Yesterday's News

Jackpot election

A brand-new automobile for one lucky voter caused quite an uproar in 1955

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
November 13, 2005

A local car-troversy became a national news story 50 years ago.

Henderson often gets overlooked by the national news media (last Sunday's tornado was a tragic exception) but 1955 saw an inconsequential get-out-the-vote effort here blow up into a major controversy that became national news.

The idea of the local Farm Bureau was pretty simple: Go vote on election day and you could win a brand-new 1956 Chevrolet. Every voter coming out of each polling place would be handed a ticket that would be entered into a drawing on election night. The winner would get the car keys.

Sounds simple enough. A group of about 50 local businessmen donated the money to pay for the car, and local Democratic and Republican party organizations initially signed onto the proposal.

But the Republicans quickly backed out once the controversy began heating up.

Farm Bureau president Bob Green appeared a little miffed about that. "Both sides were agreeable to the plan when we agreed to sponsor it, and it is unfortunate that the situation has changed, but there is nothing we can do," he said. "This is not a political issue and we don't feel it necessary to answer any criticism of our position."

An editorial in The Gleaner noted that "at no time within our memory has there been such a flood of letters" to the editor than those generated by the car controversy.

"The general objection has to do with ... having a voter go to the polls because he might draw a lucky number and receive a free automobile, rather than to go because he has a firm conviction regarding his duty as a voter."

Six local ministers publicly spoke against the proposal "on the grounds that it was offering an inducement to do what should be considered a privilege and a moral obligation and duty," The Gleaner reported.

The Rev. Ted Braun, minister at what is now called Zion United Church of Christ, said the church bell would toll twice on Election Day. At 6 a.m. it would toll to announce that the polls were open. And at 9 p.m., when the drawing was scheduled, it would toll "for all those who have used their privilege of voting as a chance in gambling for a car, for those who originated this 'good Americanism' plan, and especially for that individual who shall find great personal and financial profit because of his vote and the gamble he took."

Other opponents took similar tacks. "Don't vote because you may win an automobile," wrote Mrs. W. Carlisle Cooper. "Vote because it is a duty to your future and future generations."

T.B. Swain Jr. called the drawing "subversive to our form of government," and said it was "not only an insult to the voters, but an insult to the candidate as well, for this is not the American way of life."

The Gleaner didn't have too big a problem with the car, and even said the controversy was a healthy thing that caused citizens to think about the true value of the votes they cast. But the editorial was most critical of the legal type of vote buying that still goes on today: Pork, not to put too fine a point on it.

"Of all the methods of vote-buying, we most abhor that type which consists of gigantic give-aways involved in government spending. Beware of these.... This type of give-away carries the greatest threat to the American system and the democratic way of life."


The national news coverage even prompted a tongue-in-cheek editorial in the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle: "The jackpot election! A tie-in of civic duty with the lottery, raffle and sweepstakes ticket is at hand. (Do you want to accept the obligation of American citizenship as it now stands, or go for the $4,000 convertible?)"

The car give-away was never repeated, probably because of the controversy, but also because it appeared to have had little effect on voter turnout.

And the winner of the car?

That would be Miss Irma L. Denton, who was about 64 at the time.

She wasn't present at the drawing because she was packing to leave on a two-week vacation in Pennsylvania.

But she didn't drive her new car. She took a train.

100 years ago

Burglars broke into the Morganfield Post Office, blew open the safe with nitroglycerin, and made off with $180 in cash and about $100 worth of stamps, according to a 1905 article in The Gleaner.

Two "suspicious characters" were seen loafing around the city that same day and couldn't be found when police looked for them. "It was thought that they cracked the safe and boarded an outgoing freight train immediately after they got possession of their booty."

75 years ago

The Henderson County School District, which for two years had been searching for a location for a new consolidated school, was offered a site at Weaverton by citizens of that area, according to a 1930 article in The Gleaner.

The offer was accepted and Weaverton school was built the following year. It consolidated the schools at Parkland, Spring Garden, Weaverton, Wilson Station, Three Mile, Staples and Posey Chapel.

25 years ago

Gambling kingpin Clarence Wood sat down for an interview with Gleaner reporter Paul Nord for a feature about the glory days of the Club Trocadero, according to a 1980 article in The Gleaner.

Nord, who was a fairly new employee at the time, had been told it was impossible to get an interview with Wood.

It apparently was the only time Wood ever consented to an interview. He died seven months later.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS