 1922, five years before her husband became governor.

As a lawyer and later politician, John Fisher engaged in numerous hard-fought struggles but he never harbored personal grudges against his opponents. He found relaxation after a grueling campaign in the extensive library of his Sixth Street, Indiana residence where he would steep himself in Pennsylvania history. He had an amazing retentive memory, which enabled him to recall instantly the page in a book on which he had read a certain fact. This recall facility also served him well in public life as he could immediately remember the names of people he had not seen for months or even years.

Attorney Fisher expanded his professional activities into the business world. At the turn of the century, Indiana County was booming and offered many attractive opportunities to an enterprising young man. He was legal counsellor to the New York Central Railroad, and he assisted in the purchase of coal lands in Indiana, Jefferson, and Clarion Counties. In conjunction with this work, he also helped establish settlements at Brush Valley, Clymer, Coral, Dixonville, and Jacksonville.  He was especially active in the founding and economic development of Clymer. As President of the Dixon Run Land Company, Fisher promoted the sale of real estate to commercial and private interests. Further, he was instrumental in organizing the Clymer Brick and Fire Clay Company which manufactured bricks from nearby clay deposits.

The young lawyer also entered the utility filed, and became president of the newly formed Clymer Electric Company. As the company prospered, it expanded by buying up failing municipal electric companies in and around Centre County and the enlarged organization was incorporated as the State-Centre Electric Company.

When the Pennsylvania Coal and Coke Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York Central, failed the Railroad commissioned Fisher to reorganize it which he did under the new name of the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Corporation with its headquarters in Indiana. In recognition of this service, Fisher was elected Vice-President of the new firm.

In 1902, Fisher collaborated with a group of far-sighted  men in founding Indiana Savings and Trust Company, where he served for many years on the Board of Trustees. He was also active in the town’s civic affairs serving as Vice-President of the Indiana Hospital and Vice-President of the Board of Trustees of Indiana State Normal School (now IUP).

In 1911, New York Central offered Fisher the opportunity to become the company’s general counsel in Pennsylvania, which he accepted. Because the new duties required much of his professional attention, he resigned from private law practice. He spent much of his time in Harrisburg where he fought vigorously for the repeal of the Full Crew Act on the basis that featherbedding raised transportation costs prohibitively. His ten-year campaign against the act was eventually successful.

Despite Fisher’s extensive involvement in legal, business, and civic affairs, he still found time to participate in politics. Shortly after beginning his Indiana law practice in 1893, he became County Committeeman in his ward, and three years later he had risen to County Chairman of the Republic party. In 1900, at only age 33, he was elected to represent the 37th Senatorial District (which at the time was composed of Indiana and Jefferson Counties) in the State Senate. He served on the Appropriations, Corporation, Judicial General, Finance, Law and Order, Railroad and Municipal Affairs, Library, and Public Grounds and Building Committees.

In 1904, Senator Fisher was re-elected to his seat by a four to one majority. During his second term, he vigorously supported a bill prohibiting the employment of children under 14 in mining operations. As Chairman of the Judicial Special Committee, Fisher sponsored bills providing for primary elections and the popular election of U.S. Senators.

1907 was a crucial year in Senator Fisher’s political future. During the previous year, the state treasurer had discovered that the state treasury had been looted systematically in connection with the appropriation used to furnish the new Capitol building. The incoming governor, Edwin S. Stuart, called for a legislative investigation to uncover the culprits. Most of the senators begged not to be appointed to this distasteful task, but Fisher unhesitatingly accepted the chairmanship of the investigation committee. Fisher proceeded to conduct a fair and searching public hearings. In a 272-page report submitted to the governor at the conclusion of the investigation, the Fisher Committee pulled no punches in revealing flagrant defalcations involving millions of dollars. The report described the purchase of “a boot black stand with two chairs and four foot rests for which the state paid Contractor Sanderson $1,600 while the sub-contractor who made the stand declared the whole outfit was not worth more than $110.” Fisher’s report lead the attorney general to prosecute 14 alleged violators, all of whom were found guilty.

Senator Fisher’s courageous and vigorous prosecution of this scandal earned him the plaudits of the state’s press and catapulted him into prominence as a gubernatorial possibility. John Fisher entered the 1922 race for the Republican nomination for governor, with the powerful backing of Joseph Grundy. However, he subsequently withdrew from the eight-way race to avoid an internecine intra-party feud with the city machines. In announcing his withdrawal in Indiana, he declared: “A crisis now exists such as never before confronted the voters of Pennsylvania. Our state is in danger from the dictation of intriguing politicians. I must not add to that menace by making the situation complex and confusing but do what I can to avert it.” Fisher’s withdrawal from the race followed a deep personal bereavement in which his wife died on the operating table at Indiana Hospital.

After Fisher with drew from the 1922 race, he threw his support behind Gifford Pinchot who won the nomination and election. However, when Pinchot failed to name Fisher to his cabinet, the Senator busied himself legislatively by studying and proposing laws that would protect Pennsylvania investors from the sale of fraudulent securities which at the time was rampant in Pennsylvania.

In 1926, Fisher once again entered the race for governor. He had a strong backing from the state party chairman, Joe Grundy, Senator David Reed, and the Mellons; he headed a Fisher-Pepper ticket on which his running mate ran for the U.S. Senate. Fisher’s principal opponent was Edward Beidleman, who ran with William S. Vare, head of the infamous Vare machine in Philadelphia. The race was further complicated when the outgoing Governor Pinchot threw his hat into the Senatorial race against Pepper and Vare.

Fisher campaigned on his impressive record as a legislator, and attracted wide support from church groups of various faiths, together with businessmen, farmers, and laborers. Workingmen rallied to his banner following the publication of a letter by William Green, President of the American Federation of Labor, in which he stated: “Mr. Fisher has always been a white man with all classes of labor . . . It will be found that the laboring people will never have a better governor . . . All unions always receive kindly aid and sure protection.”

Before the primary race had progressed very far, the real issues were blurred by the national debate over prohibition. Beidleman and Vare ran as “wets” while Fisher and Pepper were tagged as “drys.” In reality Fisher held moderate views with respect to drinking, respecting the rights of others to indulge, although he himself did not.

Fisher and Pepper stumped vigorously, shrewdly portraying themselves as the champions of the people against the odious city machine controlled by Vare. Fisher spoke so vehemently and frequently that the lost his voice toward the end of the campaign.

The primary was held on May 18, and early returns indicated a decisive victory for Vare over Pepper and Pinchot. However, the tally for the governorship swayed back and forth first in favor of Beidlemen and then in favor of Fisher. A week after the primary, the final count showed Fisher to be the winner by a very narrow margin of 641,934 to 626,640.

In a letter to a Harrisburg publisher, John Fisher philosophically summed up his reaction to the campaign: “It was a great deal of a cyclone that we came through. Necessarily there have been some troublesome problems left in the wake. However, I think things will clear up and I hope we may look forward to settled conditions. It has always been the practice with me to accept the results of elections with equanimity. There is always another day for the loser.”

Fisher swept the fall elections against his Democratic opponent Judge Eugene Boniwell of Philadelphia. The campaign and election proved to be much less exciting than the primary, and Fisher won by the largest margin in the state’s history: 1,102,823 to 365,280. His Lieutenant Governor was Arthur H. James, and Dr. James Keith, President of the Indiana State Normal School, was appointed to the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction.