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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Crazy Local Politics

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Fredericksburg, Texas in the early 20th century was believed to be the largest unincorporated village in the country. It was a community of 2,000 people, clustered along and a few blocks either side of Main Street, with no city government and no city services.

Each home and business owner supplied his own water and took care of his own sewage. Cesspools and outhouses were often located dangerously close to water wells.

Then a group of progressive businessmen, backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the fire department, called for Fredericksburg to incorporate so the town could levy taxes and issue sufficient bonds to build a waterworks and sewer system.

Water Works Mass Meeting
Fredericksburg Standard, March 25, 1916

The first vote to incorporate was on June 6, 1916. All saloons closed for the day. Even then voter turnout was low. The vote was174 against incorporation, 112 for.

Citizens opposed to incorporation believed it unnecessary and would lead to higher taxes. One man told a reporter "Why if this town was incorporated it would cost a thousand dollars every year to pay the salaries of city officers."

In a letter to the editor another opponent claimed he was already being taxed to death. "The only reason I am clinging to life at all," he wrote, "is to see what the hell is coming next."

Those citizens in favor of incorporation admitted that new taxes would be levied but the money would be used for improvements like a safe water system, a sewer system and street lights. The fire department would have all the water it needed to fight fires. Fire insurance rates would go down. The benefits of incorporation, they argued, would more than offset the burden of a tax increase.

The Fredericksburg Standard pushed for incorporation. Like Dickens describing Victorian London, the editor wrote "Epidemics of diseases lurk in cities that are not well sewered, And there are other limitations that retard a city's growth. One of them is the limitation of water. Fredericksburg await the day when the water and sewer situation will be solved satisfactorily. And if it is incorporation that brings it - let's have it."

The second vote on incorporation took place on October 22, 1924. The vote was 262 for incorporation and 527 against.

Citizens in favor of incorporation did not give up but continued to press their case. In early 1927 they presented County Judge Herman Usener with a petition for a third referendum on incorporation. On May 10, 1928 voters of Fredericksburg voted in favor of incorporation: 504 for and 347 against.

Almost immediately the group opposing incorporation filed suit with the district court contesting the election on the grounds that a number of people voted illegally. The court upheld the election finding that all votes cast were legal except for one lady who voted but failed to pay her poll tax.

The opposition group then filed suit asking the court to set aside incorporation claiming the city boundary lines were so gerrymandered as to give those favoring incorporation an advantage over the opposing side. In February 1929 the court upheld incorporation.

The opposition then gave notice of appeal. In April 1929 the Court of Civil Appeals in San Antonio ruled the gerrymandering charges were unfounded, but the State Supreme Court reversed that decision.

Encouraged by the Supreme Court ruling the citizens opposed to incorporation called for a fourth election. On April 18, 1933, Fredericksburg voted to abolish incorporation by a vote of 385 to 336.

There were 2 more elections over the next year. On August 23, 1933, in an election called by those favoring incorporation, Fredericksburg voted to incorporate by a vote of 642 to 437. On May 18, 1934, in an election called by citizens against incorporation, Fredericksburg voted to remain incorporated, 647 to 348. By then opponents considered the matter a dead horse or perhaps they were too exhausted to continue the fight.

One of the lessons here is that small town politics hasn't changed much in a century. It can be brutal, sometimes funny, often messy but always interesting.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" May 15, 2020 Column

Sources:
"Corporation Again Defeated," Fredericksburg Standard, June 10, 1916.
"The Incorporation Meeting," Fredericksburg Standard, November 17, 1923
"Editorial Notes," Fredericksburg Standard, October 27, 1923.
"Lucky Fredericksburg," Fredericksburg Standard, July 19, 1924.
"Incorporation Election," Fredericksburg Standard, October 25, 1924.
"Plan to Contest Election," Fredericksburg Standard, May 19, 1928.
"Suit Files," Fredericksburg Standard, December 8, 1928.
"Incorporation Upheld," Fredericksburg Standard, February 23, 1929.
"Incorporation Case Reversed," Fredericksburg Standard, March 28, 1930.
"Incorporation of Fredericksburg Upheld in Court," Fredericksburg Standard, August 28, 1931.
"Sixth Election In Favor of Incorporation," Fredericksburg Standard, May 24, 1934.



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