Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Chester A. Smith, 1: Fighting to Make Peekskill a City


When the Southern states decided to leave the Union in 1861, Gen. Winfield Scott offered this mollifying advice to the North: "Say to the seceding states, ‘Wayward sisters, depart in peace.’"
Similar concessionary words were not heard in the town of Cortlandt or in Westchester County 75 years ago when Peekskill, an incorporated village since 1816, wanted to become a city. The town and the county both opposed the move, and fought it fiercely every inch of the way.
Peekskill's struggle to get out from under Cortlandt's thumb was as bitter as any quarrel between Balkan factions. In the process, Peekskill voters surprised political pundits by crossing party lines and switching loyalties to accomplish the change.

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 when villages incorporated. It was later dropped and replaced by the title of "Mayor."]
 Little was done about promoting the idea of independence, for four decades. In 1936, village president James Mackay, a Democrat, 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, 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 in the election on November 7.
Among the winners was 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.

Meet 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 and worked 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.
Chester Smith was a member of Peekskill's United Methodist Church and, beginning in 1916, represented the church at conferences 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 Amendment 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, which was 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 from which seven parks, totaling 20 acres, were created.

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 of Cortlandt 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 approving 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 Travis, Jr., another member of the Peekskill board of trustees, was named President on January 21, 1940.

Victory at Last
In the meantime, the bill that would have validated Peekskill's charter languished in the Legislature, awaiting a special message from Governor Lehman requesting its 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 in Albany, 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. The town of Cortlandt had lost the costly litigious battle.
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 impressive margins of two to one. Peekskill officially became a city on April 12, 1940.

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