Thursday, June 30, 2016

Banker, Rancher, and U. S. Senator John Thomas [otd 06/30]

Senator Thomas. Library of Congress.
On June 30, 1928, Idaho Governor H. Clarence Baldridge appointed banker and rancher John W. Thomas to fill the U. S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Frank R. Gooding. The appointment arose partly from the fact that Thomas was considered Gooding's political protégé.

Thomas was born January 4, 1874 in Phillips County, Kansas, 60-70 miles north of Hayes. He attended a Normal school in central Kansas. John then taught for several years and spent five years as a school Superintendent. From 1906 to 1909, he served as Register of the Land Office in Colby, Kansas.

In 1909, Thomas moved to Gooding, Idaho, where he engaged in banking and invested in real estate. At that time, Frank Gooding had just completed two terms as Idaho Governor. (Custom then dictated that the governor should serve only two consecutive terms.) Thomas and Gooding became associated through their common interests in banking, ranching, and politics.

Thomas was mayor of Gooding in 1917-1919, when Gooding lost in his first run for a U. S. Senate seat. Gooding succeeded in 1920 and was reelected in 1926. By then, Thomas was a member of the Republican National Committee. Thus, when Gooding died two years into his term, the Thomas appointment followed naturally.

Concerning the appointment, the Governor was reported (Idaho Statesman, July 1, 1928) to say, “For a number of years Mr. Thomas was closely associated with the late Senator Gooding and seems to be the logical man to carry on the splendid fight Gooding waged for the economic development of Idaho.”

The subsequent special election confirmed his seat for the remainder of the term.

Being Senators from a farm state, both Thomas and William E. Borah [blog, yesterday] voted for the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The Act had originally been proposed as relief for American farmers. However, by the time it passed, the Act also contained sky-high tariffs on hundreds of non-farm products. Countries all around the world retaliated with higher duties on American products. While Smoot-Hawley did not cause the Great Depression, economists generally agree that the Act made it far worse.

During this term in the Senate, Thomas chaired the Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation. In August 1932, a union representative at the Hoover Dam construction site sent him a letter that began, "We believe that a great injustice is being perpetrated against the workers at Boulder Dam in the general lowering of working and living conditions.”

Hoover Dam, 1942. National Archives.
They asserted that the contractor had set wages below area averages, ignored state safety codes, and charged exorbitant prices for goods and services. It is not clear how John replied, and the issue soon became moot for him. That fall, the Democratic landslide led by Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt swamped his re-election bid.

Thomas spent the rest of the decade attending to his business and ranching interests. In 1940, Senator Borah died in office and Thomas was appointed to fill that vacancy. Again, he won the special election to confirm the appointment. This time his bid for reelection in 1942 succeeded and he began a full six-year term. Ironically, he did not complete that term, himself dying in office in November 1945.
                                                                                 
References: [Hawley]
Boulder Dam Workers, Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum, Boulder City, Nevada (2005).
“John Thomas,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, online.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

U. S. Senator William E. Borah, the “Lion of Idaho” [otd 06/29]

W. E. Borah, ca. 1898.
Illustrated History.
Senator William Edgar Borah, celebrated "Lion of Idaho," was born June 29, 1865 in Wayne County, Illinois. Tuberculosis cut short his formal education, so he read law for a Kansas firm and passed the bar there in 1888. During those times, steady railroad promotion fueled considerable growth in Kansas, yet the young lawyer soon headed further West.

With his cash running low, Borah heeded advice heard on the train and settled in Boise City. Even then an excellent orator, and good looking, as early as 1891 Borah ran for public office – Boise City Attorney. He only lost by three votes.

Borah's legal practice flourished, covering many important cases. He served as a Special Prosecutor in the 1907 trial of “Big Bill” Haywood, accused of conspiring to assassinate ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg. Although the state lost the case, it gained national attention for Borah. He carefully and successfully nurtured that notoriety.

As a Silver Republican, his Congressional bids in 1896 and 1903 failed. Then Borah returned to his original Republican roots, and used his new-found celebrity status. In 1907, he won election to the Senate. He would hold that seat for the rest of his life.

In the Senate, his oratorical skills regularly attracted crowded galleries when people heard he was about to speak. Even those who disagreed with him conceded his powerful eloquence and strong convictions, which earned him the "Lion of Idaho" sobriquet.

His forceful persuasion earned him much credit, or blame depending upon a person's views, for keeping the U. S. out of the League of Nations. Borah was often labeled an isolationist because of that stance, yet many of his positions contradict that image. He mostly opposed "entangling alliances" and what he considered impositions upon America's sovereignty.

Borah and wife, ca 1895. Kansas State Historical Society.
In fact, Borah's views often seemed wildly contradictory, even to those in his own party. Although he distrusted "big government," he was generally ready to use Federal power to curb monopolistic trusts. Suspicious of social programs that cast government as what we might call "big brother," he nonetheless helped establish the Department of Labor with better child labor oversight.

News media of the times turned a blind eye to Borah's one consistent failing: his tangled affairs with women. Regional historians now generally concede that he probably left Kansas because he had "gotten a young woman in trouble" and was "asked" to leave. In Boise, contemporaries attested that he almost obsessively frequented the city's "ladies of the evening."

Questions have been raised even about his marriage to Mary McConnell, daughter of Idaho Governor William J. McConnell. Despite Borah’s strong sex drive, the couple never had any children. Rumors, never actively denied, circulated that Borah had gotten Mary pregnant while they were courting, and that a poorly-done abortion left her unable to have children. Yet recently-available letters and diaries confirm that Borah fathered a child by another man's wife.

In 1936, Borah ran a vigorous national campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination. When that failed, he returned to Idaho and was easily re-elected to his Senate seat. He died in office in January 1940.
                                                                                 
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State]
“William Edgar Borah, June 29, 1865 – January 19, 1940,” Reference Series No. 538, Idaho State Historical Society (1971).
Waldo W. Braden, “William E. Borah’s Years in Kansas in the 1880’s,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (November, 1947).
Stacy A. Cordery, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, Viking Press, New York (2007).
Douglas O. Linder, “Biographies: William E. Borah,” Famous American Trials: Bill Haywood Trial, University of Missouri-Kansas City, School of Law (2011).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Rancher, Mining Investor, and Probate Judge Frank Harris [otd 06/28]

Judge Harris, ca 1898.
Illustrated History.
Judge and state Senator Frank Harris was born June 28, 1854 in Placerville, California, 25-30 miles east of Sacramento. In the 1870s, he read law in two different firms in Eureka, California. Frank moved to Idaho in 1880 and established a home in Weiser.

Harris immediately qualified for the Idaho bar. One of his earliest cases was to draw up the articles of incorporation and bylaws for an irrigation company. Many farmers who had settled along the Weiser River pooled their resources to form this company. They hoped to build a canal system to get water onto their homesteads. Work began in the spring and summer of 1881.

The shareholders soon discovered they were severely under-capitalized, and sold out to a new firm. Those initial water rights changed companies several times before a reasonable system of ditches was finally completed. Then the arrival of the Oregon Short Line Railroad "made" Weiser City.

The initial impact of the railroad was largely negative. Harris later wrote, "Weiser took on a sudden change, but not for the better. They were composed of a motly [sic] mob of tinhorn gamblers, pimps, burglars, pickpockets, prostitutes and every variety of mankind that was low and despicable."

Fortunately, the riff-raff left when construction moved on, and Weiser prospered in a more lasting, substantial way. In 1889, the county selected Harris as a delegate to the convention that wrote the constitution for the proposed state of Idaho. In 1892, the Democratic Party convention nominated Frank for Lieutenant Governor, but Republicans swept every state executive branch office. Four years later, he was elected to the state Senate.

Harris was nominated for Lieutenant Governor again in 1904, but lost to the Republican landslide behind the presidential election of Teddy Roosevelt. In 1918, he was nominated to run unopposed on the Democratic ticket for Prosecuting Attorney of Washington County. But Harris then discovered that voters had placed numerous “Nonpartisan League” candidates at the head of the state Democratic ticket.
Downtown Weiser, ca 1908. Vintage Postcard.
The League was a rural/agricultural movement that proposed radical changes in American farm and financial policies. Harris branded (Idaho Statesman, September 10, 1918) the League’s founder a “trouble maker from North Dakota” and angrily rejected the nomination. (Many other traditional Democrats took similar stands.)

In 1922, Frank ran for the state Senate, and won. Ten years later – at the age of 78 – he was elected a Probate Judge.

Harris had a home in Weiser City and also owned a ranch near town. For many years he involved himself with mining interests and handled numerous cases of mining litigation and business. Judge Harris thus knew, better than most, all the ways that ignorant investors could be separated from their money.

In the 1940s, he published a series of articles in the Weiser Signal about the history of Weiser and Washington counties. Naturally, he discussed the prospects for new mineral discoveries. That included glowing reports of "immense deposits" of copper ore laced with fabulous amounts of gold and silver in the Seven Devils region.

Concerning these claims, Frank wrote, "I hesitate to accept at one-hundred percent or even at a greater discount, this report. I am inclined to believe it was made for the consumption of a new crop of eastern suckers."

Judge Harris passed away in April 1944.
                                                                                 
References: [Blue], [Defen], [Hawley], [Illust-State]
“Frank Harris, "History of Washington County and Adams County," Weiser Signal (1940s).