Today the Laurel Connections Blog offers you a holiday rerun. It was originally printed in the Laurel Leader on Thursday April 22, 1993 on page A-1. This was the old broadsheet style, 50 cent Leader. I bought a dozen copies to send to relatives celebrating my first published article.
It's a long piece, but if you stick with it you'll get a taste of those good old days when Laurel politics was a contact sport. A number of famous old Laurel names are also in the story. They come from a time before these local names were only known as buildings or streets.Happy New Year, rick
A time when elections weren’t boring
By Rick Wilson
City elections were not always the quiet, civilized, and poorly attended events we have come to expect.
In 1898, more than 72% of the registered voters turned out for a special Saturday election to decide if Laurel would become a dry town. The measure lost, much to the relief of a thirsty electorate.
After the 1902 election, an angry mob descended upon the city hall at Fifth and Montgomery streets, where the Armory is today, to watch two mayors and city councils argue over which had been legally elected by the people. With this kind of excitement, it’s no wonder that election participation averaged more than 80% over the 40 years from 1898 to 1938.
The Cast of Characters
The contested 1902 election was rife with intrigue, mud-slinging rhetoric and a colorful cast of characters right out of an 1890 melodrama:
- The opinionated newspaper publisher, James P. Curley, first owner and editor of the Leader. The Leader’s first masthead billed itself as “the only republican paper in Prince Georges County.” Curley and his partner, F.C. Dezendorf (son of a Virginia congressman) were also attorneys, real estate developers, brokers, bankers, insurance underwriters and merchants. Curley would later serve terms as mayor and state delegate.
- The much loved, seven-time mayor of Laurel, county commissioner and dry-goods merchant, Edward J. Phelps.
- Gustavus B. Timanus, superintendent of the Laurel Cotton Mills who had formerly served as mayor in 1894 and was the arch-rival of both Curley and Phelps.
Our TownAt the time Laurel was a town of retail businesses and commuters. Forty-six stores supported a population of nearly 3000, from Shaffers building supply at the depot to Phelps’ dry goods, groceries clothing and furniture clear across town at Ninth and Montgomery.
Thirty-four trains left Laurel’s depot at the east end of Main Street every day. It was boasted that a man could leave in the morning for Baltimore, transact business until noon, take a 45 minute train ride to Washington, work the afternoon at the capital and be home for a civilized supper at 6 p.m. It was a 10 cent fare each way.
In 1898 the city provided jobs in the cotton and shirt mills. A typical worker earned 45 cents a day. City lots (50 feet by 150 feet) could be purchased for $375 to $1,350.An advertisement in the Leader on March 25, 1898, described a seven-room house on Montgomery renting for $14 a month.
Laurel had eight churches and two schools. The new Maryland Agricultural college, just down the road at College Park, offered tuition, book, room, board and medical care for $154 per scholastic year.
Laurel also had a mayor and city council that worked diligently to keep the town from bankruptcy and from burning. Fire was a major threat.
The mayor and council met monthly to keep the town’s affairs in order. Fines for lawbreakers were levied and bills paid. Here is a peek at some of their tasks from the meeting of March 18, 1898:
- A five-year contract was awarded for 101 incandescent street lights at a cost of $12 per light per year. It was noted that “the lights must burn every night except those moonlit.”
- A bill was considered and approved for $21.50 for “road grading and repair of Montgomery Street above 10th.”- A bill was approved for payment of “$15 to the deputy bailiff, Walter Robison, for salary.” Walter was grandfather of Laurel’s current mayor, Joseph Robison. A council meeting in 1899 approved a request for $2 to purchase a bicycle for the bailiff to use during night rounds.
- The possibility of establishing a park northwest of Montgomery Street was discussed. “The area is well shaded and watered. It would be good for fishing, boating or picnicking.”
Our Hero: Edward VIIAs the 1902 election approached, Mayor Phelps was serving the last days of his seventh one-year term. He was called “Edward the VII” and was known for his large gray mare. Phelps had been born in Laurel in 1861 and attended local schools until age 14. He formed a mercantile partnership with Charles Shaffer in 1877. He was first elected to the City Council in 1888 at the age of 21. Then he was elected to the Prince George’s County Commission at 26 and was instrumental in getting three iron bridges erected over the Patuxent River at Laurel. (Iron bridges had only been in existence since 1872.) He became president of the County Commission in 1888 and mayor of Laurel in 1895, defeating his nemesis, G.B. Timanus.
Election Day, Monday, April 7, 1902.
The roads are muddy and deeply rutted from spring downpours. The polls open at city hall at 2 p.m. Mrs. Luther Brashears comes down the hill on Eighth Street in her wagon. As she negotiates the turn onto Montgomery Street, the wheels stick in the ruts. The wagon rolls over and the poor woman is thrown to the ground. The horse bolts up Montgomery Street past School No. 1 at Ninth Street. Miss Eliza Cronmiller, the principal, hurries some of the boys to harness the horse. The wagon is destroyed, but Mrs. Brashears suffers only superficial injuries to both body and pride.
The polls close at 7 p.m. The gathering crowd is told of an upset. Timanus defeats Phelps by 23 votes! The entire Timanus slate is elected. In one of the greatest turnouts in years, 427 registered voters participate.
But wait! Later in the week it is discovered that Timanus and his colleagues have failed to qualify within the proper time required by the town charter rules (the Leader is fuzzy on exactly what requirement is violated). The Timanus team, discounting the rules and calling for “the rule of the people to prevail,” shows up at city hall to take over city business.
They demand that the existing administration turn over city papers and ledgers. They constitute a council and elect officers. The bailiffs are retained only if they agree to honor the new council’s rule. The Laurel postmaster is ordered to deliver all mail to the new council.
Phelps refuses all of these requests and seeks legal advice. He is told that the only way out of the mess is a new election.
Phelps calls for the special election at the end of April and then makes his most surprising announcement. “In order to avoid expensive litigation that wastes the taxpayer’s money and causes unnecessary controversy, a special election will be held and furthermore, under no circumstances will I put forth my name for consideration.” In the end Phelps puts the town ahead of his own ambitions.
Timanus easily beats the hurriedly substituted W.E. Linn in the special election, 295-94. Phelps runs again against Timanus in 1903 and 1904. Both elections are heavily contested and full of controversy, but Phelps never again regains his office.
Phelps writes about his accomplishments as mayor in April 1902. He mentions that an electric railroad will be coming to town in the fall. A fire department and water distribution system are forming to protect the city from calamity. A high school will soon be built. Roads are in good shape. The town library is growing and will soon need a paid librarian. A number of park projects show promise.
Phelps concludes with a call to the people of Laurel to heed the following advice, even when conditions decline and economies stumble: “When progress ceases, decay begins.”