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Echoes of Our Past

by Minden Press-Herald

Minden, like most Southern towns, had a very complicated political history during the years of Reconstruction.

Initially, after the war, the newly returned former Confederate Democrats returned to local control, but after the passage of the Reconstruction Acts and the Louisiana Constitution of 1868, power passed to the carpetbagger government in New Orleans. At first the former Confederates were largely disenfranchised, but after the institution of the Amnesty Oath, they returned to the voting rolls. Parish elections were held, but the returns were strictly controlled and monitored by the state government’s Returning Board, while all municipal officers were appointed. When Webster Parish was established in 1871, the initial Police Jury and parish officials, appointed by Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, were almost all Republicans. At some point prior to 1874 (Police Jury minutes from 1871 – -1874 are missing) control passed in the parish to Democrats, beginning with resignations of appointed Jurors as early as September 1871. Inside Minden, with a black majority voting population that was almost universally Republican, the change did not come as quickly.

Minden’s first Democratic controlled government since the 1868 Constitution were selected at the General Election on May 8, 1875, the town’s first actual election in nearly a decade. The Minden Democrat commented about the new council in its edition of May 15, 1875: “The new town council met yesterday and organized and will meet again today, to receive the bonds of the Marshal and Treasurer. We have been astonished that there has been so little mention made of this radical change in our town affairs. Webster Parish and the town of Minden is at last free from the hands of the despoiler. A brighter day has dawned for us.” The new officials were Mayor Thomas Moore Fort; Aldermen William Life, S. W. Culpepper, J. J. Carter, T. R. Geren and P. W. Paul; Treasurer William Hardy; and Marshall Patrick Claffey. All except Marshall Claffey were Democrats and Claffey, although a Republican and a former Union soldier, had been accepted into the local “family” by marrying the daughter of former Mayor C. S. Smith. Thus Minden was “Redeemed” with a slight hiccup in 1878 – 1880 when a fusion ticket of the Greenback and Republican parties would oust the Democrats under the leadership of former Democrat, P. W. Paul. In 1880, Democrats regained the upper hand, although Minden would continue to elect at least one Republican council member until 1885, when the bulldozing techniques of the era largely eliminated black voting in our community.

Understandably, a majority of Minden voters were elated in 1884 when after the longest period of control of the White House by one party, 24 years under Republican domination, a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, won election as President.

However, I never realized the degree of happiness and celebration until I came across this account of a pro-Cleveland rally held in Minden on Monday night, November 24, 1885. The New Orleans Picayune of Tuesday, November 25 gave this account (following the article I will include some explanatory notes):

“On Monday night, November 24, at a given signal all the business houses of our town were closed and everybody assembled on the south side of the main street where there were arranged a great number of transparencies, representing the covering of the country with the protective wings of the Democracy, the wedding of Cleveland to reform, the wiping out of sectional lines and the establishing of a great party of honesty and purity. The love sent to Mrs. Fisher was not overlooked, nor the fact that J. G. Blaine and the Republican Party had gone up Salt River.

“At 7 o’clock the procession was formed with about 200 mounted citizens in front, led by the Homer Cornet Band.

Following these came the Shreveport Cornet Band, followed by citizens on foot. Then came the representation of B. F. Butler, mounted on an enormously large Durham bull and carrying the historic spoon; the Mrs. Belva Lockwood, mounted on an ass, followed by a brigade of the homely spinsters of the country, crestfallen and worn; at the tail of the procession, and in the light of 400 Democratic torches, Mr. J. G. Blaine came on in a boat going up Salt River.

“The procession thus formed moved up Main Street, then crossing over returned to the north side of the parallelogram marching back to the starting point, where immense bonfires had been kindled and a sea of faces turned to the speakers’ stand, eagerly waiting for the appearance of the speakers.

“Hon. J. F. Taylor, chairman of the Parish Executive Committee, mounted to the stand, and calling the meeting to order read the following nominations, which were duly ratified by the audience: President, Capt. A. Goodwill; Vice-Presidents, Hon. R. F. Wyche of Bossier; Mr. John Leary of Bienville; J. W. P. Adams of Ward 1; C. J. Gray of Ward 2; Dr. J. S. Parham of Ward 3; Hon. Irvin Talton of Ward 5.

“Capt. Goodwill stated that he was not a speaker, and if he were he could not afford to intrude himself into the program of the evening; but he would assure the audience that this was the proudest occasion of this life. He then introduced the Hon. John C. Moncure of Caddo, who thrilled the expectant audience for about an hour, reviewing the political situation and reviewing the reason for our rejoicing.

“Judge Moncure said that when first invited to be present and address the audience he thought of his judicial government; but seeing that one of the divines of the city had donned the robes of patriotism and was acting as grand master of ceremonies on the occasion, he thought that he might turn patriot for a little while and join his fellow-citizens in their great rejoicing.

“Having finished his speech, the President called for three rousing cheers for Cleveland. The response was deafening and prolonged.

“When quiet was again restored Col. J. A. Snider of Bossier was called on and responded in a few happy remarks and a cheer for Cleveland.

“The Homer Cornet Band then discoursed some fine music under the leadership of Mr. B. A. Bridges. Cheers, the throwing of sky rockets and a pretty general pyrotechnic display having subsided, the Chairman introduced Judge J. D. Watkins, who in his usually facetious style entertained the audience for quite a time, reviewing the tyranny and oppression of the Republican Party, its carpetbaggers, bayonets, star routes, corporation frauds on the government, etc.

“Here the Chairman again arose and proposed to lead the audience in three times hearty cheers for Cleveland and Hendricks and honest government

“The bands here broke in and the fireworks started and at the same time loud and continued calls were made for John T. Watkins, who appeared upon the platform; but the tide had turned; the people wanted to shout, the gunners wanted to shoot, the pyrotechnists wanted to fire off; so the meeting broke up with a grand concert and pyrotechnical exhibition.

“Visitors pronounced the meeting to be the grandest one of the kind held in North Louisiana.

“Long wave the Democratic flag.”

Clearly there was “a hot time in the old town” at this event. As someone who came along too late to witness the Earl Long traveling rallies that came to town, I find it amazing that such events took place. Taking some of the seemingly cryptic references in the order they appear, I will attempt to add a bit of clarity. The first reference to the “love sent to Mrs. Fisher” appears to be referring to Abby Fisher and her cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. Published in 1881, it is the oldest known cookbook written by a former slave and was widely popular at the time of the 1884 election. J. G. Blaine was former Speaker of the House, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, James G. Blaine the losing Republican candidate for President in 1884. Blaine was particularly hated in the South and during the campaign had been labeled “James G. Blaine that continental liar from the State of Maine” by Democrats during the election. The phrase “going up Salt River” was a common political usage since the time of Henry Clay, it meant a politician headed on the path to political oblivion. B. F. Butler was the hated Union General Benjamin F. Butler who governed New Orleans during 1862 – 63. Best known as “Beast” for his dictatorial rule and for his reviled General Order #23, this item references another of his nicknames, “Spoons.”

During the Union occupation of New Orleans, homes of local residents were used by the Union officers and the families were displaced. The story goes that when the families returned, their silverware was missing. The tradition was the Butler and his brother, who had followed him South, stole the silverware and sold it for personal profit, thus he came to be known as “Spoons” Butler.

“Belva Lockwood was a Washington, D. C., attorney, suffragette who in 1884 became the second woman to run for President of the United States but the first to legally appear on ballots. She was the candidate of the Equal Rights Party and the disparaging reference to the “spinsters” walking behind her seems an early version of the hate speech directed towards the women’s movement today in many right-wing circles.

As for the local folks mentioned. Captain Alfred Goodwill was the prominent Minden man who came to this country as a teen-aged immigrant from England and rose to become a powerful business leader, his great-grandson was Louisiana governor Mike Foster. Irvin Talton was serving as State Representative from Minden at this point. John D. Watkins was District Judge and former head of the Minden Male Academy. His son, John T. Watkins, was serving as District Attorney and would later serve eight terms as the U.S. Representative from the 4th District of Louisiana. The days of the old time political rallies, at least at the small-town level, seem to be gone, but this story gives us a taste of the time when those rallies were more than just an Echo of our Past.

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