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.

Aunt Jane

“Miss Jane E. Leonard is selected for Congress Democrats of this District will give women a chance.”  This mundane headline appeared in the March 25, 1922 edition of the Indiana Democrat, and it seemed to understate the newsworthiness of an event.  It was a historic occasion.  Miss Jane E. Leonard, as the Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Twenty-seventh Congressional District, was one of the first women to seek a national political office as a major party candidate in Pennsylvania.*  Since only ten women in the entire country ran for congressional seats as choices of major political parties in 1922, Miss Leonard attracted national attention.

Jane E. Leonard was the former preceptress of Indiana State Normal School (known today as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)).  The former Leonard Hall on the IUP campus had memorialized her name.  She served “the Normal” from its opening in 1875 until her retirement in 1921.  Then, less than a year after her retirement and at a spry eighty-one years of age, she ran for Congress.  This episode is both more incredible and, at the same time, less incredible than it seemed at first notice.

The 1922 election was only the second national election following the enfranchisement of women by the Nineteenth Amendment.  Miss Leonard had not been that active in politics; her life was spent in education.  And at eighty-one, it was an amazing age to be launching a new career.  She was, moreover, a Democrat in an area dominated by the Republican party. Despite this, she ran extremely well, polling a far larger percentage of the votes cast than any other Democratic congressional candidate in a ten-year period.

“Aunt Jane,” as Miss Jane Leonard was affectionately known by the thousands who attended the State Normal School in Indiana, came to Indiana from the Clearfield County area.  She was born on December 27, 1840, in Leonard, Pennsylvania.  Her family was so well established in the area, that there is reflected in the vicinity’s place names – Leonard Station, Leonard House, Leonard School, and Leonard Run as well as the town itself.

It is likely that her early education was at Leonard School, a gift to the rural community from her father.  Her life-long involvement in education began at the age of fifteen when she first taught in the public schools of her native Clearfield County.  Later, desiring more advanced educational preparation, she entered Millersville State Normal School, the first institution of its kind in Pennsylvania.  Then she spent some time teaching in Lancaster County schools.  Her attainments as a student at Millersville, her teaching experiences, and her personal qualities led to Miss Leonard joining the Millersville faculty in 1868 as instructor of history and mathematics.

1d3c5-jane
Jane Leonard

In 1875, the Board of Trustees of the new State Normal School at Indiana asked Dr. J.P. Wickersham, Pennsylvania’s superintendent of education and the founder and first principal of Millersville State Normal School, to recommend a candidate for the position of preceptress and instructor of English literature.  He recommended Jane E. Leonard.

For the next forty-six years, Miss Leonard served Indiana.  When she retired in 1921 she was awarded emeritus status and given permission to continue occupying her apartment in John Sutton Hall.  As an education she always stressed that her students should be ambitious both for themselves and their communities, that they should be active and participate in their world, that they should shoulder the responsibilities offered to them, and that they should work to better the world they lived in. In that educational philosophy lie clues which make “Aunt Jane’s” political adventure less incredible than it first suggests.

Although she could not even vote in a national election until she was seventy-nine years old, Jane E. Leonard had developed an active interest in politics. She was lauded as having a wide knowledge of politics and political men.**  As a member as the Indiana community, Miss Leonard while not seen as a political firebrand, had not been politically bashful.  She was accustomed to interrupting her return from Sunday church service to impose herself on one of the local newspaper editors or political leaders in talk over the public issues.  According to the March 23, 1922 Indiana Weekly Messenger, Miss Leonard “was one of the campaigners for years for equal franchise and has campaigned also for prohibition.  She never neglects an opportunity to assail the monopolistic practices of the tariff barons and speaks for National economy, friendly relations with other nations, universal peace and human advancement.”

Her political orientation appeared foreordained.  The Indiana Weekly Messenger said bluntly, she is “a democrat by nature and it was inevitable that with the enfranchisement of women she would be found aligned from the outset with the Democratic party.”  Her affinity for involvement in her interests, an “Aunt Jane” trait, made it rather natural that she later gravitated toward political stewardship when the opportunity presented itself.  In 1922, she was chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fund, devoted to soliciting monies for Wilsonian goals, chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, and president of the Indiana County Democratic Women Voters League.  The octogenarian was one to give her personal time and support to those matters that personally touched her.

The challenge of being the Democratic candidate in the Twenty-seventh District’s congressional race was not a quest that she eagerly sought.  The distinguished lady had to be sought out, and, according to the Indiana Evening Gazette, “Her friends…demanding a fit representative in congress insisted that she permit her name to be used.  Miss Leonard did not make any effort for the nomination, letting her name be used but not spending a cent in a campaign or making one speech.”

The days preceding her nomination for the Democratic primary, Miss Leonard had another and very different, political interest – to secure the Republican gubernatorial nomination for Indiana’s native son John S. Fisher.  Although she was serving as the chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, she strongly endorsed Fisher.  She attended the formal opening rally of his campaign in front of the Indiana County Courthouse, she wrote an open letter to the alumni of the Normal School urging their support for Fisher, and she later addressed the annual reunion meeting of the Allegheny County ISNS Alumni Association stressing the need of their support of his candidacy.  The Indiana Republican press praised her as a “grand old lady.”

While such incongruent activities might have branded Miss Leonard as a political maverick, they were in keeping with her character.  John S. Fisher, as a former Indiana Normal student, was one of “her boys” in whom she had confidence.  She declared that “Democrat though she was, she’d vote for him for governor if he’d capture the Republican nomination for that office.”  Her open support of the Republican Fisher was simply an indication that she never was and never could have been a narrow political partisan.

The primary campaign was very quiet since Miss Leonard was unopposed, and her opening political activity reflected that situation.  If any event served as a campaign kickoff it was the Democratic Ladies Tea which was held on March 30.  Miss Leonard presented the opening remarks which contained some advice on the Indiana County Democratic campaign.  The state chairman of the Women’s Democratic Committee of Pennsylvania was in attendance.  The Indiana Democrat hailed the event as “A Fine Success.”  The first public endorsement of Leonard’s candidacy, and the only known one in Indiana County, came on April 5 when the Joseph M. Blakely Camp, No. 71, United Spanish War Veterans unanimously endorsed her.  These were the only public acknowledgements in the Indiana press of the Leonard campaign prior to the May primary election.  Of course an active campaign is not required of an unopposed primary candidate.

The fall general election, however, was a different situation.  Miss Leonard’s political interests and knowledge must have suggested to her the seemingly insurmountable obstacle she was facing.  Pennsylvania in 1922 was essentially a one party state – Republican.  The Twenty-seventh Congressional District was solidly Republican, and Indiana County was rock-ribbed Republican. The primary returns reinforced this general knowledge.  In Indiana Borough, for example, only 124 Democrats bothered to vote while 1,481 Republicans cast their ballots.  In Indiana County, running unopposed, Leonard received 667 votes while a total Republican vote of 8,633 was split among three contestants.  In the fall when the voter registration for the Twenty-seventh Congressional District was announced it favored the Republicans over the Democrats, 68 percent to 23 percent.  Certainly a bleak prospect faced the novice candidate.

To make matters worse, her Republican opponent was formidable.  He was Nathan L. Strong, the incumbent Congressman from Brookville, Jefferson County.  Certainly everything was a disadvantage: Miss Leonard was running for her first elected political office, her opponent was an incumbent seeking his fourth congressional term.  She was eighty-one years of age, her opponent was sixty-three.  She was a woman, he was a man.  The odds were staggering.  There was little wonder that William K. Hutchinson, a national news correspondent, included Miss Lenard among the five feminine congressional candidates who had only “a chance in a hundred” of winning.  It could be suggested that perhaps, at least in “Aunt Jane’s” case, Hutchinson was even underestimating the odds.

It could be argued that Miss Leonard was not really a serious contender.  If newspaper advertisement is any indication, the Democrats spent little money on the campaign.  The Leonard campaign trail in Indiana County was not overly onerous.  It is possible that the Democrats, faced with the impossibility of winning the election, had conceded from the start.

Jane E. Leonard, nevertheless, seemed to use the public exposure to continue to stress ideals important to her. During her campaigning, light though it was, she worked to further her causes.  “Aunt Jane” challenged women to involve themselves in politics.  “We are in politics,” she declared, “and we are going to do our duty.  Our duty is to do the best we know how.”  In another instance she lectured the newly enfranchised women on “the importance of women taking the responsibilities which are now theirs with the assuming the principles of enfranchisement, an action which at the present time they are not prone to do.”  She became known for her positions on what were to her the vital issues, some of them most progressive – the inclusion of a secretary of education in the president’s cabinet, a tariff used only for revenue, measures to insure fiscal responsibility in national government, and election victories for Democratic candidates.

Miss Leonard, always bound by her principles, could not be bound by party lines.  She acclaimed the educational program of Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor William C. Sproul.  That program had been embodied in the Edmonds Act which aimed at consolidating schools, increasing aid to education, increasing aid to education, and standardizing curriculum, teachers’ qualifications, and salaries.  She publicly acknowledged that Dr. Finegan, the Republican-appointed superintendent of public of public education, had “done more to advance education in the past three years than had been accomplished in the preceding ten years.”

She apparently did not have many opportunities to express her ideals.  Her reported public appearances following the primary were at the Indiana County Congress of Women’s Clubs meeting in June and the one day Democratic County Tour in September.  It was an incident at the Cookport Fair, one of the stops on the County Tour, that permits a glimpse of “Aunt Jane” on the hustings.  One writer described the scene this way: “As she climbed aboard the hay wagon, the veteran educator carried her 83 [sic] years as though they were a mere 50.  She had a sprightly step and her voice was strong as she urged the assembled voters to support the Democratic candidates from top to bottom.”

Given the light campaigning effort, given the political realities, the November election results were surprising.  The eighty-one year old, former educator carried 37 percent of the vote in the Twenty-seventh Congressional District to her opponent’s 54 percent, and 30 percent in Indiana County to his 55 percent.  The popular vote was 18,682 to 12,927 and 5,071 to 2,764 respectively.  A loss by a landslide, yes, but a comparably minor landslide.  In 1920, Strong’s victory was 66 percent to 25 percent in the District and 70 percent to 16 percent in the County; in 1924 Strong would win by 59 percent to 18 percent and 59 percent to 13 percent.  The neophyte, maiden politician had done remarkably well.

The full story of Miss Leonard’s relative success rests more in events outside of the Twenty-seventh Congressional District since the Pennsylvania Republican party that year had been severely splintered by internal struggles.  The election of 1922, nevertheless, was a surprising story, and “Aunt Jane” really fared no worse than any of the other nine female candidates who were running for Congress – they all lost (even Alice M. Robertson, the incumbent congresswoman from Oklahoma).

Miss Jane E. Leonard, an Indiana institution as an educator, probably considered herself to be continuing her educational goals as a politician in teaching by example the duty of personal responsibility and active participation, expounding one’s convictions and ideals, and attempting to better the world.  If there was a loser in the 1922 election, it was not “Aunt Jane.”  Her “political whirl” was the giving of a practical lesson – she was engaged, as always, in educating.

*Ellen D. Davis was, in the same election, running for the congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s Second District.

** The “Indiana legend” that James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, had proposed marriage to Miss Leonard has no basis in historical fact.