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Hullabaloo in past elections; presidential candidate falls into canal and other tawdry tales

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

A primary election will be conducted tomorrow to pick candidates for the general election Nov. 8 . Democratic and Republican Party officials expect the voter turnout to follow the pattern of recent years where only one in three registered voters will participate.

Such apathy wasn't always the case in Allen County's past as the coming of elections marked the change from frontier outpost to settled community. The transition occurred in 1824, when Allen County's founding fathers gathered in Ewing's Tavern, at Barr and Columbia streets, to select one another for various offices. Six years later, the village citizens assembled, debated, voted to incorporate Fort Wayne as a town, and elected an assessor, treasurer, tax collector, marshal and street supervisor.

In this primitive fashion, Fort Wayne was governed for 11 years.

Then things got very strange.

First elected, first to quit

When Fort Wayne was incorporated as a city in 1840, elections were promptly conducted and George W. Wood was chosen as the first mayor. Wood was born in 1808 in New York state and came to Fort Wayne after studying law for a time at Ann Arbor, Mich. But he gave up the legal profession to join Thomas Tigar , the founder of the Fort Wayne Sentinel, as the town's second newspaperman. Wood soon owned the newspaper, and he bought another, the Fort Wayne Times.

He was elected to serve a second one-year term as mayor in 1841, but halfway through the year he asked the council to allow him to return to his private affairs. It seems Wood was more interested in reporting the news than making it.

Testing political waters

National political campaigning came to Fort Wayne in 1843 when the great Wabash and Erie Canal was inaugurated.

July 4 was the day chosen for dedicating the canal, then open from Toledo to Lafayette. Picnics, barbecues and parades were planned, and letters of congratulations poured in, most notably from such great men of the day as Daniel Webster, President Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay and Gen. Winfield Scott. But the highlight of the doings in Fort Wayne was the appearance of Gen. Lewis Cass, the main speaker and Democratic candidate for the 1844 presidential ticket.

Cass was a Westerner and knew well how to stir fellow frontiersmen with sonorous speeches. Cass was a very large man in every respect. A notable commander in the War of 1812 and the Indian campaigns afterward, he was military governor of Michigan Territory from 1813 to 1831.

Scores of canal boats from every Midwestern port were gaily festooned and tied three deep along the shore and docks of Columbia Street. Cass arrived by canal boat that morning, and before hundreds of well-wishers gathered along the banks he started to cross the gangplank to shore when a local poet began to hold forth with some grandiloquent verse in honor of the general. Cass, his eyes set on the poet, stepped right off the gangplank and into the fetid waters of the canal.

Undaunted, Cass dried off at Allen Hamilton's home on Lewis Street, and attended the afternoon activities at the Swinney Homestead.

The crowd, gathered there in the thousands, thoroughly enjoyed his two- hour address - even those who could not hear the general, for they were content to cheer at the frequent firing of the old cannon taken from a British ship in the War of 1812. Today, this cannon stands at the entrance to Historic Fort Wayne. Still, it is said, the humiliation of his canal dunking haunted Cass' candidacy and had a hand in his failure to gain the Democratic nomination. Cass, however, was the party's nominee in the election of 1848, but went down to defeat against Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party.

No log-splitters, please

The most notable campaign to come to Fort Wayne in these early years was the one waged for the presidency in 1860 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln only briefly stopped in Fort Wayne - at 1 a.m. in February 1860 - in order to change trains.

Fort Wayne, in any case, was decidedly anti-Lincoln.

The favorite in Allen County and Fort Wayne was Douglas, the Illinois senator known as the "Little Giant" who arrived here Oct. 2 amid evening celebrations. His way to the Rockhill House, on the western outskirts of town (where, today, St. Joseph Medical Center stands facing Main Street), was lined with cheering, torch-waving well-wishers. Many regarded him as the country's savior from civil war because of his non-interventionist policies regarding Southern slavery.

Douglas came out on the balcony of the Rockhill and made a short speech to his supporters. A hue and cry went up - "To the courthouse!" - and hundreds streamed back into town and burned an effigy of Lincoln in front of the new courthouse.

The next day, at midmorning, a huge parade was formed for Douglas. It took two hours for all to pass the viewing stand at the end of Main Street.

Marching clubs from surrounding towns and counties attended "each man in a hickory shirt and glazed cap." Four brass bands and several fife-and-drum corps also marched. But the Republicans in town were not to be silenced in all of this. A great hay wagon - with a likeness of Old Abe splitting rails riding on top - mysteriously lumbered into the middle of the Democrats' parade from some alleyway, pulled by stubborn oxen. The only way the "Democracy of Allen" could get the offending float out of the way was by pouring salt on the roadside to attract the animals off the parade route.

At the meeting place, a natural amphitheater between the ends of Main and Berry streets, along today's Thieme Drive, Douglas addressed his supporters: "Let me ask you," he exhorted after reading Lincoln's recent assertion that the nation could not exist half slave and half free, "why cannot this nation endure forever as our fathers made it, divided into free states and slave states, with the right on the part of each to have slavery as long as it chooses, and to abolish it when it pleases?" With lines so clearly drawn over such an emotional issue, it is evident why the country, including Allen County, was in turmoil in 1860.

While Allen County and Fort Wayne voted Democratic on election day - as they were to do on every occasion until 1904 - Douglas lost the national election. So it went again in 1864, when Lincoln ran for a second term. Again, Allen County voted heavily against Lincoln, whose Democratic challenger was Gen. George McClellan.

Fun and games

Local politics long ago? You could easily term it rough and tumble. Consider the 1886 state congressional race between incumbent Robert Lowry and James B. White, an immigrant storekeeper.

White eventually won, but Lowry appealed - unsuccessfully - to have the election nullified on the grounds that White, a Scotsman, was ineligible because he was not a naturalized citizen. But White was a rare creature in Allen County politics of the time: He was a popular Republican trusted by the working classes. (His great-grandson, Edward White, incidentally, was the first man to walk in space.)

Or consider Col. Robert S. Robertson, a Civil War hero and local historian, who served in the State Senate in the mid-1880s. When Lieutenant Gov. Mahlon Manson died in 1886, the Republican-controlled Legislature elected Robertson to the position, where he presided over that body. But the Democratic majority elected in 1887 forbade Robertson from assuming his place as presiding officer when the Legislature convened. Eventually, Robertson was forcibly ejected from the Senate floor amidst the wildest hullabaloo it had ever seen, and the Fort Wayne man became the Republican martyr of "The Indiana Rebellion of 1887."

Local reform - as on the national scene - was the dominant theme of politics late in the 1880s. The campaign war cries of the Republicans, led by mayoral candidate Daniel L. Harding in 1889, called for strict enforcement of "Sunday Blue Laws," particularly with respect to the saloons that lined North Calhoun, Columbia and Main streets. The houses of ill-repute, which were also numerous in these blocks, were the target of the reformers. Harding was carried into office with a huge majority - the first Republican elected to office in Fort Wayne in 22 years.

Unfortunately, the zeal of the reformers upset more than saloonkeepers. Evidently, no distinction was made in the "Sunday Blue Laws" enforcement between those places and druggists, grocers, butchers, milkmen and restaurateurs , and these honest merchants were hauled into municipal court and fined.

As a result, the Democrats, led by Charles Zollinger , who became a six- term mayor, were swept back into office in 1891.

Bryan's silver spoon

The most famous orator of the day and the darling of the rising Democratic Party late in the 19th century, William Jennings Bryan, came to Fort Wayne in 1896, shortly after winning his party's nomination. But Fort Wayne nearly missed him on this first visit.

In August 1896, a young Fort Wayne Journal reporter named Harry Williams happened to be poking through the guest register at the Wayne Hotel when he found Bryan's name. The reporter promptly called upon "The Great Commoner" in his room, and then raced around town to rouse some leading - and embarrassed - Democrats to meet their new leader. Only two months before, in Chicago, Bryan had made his stirring challenge to the gold standard championed by the Republicans when he cried, "You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold," and won an enthusiastic following and the Democratic presidential nomination.

Some months after his first, furtive visit to Fort Wayne, Bryan was scheduled to come to town, and this time his party was ready with "Bryan Day" on Oct. 22 at Robison Park.

The weather was perfect when he arrived by train at 8:20 a.m., after having made rear-platform speeches in Ossian and Bluffton.

Sixteen white horses led in the parade through town, and these were followed by marching corps from New Haven, Angola and Leo. Bryan made his main speeches at Robison Park, and then at the Wayne Hotel.

Even the opposition newspapers thought the crowd was the largest ever seen on Calhoun Street. Later, speeches were also made at the Princess Rink on Berry Street and at the nearby Saengerbund Hall.

Once again, Allen County voted Democratic and once again saw its favored candidate lose in the national election to the dominant Republican Party.

--May 2, 1994