Behind the Button: Remembering a Maine Republican Who Was Loved by the Humane Society and Hated by the Klan, Plus a Mention of the New England Fat Men’s Association!

Just bought this Percival Baxter button to add to my Maine collection.

Baxter was one of the responsible moderate-to-liberal Republicans you’d find throughout New England during the first third of the 20th Century, and he would do battle with one of the most despicable figures Maine ever produced, Republican Ralph Owen Brewster.

Baxter became governor on January 31, 1921 (my mother’s birthday), after Frederic Hale (or “Not-So-Hale”) Parkhurst died of pneumonia just 26 days into his term. 

Born in Portland, Baxter was heir to a family canning-company fortune and educated at Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School.  In the vein of Republicans Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, he was an ardent conservationist.  Beginning in 1931, and continuing for three decades, Baxter donated 28 parcels of land that now make up the 210,000 acres of Baxter State Park.  As per his wishes, the northern Maine sanctuary (featuring Mt. Katahdin, the state’s highest peak) is kept “forever wild” with no commercial buildings, electricity or paved roads.

Compare this to the current administration’s assault on public lands.  Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have already shrunk national monuments by nearly 2 million acres and are busy proposing dangerous degradations (road building, etc.),

Since 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed The Antiquities Act, giving presidents the power to create national monuments, only two presidents have decreased the acreage:  William Howard Taft (-500,000) and the “Stable Genius” (-1.9 million and counting).  Even Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover chipped in with 1.5 million and 3.1 million, respectively.

And Trump is now considering opening federal lands near the Grand Canyon to uranium mining.

As Maine governor, Baxter advanced education, reformed the prison system, and appointed women to public office for the first time.  He also wrote the nation’s first anti-vivisection law.  In a speech to the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, he said, “Kindness is the noblest trait of human nature, cruelty the meanest and lowest...There is no cruelty as selfish and despicable as vivisection. It must be abolished.”

In his farewell speech to Mainers on January 7, 1925 (he was elected to a second, two-year term in 1922), Baxter said:

“Bear baiting, live pigeon shooting and dog and cock fighting and similar exhibitions until comparatively recently were recognized as ‘gentlemanly sports.’ Today they have passed into well merited disgrace.”

Baxter was beloved by humane societies throughout the nation – even more so when his Irish setter, Garry, died and he ordered the flag at the State House lowered to half-staff (which pissed off some veterans groups).   

The governor also started the idea of sending dogs to jail for a day as companion animals for the prisoners.

One of Baxter’s most important contributions was fighting the Ku Klux Klan. 

During the 1920s, between 20,000 and 50,000 Mainers were Klansmen – with a mission to keep Catholics, Jews, Negroes and immigrants from “destroying” Anglo-American society.  The Klan also successfully kept lumber workers from unionizing.

They wore robe and hood regalia, held rallies, burned crosses, and marched in parades.  In an effort to make Klan membership respectable, thousands showed their faces, sat for portraits, and openly recruited politicians, professionals and the clergy.  There was even a women’s auxiliary called the Klaxima!

Fortunately, there were anti-Klan demonstrations and pushback from journalists, educators, labor leaders, Americans of French descent, and enlightened politicians.  Bowdoin College President Kenneth Sills was named to the National Vigilance Association, a national anti-Klan watchdog.  And Governor Baxter called the Klan “an insult and an affront to all Maine and American citizens.” 

With Trump’s not-so-subtle call for a resurgence of “white America” and his reliance on division and race baiting, hate groups are again on the rise in America.  When KKK fliers were distributed in Freeport and Augusta, Maine, in 2017, the Portland Press Herald ran this story, which includes a brief history of the Klan in Maine during the 1920s.

The most visible pro-Klan politician in Maine was Republican Ralph Owen Brewster. 

In the 1920s, Brewster served in the State House and Senate, when the Republican Party was split between pro- and anti-Klan factions.  Brewster championed the Klan line on public policy, while his nemesis, state senator Clyde Smith (the husband of future U.S. senator Margaret Chase Smith), loathed the KKK.

When Brewster ran for governor in 1924 (Baxter did not run again), KKK members openly supported him.  Baxter denounced his fellow Republican, but Brewster won in the heavily Republican state.

Baxter got his revenge two years later, when Brewster ran in a special election for the U.S. Senate to replace Bert Fernald, who died on August 23, 1926.  An fun fact from Wikipedia: “In 1909, Fernald was a speaker at the annual meeting, in Portland, of the New England Fat Men's Association, all of whose members had to weigh at least 201 pounds.”

Baxter again denounced Brewster and supported anti-Klan Republican Arthur Gould in the primary.  Gould was Catholic, which made the KKK hate him more.  Gould defeated Brewster, and most historians credit the result as “the beginning of the end of the Klan” in Maine.  The election of Gould was seen as so important to breaking the GOP-Klan alliance that thousands of Maine Democrats voted for Gould in the general.

The KKK and Brewster did not give up.  In 1928, Brewster again ran for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Republican Frederick Hale.  Hale won easily. The Grand Dragon of the Maine Klan, DeForest Perkins, who had promoted Brewster (think Steve Bannon/Donald Trump), resigned – and the Klan was finally beaten as a force in Maine politics.

By 1930, KKK membership in Maine was below 300.  Publicity of the hate group’s extreme violence in the South also hurt membership in Maine, plus Klan coffers ran dry as the Great Depression took hold.

Ralph Owen Brewster tamped down his extreme rhetoric (though not his policies) and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1940.  There, he fought FDR’s New Deal and was a major backer of Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy.  He was finally brought down after alienating Howard Hughes (in the 2004 film, The Aviator, Alan Alda plays Brewster), and Hughes spent huge sums to expose his demagoguery and defeat him in the 1952 Senate primary. 

Percival Baxter, by contrast, remained venerated in Maine.  In 1953, he donated Mackworth Island and his summer home there to the state, which now houses the Maine School for the Deaf.  He is remembered for his early support for women’s suffrage, conservation policies, prison reforms, denunciation of the Klan and his gentle, egalitarian nature.  And for his love of animals – especially Garry.

That is the story behind this button.  And a reminder that there were once many fine Republicans!