Adventures in Civics: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 31

The electric power companies at Niagara Falls were beginning to draw so much water from above the great Horseshoe Falls as to bring into speculation the question of how soon America’s greatest scenic asset would be a coal-pile with a thin trickle of water crawling down its vast cliffs. Already companies had been given legal permission to utilize one-quarter of the whole flow, and additional companies were asking for further grants. Permission for forty per cent of the whole volume of water had been granted. J. Horace McFarland, as President of the American Civic Association, called Bok’s attention to the matter, and urged him to agitate it through his magazine so that restrictive legislation might be secured.

Bok went to Washington, conferred with President Roosevelt, and found him cognizant of the matter in all its aspects.

“I can do nothing,” said the President, “unless there is an awakened public sentiment that compels action. Give me that, and I’ll either put the subject in my next message to Congress or send a special message. I’m from Missouri on this point,” continued the President. “Show me that the American people want their Falls preserved, and I’ll do the rest. But I’ve got to be shown.” Bok assured the President he could demonstrate this to him.

The next number of his magazine presented a graphic picture of the Horseshoe Falls as they were and the same Falls as they would be if more water was allowed to be taken for power: a barren coal-pile with a tiny rivulet of water trickling down its sides. The editorial asked whether the American women were going to allow this? If not, each, if an American, should write to the President, and, if a Canadian, to Earl Grey, then Governor-General of Canada. Very soon after the magazine had reached its subscribers’ hands, the letters began to reach the White House; not by dozens, as the President’s secretary wrote to Bok, but by the hundreds and then by the thousands. “Is there any way to turn this spigot off?” telegraphed the President’s secretary. “We are really being inundated.”

Bok went to Washington and was shown the huge pile of letters.

“All right,” said the President. “That’s all I want. You’ve proved it to me that there is a public sentiment.”

The clerks at Rideau Hall, at Ottawa, did not know what had happened one morning when the mail quadrupled in size and thousands of protests came to Earl Grey. He wired the President, the President exchanged views with the governor-general, and the great international campaign to save Niagara Falls had begun. The American Civic Association and scores of other civic and patriotic bodies had joined in the clamor.

The attorney-general and the secretary of state were instructed by the President to look into the legal and diplomatic aspects of the question, and in his next message to Congress President Roosevelt uttered a clarion call to that body to restrict the power-grabbing companies.

The Ladies’ Home Journal urged its readers to write to their congressmen and they did by the thousands. Every congressman and senator was overwhelmed. As one senator said: “I have never seen such an avalanche. But thanks to The Ladies’ Home Journal, I have received these hundreds of letters from my constituents; they have told me what they want done, and they are mostly from those of my people whose wishes I am bound to respect.”

The power companies, of course, promptly sent their attorneys and lobbyists to Washington; but the public sentiment aroused was too strong to be disregarded, and on June 29, 1906, the President signed the Burton Bill restricting the use of the water of Niagara Falls.

The matter was then referred to the secretary of war, William Howard Taft, to grant the use of such volume of water as would preserve the beauty of the Falls. McFarland and Bok wanted to be sure that Secretary Taft felt the support of public opinion, for his policy was to be conservative, and tremendous pressure was being brought upon him from every side to permit a more liberal use of water. Bok turned to his readers and asked them to write to Secretary Taft and assure him of the support of the American women in his attitude of conservatism.

The flood of letters that descended upon the secretary almost taxed even his genial nature; and when Mr. McFarland, as the editorial representative of The Ladies’ Home Journal, arose to speak at the public hearing in Washington, the secretary said: “I can assure you that you don’t have to say very much. Your case has already been pleaded for you by, I should say at the most conservative estimate, at least one hundred thousand women. Why, I have had letters from even my wife and my mother.”

Secretary Taft adhered to his conservative policy, Sir Wilfred Laurier, premier of Canada, met the overtures of Secretary of State Root, a new international document was drawn up, and Niagara Falls had been saved to the American people.

In 1905 and in previous years the casualties resulting from fireworks on the Fourth of July averaged from five to six thousand each year. The humorous weekly Life and The Chicago Tribune had been for some time agitating a restricted use of fireworks on the national fete day, but nevertheless the list of casualties kept creeping to higher figures. Bok decided to help by arousing the parents of America, in whose hands, after all, lay the remedy. He began a series of articles in the magazine, showing what had happened over a period of years, the criminality of allowing so many young lives to be snuffed out, and suggested how parents could help by prohibiting the deadly firecrackers and cannon, and how organizations could assist by influencing the passing of city ordinances. Each recurring January, The Journal returned to the subject, looking forward to the coming Fourth. It was a deep-rooted custom to eradicate, and powerful influences, in the form of thousands of small storekeepers, were at work upon local officials to pay no heed to the agitation. Gradually public opinion changed. The newspapers joined in the cry; women’s organizations insisted upon action from local municipal bodies.

Finally, the civic spirit in Cleveland, Ohio, forced the passage of a city ordinance prohibiting the sale or use of fireworks on the Fourth. The following year when Cleveland reported no casualties as compared to an ugly list for the previous. Fourth, a distinct impression was made upon other cities. Gradually, other municipalities took action, and year by year the list of Fourth of July casualties grew perceptibly shorter. New York City was now induced to join the list of prohibitive cities, by a personal appeal made to its mayor by Bok, and on the succeeding Fourth of July the city authorities, on behalf of the people of New York City, conferred a gold medal upon Edward Bok for his services in connection with the birth of the new Fourth in that city.

There still remains much to be done in cities as yet unawakened; but a comparison of the list of casualties of 1920 with that of 1905 proves the growth in enlightened public sentiment in fifteen years to have been steadily increasing. It is an instance not of Bok taking the initiative—that had already been taken—but of throwing the whole force of the magazine with those working in the field to help. It is the American woman who is primarily responsible for the safe and sane Fourth, so far as it already exists in this country to-day, and it is the American woman who can make it universal.

Mrs. Pennypacker, as president of The Federation of Women’s Clubs, now brought to Bok’s attention the conditions under which the average rural school-teacher lived; the suffering often entailed on her in having to walk miles to the schoolhouse in wintry weather; the discomfort she had to put up with in the farm-houses where she was compelled to live, with the natural result, under those conditions, that it was almost impossible to secure the services of capable teachers, or to have good teaching even where efficient teachers were obtained.

Mrs. Pennypacker suggested that Bok undertake the creation of a public sentiment for a residence for the teacher in connection with the schoolhouse. The parson was given a parsonage; why not the teacher a “teacherage”? The Journal co-operated with Mrs. Pennypacker and she began the agitation of the subject in the magazine. She also spoke on the subject wherever she went, and induced women’s clubs all over the country to join the magazine in its advocacy of the “teacherage.”

By personal effort, several “teacherages” were established in connection with new schoolhouses; photographs of these were published and sent personally to school-boards all over the country; the members of women’s clubs saw to it that the articles were brought to the attention of members of their local school-boards; and the now-generally accepted idea that a “teacherage” must accompany a new schoolhouse was well on its way to national recognition.

It only remains now for communities to install a visiting nurse in each of these “teacherages” so that the teacher need not live in solitary isolation, and that the health of the children at school can be looked after at first hand. Then the nurse shall be at the call of every small American community—particularly to be available in cases of childbirth, since in these thinly settled districts it is too often impossible to obtain the services of a physician, with the result of a high percentage of fatalities to mothers that should not be tolerated by a wealthy and progressive people. No American mother, at childbirth, should be denied the assistance of professional skill, no matter how far she may live from a physician. And here is where a visiting nurse in every community can become an institution of inestimable value.

Just about this time a group of Philadelphia physicians, headed by Doctor Samuel McClintock Hamill, which had formed itself into a hygienic committee for babies, waited upon Bok to ask him to join them in the creation of a permanent organization devoted to the welfare of babies and children. Bok found that he was dealing with a company of representative physicians, and helped to organize “The Child Federation,” an organization “to do good on a business basis.”

It was to go to the heart of the problem of the baby in the congested districts of Philadelphia, and do a piece of intensive work in the ward having the highest infant mortality, establishing the first health centre in the United States actively managed by competent physicians and nurses. This centre was to demonstrate to the city authorities that the fearful mortality among babies, particularly in summer, could be reduced.

Meanwhile, there was created a “Baby Saving Show,” a set of graphic pictures conveying to the eye methods of sanitation and other too often disregarded essentials of the wise care and feeding of babies; and this travelled, like a theatrical attraction, to different parts of the city. “Little Mothers’ Leagues” were organized to teach the little girl of ten or twelve, so often left in charge of a family of children when the mother is at work during the day, and demonstrations were given in various parts of the city.

The Child Federation now undertook one activity after the other. Under its auspices, the first municipal Christmas tree ever erected in Philadelphia was shown in the historic Independence Square, and with two bands of music giving concerts every day from Christmas to New Year’s Day, attracted over two hundred thousand persons. A pavilion was erected in City Hall Square, the most central spot in the city, and the “Baby Saving Show” was permanently placed there and visited by over one hundred thousand visitors from every part of the country on their way to and from the Pennsylvania Station at Broad Street.

A searching investigation of the Day Nurseries of Philadelphia—probably one of the most admirable pieces of research work ever made in a city—changed the methods in vogue and became a standard guide for similar institutions throughout the country. So successful were the Little Mothers’ Leagues that they were introduced into the public schools of Philadelphia, and are to-day a regular part of the curriculum. The Health Centre, its success being proved, was taken over by the city Board of Health, and three others were established.

To-day The Child Federation is recognized as one of the most practically conducted child welfare agencies in Philadelphia, and its methods have been followed by similar organizations all over the country. It is now rapidly becoming the central medium through which the other agencies in Philadelphia are working, thus avoiding the duplication of infant welfare work in the city. Broadening its scope, it is not unlikely to become one of the greatest indirect influences in the welfare work of Philadelphia and the vicinity, through which other organizations will be able to work.

Bok’s interest and knowledge in civic matters had now peculiarly prepared him for a personal adventure into community work. Merion, where he lived, was one of the most beautiful of the many suburbs that surround the Quaker City; but, like hundreds of similar communities, there had been developed in it no civic interest. Some of the most successful business men of Philadelphia lived in Merion; they had beautiful estates, which they maintained without regard to expense, but also without regard to the community as a whole. They were busy men; they came home tired after a day in the city; they considered themselves good citizens if they kept their own places sightly, but the idea of devoting their evenings to the problems of their community had never occurred to them before the evening when two of Bok’s neighbors called to ask his help in forming a civic association.

A canvass of the sentiment of the neighborhood revealed the unanimous opinion that the experiment, if attempted, would be a failure,—an attitude not by any means confined to the residents of Merion! Bok decided to test it out; he called together twenty of his neighbors, put the suggestion before them and asked for two thousand dollars as a start, so that a paid secretary might be engaged, since the men themselves were too busy to attend to the details of the work. The amount was immediately subscribed, and in 1913 The Merion Civic Association applied for a charter and began its existence.

The leading men in the community were elected as a Board of Directors, and a salaried secretary was engaged to carry out the directions of the Board. The association adopted the motto: “To be nation right, and State right, we must first be community right.” Three objectives were selected with which to attract community interest and membership: safety to life, in the form of proper police protection; safety to property, in the form of adequate hydrant and fire-engine service; and safety to health, in careful supervision of the water and milk used in the community.

“The three S’s,” as they were called, brought an immediate response. They were practical in their appeal, and members began to come in. The police force was increased from one officer at night and none in the day, to three at night and two during the day, and to this the Association added two special night officers of its own. Private detectives were intermittently brought in to “check up” and see that the service was vigilant. A fire hydrant was placed within seven hundred feet of every house, with the insurance rates reduced from twelve and one-half to thirty per cent; the services of three fire-engine companies was arranged for. Fire-gongs were introduced into the community to guard against danger from interruption of telephone service. The water supply was chemically analyzed each month and the milk supply carefully scrutinized. One hundred and fifty new electric-light posts specially designed, and pronounced by experts as the most beautiful and practical road lamps ever introduced into any community, were erected, making Merion the best-lighted community in its vicinity.

At every corner was erected an artistically designed cast-iron road sign; instead of the unsightly wooden ones, cast-iron automobile warnings were placed at every dangerous spot; community bulletin-boards, preventing the display of notices on trees and poles, were placed at the railroad station; litter-cans were distributed over the entire community; a new railroad station and post-office were secured; the station grounds were laid out as a garden by a landscape architect; new roads of permanent construction, from curb to curb, were laid down; uniform tree-planting along the roads was introduced; bird-houses were made and sold, so as to attract bird-life to the community; toll-gates were abolished along the two main arteries of travel; the removal of all telegraph and telephone poles was begun; an efficient Boy Scout troop was organized, and an American Legion post; the automobile speed limit was reduced from twenty-four to fifteen miles as a protection to children; roads were regularly swept, cleaned, and oiled, and uniform sidewalks advocated and secured.

Within seven years so efficiently had the Association functioned that its work attracted attention far beyond its own confines and that of Philadelphia, and caused Theodore Roosevelt voluntarily to select it as a subject for a special magazine article in which he declared it to “stand as a model in civic matters.” To-day it may be conservatively said of The Merion Civic Association that it is pointed out as one of the most successful suburban civic efforts in the country; as Doctor Lyman Abbott said in The Outlook, it has made “Merion a model suburb, which may standardize ideal suburban life, certainly for Philadelphia, possibly for the United States.”

When the armistice was signed in November, 1918, the Association immediately canvassed the neighborhood to erect a suitable Tribute House, as a memorial to the eighty-three Merion boys who had gone into the Great War: a public building which would comprise a community centre, with an American Legion Post room, a Boy Scout house, an auditorium, and a meeting-place for the civic activities of Merion. A subscription was raised, and plans were already drawn for the Tribute House, when Mr. Eldridge R. Johnson, president of the Victor Talking Machine Company, one of the strong supporters of The Merion Civic Association, presented his entire estate of twelve acres, the finest in Merion, to the community, and agreed to build a Tribute House at his own expense. The grounds represented a gift of two hundred thousand dollars, and the building a gift of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This building, now about to be erected, will be one of the most beautiful and complete community centres in the United States.

Perhaps no other suburban civic effort proves the efficiency of community co-operation so well as does the seven years’ work of The Merion Civic Association. It is a practical demonstration of what a community can do for itself by concerted action. It preached, from the very start, the gospel of united service; it translated into actual practice the doctrine of being one’s brother’s keeper, and it taught the invaluable habit of collective action. The Association has no legal powers; it rules solely by persuasion; it accomplishes by the power of combination; by a spirit of the community for the community.

When The Merion Civic Association was conceived, the spirit of local pride was seemingly not present in the community. As a matter of fact, it was there as it is in practically every neighborhood; it was simply dormant; it had to be awakened, and its value brought vividly to the community consciousness.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 30

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