There has never been a presidential election like that of 2020. But, then again, no two presidential elections have ever been alike. Throughout the 20th century, presidential elections have included their share of party loyalties, scandal, humor and frustration, and Haywood County’s presidential decisions have been no exception.
A few patterns emerge when one looks at presidential elections in Haywood over the 20th century. With one exception, observers can witness a transition from almost fervent loyalty to the Democratic Party during the first half of the century to a recognition by the 1970s that the region’s conservative notions would often be more in line with Republican presidential candidates. There was an exception to this pattern for many years, however, a sub-pattern within the pattern, where several Bethel-area precincts – Cecil, Pigeon and most consistently East Fork would regularly vote Republican. Those are the big-picture presidential politics of Haywood County in the 20th century. But, in a period when people are so ferociously bent on their political views, we thought we’d also take a look at some of the more human, even humorous, details recorded while Haywood County citizens were picking U.S. presidents.
‘From coroner to president’
The 1912 presidential election was a landmark event, marking the birth of the “preferred primary system,” when voters could state their preferences for their party’s presidential nominee. But “preference” is a key word here, because the primaries were not binding on party bosses. Though former President Theodore Roosevelt was the most popular man running for the Republican Party’s nomination, the party bosses handed that honor to the incumbent President Howard Taft. Failing to gain his party’s nomination, Roosevelt then formed the Bull Moose party, which split the Republican voters and helped usher in Woodrow Wilson’s two terms as president. That election was also the year the Waynesville Courier reminded voters that endured the attempted assassination of a presidential candidate (Roosevelt) and the death of a vice presidential nominee, Vice President James S. Sherman, who died less than a week before the election..
The Courier bragged on Haywood for its Democratic vote, stating the county had voted “A straight Democratic ticket from coroner to president.”
The Republican variant
Newspaper editions from 1928 do not survive, but from ensuing election coverage, we know that it was also an odd year, even for a presidential election. Calvin Coolidge had finished two terms as a popular Republican president though his personality seemed at odds with the wildly speculative days of the 1920s. In 1928, perhaps riding on the popularity of Coolidge, Herbert Hoover was elected president – and even claimed the popular vote in Haywood County. For a county so entrenched in the Democratic Party, it was a remarkable accomplishment. It would take another 32 years and eight presidential elections for the county to go with a Republican again.
In 1932, however, like most of the United States, Haywood County citizens were struggling through the Great Depression and in a backlash, overwhelmingly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would serve three terms and a portion of a fourth. FDR seemed to restore the Democratic equilibrium in Haywood County. In 1936, FDR topped his Republican rival in Haywood by 4,800 votes.
Even with the county’s heavily Democratic leanings, politics could be good-humored. Mountaineer editor Curtis Russ reported that “Harley Wright, owner of the Canton Enterprise and secretary of the Haywood Republican Committee, while in Waynesville Monday, jokingly told Democratic friends that he and another staunch Republican of Beaverdam have been told that they would be arrested for voting a Republican ticket in a Democratic election.”
Win nets him eight hats
“Since Henry Gaddy won no less than eight hats, a pair of shoes, a suit of clothes and some cold cash on the election, he has promised to give me one of his hats for Christmas,” Russ reported with FDR’s second win in 1936. “I believe he will do that very thing, too, but if he had promised me some chewing tobacco, I question whether I would have gotten it for not.”
In 1940, with FDR regarded as having helped Americans survive the Depression, and with Europe embroiled in the second World War, U.S. citizens again chose FDR for president. From the reports we learn an interesting pair of facts:
“Not since the presidential election of 1828, when Haywood cast every vote for Andrew Jackson’s presidential candidacy, has the county piled up such a majority as on Tuesday, when the unofficial returns as gotten by The Mountaineer had a four-to-one Democratic victory,” the newspaper stated. Iron Duff claimed top honors for Democratic Party loyalty that year, where FDR claimed a 25-to-1 majority over his opponent.
That year the country marked new territory — the first time a U.S. president was elected for a third term. At that time, nothing in the Constitution limited the president’s terms, but based upon a precedent set by George Washington, no president had tried to serve more than two. FDR was elected for his third term that year, when the nation was still striving to avoid the war in Europe. The third term was “not a thrust at tradition,” stated a Mountaineer editorial, but was driven by people who “faced an emergency and it meant they were convinced that they must have a man at the head of the government who had been tried and tested in public affairs.”
Thanks to the Twenty-Second Constitutional Amendment, and barring future amendments, no U.S. president will again have the opportunity to try for three or more terms.
Free gallon of gas – for some
In 1956, Ledford & Jones, owner of a Pure Oil gasoline station across from the Haywood County Courthouse (where part of The Mountaineer offices are today), offered to provide a gallon of gasoline, free of charge, to voters who cast ballots in the presidential election. There was a catch, however, that limited its generosity: The recipient had to be a new voter who had never cast a ballot in a presidential election.
Forget politics; pray for rain
In 1952, The Mountaineer proclaimed the win of Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in the run for president, while reporting that Haywood County had again voted the Democratic ticket. At least one voter thought the attention should turn to more important matters: One farmer said he knew many people had been praying for their candidates, the newspaper reported, and said he wished those people would pray for rain instead.
Big attention on little Cataloochee
The Cataloochee voting precinct received its share of national attention during the 1950s and early 1960s. The precinct, by that time enclosed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was down to seven diehard registered voters in 1952, including Ranger and Cataloochee native Mark Hannah. Apparently, all seven decided to show up at the precinct when it opened at 6:30 a.m., the morning of the presidential election. There they were photographed by the Associated Press. The picture was published in newspapers around the country. And, apparently, because all of its voters had cast ballots within minutes of the poll opening, Cataloochee was able to report the vote totals by 7:58 a.m. on election day. All seven went for Adlai Stevenson.
The Cataloochee precinct took pride in being the first in the nation to report its results, even though its workers had to be driven across the mountain to do so, according to Lois Hardison, Mark Hannah’s daughter. That came to an end when another small precinct in the country decided to open its polls at midnight and gather all its eligible voters in early so it could be the first to report.
Cataloochee’s reputation as solidly Democratic – and likely the smallest precinct in North Carolina – continued. In 1960, Democratic nominee and future N.C. Governor Terry Sanford visited Cataloochee, where he ate trout with five of the eight registered voters living there. All the voters had supported his run for governor.
The precinct retained its reputation for voting Democratic for president until its last presidential election in 1968, when four of the remaining voters cast ballots for George Wallace of the American Independent Party, and two voted for Democrat Hubert Humphrey. By 1972, the Cataloochee precinct was no longer in existence.
In 1964, voting judges and clerks at the precincts received $10 a day to work an election, while voting registrars received $15. This particular year, however, some workers received a bonus. New registration books were being used and the registrars received 2 cents for each name they had to transcribe from the old book to the new one. In Cataloochee, that meant registrar Lush Caldwell received an extra 14 cents in his paycheck.
No beer available on voting day
In 1964, at the suggestion of the Waynesville Police Department, every establishment in the town that served beer voluntarily suspended sales on Election Day. What the businesses lost in revenue they made up for in publicity as local leaders praised their efforts to ensure citizens used their best – and least impaired – judgments in choosing the nation’s leaders.
‘Just never admired’ Nixon
By 1972, Haywood was showing a tendency that would repeat in years to come, that of voting Democratic in local elections but being willing to consider traditionally conservative Republicans at the national level. That year President Richard Nixon’s landslide victory across the nation was reflected in Haywood County, where he netted 8,854 votes to George McGovern’s 4,490.
The Mountaineer interviewed 98-year-old Eva Smathers Moffit, believed to be the oldest person in Haywood County to cast a ballot that day.
“I don’t see how we can vote right unless we study the candidates for a whole year before we vote,” she said. A registered Democrat, Moffit said she often split her ticket, having voted for Dwight Eisenhower, for example. However, in 1972 she cast her ballot for McGovern, not because she admired him, she said, but because of her aversion for Nixon. She had watched the president’s career for many years, she said, and “I just never admired Mr. Nixon.”
Moffit died Feb. 1, 1974, at age 100, well into the Watergate controversy and six months before Richard Nixon resigned from office rather than face impeachment.
The last word – we hope
After the 1932 presidential election, Mountaineer editor Curtis Russ made the following comment:
“I have concluded that the reason the general election comes in November is because that is Thanksgiving month … and what would be more appropriate this Thanksgiving than to give thanks that it will be four more years until we have to live through another campaign?”
Let’s hope the observation holds true for 2020, and the suspense is resolved by Thanksgiving.