Stephen F. Austin State University

Election Night 1916 (May 2012)

Election Night, 1916
By Deborah Burkett

In the basement of the county courthouse in Rusk, democratic officials and interested parties check returns. Seen in the accompanying photograph standing third from the right is Lettie I. Baker, first woman elected to county-wide office. She was chosen County Treasurer in 1916, two years before she could vote.

Much was happening in our country and the world at large in 1916. World War I was in full swing. Suffragettes were marching for the right to vote. 'The Suffrage Special' left Washington, D.C., on five-week train tour to garner support for the passage of the federal amendment. In Cherokee County one woman actually had thrown her hat into the political ring.

Who was Lettie Baker? Miss Baker of Rusk was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. I. W. Baker. Her father being too ill to work, Lettie studied typing and held a job in the courthouse.

Thumbing through the scrapbook kept during her political campaign I noticed many things. Lettie was an intelligent woman with a poetic streak and a sense of humor. Her pen and ink sketches of prospective voters met while 'electioneering' illustrate her artistic abilities. Humor is evident in a phrase written at the top of an Official Return Sheet which she kept as a souvenir of that night in the basement at the courthouse-'That Tortured Nowise Peaceful Night.'

Newspaper editors around the state described her as 'a plucky good natured little woman who makes everyone perfectly at ease in her presence and is an exceptionally bright young woman.' Indeed she must have been because she beat Joe G. Summers in a tight race.

During a campaign stop Lettie showed political savvy as she addressed the voters, "I have made this race on my merits and on my qualification for the position not on the demerits of my opponents, if any they have. I hope you give me a chance to prove I am in every sense worthy. I certainly appreciate your vote in the primary election on Saturday July 22..."

After the election Lettie was the 'toast' of not only the county but the entire state. The Bachelor Girls' Literary Club of Rusk gave a luncheon for their famous member. At the home of Mrs. J.H. Kerr, Lettie was honored during a four course meal, toasts such as 'To the Lady Office Holder' and 'To the Suffragette' were made'.

Lettie received congratulations from many quarters even Texas Governor James E. Ferguson sent regards. In her scrapbook are many typed letters, handwritten notes and post cards from cities and towns around the state. Best wishes written on letterhead stationary portray a who's who of prominent business and professional men. Bankers offered her loans and politicians asked how she managed her campaign.

Lettie's picture and story were on the front page of the Houston Chronicle.

A relative from Houston writes an endearing letter while lamenting that 'one year ago tonight the awful hurricane was raging here, with another one coming in a few days.' A business man from Palestine wrote, "My wife and daughters want to accompany me to Rusk on my next business trip, may we meet?"

The following exert from the Press-Journal newspaper is a fitting way to close, "Captain E. W. Cleveland of Houston, special rep of the Curtis Southwest Airplane Co. arrived in Rusk accompanied by Frank Rhea. They announced at the picture show Saturday night that the plane would be ready to take passengers Sunday morning and a crowd gathered in the aviation field after breakfast. Miss Lettie Baker, our County Treasurer, was the first passenger 'to break the ice' and take a sail into the clouds!"

Miss Lettie was good at things like that.

(Photo courtesy of Faye Martin; the scrapbook from Mary Taylor, a friend of the Baker family.)