Fawcett, Angelo V. (1846-1928)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 7/05/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11246

Angelo V. Fawcett served four terms as mayor of Tacoma, accomplishing much and frequently stirring controversy. A Civil War veteran, he left Illinois to find success in booming Tacoma, arriving there on August 15, 1883. Fawcett and his brother established a farm-implement and seed company in Tacoma; as their business grew, they expanded to a wagon company. A. V. Fawcett's business success led him into part ownership of a hotel and other commercial endeavors. In 1888 he entered local politics, running an unsuccessful race for a city council seat. Four years later he was elected a county commissioner. Fawcett was first elected Tacoma mayor in 1896 and over the next 30 years won three more terms. His political and personal life was colorful and often controversial. Among his successes were a municipal dock, the 11th Street Bridge, a good municipal water source, and convincing Pierce County voters to purchase and donate land for the U.S. Army's Camp Lewis southwest of Tacoma. Some of his accomplishments were obtained through questionable techniques, but he proved to be one of Tacoma's most resilient politicians.

Civil War Veteran Finds Success in Tacoma

Angelo V. Fawcett was born on an Ohio farm on March 6, 1846. The family moved to an Illinois farm when he was seven years old. At an early age he started work on the farm, attending school during the three winter months. Fawcett went to Wesleyan University for one year and then joined Company E, 7th Illinois Infantry, on February 12, 1864, shortly before his 18th birthday. As a private he fought in the battle of Allatoona Pass, Georgia, where on October 5, 1864, a Confederate division attacked the Union garrison there. The 7th Illinois Infantry defended one sector. Despite a heavy Confederate artillery bombardment and repeated attacks, the Union garrison held. It was a bloody battle with heavy loss of life. Private Fawcett was among the wounded. He spent recovery time at Camp Butler, an army hospital in Springfield, Illinois. He was discharged in July 1865 and returned home.

Fawcett did not want to be a farmer so he learned telegraphy, finding employment with the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Next he found more profitable work as a traveling salesman for a St. Louis farm-implement company. A cousin convinced him to move to Tacoma, where he could do even better.

On August 15, 1883, A. V. Fawcett arrived in Tacoma with his wife and young son. The city was growing fast, having been selected as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Fawcett and his family rented a small house on a corner site of what is now Wright Park. He and his brother Francis M. Fawcett (1848-1925) established a farm-implement and seed store. With its success, they established the Fawcett Wagon Company, the largest producer of sleds for Alaska. Fawcett Wagon also sold equipment and would open other stores in the Pacific Northwest. A. V. Fawcett also had other business interests and commercial endeavors, including part ownership of a hotel. In 1888 he ran for Tacoma City Council and lost. In 1892 he was elected a Pierce County commissioner.

During the depression known as the Panic of 1893 Fawcett purchased 75 turkeys, 500 pounds of potatoes, bread, and pies to give children a free Christmas meal at the Germania Hall. The 18 women servers lost count, but at least 2,000 were fed. When mothers showed up with their children, they were also fed. The popular event earned him one of several nicknames, "Turkey Fawcett." He would give similar feeds the next two years.

In 1894, while a county commissioner, Fawcett had the trash contract altered. The county changed over to wheelbarrows to remove the country courthouse trash. What bothered some is that the wheelbarrows were purchased from the Fawcett Wagon Company. This deal brought Fawcett another nickname, "Wheelbarrow Fawcett." However, the one name that lasted and that he preferred was "A. V."

A Tumultuous Term

In 1894, running as a Democrat, Fawcett lost the Tacoma mayoral race. In 1896 he won it by two votes. A recount was ordered, but some disputed ballot boxes were missing from a city hall vault. A court challenge followed, with the superior court giving the election to Fawcett's opponent. The case then went to the state supreme court, which ruled Fawcett the legitimate mayor.

It would be a tumultuous term. Fawcett often fought with the city council and others. Soon after taking office he had a fight with the Commercial Electric Light and Power Company, a private company that then provided power to Tacoma residents. The company had a contract with the city to use city utility poles for its power lines, but Fawcett ordered the company to remove the lines from the city poles. The company refused, so one night Fawcett led a team to cut down the wires. The power went out, leaving many unhappy Tacoma residents. Commercial Electric went to court and the judge ordered the city not to interfere with replacing the lines. Mayor Fawcett went to another judge, who placed a restraining order on the power company preventing it from replacing lines. Finally, the state supreme court declared that the power company had a contract with the city and that the city had to pay the cost of replacing the wires.

During Fawcett's term a Tacoma Civil Service Commission was established to take city hiring out of the political process. Fawcett filled the commission with his friends. However, they opposed him when he went outside the civil-service process to hire a female friend as the assistant city librarian with an office in City Hall. Not only did the Civil Service Commission disapprove of the librarian hiring, but Fawcett's wife was displeased and filed for divorce. The nasty divorce proceedings were covered in detail in the Tacoma newspapers. In 1898 Fawcett ran for mayor as a Democrat and lost. On February 13, 1899, he married Margaret J. Smith (1877-1960), the friend who had been hired as assistant librarian.

A Water Fountain and a Wagon

In 1908, using his own money, Fawcett donated a water fountain to the City of Tacoma. He had it designed to match one he had seen on a Long Beach, California, wharf. The city installed it at the busy intersection of St. Helens Avenue and C and Ninth streets. It provided fresh drinking water for people walking about the town. The fountain soon became an issue as the landowner of property adjacent to the fountain went to court to have it removed, alleging it sat on the sidewalk he had constructed and impeded access to his cigar store. In a compromise, the city moved the fountain to Fireman's Park at 8th and A streets, where the rusticated stone column with three drinking fountains still stood more than a century later.

Fawcett was busy in the spring and summer that year campaigning for the Republican primary for lieutenant governor. He toured the state in a Fawcett hickory horse-drawn wagon with his wife, two daughters, and son. The son, Clarence Valdo "Val" (1899-1963) Fawcett, would years later also serve as Mayor of Tacoma: he became acting mayor in 1943, when Mayor Harry Cain (1906-1979) left for army service, and was elected in his own right in 1946, serving until 1950.

1910 Comeback

The year 1910 was A. V. Fawcett's comeback; he ran for mayor as an independent and won. His personal life also made news that year. On July 14, his daughter Margaret Helen Fawcett (1902-1982) was kidnapped out of the front yard of the Fawcett home at 611 Baker Street. About an hour later she was released because the kidnappers had mistaken her for another young girl who was their target. The next day Fawcett was riding in a City Hall elevator when it unexpectedly shot up and he hit his head on the iron bar over the door. Doctors feared broken ribs and other serious injuries, but Fawcett believed it was a heart attack. He recovered and resumed his mayoral duties.

Throughout his terms Fawcett advocated municipal ownership of all utilities. Through what some considered questionable dealing, he obtained an excellent city-owned water source. His other successes included building the first municipal dock in Washington, which opened in 1911, and advocating for the 11th Street Bridge, which was completed in 1913.

Failures came as well: In 1911 voters recalled Fawcett from office. Saloon interests campaigned for his recall because they were angry with his pet ordinance, the "Anti-Treating" Ordinance. Fawcett had proposed the law, he said, to protect unsuspecting patrons who were liquored up and then induced to invest in dubious enterprises. Some suggested that he proposed it to demonstrate his support of clean living and that he anticipated the council rejecting it. But the ordinance passed and made it illegal to buy drinks for others in saloons. Signs went up in bars prohibiting "setting them up." Additionally, women had just won the vote in Washington and many, displeased with Fawcett's "open city" attitude that tolerated prostitution, voted to recall him. But Fawcett's recall and replacement in office did not end his political career.

Colorful, Controversial, and Resilient

In 1914 Fawcett ran again for mayor, promising "purity," and was elected to a four-year term. In 1916 he ran unsuccessfully for congress. As mayor, he fought for lower telephone rates. During his term a $2 million bond issue was placed before Pierce County voters to pay for purchase of 70,000 acres of land near American Lake southwest of Tacoma to donate to the United States government for an army post. Fawcett was very effective in convincing Tacoma religious leaders that an army post would not bring sin to Tacoma. He told them that the "boys" would be good citizens and not cause problems. A number of religious leaders made public statements and spoke in churches supporting the Pierce County bond issue. Camp Lewis (which would be succeeded by Fort Lewis and then Joint Base Lewis-McChord) opened on the purchased land in September 1917.

A recreation area named Greene Park was built across the highway from Camp Lewis. In June 1918 Fawcett opened a candy store and ice cream parlor there, which included a small bungalow that he lived in. Although they were on government land, stores and amusements at Greene Parke were privately owned and store owners and employees were allowed in live in their establishments.

Outside of elected office, Fawcett was involved in organizational activities and served as chairman of the "Justice to the Mountain Committee," which fought to restore the name "Mount Tacoma" to Mount Rainier.

In November 1918 Fawcett was elected to the Washington State Senate, with his two main causes being veteran's bonuses and milk for school students. During the second legislative session of his senate term, his school-milk bill was approved.

Fawcett expanded his home, creating an impressive Greene Park residence. In August 1921, his daughter Margaret, who had been kidnapped 11 years earlier, was married in the Greene Park home to Lieutenant Wyburn Brown (1900-1981), a Camp Lewis officer. Fawcett's place of residence created an issue during his 1922 mayoral campaign. Opponents pointed out that he did not live in Tacoma. However, Fawcett claimed Tacoma as his legal residence -- he had a few clothes in a Tacoma hotel room. Many gave him little chance of winning, calling him "Old A. V." and saying he was finished. A huge victory in 1922, for his fourth term, gave Fawcett great satisfaction.

Soon after taking office he started a fight with the Tacoma Railway over its streetcar fares, demanding that they be lowered. The railway refused, so Fawcett had permits issued for anyone who wanted to operate a jitney to compete with the railway. The railway countered with $1-a-week unlimited passes, which the public found acceptable. As in the past, Fawcett fought with the city council over library appropriations when it wanted to increase library funding.

In 1923 Fawcett Street was named in his honor. His final electoral loss came in 1926. All told, A. V. Fawcett served as mayor four times: 1896-1897, 1910-1911, 1914-1918, and 1922-1926. He had many achievements -- among those not previously mentioned were the opening of Tacoma City Light's Cushman Dam hydroelectric plant, creation of a public market, and extension of streetcar service -- and got a lot accomplished, if not always by the rules. During his long political career he was Tacoma's most colorful, controversial, and resilient politician.

Fawcett retired to his expanded Greene Park home to tend flowers and lead a quiet life. When his health declined, he turned over the Greene Park store to his son Val Fawcett. Following weeks of serious illness, he died on January 22, 1928, at the Greene Park home. Following his death his widow, Margaret Fawcett, moved back to Tacoma, living near the College (later University) of Puget Sound.

Sources: Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); W. P. Bonney, History of Pierce County, Washington (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing, 1922); George W. Walk, "'Fighting Fawcett,' A Political Biography of Angelo Vance Fawcett," (master's thesis, Western Washington State College, 1976); Herbert Hunt, Tacoma -- Its History and Its Builders: A Half Century of Activity (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1916); Synthia A. Santos, "The Grand Army of the Republic in Tacoma," The Banner (Lewis Army Museum), Spring 2002, pp. 1-6; D. Lieb Ambrose, History of the Seventh Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry (Springfield: Illinois Journal Company, 1868); "Fawcett Fountain in Service Today," Tacoma Daily News, May 27, 1908, p. 2; "A. V. Fawcett to Leave Sunday," Tacoma Daily News, June 10, 1908, p. 2; "Asks Court to Move A. V. Fawcett Fountain," Tacoma Daily News, November 25, 1908, p. 5; "Mayor's Child Kidnapped," The Seattle Times, July 14, 1910, p. 4; "Mayor of Tacoma May Be Fatally Injured," Morning Olympian, July 15, 1910, p. 1; "Tacoma Eager for American Lake Army Post," The Seattle Times, December 5, 1916, p. 2; "Army Post Campaign Meets With Success," The Seattle Times, December 10, 1916, p. 28; "Former Mayor Busy: Sells Cream Cones," The Seattle Times, June 25, 1918, p. 7; "Ex-Mayor Fawcett Dies," Tacoma News Tribune, January 23, 1928, p. 1; "Fawcett Estate Is Valued at $40,000," The Seattle Times, February 3, 1928, p. 35; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Tacoma builds Washington's first municipal dock in January 1911" (by Priscilla Long), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 5, 2016).

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