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of the nominees from the people and he vigorously countered by advocating that the act be strengthened rather than repealed.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.