Civic Club of Grand Rapids

Report in 1902, of Efforts

To Provide Better Government

That the period in this country around the turn of the century was somewhat unsophisticated and uncomplex, seems to be a rather general impression. Serious historians, or casual reports of the time, regard the populace as having been somewhat naïve; and hard-working. God-fearing society in which everyone was friendly and neighborly.

In a sense, perhaps, this was correct. Certainly the people of three score years ago, due to the lack of transportation facilities or communication methods, were comparatively isolated and more or less bound together. Such tensions as there were would very likely be more local than national or international. But there were problems.

Despite this atmosphere of so-called neighborliness and relative simplicity, an era where considerable emphasis was laid on morals, church-going, family prayers and other manifestations of virtue, there were few if any real business ethics, less tolerance, less compromise, and less honesty in government.

It was a period of "caveate emptor" --let the buyer beware, less regard for the trusting. In many respects it was "dog-eat-dog, and the devil take the hindermost." Barnum’s evaluation of the public was accepted as a fact: "There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him."

Competitors were inherent enemies. Neither trusted the other. Not only did they not band together in associations for mutual aid and development, they sometimes didn’t speak to each other.

In government it was much the same. People still remembered the extraordinary scandals of "Boss" Tweed and his cohorts in New York, and other examples of graft, especially in state, county and city government.

In Grand Rapids, as elsewhere, at the turn of the century, early crusaders began to advocate cleaner administrations. They wanted the service their tax dollar paid for, and they wanted more service. Above all they wanted more honesty, more ethics, more morality-personal and group.

And so, about this time, the Civic Club of Grand Rapids was formed for the purpose of checking up on its local government and being a pain in the neck generally. At least the latter phrase is what its targets considered it to be.

On March 3, 1902. Executive Committee of the Civic Club issued its first annual report-a little 12-page booklet slightly larger than the average credit card.

A copy of this report belongs to Penclubber John M. Brower, who doesn’t say how he came by it, but has been patriotic enough to lend it to the Peninsular Club Magazine.

In view of the charges, and counter-charges, the back biting and bitterness that has come from or toward City Hall affairs during the past half dozen years-or always, from time to time, for that matter-this report should make interesting reading, and could make one proud of the spirit that dominated the earlier residents of this city, for "as the twig is bent. . ."

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The content of the booklet, without quotes, follows:

Report of the Executive Committee

Bad management of the affairs of cities is the rule in this country - good government the exception.

Tax payers and all citizens who want city interests looked after in an orderly, economical and business like way are dissatisfied and are seeking after methods which will insure better results.

In many American cities this has given rise to non-partisan Civic Clubs similar in purpose to the Civic Club of Grand Rapids.

Public officials who care more for their own interests than for the interests of the public are naturally hostile to these clubs - call them bad names and say they had better mind their own business - while officers who have an honest purpose of serving the public, and not themselves, are friendly to these clubs, gladly furnish information to them and regard them as the best means yet discovered for improving the government of our cities.

The principle that direct organized effort will accomplish more than individual fault finding, is the basis upon which such clubs are founded. They usually employ a Secretary who gives his entire time to the gathering of statistics, and the investigation of abuses and illegal practices of all kinds.

Are the property owners being unjustly assessed for the grading and paving of a street? These clubs make it their business to expose and correct the fraud or error. Is a public officer charging illegal fees ? A Civic Club, rightly managed, discovers and correct the abuse. Sometimes under the fee system an officer, owing to the growth of the city and increase of business, gets four or five times as much for his services as they are fairly worth. Private individuals are too busy with their own taxpayer has to pay higher taxes than if such officers were paid a reasonable salary.

Here comes in the Civic Club with facts and figures carefully collected: the public is made aware of the situation and the proper remedy is applied.

* * * * *

A child is arrested for coasting on some forbidden street, or for some other petty offense, is herded with hardened criminals, and while waiting for his or her own case to be called, receives a lesson in wickedness and immorality never dreamed of before.

Individuals say: "This is all wrong," but do nothing. The Civic Club see that the practice is stopped.

A public officer accepts a bribe. He sells out the very friend whose votes elected him and puts the proceeds into his own pocket. The contractor who gives the bribe gets back his money ten and perhaps fifty times over at the expense of the people.

It is the business of the well regulated Civic Club to see that a Grand Jury is called.

A book company tries to get a worthless school book introduced by offering bribes to members of the School Board.

A Civic Club should see that the offending company is punished and that all dealing with it should cease.

* * * * *

All these Clubs in the United States meet annually in a National Convention to compare notes, to report progress, and to give to all whatever ideas of value any one of them may have acquired. This means progress along sure lines and eventual success.

The divorce of city affairs from National politics is on of the most valuable things attempted by these clubs. A mayor is to be elected. A head is to be chosen for the city government. How important that he should be the right kind of a man and make the right kind of appointments. If the fountain head is not pure the stream will be polluted. What difference whether he be a Democrat or a Republican ? Business ability and sterling integrity are needed, not politics.

* * * * *

Denis Mulvihill, a stoker in the Wheeler & Wilson factory, was recently elected Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was born in Ireland fifty-eight years ago. By economy and prudence he had obtained a modest competence. He is a Democrat, but not a politician. As an alderman he voted against his party friends when he thought it right to do so. He gained the reputation of being the watch-dog of the city treasury, "Rugged honesty" is the tile this uneducated Irishman acquired in the common council and was the rallying cry which brought good citizens of all parties to his standard and gave Bridgeport the best mayor and the best city government in its history.

During the campaign an opposition paper said Mulvihill was "only a stoker". His friends were indignant and replied. "Suppose he is a stoker, he is the ‘rugged honesty’ candidate, and is good enough for us".

When he was told that he was elected by a majority of over 3,000, he quietly replied, "It was great victory." His inaugural address was a model of brevity - "I thank you for the honor. I hope that you will be as glad two years hence as you are now."

The old Council Chamber was crowed with merchants, working-men and personal admirers, who applauded his speech to the echo. From his excellent record they knew the hope he expressed would be fulfilled.

Describing his methods a recent writer says: "He walks about the town looking into this, asking questions about that, and nothing that is the town’s is beneath his notice. Sewers, gutters, street pavements, the collection of garbage, the bridges and the telephone poles, the fire houses and stables, the police - all the departments - he looks into himself. There are boards and commissioners in charge, but Denis Mulvihill represents the people, not rings or cliques or interests or contractors." His motto is "prudence and economy." he thinks that the policy which raised him from poverty is good enough for the city and the people agree with him. Every Irishman, every laboring man and every honest, law-abiding citizen ought to be proud of Denis Mulvihill.

* * * * *

Business capacity is often found with-out education ; more often with it. What cities need is first-class ability regardless of the mere question of education. But what they need still more is rugged, incorruptible, every day honesty. Indeed, a dishonest official is only the more dangerous if keen, calculating and capable.

On February 18, 1902, the city of Harrisburg, Pa., Vance McCormick, a Democrat, supported by the "League of Municipal Improvements" and by citizens who were broadminded enough to lay aside politics in a city election, was elected mayor by a majority of 2,500. At the same election a Republican was elected Comptroller, a Democrat, Treasurer and a Board of Assessors was elected according to merit from tickets of both parties.

In Pittsburgh the "Municipal League" and independent self-respecting citizens have just won a grand victory over the Republican machine backed by the Governor of Pennsylvania. Under a "ripper" law Governor Stone removed City Recorder Brown, who was an honest official and in a postscript said he was "not bribed to this step, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding." The independent forces inscribed on their banner Governor Stone’s words, "I was not bribed," and won a glorious victory.

The downfall of corruption and machine politics in New York City and the wonderful improvement of the Common Council and government of Chicago are only other example of what the people can do when they go at it intelligently and put their shoulder to the wheel.


* * * * *

Just about one year ago the Civic Club of Grand Rapids was organized by a number of citizens - some rich, some poor - some Democrats and some Republicans, who believed that better municipal conditions were possible; that the good name of our city could be better protected; that by proper care our streets could be kept in better condition, at less expense; that some officials were getting too much pay and doing too little work; that in many quarters there was an unfortunate tendency to look after number one, who gets the salary, and overlook the interests of the people who pay it.

At that time the gigantic schemes of corruption in connection with water supply were practically unknown to its members. The subsequent developments and convictions indicate even greater need of an organization of this character than its members realized.

* * * * *

As the Chicago Convention which nominated Cleveland the first time. Gen. Bragg, of Wisconsin, gave utterance to the famous expression, "We love him for the enemies he has made." The enemies of the Civic Club are the enemies of Grand Rapids. Wrong doers and boodles and their supporters in and out of office hate this Club. Upon the trials which have already taken place every juror has been asked by counsel of defense if he were a member of the Civic Club. Hostility of this kind is the highest praise.

The membership of this Club embraces the widest possible range. It knows no distinction of class, occupation, religion or politics. Its members are simply expected to earnestly want one thing--better government for our city. Every taxpayer, the head of every family with sons and daughters, must want the best city government we can obtain, and should understand the work and objects of the Civic Club by personal investigation (not hearsay) and should become a member, or, if that is impracticable, should give it most hearty support.

It is his champion. It is investigating questions which affect his pocketbook and the safety of his wife and children as they walk the streets. It is fighting his battles against corruption, bribery, inefficiency and extravagance.

* * * * *

The methods of the Civic Club are in the highest degree simple and straight forward. When evil are discovered that remedy is sought which in aggregate wisdom of the Civic Club seems to be the most appropriate and effectual. It is found that nothing more is needed in many cases than to turn on the light of publicity. Darkness and secrecy are the best friends of official wrong doers.

The past year -- the first in the history of the Club -- has been characterized by the accomplishment of reforms of considerable importance is some departments by a large amount of investigation and the collecting of ammunition for future battles -- to be fought for a clean city government, which will fairly represent the business ability and integrity and the moral sense of our people.

Its moral support of the vigorous effort being made to purify the atmosphere of the City Hall is all that has needed or given -- thanks to the honesty and vigor of the county officials who have had these matters in charge. Quietly and unofficially this club called the attention of the authorities to the matter of juvenile offenders, and they soon brought about an important change by which children are kept separate and apart from hardened criminals.

Errors have been discovered in the practice of the county coroners, and also in the law regulating their fees. The former have been corrected and the latter will be subject of future efforts on he Club before the next Legislature. In one instance involving a question of fees this Club resorted to the courts and its position was suitable remedies are now being considered.

Shortly before the last School Board election the Civic Club held a public meeting for the consideration of school matters. The practice of book companies were among the important subjects discussed and their interference with our school elections was vigorously denounced. The results showed the benefit of such discussions. For the first time in many years no trustee were directly elected by the influence or money of any of these companies. What a blessing to Grand Rapids if means can be discovered to elect to the Common Council and Board of Education only such member as will honestly and faithfully represent the people and not some corporation or person seeking to sell something to the city.

* * * * *

Election are soon to be held in Grand Rapids which will have an important bearing upon the future of our enterprising and beautiful city.

Her good name has been smirched. Her citizens are to be taxed heavily for the trial and conviction of one or more of her officials. Her late City Attorney -- a very important factor in the city government -- is a confessed criminal. After indictments had been here and in Chicago, with utter disregard of public interest and a strong public sentiment, a majority of the Common Council, both Democrats and Republicans, kept him in his official position.

Such a city government does not come up to the standard of honest Denis Mulvihill. "Rugged honesty" is not the term best used to describe it. Every citizen of Grand Rapids should hang his head in shame whenever he remembers the riot of corruption at the caucuses for delegates to nominate a Republican Governor less than two years ago. If such practice are tolerated, money instead of the will of the people will become our ruler. It rests with the people to decide. Certainly they have the power to secure good government if they desire it.

Both of the principal parties have machines, as they are called -- cliques of active politicians seeking political advancement by corrupt methods. The candidate put forward by such a clique, when elected, is controlled by the machine in the appointments and official acts, and works for the interest of its members rather than the benefit of the people.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that only those should be elected who are not hampered by such entanglements.

In its earnest desire for a better and more economical government of Grand Rapids, the Civic Club urges all citizens to give fair and impractical consideration to these important truths:

1. In all city elections there should be neither Democrats nor Republicans. City

officials have nothing to do with National or State issues, which distinguish

and divide the people into parties.

2. Honesty and business ability are the requisites in city government the same as

in the management of a furniture factory. City officials should be chosen for

those qualities.


It is not indicated who wrote the above promotion for the Civic Club and the plea for better government in Grand Rapids. At the conclusion, however, appears the following names of the Executive Committee.

Wesley W. Hyde Jas. R. Wylie

C. L. Harvey Ralph H. Spencer

Arthur S. Denison P. B. Wright

F. P. Wilcox Edwin F. Sweet

* * *

For some, especially oldsters, these names may ring a bell.

In Baxter’s History of Grand Rapids, which up to 1890 is practically a researcher’s bible, we learn that W. W. Hyde was the county clerk and served as an ex-officio clerk of the Recorder’s Court, and was as member of the Law Library. However, no mention in Baxter’s is made on Messrs. Denison, Wylie or Wilcox.

Cornelius L. Harvey was clerk of the Police Court in 1884, and sometime later was clerk of the Circuit Court.

Philander Bracken Wright was a doctor. He moved from Corinth where he has been practicing, to Grand Rapids in 1887. He was Vice-president of the Michigan State Electric Society

Ralph A. Spencer was a doctor also, a visiting obstetrician of the United Benevolent Association Home and Hospital , then located on College Avenue. He had practiced in Portland from 1879 to 1889, at which time he came to Grand Rapids.

Edwin L. Sweet was one of the officers of the Grand Rapids Law Library, Vice-president of the Oriole Cabinet Company, makers of "fancy" cabinets, and was a charter member of the Peninsular Club in 1881.

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And thanks again to Jack Brower for his interesting contribution.

Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 23 January 2011