A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 21, 2009
When the first January inauguration took place in Washington, D.C., this part of the Catskills was roiling in resentment, anger, and neighbor-against-neighbor ill feeling. It was January 20, 1937.
For the first 150 years of our republic, the transfer of power from one president to the next, and from one Congress to the next, took place on March 4, a full four months after the November election. In an era when distance mattered and transportation was difficult, the long period between election and inauguration was designed to give newly elected officials a chance to put their affairs in order and make the often arduous trip to Washington.
No one seemed to mind this long inter-regnum much, as long as the new presidential and Congressional policies promised to be pretty similar to those of the out-going president and Congress. Most years, the country’s problems seemed like they could wait for new leadership.
This “lame duck” period first proved to be a problem in 1861, when southern states, one after the other, passed Articles of Secession in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, required to wait four months to take power, found himself unable to respond to the growing crisis, since, in the words of our current president, “We only have one president at a time.”
Anxiety over the long wait arose again as the election of 1932 approached. The Great Depression was in full swing, President Hoover was wildly unpopular, and public opinion was anxious and eager to replace him. Congress proposed an amendment to the Constitution eight months before the election, and by the beginning of the following year it had gained ratification through the approval of the states.
The 20th Amendment did not take effect until the end of the year it was ratified, so the first transfer of presidential power at noon on January 20th took place after the next presidential election: the election of 1936.
That campaign was a hot one here in the mountains. The legacy of the Civil War had made our area solidly Republican. After all, the Democratic Party had been the party of the south. Lincoln’s Republicans had won the Civil War and ended slavery. The Catskills were rural and overwhelmingly Protestant, and Democrats were identified with cities, saloons, former-slave holding southerners, and largely Catholic immigrants: “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” in the words of one late 19th-century Republican broadside.
Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, ran for a second term in 1936, and the campaign here in the Catskills was hard-fought. Roosevelt’s New Deal was controversial, and the president, our across-the-river neighbor, was either loved or hated here. Most supported his opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon. A metal Landon sign hangs on my barn, a generous gift from a friend who took it off his New Kingston garage where it had hung continuously since 1936.
The Roosevelt Democratic Club carried on a vigorous campaign here, holding a late October rally in Margaretville’s Dugan Hall, now the Granary Building. That rally followed a rally for Landon, organized by the Independent Coalition of American Women, an organization that became the Republican Women’s Club after the election.
Women were very active in the campaign, 1936 being only the fifth presidential election in which women had the right to vote. Fanny Hubbell of Kelly Corners led the Roosevelt Club, organizing a campaign luncheon for 60 at the Andes Hotel. The Catskill Mountain News was strong for Landon. The campaign was hard fought. Polls predicted a Landon victory. Roosevelt won in a landslide.
Jubilant Democrats celebrated, perhaps a bit too much. On the Thursday after election, a line of 50 automobiles paraded down Margaretville’s Main Street in what the News described as “a kind of gasoline fan dance to the truck of Ray Shultis,” blowing horns and making merry. On Ray Shultis’ truck, the celebrating Roosevelt supporters propped an outhouse. On the outhouse was a sign that read “Independent Coalition of American Women.” Another sign on the truck read “Republican Propaganda.”
People were upset
Well! The next day people were peeved. No, more than peeved, downright angry. The outhouse was deemed not just vulgar, but an insult to Republican women, and in the old-fashioned chivalry of the day, an insult to the wives and mothers of Republican men. “Lifelong friends met on the street the next morning with an icy stare, business places were boycotted and the streets were filled with excited groups of people talking and making gestures,” the News reported. The Oneonta Star reported that the trouble threatened to tear the town apart.
It was a big deal.
Stanley Bussey was one of the few Democratic businessmen in town. His grocery, Bussey’s, became the focus of the boycott.
Trouble continued through the weekend. On the following Monday, the Democratic Town Committee met to issue a public apology. Republicans met soon after, first the women’s club, then the men’s. Amid a lot of hard feeling, and strong words, cooler heads prevailed, agreeing to accept the apology. “Life returns to normal in the Catskill Mountain village where surely it would be impossible to be at odds with neighbors,” the Catskill Mountain News opined on the front page.
Forgive, maybe, but forget? Thirty-six years later, I got involved in local politics and people still talked about the outhouse parade of 1936. Surely, hurt feelings, anger, and resentment were still fresh when Roosevelt was sworn in for a second term that January day in 1937. Tough business, mountain politics.