Ungovernor, 1932 - John Arthur Gellatly

It has been awhile since I covered a Republican Ungovernor. Not since John Frink in 1900. 1932 was an exceptional election year in Washington State history. The Republican Party's domination over state government, which had been nearly total for most of the history of the Evergreen State up to this point, was brought to a grinding halt by the voters. It was the last time both major gubernatorial candidates came from east of the Cascades. And the winner, Democrat Clarence Martin of Cheney, was the first Governor who was born in Washington.

In a strange way, economic depressions gave John A. Gellatly his political start and political demise. The Panic of the 1890s sent him to Wenatchee, where he immediatly took public office. The FDR/New Deal sweep of 1932 finished his career as an elected official.

John Arthur Gellatly was born July 6, 1869 in Grass Valley, California. His parents, Andrew and Isabella (Lyle) Gellatly were natives of Scotland. In 1870 the family moved to Benton County, Oregon where they started a large farm outside of Philomath.

John grew up in Benton County and started attending agricultural college until his father's blood poisoning illness brought him back home around 1888. He married Laura J. McDonald, the daughter of Canadian immigrants, July 17, 1891 or Jan. 31, 1892 depending what source you want to believe. As they were starting their new family, John was elected on the Republican ticket to two terms (4 years) as Benton County Recorder (Auditor). During the hard economic times of the 1890s, Gellatly was forced into bankruptcy. This, combined with his father's death in March 1898, made John look north to Washington State for greener pastures in 1900.

The Gellatlys were headed for Waterville, where they planned to grow wheat. But during a steamboat layover in Wenatchee, Oct. 1, 1900, John was offered a job as the Deputy Auditor of Chelan County. They never made it to Waterville.

John's rise in Wenatchee's civic and business affairs was dizzying. He served as County Auditor, City Councilman, School Board member, Library Board member, first president of the Chamber of Commerce, manager of the Wenatchee Reclamation District, and he served four terms as Mayor. In the last job he created a name for himself in his efforts to combat prostitution and make Wenatchee a dry city. His successful pro-Prohibition policies made him a sought after speaker across the state and acted as a springboard for his regional, then statewide political career.

HistoryLink's Laura Arksey writes: "With the railroad, came a 'rough element,' bringing an alarming increase in drunkenness, disorderly behavior, and crime 'ranging from petty thefts to murder and riots'. A shacktown developed between the tracks and the Columbia River. Dance halls and saloons flourished. In 1908, Mayor John Gellatly issued an ineffective order that all prostitutes leave the city or reform."

"More successful was an anti-saloon movement that had been building for years among the more respectable citizenry. In 1909, the state legislature had approved a local option law whereby communities could decide whether to go 'dry' or 'wet.' No one championed the anti-saloon position more ardently than Rufus Woods and his newspaper. Wenatchee went dry in August 1909, but the saloonkeepers and their customers challenged the decision in 1910 and 1912. They lost both times. Wenatchee’s dry crusade was so successful that committees from other communities sought the advice of Mayor Gellatly on how to achieve a dry local option."

Upon arrival, John wasted no time in building a house for his family. Within a short period he sold that property and with the profits invested in more real estate and orchards. He started his own abstract/mortagage/real estate business. And as Wenatchee boomed so did Gellatly's capital. In 1908 the family built a large home which was converted to a hospital in 1915. A recent article (7/15/08) in the Wenatchee World covered the history of this building: "In 1915, the John A. Gellatly residence along Okanogan Avenue was acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church and became the first Deaconess Hospital. A 50-bed, three-story addition was dedicated in 1923 and the former Gellatly residence became a nurses' home and training school. Additional wings were added in 1948 and 1963. The hospital closed in 1978."

Laura Gellatly died in 1913. John married a second time in 1916, to Bertha Skinner of Spokane.

In 1918 he was elected as a Republican to one term in the Washington State House. He got his first whiff of the Olympia air and he liked it. By 1920 Gellatly felt the time had come to run for Governor. Incumbent Republican Hart, a Lt. Governor who had assumed the office in 1919 as a result of Lister's resignation, was viewed as vulnerable. No less than six of Hart's fellow Republicans filed against him in the primary. Including a man who would become Gellatly's mortal enemy, Roland H. Hartley.

Hartley, a reactionary right-wing demogogue who employed the politics of divide and conquer, was favored to win, but narrowly lost to Gov. Hart. Gellatly placed 5th in that race, but still had more votes than the winning Democrat. Roland would be back four years later, winning the gubernatorial race against Democrats Ben Hill in 1924 and Scott Bullitt in 1928. Although Olympia was technically the seat of one-party Republican rule in the 1920s (out of the 139 senators and representatives through the decade in each session, there were never more than 10 Democrats between 1921-1932) in reality there were two parties, Hartley and anti-Hartley. Gellatly was in the latter group.

The clownish arrogance of the Governor horrified Gellatly. In 1924 he served as the campaign manager for Edward L. French, a Republican who came close to defeating Hartley in the Republican primary.

In 1928 Gellatly ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor. The primary was a crowded affair, as Gordon Newell observed, "The more cynical observers attributed the large field of prominent names in this contest to the historic fact that no Washington governor had yet lived to complete a second term." John won the primary and handily won the general election with 306,082 votes (68.76%). He had the full support of the Anti-Saloon League, a group that was feeling threatened by the growing movement to repeal Prohibition.

Lt. Gov. Gellatly presided over a Washington State Senate with 1 Democrat and 41 Republicans. Not content with polishing Washington State apples on his lapel at county fairs, he shaped the office to his own ends. According to journalist Lona Courtney, "While lieutenant governor, Mr. Gellatly, aided by Senator Jake Miller, saved the [Wenatchee] area's reclamation districts, such as Manson, Wenatchee Heights and Stemilt Hill and others. Stevens pass was included in the state's highway system principally through the efforts of Gellatly and Miller."

Gellatly also became one of the leaders of the anti-Hartley wing of the Republican Party. Hartley's job, according to Gordon Newell, "was complicated by the fact that he was afraid to leave the state lest Gellatly, as acting governor, should marshal the forces of opposition and do him in in his absence."

In 1932 Hartley decided to run for a third term. As far as the gubernatorial election was concerned, the primary had far more fireworks than the general. Apparently the Republicans (and many major Washington newspapers) were were not reading the signals of the voters and thought the nomination of that party really mattered. The Hartley/Gellatly primary became acrimonious. Hartley even called Gellatly a thief. The Lt. Gov. was quoted on Aug. 22 on the Governor, "I am not disturbed by his fulminations. They prove that Hartley fears me and is making desperate efforts to weaken my candidacy before the primary. What Hartley says has no effect. It is the same old stuff the people have heard for eight years. He merely shows that he is frightened."

On primary election day, Gellatly placed first out of five candidates. He soundly beat the sitting Governor almost 2-1, winning 35 of the the 39 counties. The Olympia News stated: "As a result of the primary election last week the next executive of this state is sure to be a man of dignity and integrity." But Time wrote a counterbalance on Sept. 26: "Roland H. Hartley, Republican Governor for the last eight years, was defeated for renomination by easygoing, colorless Lieut. Governor John A. Gellatly."

After the primary the 1932 gubernatorial election was not too eventful. All eyes were on FDR instead. Clarence Martin was a moderate Democrat. There were the usual mild charges of financial shenanigans from both sides. The historian Richard Fisch had this interesting take: "Many of Hartley's appointees turned to Martin after the primary because they were convinced that Gellatly would replace them, whereas Martin might retain them if they supported him in the general election. Gellatly was caught between two fires. On one hand, he could not boldly declare that he would dismiss all the employees who owed their jobs to Hartley for fear of losing their votes. On the other hand, nothing less than wholesale removals would satisfy anti-Hartley Republicans. Gellatly was not able to solve the problem, and even Hartley went out of his way to encourage people to vote for Martin. Republicans who supported the governor in the primary afterward retained control of some county central committees and forced Gellatly to work outside the party structure in conducting his campaign during the general election."

It wouldn't have mattered even if the Republicans had been united and going all out for their guy. The public had lost confidence in them. On Election Day, John took 207,497 votes, only 33.75%. He lost every county except his home county of Chelan and Skamania. In Cowlitz and Thurston counties he placed third after Liberty Party candidate L.C. Hicks.

It was a year for the Dems, and FDR's shadow would cast across subsequent administrations all the way to 1980. The Democrats took control of the Washington State House and Senate. My own great-grandfather, a lonely Lewis County Democrat, was elected to the County Commission in 1932. He had previously served a term in the same office when elected in 1892. Two terms, 40 years apart. According to the Centralia Chronicle, he was addressing a political meeting in 1932 when one of his listeners jumped up and shouted angrily, "I'd rather vote for the devil." "Quite so", said my ancestor, "but if your friend should withdraw from the race may I not then count on your support?"

With Prohibition dead and the New Deal underway, there was not a place in statewide government for Gellatly. He went back to Wenatchee and remained active in local affairs. John did make at least a couple attempts to return to Olympia in some capacity, but his philosophy of government was trapped in the resin of a bygone era.

When Colliers wrote an editorial mildly criticizing the techniques of Sen. Joe McCarthy, Gellatly wrote a letter of protest, Sept. 20, 1952: ". . . Have just perused your editorial entitled McCarthy Cries Again, and while we may have to admit that McCarthy has been somewhat lacking in tact in his effort to rid our government of Reds and Pinks, he obviously would have gotten nowhere had he not used some glass-breaking methods. The fact is indisputable that he has done more to arouse the American people about the subversive influences extant in the very core of our government, and to scare the very devil out of scores of questionable risks, than all the halfhearted investigations conducted by sundry Congressional committees put together."

In 1958 an enormous thick-as-a-brick tome by Gellatly entitled "A History of Wenatchee : the Apple Capital of the World" was published. He included many autobiographical details along with his coverage of the town itself. The city of Wenatchee is lucky to have such a work by someone who had a front row seat like John.

John A. Gellatly died July 18, 1963 at the age of 94. He died in the hospital that stood on the site of his former home.