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.
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.
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.