In last week's Echo of Our Past, we set the stage for a unique election in the history of Webster Parish, the election of Tuesday, September 1, 1908, when for the only time in the history of Webster Parish, the voters (at least the Democratic voters) were allowed to cast a ballot for the office of Superintendent of Schools.
Today's column will pick up with the campaign for that office and the controversial outcome.
By late July 1908, the campaign for School Board and for Superintendent had begun. In its Friday, July 24 edition, the Minden Democrat commented editorially on the coming election. Among Editor H.A. Davis' comments were:
" . . . the parish superintendent should have general charge of educational matters in the parish. He should have charge of examinations and under the supervision of the Police Jury, he should prorate the monies that belong to the various districts and pay it over to the local treasurer of each district. He should be elected by the people and paid well for his work."
The issue of examinations being under control of the local superintendent was raised in the next issue of the Democrat when an announcement appeared for the next teacher's exam, to be administered by Superintendent Fuller and Principal C. A. Ives of Minden High.
In contrast, below that announcement was the following message from State Superintendent of Education, J. B. Aswell:
"In harmony with the new law and the resolutions of the State Board of Education adopted on July 20, the first examination for certificates of eligibility to appointment as parish superintendent will be held on August 29 at the office of the State Superintendent of Education in Baton Rouge, and at each parish site in the state."
Of course, Webster Parish had come up with their own solution to choosing a parish superintendent, a vote of the people, and it was not clear if the local board might risk sanctions by naming a superintendent who had not passed the state exam.
In that same edition of the Democrat the first man announced his candidacy for superintendent.
He was Professor John S. Cheshire, who offered the following campaign biography.
"Mr. Cheshire was born and reared in this parish. He has followed educational work all of his life since by dint of hard exertion he fitted himself for that work.
He is a graduate of the leading normal institutions of Texas and holds a first grade certificate. He taught school for several years in Texas and later returned home. For several years he taught in Bossier Parish.
Of recent years he has been teaching in Webster Parish and he points to his success as a guarantee of his ability to properly fulfill the duties of the office to which he aspires.
He will make a thorough canvass of the parish and will personally present his claims for preferment to the voters."
By making his announcement first in the Democrat, Cheshire was in some ways staking a claim to being the "outsider" in the race. The two local newspapers, the Minden Democrat and the Webster Signal, were engaged in a hard-fought competition, particularly over government printing contracts. The Democrat constantly charged collusion between the editor of its rival, the Signal, and the local government bodies.
Perhaps they had a good case. The editor of the Signal, J. P. Kent, was almost a "walking conflict of interest."
While holding the printing contracts for the Town of Minden, the Webster Police Jury and the Webster Parish School Board, Kent was also a member of both the Minden Board of Aldermen and the School Board.
I guess he just didn't have time to make the Police Jury race. So having your announcement in the paper operated by Mr. Kent, signaled that you were in good graces with the powers that be, while choosing the Democrat as your organ, indicated an advocacy of change.
The second candidate for Webster Parish Superintendent emerged in the next week's edition of the mainline Signal. Major Arthur L. Cox. His campaign statement included the following biography.
"Major Cox not only stands high as a citizen, but he is recognized as one of the leading educators of the parish.
He filled with eminent satisfaction for years the responsible position of President of the Minden Female College, at that time one of the highest educational positions in North Louisiana.
Since that time he has taught in some of the leading schools of Texas and for the past several years he has been engaged in teaching in the public schools of this parish."
In addition to those credentials, Cox offered the endorsement (albeit in a twenty-five year old letter dated 1883) of President Howard N. Ogden of West Virginia College.
Ogden stated that Cox was an "estimable gentleman an accurate and accomplished scholar and an experienced and successful teacher" in addition he cited Cox's sterling moral character and his leadership demonstrated in his college years through two years of service as Captain of the Corps of Cadets at West Virginia College.
The next week's newspapers saw no new candidates but remarkable similar actions taken by the two announced candidates.
Both chose to run ads in the newspaper they had not chosen for the original announcement.Cheshire's ad appeared in Kent's Signal and Cox bought space in the Democrat.
More striking was the similarity of the two ads. Cox listed nine promises to the voters if elected.
They were: 1) To have regular office hours and days;
2) To secure for each teacher and trustee a copy of the school law and instruct them in their duties;
3) To be in the office (not somewhere in town) every Saturday;
4) To give my entire time to the Superintendent's duties;
5) To see that all contracts whether for teachers, buildings, repairs, or material be awarded on merit and not to relatives or friends as such;
6) To see that the children's money is not used to pay the expenses of teachers to the State Association;
7) To give to the people that pay taxes the right to say how same shall be expended;
8) To keep an account with each district and furnish the patrons with the amount of money due them as soon as the money is received and apportioned;
9) To visit every school in the parish and remain long enough in the school and neighborhood to get in touch with both the teacher and the patrons.
In addition, Cox included the announcement that he would be addressing the voters of the Minden area on two occasions on Saturday, August 22.
His topic of choice was "Fuller's Report and the School Law." He would be speaking at the Webster Parish Courthouse at 2 p.m. and at the Turner School, east of Minden, at 8 p.m.
Cox offered to share the podium with any other candidates for the office.
On the front page of the Signal, Cheshire also included a list of promises to the voters in a box layout identical to Cox's ad in the Democrat. Cheshire listed 13 promises to the voters. The first nine were identical to Cox's guarantees, but Cheshire added:
10) Not to cancel any certificate until the expire;
11) To carry out all contracts already made when I enter into office;
12) To be conservative in my views;
13) To lay the burden of dividing the school fund on the School Board and see that every dollar goes and stays where it belongs.
Cheshire also added a caveat to his promises that he would do these things unless he was "interfered by the State Superintendent or the State Board."
I am frankly stunned by the duplicate nature of these two ads. It is clear that both men had copied the principles from some common source. But even the parenthetical aside (not somewhere in town) was identical in the two lists.
Both papers were issued on Friday, so I wonder if there wasn't some embarrassment for the two men when the issues hit the streets. Nevertheless both men pressed forward in their campaigns based on promises that were exactly the same.
Finally, on August 28, Superintendent Fuller made his formal announcement as a candidate.
Perhaps he assumed he didn't need to exert as much effort as the other two candidates. They were political newcomers, while Fuller had twice been elected as State Senator by the voters of Webster.
In addition, Fuller had been the choice of the School Board when Davies died in May, so he seemed to have the upper hand in that regard also.
Also, no one had been able to criticize Fuller's actions in his brief time as Superintendent. The only charge against him was in taking too much credit for issuing a financial report.
Fuller's campaign biography included the following facts:
"Mr. Fuller was born and raised in this parish. He was for two terms State Senator from this district and served the people well.
His ability to administer the office which he seeks is unquestioned and he points to his record since his appointment as an earnest of the methods that will be pursued in the future if he is elected.
He is a practical educator and is a graduate of Centenary College."
Fuller added another statement that revealed an emerging issue in this race.
The notice declared, "He will not be a candidate before the School Board unless he is favored with the highest number of votes in the primary."
The meaning of this statement is explained by another announcement in that week's issue of the Democrat.
School board candidate and incumbent member James M. Miller made the following statement:
"I have been asked by Major A. L. Cox if I would pledge my vote to the man getting the highest vote for Superintendent in the primary election.
My answer is, I will not. Why? For the reason that the one getting this vote may not be able to pass the examination passed by the State Board.
Again, one may get the highest vote and then be very far from having a majority of the entire vote, which would be necessary to make it democratic." Miller added in his final statement. "I would urge you to select a board that will discharge their duties and not allow the Superintendent to control, as some of the platforms seem to indicate."
Combining Miller's statement with Fuller's promise it seems a fairly solid educated guess that a move was underfoot from individual board members to renege on the original promise that the board would "rubber-stamp" the vote of the people.
The stated plans of Cox and Cheshire to become more aggressive than past superintendents was not playing well with incumbents on the board and these members did not want to commit to supporting a candidate they could not work with amicably.
The voters went to the polls on September 1 with what seemed to be a clear choice. Endorse continuity by choosing Thomas W. Fuller, or speak out for change by voting for either Cox or Cheshire.
In terms of demographics, Cheshire, with family roots in the Cotton Valley area, was the "rural candidate" since both Fuller and Cox lived in the Minden area.
When the voters spoke on September 1, the scenario projected by Miller in his announcement came true.
The election was extremely close. Fuller came out in first place with 314 votes, only two more than Cheshire's total of 312. Cox was only 34 votes behind with 280 ballots in his favor. Although Fuller won a plurality he had been the first choice of only 35% of the voters.
Cheshire immediately announced he was backing Fuller for the job. However, his supporters were not so quick to fall in line.
In the Democrat of September 25, 1908, there appeared a petition signed by more than 50 voters from the northern part of Webster Parish.
They requested the School Board to call for a runoff election between the two highest candidates, Fuller and Cheshire, so that the name submitted to the School Board would have been endorsed by a majority of the voters. Surprisingly, both the Signal and the Democrat came out against this proposition.
They stated two reasons, first, that a gentleman's agreement had been reached before the election and to go back on that now would be an unseemly situation.
The second reason was far more compelling and it was tied to Superintendent Aswell's examination for Superintendent (in fact, Aswell was not longer in that job, he had been named President of Louisiana Normal at Natchitoches and T. H. Harris of Claiborne Parish, who would hold the job of State Superintendent until 1940 was the new Superintendent).
Back on August 29, all three candidates for parish superintendent had taken the state exam. On September 18, the results were made known.
Only one person from Webster Parish, Principal C. A. Ives of MHS had passed the exam. According to the state law, only two persons, the current superintendent, Fuller and the exam-certified Ives were qualified to be Superintendent.
Ives did not want the job, so if the School Board chose anyone but Fuller for the post, it would seem that the parish would find itself in court over electing an uncertified Superintendent.
On Friday, October 3, 1908, the School Board met at the Courthouse in Minden and unanimously chose Thomas Wafer Fuller as the second Superintendent of Schools for Webster Parish.
Fuller would hold the job for a little over 12 years, until his death in December 1920.
At that time, Webster Parish reached out and hired a local man who had gained an excellent reputation in education work statewide, Edwin Sanders Richardson, as Superintendent.
Over the next 16 years, Richardson transformed our schools into a model for the country. We can hope that the result of that Echo of Our Past is repeated as the School Board soon chooses the 12th Webster Parish Superintendent of Schools.
John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.