Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chester A. Smith and the Fight to Make Peekskill a City


When the Southern states decided to leave the Union in 1861, Gen. Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the Army, offered this mollifying advice to the North: "Say to the seceding states, wayward sisters, depart in peace." Such concessionary words were not heard in Cortlandt or in Westchester County 71 years ago when Peekskill, a village, wanted to break away and become a city. Town and county both opposed the move bitterly, fighting it every inch of the way.

Peekskill's struggle to get out from under Cortlandt's thumb and become a city was as bitter as any quarrel between Balkan factions. Surprising the pundits, Peekskill voters crossed party lines and switched loyalties to accomplish the change, underscoring the adage that politics makes strange bedfellows.

Sentiment for Separation
The movement for independence from the town began in 1934 at a meeting at Peekskill High School. Citizens gathered to protest the high salaries Cortlandt officials had voted themselves when the country was just beginning to emerge from the Depression.

Stephen D. Horton had planted seeds of separation as early as 1894, when the village of Peekskill had a population of less than ten thousand. Horton was Peekskill's president. ["President" was an archaic title used because villages were incorporated. It was later dropped by Westchester villages and replaced by the title of "mayor."] Little was done about promoting the idea of independence, however, for four decades. In 1936, James Mackay, a Democrat and the village president, appointed a committee to draw up a city charter.

A year later the committee presented its proposed charter. Following an unsuccessful attempt to amend it, the village trustees sent the charter to Albany, where the Legislature passed it. Gov. Herbert H. Lehman signed it, subject to its approval by the people of Peekskill. At a special vote held in 1938, 71% percent of Peekskill's voters approved the charter.

Opposition quickly surfaced. In a surprising about-face, Peekskill's Republican board of trustees now demanded sweeping changes in the charter. One amendment would take away voters' right to approve the annual city budget. Although school budget approval by voters is common today, voter approval of a municipal budget, a holdover from colonial days, was an unusual arrangement in the 1930's. Surprisingly, too, most members of the original charter committee caved in and came out for the amendments. So, too, did all of Peekskill's trustees. Even the influential Peekskill Evening Star, originally a charter proponent, now supported the amendments.

A few stalwarts formed an Advisory Committee to Protect the Charter, and continued to fight for the charter as written. A Committee for a New Charter opposed them. From this contest emerged the Citizens Non-Partisan Committee, with Chester A. Smith as its self-proclaimed head. In July 1939, Peekskill held a referendum on the proposed amendments. Only a third of those who voted so overwhelmingly the year before turned out. Nevertheless, 56% of those who voted were for leaving the charter as written.

In the municipal election campaign of 1939, the pro-charter Democrats and the anti-charter Republicans went head to head. Smith, a registered Republican, and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee backed the Democratic slate, which won handily on November 7. Among the winners were 58-year-old James Mackay, former village president and now mayor-elect, and five Democratic candidates for the Common Council. With the defeat of the Republicans, the opponents of the charter, Chester A. Smith and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee, became a political force to be reckoned with for a decade.

The Remarkable Chester Smith
Chester Allen Smith would have welcomed the title of "Mr. Peekskill"--if anyone had been enterprising enough to bestow it on him. Without question, he deserved it. His life was a latter-day Horatio Alger story. A Peekskill native, he was born on November 15, 1884, the son of Louis H. and Abbie Lent Smith. His father was a descendant of John Howell, who arrived in America on the Mayflower in 1620. His mother's great grandfather was Isaac Lent, who fought in the Revolution.

Chester Smith learned shorthand from his father, a teacher in Putnam and Westchester schools. He eventually attained a speed of 330 words per minute and became a public stenographer in Peekskill. Early in 1907 he was appointed official court stenographer in the Ninth Judicial District of the State Supreme Court, working there for 47 years until his retirement. During World War I, Chester Smith served with the U.S. Army as a field clerk in Virginia. He was a founding member of Peekskill's American Legion post.

Academic Honors
While working as a court stenographer, he attended Columbia College, graduating with a B.A. and General Honors in 1923. His essay entitled "The Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire" won him the Chandler Prize in History. The following year he earned an M.A. His thesis was titled "Church and State in Maryland, 1760 to 1776," a study of the role it played in creating the Constitution's doctrine of the separation of church and state.

He was a member of Peekskill's United Methodist Church and, beginning in 1916, represented the church at conferences across America for almost fifty years. But he could also be combative and a troublesome gadfly. As a believer in the peace movement, he once tried to have the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" removed from the Methodist hymnal. Also a lifelong opponent of alcohol and cigarettes, he was years ahead of his time in pointing out the dangers of tobacco and smoking. He would never sell a piece of real estate unless the buyer agreed that it would not be used in the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages. In 1933, he was an unsuccessful “Dry” candidate for a place on the New York delegation to ratify the 21st Ammendment that repealed Prohibition..

One of his greatest contributions to Peekskill was the support he gave to the Field Library. In 1920 he headed a committee to purchase the former Second Presbyterian Church on South Street for the library, then located on Smith Street. He secured a donation of $25,000 from James B. Ford to renovate the building. Later, he gave the library a three-story fireproof addition, the Louis H. Smith Wing, in his father's memory.

Perhaps Chester Smith's most enterprising contribution to Peekskill was his Friendly Town Association, begun in 1920 as the Friendly Town Club. It was a one-man chamber of commerce. Largely supported by contributions from him, the Association honored Peekskill citizens for outstanding service and marked historic sites with bronze tablets. Chester Smith also encouraged local citizens to donate land to the Association and from which seven parks were created, totaling 20 acres.

Opposition from Cortlandt
The Peekskill officials elected on November 7, 1939, never took office. From the outset, the Republican town board of Cortlandt was antagonistic to the idea of Peekskill becoming a city. The town board sued to invalidate the election. After the charter and the election were upheld in the state supreme court and the appellate division, the town stubbornly took the case to the court of appeals. That court overturned both the charter and the 1939 election on the technicality that proper legal notice had not been given before the 1938 vote that approved the charter.

Undaunted, Chester Smith announced that he would make an end run by having the State Legislature confirm the charter. Myle J. Holley, Peekskill's village president since 1937, openly opposed the charter. Smith called for him to step down--which he did on January 13, 1940. For eight days Peekskill was without a president or mayor. D. Wiley Thomas, another member of the Peekskill board of trustees, was named President on January 21, 1940.

In the meantime, the bill that would have validated Peekskill's charter languished in the Legislature, awaiting a special message from Governor Lehman requesting passage. Taking the bull by the horns, Chester Smith telephoned the governor in Albany and asked him to meet with a delegation from Peekskill. The governor agreed.

At their meeting on February 27, 1940, in the governor's office, Chester Smith pointed out that Cortlandt was standing in the way of Peekskill becoming a city. He asked Lehman to send a message to the Legislature requesting passage of the legislation that would make this a reality. Ever the smooth politician, the governor demurred. "Go back and petition the Westchester board of supervisors again," Lehman told them.

Speaking for the group of four from Peekskill, Smith pointedly asked, "And if they deny the petition again, will you stand with us and ask the Legislature to pass the validating act?" The governor, a Democrat, made no reply, but Smith took his subtle smile as evidence of his agreement.

Again the Westchester board of supervisors turned down the Non-Partisan Citizens Committee's petition. Lehman sent his message to the Legislature, and the Legislature acted. Governor Lehman's signature on the bill marked the end of the city's long and painful birthing process. Cortlandt had lost the costly litigious battle.

Peekskill a City at Last
One hurdle remained: another election--this time on April 9, 1940. Again voters spoke loud and clear. James Mackay and the Democratic slate were again elected, some by margins of two to one. After a century and a quarter of existence as a village, the board of trustees met for the last time in an emotional session on July 29, 1940. Former trustee Harry B. Foshay led board members and audience in singing "Auld Lang Syne.” With a population of more than seventeen thousand, Peekskill officially became a city that evening, with James Mackay as mayor.

The honeymoon of Chester Smith and the new Mackay administration, however, was short-lived. As in many marriages, the split came over money. During the campaign, Mackay and his Common Council candidates had promised economies in government. Once in office, however, they surprised Smith and other supporters by proposing a 1941 Peekskill budget that called for spending a whopping $766,777.06.

Moreover, they proposed hefty raises for city officials: a 43% jump in salary for the city judge (from $2,800 to $4,000), a 33% boost for the corporation counsel (from $3,000 to $4,000), and a 20% increase for the city clerk (from $2,500 to $3,000). The administration also proposed to create the post of deputy comptroller with a salary of $3,600 to aid newly elected comptroller Albert E. Cruger.

Democratic council members made another tactical mistake; this one fatal. Chester Smith tended to monopolize and even dominate council meetings. Council members began to ignore him and disregard his suggestions and requests. Smith's Non-Partisan Citizens Committee immediately declared its opposition to the new administration's proposed budget, bought newspaper advertising and mounted a direct-mail campaign that reached all 2,671 eligible voters.

The council countered with a series of high-handed tactics. Instead of scheduling the budget vote at the traditional location, the Peekskill High School gymnasium, they stirred up a hornet's nest by choosing the inappropriate and much smaller three-year-old Municipal Building.

To further discourage voter turnout, the council set the time of the voting for the brief 90-minute period between 7:30 and 9 p.m., Tuesday, December 3, 1940. Only two voting machines were installed. The new administration was obviously making it difficult for voters to show their feelings about the budget.

The strategy backfired. Despite these roadblocks, 622 taxpayers turned out on a cold winter night. A line three-deep snaked its way out of the Municipal Building's rotunda and down the curved staircase onto Main Street. Many waited for hours to vote; some gave up and returned home. To accommodate the waiting crowd, voting continued until after midnight. In the final tally, an overwhelming 80% said no. The actual numbers were 499 against the budget and only 123 for it.

"Last night's election was a definite repudiation of the present city administration," opined a Peekskill Evening Star editorial the next day. The paper followed this with another strong editorial pointing out that selfish political maneuvering must stop.

Fighting City Hall
Immediately after the vote, Chester Smith called upon Mayor James Mackay and council member Horton, who had both defended the budget, to resign. Mackay was no newcomer to politics--he had been Peekskill's president in the mid-1930s when it was still a village. An executive with the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Mackay decided the game wasn't worth the candle and stepped aside. In January of 1941, the weekly Highland Democrat hailed Chester Smith as its "Man of the Year." Editor George E. Briggs praised him as both a "king maker" and a "king toppler."

The Common Council named a council member, 65-year-old banker William T. Horton, to serve out the remainder of Mackay's term. Horton was the retired manager of the Fifth Avenue branch of the Corn Exchange Bank in New York City. He had chaired the committee that framed Peekskill's city charter, had served on the Peekskill Board of Education and would later become Peekskill's city historian in 1946.

The resounding defeat of the 1941 budget had an instant salutary effect. A chastened Common Council suddenly found $19,010.90 that could be lobbed from the budget, reducing it to $747,766.16. Chester Smith and the Non-Partisan Citizens Committee quickly gave their blessing to the new budget. A second budget vote was scheduled for Monday, December 30, 1940.

This time the high school gymnasium would be the polling place, and would remain open an ample eleven hours--from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Surprisingly, exactly the same number of voters--622--turned out. Equally surprising, the split was again 499 to 123--only this time the majority approved the budget. The taxpayers had made their point.

Budgets, of course, are an annual chore. In 1941, a 1942 budget totaling $705,280 was proposed by the Democrats. Again an unhappy Smith went into action, mounting an anti-budget campaign that called for a reduction of $65,772.80, cutting expenditures to $639,507.20. (Chester Smith did not believe in rounding numbers.) Non-Partisan Citizens Committee advertising included a sample ballot pointedly showing voters which lever to pull down to vote against the proposed budget. The council stubbornly refused to reduce the budget.

The Voters Speak
But more than the budget was at stake. Each party also had a slate of candidates running for mayor, council members and other city offices. On Tuesday, November 4, 1,357 Peekskill residents went to the polls. A convincing 71% rejected the budget. Voters also voiced their displeasure with the Democrats. The entire Republican slate was swept into office, including 53-year-old Ralph F. Hopkins, a well-known local architect, as mayor, and six Republican council members. In addition to many local residences, Mayor-elect Hopkins had designed the village's Colonial Revival-style Municipal Building in 1936, and such landmarks as the Masonic Temple, gutted by a disastrous fire on January 20, 2001, and the Guardian Annex. In 1950, he would design Genung's department store, which later became the Howland department store and now houses offices.

Before a new 1942 budget was put to a vote, Chester Smith reiterated his demand that $65,772.80 be cut. Knowing that the new administration would have to live within any budget approved by taxpayers, the lame-duck Common Council outdid themselves. They cut items totaling $77,838--18% more than Smith had demanded.

Smith and his committee gave the reduced budget of $627,442 their blessing. Voting was set for Tuesday, December 23, 1941. Only 385 voters showed up at the polls, but 73% of them approved the budget. He was also instrumental in securing the 13-room Victorian house at 124 Union Avenue for the Field Library. That building, the former Dwight Stiles Herrick residence, is now the Peekskill Museum.

Completed in 1878, the house was designed by William Rutherford Mead, acting independently of his partners in the firm of McKim, Mead and Bigelow. (The firm of McKim, Mead and White came into existence a year later, when William B. Bigelow resigned and flamboyant Stanford White joined them.) Herrick, a prominent Peekskill attorney, had been a classmate of Mead's at Amherst College. An early example of the Queen Anne style in the United States, it is different from most other Queen Anne buildings in that no curved forms are used--neither in the windows, projecting bays or substantial octagonal tower at the rear corner. A veranda running along the south side of the building and accessible from the floor-length, ground-floor windows was later removed.

By 1944, the house had fallen into disrepair, and taxes owed by the owner, Mrs. Ida M. Adams, were in arrears. When Peekskill began an action because of nonpayment of taxes, Chester Smith raised the money to pay them by selling a portion of the property. He also raised $10,000 to renovate it and an additional $13,500 as an endowment fund. After extensive repairs, the house was opened to the public on May 17, 1946.

Mayor Ralph F. Hopkins would serve three two-year terms. The Hopkins administration eventually alienated Chester Smith. One reason for the rift was the bitter dispute that arose over the Friendly Town Association's parks. In the 1947 election campaign, Chester Smith and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee retaliated by backing the Democrats. Peekskill voters roundly rejected the Republicans in November. The Democrats, under Mayor John N. Schneider, were returned to power.

Golden Years
Chester Smith had always been a lover of books. A prolific author in his own right, Chester Smith created dozens of pamphlets and brochures on a variety of subjects ranging from narrow local issues to the question of Prohibition. He began his writing career with a novel published in 1913. The American Comedy, about Putnam County’s politically minded families, is now a collector's item. Many of his books were about Peekskill and its history, including the self-laudatory Peekskill, A Friendly Town, Its Historic Sites and Shrines: A Pictorial History of the City from 1564 to 1952 and Who’s Who in Peekskill, published in 1955.

To everyone's surprise, in the mid-1950s, Chester Smith decided to become a lawyer. At the age of 74, he graduated from the New York Law School on June 18, 1959, with the degree of Bachelor of Laws. Following graduation, he was injured in an automobile accident, suffered a heart attack and twice failed to pass the bar examination.

Failing Health
A lifelong bachelor, in his later years, Chester Smith lived alone after the death of his mother and later his sister, Edith M. Smith, in 1950. On July 24, 1968, he fell in the basement of his home at 730 Hudson Avenue, after suffering what may have been a mild heart attack. Four years later, he died in the morning of September 29, 1972, at the Westledge Extended Care Facility on East Main Street in Peekskill, less than two months short of his 88th birthday. His obituary made the front page of that day’s edition of the Peekskill Evening Star. It revealed that there were no immediate survivors, and burial would be in Hillside Cemetery in Peekskill.

Peekskill owes much to him. Without his untiring efforts, it would not have come into existence as a city when it did. He left his mark on Peekskill in the form of numerous plaques and memorials to its famous citizens that dot the city. Future biographers will have an easier task recording his life. Chester Smith's voluminous papers were deposited with the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Library. If anyone could take satisfaction from a life spent in service to a community, it was Chester Allen Smith.

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