Spear, Lillian S. (1897-1963)

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 8/11/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8689

Lillian E. Anderson Sylten Spear was an important player in Snohomish County's public power movement. She began her career as an educator, served as president of the Snohomish County Parent-Teacher Association and was the principal of Silver Lake Elementary School, now part of the Everett School District. In 1936 she began working in the Grange and supported successful plans to form a public utility district in Snohomish County. For the next decade she helped the Snohomish County PUD in its struggle to acquire properties from Puget Sound Power and Light Company (Puget Power). Spear served as District Auditor for Snohomish County Public Utilities District from 1940-1946 and in 1944 helped to found the Snohomish County Legislative Council, a group that made recommendations to the county government. Politically active in the state's Democratic Party, she claimed that her interest was less in gaining cheaper utility rates for residents and more in furthering the democratic process. In 1947 Lillian clashed with new PUD leaders and left two years before Snohomish County PUD was able to sell its first electricity. Moving to California in 1953, she continued her activism in anti-pollution efforts. Lillian S. Spear died of bone marrow cancer in 1963 and is buried in Everett's Evergreen Cemetery.

Her Early Years

Lillian was born in Portland, Oregon, on July 26, 1897, to Norwegian immigrant parents, Oline Mahlen and Alexander Anderson, and was next to the youngest of 13  children. Early in the 1900s the Andersons moved to Everett where Lillian attended city schools.

She earned a teaching certificate from Ellensurg Normal in the 1920s and worked as Principal of Silver Lake Elementary, which is now part of the Everett School District. Already married by this time, Lillian was able to serve as a school administrator at a time when married women were discouraged as teachers. Wed in 1920 to Arne Sylten (d. 1955), a lumber inspector, the couple had three daughters, Olene (b. 1924), Daphne (b. 1927), and Joann (b. 1930). This marriage eventually ended in divorce. Lillian married again in 1944, the second time to Harrison George Spear, a marriage that lasted five years.

Public Power for Snohomish County

Passage of the Washington State Grange Power Bill on November 4, 1930, spurred action within the state to create public-power districts in those areas that had not already done so. With the 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) and public power advocate Homer T. Bone (1883-1970) as Washington State Representative, the state electorate seemed ready for public utility ownership. Both Grant County and Spokane County created public utility districts that year.

Snohomish County took longer. Puget Sound Power & Light had organized a farm electrification department in 1924 and, despite high and unfair rates, dominated Snohomish County. The Grange worked aggressively to oppose Puget Power's hold in the county and was able to place a measure on the 1932 ballot to create a Snohomish County public-power district.

Mayors of 10 Snohomish County communities and the Everett Herald, under the ownership of Gertrude Best, worked to defeat the proposal. Herald editorials warned that the law would give PUD commissioners condemnation power to confiscate property and thus reduce tax revenue. An organization called the Snohomish County Tax Reduction Association implied that this measure was an effort to seek public payroll jobs. Underlying the opposition to the measure was the fear of Socialism or, as some perceived it, Communism. The measure was defeated by a two-to-one margin.

The federal government's creation of the Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington and the Bonneville Dam near Portland gave huge momentum to organize for Snohomish County public power since public-utility districts were priority recipients of electricity generated from the two facilities. The Snohomish County PUD was created by county vote in 1936. But the struggle to acquire Puget Power's Snohomish County properties and begin the business of selling electricity continued for over a decade.

Becoming Involved

Lillian's political career began as a mother and an educator. In addition to serving as the Silver Lake Elementary principal, she was also president of the Snohomish County Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Her organizational skills as well as her speaking abilities quickly led her to a position on the PTA's state board. Lillian also worked actively in the Democratic Party, but it was the Grange that most interested her. In 1936 she began working with the Grange and finding out about the issue of public power -- the main focus of the Grange movement at that time.

Lillian later said that at the start, she knew nothing about public-power issues, cooked on a wood range herself, and didn't even have a refrigerator. But she immersed herself in the subject and soon was a knowledgeable spokesperson. In 1936 she ran for Public Utility Commissioner and, although she did not win, made her name known. She quit her job as school principal as well as her work with the PTA to actively work for public power in 1938 and from 1940 to 1946 was District Auditor for Snohomish PUD.

Talking to the People

The Grange needed influential public speakers to convince Snohomish County voters and Lillian had both the ability and the interest. In 1941 she told a reporter:

"We had two bad years when our county was pointed to as a bad example. We had inefficient commissioners. The only way we could educate people about the power projects was to go out and talk to them and answer their questions. That was my work" (Spear, Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Everett Herald editor and publisher Gertrude Best gave little press coverage to the Grange viewpoint and continued to be an outspoken opponent. Lillian (then Sylten) and the Grange instead reached a wide audience through the lunch circuit, speaking almost daily to clubs and organizations. Sylten took the message to Snohomish County women. She also helped organize mailing campaigns as well as street and door-to-door distribution of literature and fundraising, which often included simply passing the hat. In telling her story later to historian Richard Berner, Lillian recalled her battles with Gertrude Best, laughing at the fact that the only time she was able to get front-page notice in the Everett Herald was when she was ticketed for speeding. The headline had read: "Mrs. Sylten Arrested" (Everett Herald).

Organizing for Public Power

Progress was slow and it was in 1939 that Snohomish County PUD joined six other Washington State public utility districts to buy Puget Power. Lillian Sylten became secretary of the negotiating group named the Puget Sound Utility Commissioners' Association (PSUCA). The group soon became convinced that Puget Power was not bargaining in good faith and was attempting to stop the buyout. A Washington Public Ownership League (WPOL) was formed and Sylten became its secretary.

Negotiations stalled then were renewed many times in hopes of establishing a fair price. Snohomish County PUD joined other PUDs in filing a condemnation procedure against Puget Power. Boxes of Lillian S. Spear material in the University of Washington's Special Collections attest to her involvement in Initiative 12, sponsored by the WPOL. Passed by the legislature, the initiative allowed for joint suits by PUDs.

Lillian also supported Referendum 25, which put the measure to public vote. Enough signatures were collected to place Referendum 25 on the ballot in 1943. But by this time factionalism was developing among the ranks of public-power advocates. Some disliked the WPOL for what they felt was a strong Socialist bias. Sylten, not a Socialist, served as the president of the Women's Committee for Referendum 25 and wrote articles in favor of the measure in Public Power News, a journal issued by the WPOL. Referendum 25 was narrowly defeated. Now with no joint suit possibilities, the PSUCA once again became active. Married for a second time (1944), Lillian Sylten was now Lillian Spear.

Final Years

Squabbles continued to divide public power advocates and Spear became disenchanted with the movement, resigning in 1947, two years before publicly owned power truly came to Snohomish County on September 1, 1949.

Lillian Sylten Spear moved to Santa Rosa, California in 1953 where she continued her activism fighting the state's pollution. In her final years, Spear struggled with bone marrow cancer and died in California in 1963 at 66 years of age. A plain headstone marks her grave in Block 49, Lot 327 in Everett's Evergreen Cemetery.

Sources: Wendy Brush, "Lillian Sylten Spear, Outspoken Advocate of Public Power," University of Washington Women Studies Class 283, December 12, 1984, Lillian S. Spear files, Everett Public Library; "Biographical Note," Guide to the Lillian S. Spear Papers 1931-1963, University of Washington Manuscript Collection No. 0381; Boxes 2, 5 and 7, Lillian S. Spear Papers, 1931-1963, University of Washington Manuscript Collection No. 0381; Georgiana Behm letter to Lillian Sylten, February 3, 1943, Item 2, Box 7, Lillian S. Spear Papers, University of Washington Manuscript Collection No. 0381; "Woman Is a Power In P. U. D. Movement", Seattle Post Intelligencer, February 26, 1941 (clipping in Lillian S. Spear files of Everett Public Library); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bone, Homer Truett (1883-1970), (by Frank Chesley); http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 2008); "Public Power in Snohomish County," Snohomish County PUD website accessed June 20, 2008 (http://www.snopud.com/about/who/History.ashx?p=1863); "A History of Public Power in Washington," Washington Public Utility Districts Association website accessed June 20, 2008 (http://www.wpuda.org/pudhistory.htm); Washington State Grange website accessed July 2, 2008 (http://www.wa-grange.org/local_granges.htm#snohomish).

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