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of the nominees from the people and he vigorously countered by advocating that the act be strengthened rather than repealed.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

A Labor Trilogy Part II – 1894: Year of Protest in Indiana County

Historians accord considerable attention to the labor disputes, mass movements and political protest parties of the 1890s.  However, the linkages among these movements receive less coverage and activities in the less populated counties of the East get little notice.  Indiana County provided no events of national significance, but protest movements gained support and their connections offer examples of joint actions by producers.  The Populist Party spearheaded protest activities in many areas and played a role in Indiana County as a political presence and a catalyst to other movements, particularly the “industrial armies.”  Coxey’s Army, the most famous industrial army, never entered Indiana County but other groups of unemployed workers passed through the county.  Coal mining hadn’t reached a high level of production.  However, some mines operated, particularly in the Glen Campbell area, where miners joined the widespread coal strike.

Popular ferment shook the nation in the 1890s as the beneficiaries and victims of industrial capitalism clashed over the distribution of wealth and power.  The Farmer Alliances and the Populist Party spearheaded agrarian discontent.  Farmers, particularly cotton and wheat growers in the South and West, complained about the currency, transportation and political systems and sought an alternative society which would recognize the values of the producers and offer them greater access to wealth and power.

In some cases coal miners joined the struggle, creating a fragile farmer-worker alliance.  However, coal miners more often used the United Mine Workers to obtain higher wages and better working conditions.  The effects of the Depression of 1893 intensified the underlying problems facing workers and farmers.  Mass unemployment became more prevalent and the government remained unresponsive to the growing demands for aid.  Therefore, some unemployed workers joined “industrial armies” which marched and rode across the county to raise the consciousness of the nation and to pressure the federal government to create jobs.

Popular protest in Indiana County found diverse channels for expression.  The Knights of Labor, a fading factor in national protest movements, remained somewhat active in Indiana County.  For example, in February, Knights of Labor Assembly 2043 of Indiana entertained the Blacklick Assembly with refreshments and an interesting program.  The county assemblies of the Knights of Labor planned to celebrate Labor Day with a program featuring prominent labor speakers.  In September, the Blacklick Assembly reciprocated the hospitality of the Indianan Knights by hosting them for a meeting and a meal.  The Farmers’ Alliance generated more support and conducted activities.  Blacklick Township was its major stronghold.  A well attended hospital lecture in January later in the year and a giant picnic in August provided the highlight of Alliance activities.  The event featured singing, music, and speeches.  Marion Butler, president of the national Alliance, addressed the crowd.  Warren A. Gardner, the state president delivered the main speech.  He supported more coinage of silver and government ownership of the railroads.  Burrell Township and Kellysburg were other centers of Alliance activity.  Burrell Township organized a unit in January which remained active throughout the year.   Kellysburg hosted meetings, addressed by prominent speakers and welcomed a county convention which drafted resolutions in behalf of a road system, government ownership of the railroads and inflation.

While relatively few workers supported the political protest movement, more workers struck, particularly the coal miners of Glen Campbell.  In April they struck for higher wages, a demand which the operators declared they couldn’t meet.  The following month the miners dispatched a delegation to Indiana to solicit aid for the 280 strikers – a trip which raised $52.75 in donations.  The character of the strike changed with the arrival of the Coal and Iron Police.  Prior to this time, the strike had been peaceful and the strikers had the support of local professional and businessmen.  The community resented the presence of the 30 police.  Some residents cried “Down with Captain Clark who fights the poor man” while others wavered in their support for the strikers.  Conditions continued to deteriorate with the arrival of troops in late June and the presence of deputies who exchanged gun fire with strikers in early August.  Soon after this battle the strikers returned to work for the wages set by the employer.  The company refused to rehire 35 or 40 strike leaders.  In the aftermath of this strike defeat, some residents returned to political action and the Populists finished second in the 1895 election.

However, the Populist Party drew its leadership and supporters from farmers, as comparatively few workers followed the lead of the Glen Campbell miners and urban areas remained unorganized.  The former Greenback-Labor Party leaders and supporters formed a core of Populist strength.  Robert Alexander Thompson, the leading Populist in the county who served as state chairman for seven years, had been a Greenback and edited The Indiana News, a Greenback and Populist organ.  Thompson, a wholesale lumber dealer, came from a prominent and respected family.  His forbearers included Major Samuel Thompson, who obtained recognition as a leading abolitionist.

The Populist Party in Indiana County emerged from an organizational meeting held in late March 1892.  The party structure solidified in the 1894 campaign when delegates met at the Indiana Courthouse to pass resolutions and nominate candidates.  The visit of Jerome T. Ailman, the Populist candidate for governor, highlighted the campaign.  He spoke to a large audience at the GAR Hall in Black Lick where he ably presented the fundamental principles of the party.  Later he stopped in Indiana to meet with Robert Thompson.  Thomas escorted Ailman to the offices of The Indiana News where the candidate met and talked to visitors.  The election results in Indiana County surpassed the statewide performance.  Ailman won 7.5% of the county vote compared to 3% of the Commonwealth total.  In Burrell, Grant, Rayne, and Washington Townships he won more than 20% of the vote.  The role of the Populist Party in Indiana County went beyond electoral activity.  Party officials coordinated the travel plans and arranged the activities of the industrial armies.  For example, they announced the arrival of Randall’s Army and Robert Thompson went to Black Lick to plan for Randall’s visit to Indiana.

Industrial armies visited the county, although Coxey’s Army went directly from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.  Galvin’s Army, Randall’s Army and the Thomas contingent of Fry’s Army passed through Indiana County.  The arrival of Colonel Galvan’s Army in late May began the cycle of arrivals and departures of industrial armies.  The Blairsville Evening Courier provided its readers with information about the army and its leader.  The newspaper described Galvin as a well informed, quiet and earnest person with leadership ability and experience as a stone cutter.  His army was composed of American citizens of working class background who behaved in an orderly manner.  The army of 75 arrived in Blairsville on the 17th, where residents provided accommodations and donated bread, beef and coffee.  A meeting to welcome the contingent attracted an audience of almost 1,000.  They heard remarks by Galvin and a speech by Major Ward.  Ward expressed his support for the issuance of greenbacks, a graduated tax system and employment on public works for the unemployed.  The orderly and well-behaved crowd contributed about fifteen dollars to Galvin’s Army.  Randall’s Army and a contingent of Fry’s Army headed by Colonel Thomas arrived in late June.  The Randall Army reached Indiana after stops in Blairsville and Black Lick.  They marched up 7th to Philadelphia Street where their presence excited much interest from community residents.  Randall spoke at the Courthouse before an audience composed of the Kellysburg martial band and several hundred residents.  Randall, who edited a Populist newspaper, delivered an effective speech in which he condemned politicians and the accumulation of wealth.  The Thomas contingent, the last industrial army to visit Indiana County, received an enthusiastic welcome in Blairsville.  The Boy’s Brigade greeted them and residents provided provisions.  Colonel Thomas spoke in behalf of silver coinage and the protection of workers.  At the conclusion of his speech he left to deliver an address in Indiana.

The 1890s marked a major watershed in U.S. history.  By this time the USA had emerged as the world’s dominant economic power.  This new status raised urgent questions about the distribution of wealth and power.  The increasing bipolarization of society set the stage for titanic battles including the Homestead Lockout and the Pullman Boycott.  Mass movement also arose, most notably Populism and the industrial armies.  Pittsburgh and Chicago provided the major battlefields but other areas were affected.  In Indiana County some producers struggled for a better society.  Their activities reflected discontent and generated public support.  By the early 20th century, industrial capitalism became more entrenched and the public agenda narrowed.  Nevertheless, new groups, such as the Socialist Party of American, emerged to continue the struggle nationally and in Indiana County.