By William Urban
This fall my research methods class at Monmouth College took up a project suggested by City Clerk Susan Trevor: biographies of Monmouth’s past mayors. The students, with considerable assistance from the Warren County Genealogical Society, wrote on the nineteenth century majors. Next year’s classes will venture into living memory, a task that will be both easier and more difficult because significant stories related to their lives and policies have not yet been forgotten (or, in some cases, forgiven).
Some interesting facts have come to light. First, while all the mayors were worthy men, they were not always the most prominent men in the community. They represented a cross-section of the educated populace: farmers, a blacksmith, store owners, a tobacconist, a manufacturer, a physician, realtors, bankers, a postmaster and a county clerk. Most were Republicans, but not all. Most were married, but not all. Most were blameless in their private lives, but….
Their most prominent activity – according to the minutes of the city council meetings and the reports of the three daily newspapers – was in building streets and sidewalks. The public (that is, the women) wanted to be able to walk downtown and to neighborhood shops without getting their long dresses stained by a combination of mud and horse manure.
The second activity was to limit the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Almost every mayor promised to do something about this; and those who did, lost the next election. Once again, this was the influence of women, who believed that prohibition of beer, whiskey and wine would reduce significantly the amount of poverty, illness, idleness, and the abuse of wives and children.
There were a few surprises. George Babcock, who was mayor in 1866, was married three times. The children of the first marriage lived with his business partner and first wife’s brother during his second marriage because of his wife’s poor health, then rejoined him after the third. He was among the least publicity-oriented of all the city’s mayors, saving all his advertising for his highly successful general store.
Frank Hall, mayor 1897-98, created a sensation by moving to Iowa, then "quietly" obtaining a divorce and marrying a young woman from Monmouth. Unusually popular, he had been given two leather chairs at the end of his term. It is not recorded who ended up with them.
The bottom line: Monmouth was a small town, much smaller than today, but the public didn’t see everything that was going on. Or, maybe, the newspapermen didn’t report on it.
Too often the men and their families slid into obscurity after leaving office. Photographs were difficult to find, and stories about their non-public lives were almost completely lacking. Should readers have materials that would enhance the stories about these mayors or be useful for upcoming projects, please contact me at Monmouth College (a message can be left at 457-2149). The student papers can be seen at https://department.monm.edu/history/history_of_history_department/mayors_of_monmouth.htm
Monmouth Daily Review Atlas (Dec. 15, 2005), 4.