Monday, January 22, 2018

The Hon. H. L. Byers, suffrage & Strong Cemetery

Women's Marches on Saturday reminded me among others of Lucas County's Harvey L. Byers, lawmaker and entrepreneur, who stood tall among the allies --- outspoken backers of suffrage for Iowa women --- from the time he entered the state Legislature as representative in 1888 until he left in 1900 after completing a 4-year Senate term. Lucas County's suffragists always could count on his support --- and his vote --- in their frustrating campaigns, a fact they always were careful to note.

If you're ever tempted to think that women have no reason to be annoyed still, remember that in Iowa unrestricted access to the ballot box did not come until 1920, after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified. This was not for lack of trying, nor was it entirely due to the fact  that Iowa men thought women shouldn't be allowed to vote.

One major factor was the fact that Iowa suffragists almost universally were identified with prohibition. So each time a women's suffrage vote approached, liquor interests launched a major counteroffensive. Harvey was a teetotaler and Lucas County was "dry," so here at least male voters generally ratified suffrage initiatives, including a 1916 state constitutional amendment that the liquor lobby managed to defeat statewide.

Harvey has by now been largely forgotten, I'm afraid. His mortal remains are tucked away near those of his parents, Addison R. and Charlotte Byers, in Strong Cemetery, at the end of a dead-end lane amid pastures and fields in the northwest corner of Pleasant Township. This cemetery photos here  were taken in the springtime --- during April of 2015.

Harvey never married, so although he had nieces and nephews galore, there was no one left behind when he died too young to make sure his story was told.


Harvey was born on his parents' farm near Belinda on March 10, 1861, grew up there and received as much education as possible in the nearby rural school. He was not, however, called to farm and so enrolled at the Ackworth Academy, a new institution established in 1868 by the South River Friends Meeting (now also called Ackworth) in Warren County. By the time Harvey arrived, the academy was operating out of a new two-story brick building built in 1870.

Harvey apparently completed a normal training program there, then went on to graduate from Davenport Business College, too.

Education complete, he returned to Lucas County to teach school and, during 1884, was named principal of the schools in Lucas, then a coal mining boom town. Lucas would remain his home base for most of the remainder of his life.

Three years later, Harvey developed political aspirations, ran as a Republican for state representative, and won. He served in the House during the 22nd General Assembly (1888-1890), then won re-election to a second term (1890-1892) before taking a break to attend to his expanding mercantile interests in Lucas. When sworn in for the first time --- on Jan. 9, 1888 --- Harvey at age 26 was the youngest man in both House and Senate.

Harvey seems to have been something of a dandy, was a talented vocalist and a skillful dancer, too. All of this caught the attention of The Chariton Democrat, mouthpiece for Lucas County Democrats and owned by Smith H. Mallory, Chariton's richest man and leading Democrat. The Democrat dismissed Harvey editorially in the fall of 1887 as "an accomplished and elegant young music teacher and dancing master ... whose name has not yet been heard beyond the classic walls of where he taught ..." who had no qualifications and no knowledge of his county's wants and needs.

Criticism in a similar vein continued in The Democrat for the next four years.

After taking 1892-1895 off to attend to business, Harvey declared his candidacy for the Iowa Senate during 1895. By this time, Mr. Mallory had for the most part retired from building railroads in the West and had decided that Iowans again needed his expertise in the Senate, where he had served some 15 years earlier. Harvey must have derived some satisfaction from defeating Mallory handily that fall and also dispatching the third-party, "Peoples Party," candidate --- Chariton Mayor George W. Alexander.

During 1899, however, Harvey --- who had dabbled previously in coal mining --- purchased the Big Hill Coal Co. mine, located at the southwest corner of Lucas and retired from politics. He continued to operate the mine off and on through 1907 with mixed success --- and a few financial misadventures --- as well as to engage in other mercantile pursuits and by 1910 generally was considered at age 50 to be a successful businessman with a bright future.

Some time after that, however, things began to go badly askew. By the summer of 1915, his brother, Nathan Byers, had been forced to close out Harvey's operations in Lucas and bring him home to the family farm at Belinda to be taken care of. On Sept. 2, 1915, The Chariton Leader reported, "H.L. Byers, who formerly represented this county in the legislature and later was elected to the state senate in this district, was sent to the State Hospital at Clarinda last Friday. His mental condition had been abnormal for several months ...."

Harvey died at Clarinda on Nov. 25 having lost, in the end, his ability even to speak. His remains were returned to Lucas County, funeral services were held at Belinda Christian Church which he had joined as a young man and burial followed in Strong Cemetery.

Henry Gittinger, then editor and publisher of The Chariton Leader --- the newer name for the old Democrat --- paid him this tribute in his editorial column of Thursday, Dec. 2:

"It is with deep regret we record the death of Hon. H.L. Byers, which occurred on Thursday morning, November 25th. This removes from activity one who for many years has been identified with the intellectual and commercial affairs of Lucas county. Soon after reaching his majority he was at the head of the Lucas schools, when he concluded to go before the people, asking for the Republican nomination for representative in the legislature. He put in full time in the school room, going out of evenings and Saturdays to talk matters up with the voters and as a result won the nomination at the primaries. He was elected to the 22d and 23d general assemblies and later was elected to the state senate serving four years. After his term had expired he engaged in the mercantile business at Lucas and spent several years as principal in the operation of the  Big Hill mine. He was a man of unusual promoting ability, had a fine personality and pleasing address and won friends wherever his duties led him. For some time prior to his death disease had made inroads into his strong physique and gradually undermined his vitality until death resulted. Those who knew him will remember him as he was in the days of his energy and vigor and are saddened by the edict which removed him from activities in the very prime of life."

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