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Massillon History: General Jacob Coxey: Finding Aids

 A Guide to the Ohio Historical Society’s Microfilm Edition of the Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. Papers at the Massillon Museum
(click here to request the original microfilm from the Ohio History Connection through InterLibrary Loan)

Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Note to Researchers (provenance, access, finding aids, citation, property rights, literary rights, order information, credits)  |  Scope and Content

JACOB SECHLER COXEY BIOGRAPHY

            Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. was born on April 16, 1854, near Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, in a log house which has since been modernized and is identified by a historical marker.  His mother and father were apparently of Dutch, Swedish, and English ancestry.  His father, Thomas Coxey, was employed as an engineer in a sawmill until Jacob was six; then the family moved to Dannville, Pennsylvania and Thomas found work at the Iron Rolling Mills.

            Jacob Coxey completed at least eight grades in public schools and one year at a private institution.  At the age of sixteen, Coxey held his first job, as a water-boy where his father was employed.  Within eight years, Coxey had moved from that position to machine-boiler, to boiler-tender, and finally to stationary engineer earning a little over a dollar for a twelve hour night shift.

            In 1878 Coxey entered a partnership with his uncle in the scrap-iron business in Harrisburg and traveled locating scrap-iron.  One of his trips was to Massillon, Ohio in May, 1881, in order to purchase an abandoned blast furnace for scrap.  Finding the area desirable, however, Coxey decided to move there and, on July 2, purchased John Paul’s farm and small sandstone quarry at Paul’s Station about four miles north of the city.  On this property, later called Coxeyetta, Coxey built a crushing mill and began processing silica sand for use mainly in iron and glass industries.  Coxey made a fortune through this endeavor.  Within ten years he was supplying large steel mills and had an international reputation.  By 1893 he employed over fifty men, grossed $50,000 per year, and was worth an estimated $250,000.  In 1914 he purchased a second quarry in Dundee, Ohio which he operated until 1929.

            Coxey cast his first vote in the presidential election of 1876.  Undoubtedly the fact that his father was a democrat had some influence in Coxey’s vote for Samuel Tilden but, Coxey soon changed his party affiliation and was to do so a number of times.  In 1874 the Greenback Party was organized.  A forerunner of the People’s Party, or Populists, the Greenback movement was a reform party composed mainly of farmers, laborers, and businessmen.  In 1877, apparently in part because the Democratic Party refused to adopt a platform calling for governmental printing of legal tender for all needs, Coxey joined the Populists.  At the age of 23, he organized a Greenbackers Club at Dannville and attended his first political convention but he turned his attention to a-political interests for a few years thereafter.

            In 1888 Coxey became interested in horse racing and in the ensuing years he bought and maintained stock farms in Eminence and Lexington, Kentucky, and Canal Fulton, Ohio.  Coxey bred, raised, and sold horses and his racing colors gained some reputation.

            It was Coxey’s interest in good roads, however, that led him to his greatest claim to fame.  As early as 1891, Coxey proposed a federal road building program funded by greenbacks, arguing that it would provide employment as well as much needed roads.  In December of that year he distributed his first “Good Roads” proposal calling for $500 million for new greenback to be expended for construction of a general nation county road system.  His proposal also called for men’s wages of not less than $1.50 per day and specified eight-hour days.  To promote his idea he wrote letters to Congressmen, spoke publically, and issued material.  His idea was presented at the St Louis Populist Convention in February, 1892 and his proposal later became part of the 1892 Ohio Populist platform.

            The following year major depression hit the country and it wasn’t until 1897 that the economy showed signs of improvement.  In 1893 alone some 500 banks closed and 16,000 businesses failed.  The depression left thousands unemployed, strikes were numerous, and agricultural production was affected as well.  Coxey’s own silica business suffered and he was forced to sell his horse farms.

            Coxey placed most of the blame for the depression on newspaper accounts which instilled fear of a currency crisis and caused gold-hoarding.  Although he believed there was definitely a shortage of money, his main concern was credit.  Coxey estimated that there was one billion dollars of currency for public exchanges and $500 million in bank reserves on the basis of which banks over-extended 4.5 billion dollars of credit and accepted commercial notes at security.  Coxey felt that cash wages provided by his good roads proposal would stimulate business, cause credit to flow, raise prices, etc.  When Coxey attended the American Bimetallic League Meeting [at the Chicago World’s Fair?] in 1893, he met Carl Browne and together they promoted Coxey’s good roads proposal.  On December 7, 1893, they announced the formation of the “J. S. Coxey Good Roads Association of the U. S.” with Coxey as president and Browne as secretary.

            Coxey wanted a permanent scheme to prevent economic crises.  In March, 1894, Coxey’s two bills – his Big Idea – were introduced in Congress by Populist Senator William Peffer.  The first was to issue $500 million in non-interest bearing bonds to finance a nationwide system of roads to be built by the unemployed.  The second proposed that any state or city improvement projects could deposit with the U. S. Treasury a non-interest bearing 25-year bond and receive Treasury notes in return for a charge of only one percent.  This one percent account for the phrase “money-at-cost” – that is, long term bonds bearing only enough interest to pay for printing, the proceeds go toward public works.  The solution required political divisions to issue the bonds to cover costs of public improvements.  The government was to issue the face value of the bonds in legal tender.  Bonds could be issued for any public improvement but each political subdivision was limited to a total equal to one-half its assessed property valuation.  Coxey argued that this would provide an automatic regulation of the economy; in a slump, local and state governments could employ workers for public improvements.  The new currency could stimulate private business to reemploy workers.

            Response in Congress and locally was negative.  So to dramatize the importance of the Big Idea, Coxey and Browne organized a march of industrial armies to Washington to persuade the government to print $500 million in legal paper money in order to put four million U. S. unemployed men to work building roads.  Browne was apparently the real “originator, organizer, and chief marshal.”  The “petition in boots” attracted national attention and newspaper accounts were not always accurate nor above ridiculing the effort.  Nevertheless, the march began in Massillon on a cold and damp March 25, 1894, with only about fifty men.  By one account, Coxey slept at the camp that night, then went to a hotel for breakfast and returned to camp urging the men to be steadfast.  The march took thirty-five days.  Coxey, dressed in a tattered union army uniform, traveled in a horse-drawn buggy.  Browne’s and Coxey’s “army” was met by other “armies” from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Butte, and Providence as well as individuals in Washington.  The total number was estimated between 4,000 and 6,000 men, on horseback, in wagons, or on foot.  Many communities hurried the commonweal army on as they feared that trouble or property damage might result.  The army went into camp in Washington and was granted permission to march down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Meeting on the Capitol lawn were prohibited, however, and when the leaders – Coxey, Browne and Christopher Columbus Jones – tried to make speeches there they were arrested for trespassing and given 20-day sentences, and $5 fines.  The army eventually dispersed.

            The march had received support from organized labor and the Populists and gained national recognition but basically, Congress did nothing.  Coxey’s non-interest bearing bond plan never got beyond the hearing stage but Coxey never gave up his fight for his Big Idea.  In addition to almost continuous campaigning, Coxey led another march to Washington in 1914.  He addressed only fourteen people in Washington although at times he spoke to thousands in stop along the way.  This time he rode in a wagon pulled by a Missouri mile with a sign that read “Jacob’s Ass” and again was ridiculed but he was at least allowed to speak on the Capitol steps.  Coxey returned to Washington in 1944 on the 50th anniversary of his first march.

            Coxey ran in his first political campaign for the Ohio legislature in 1885 in the twenty-first senatorial district but he received less than two percent of the votes.  This was only one of many political campaigns for Coxey.  It has been said that he was a candidate “more times than anyone can count,” and “under ever conceivable party label.”

            While in jail in Washington in 1894 Coxey was nominated for President by the Populist Party.  He polled 26% of the ballot in his district.  The following year he was the People’s Party candidate for governor of Ohio and again in 1897 on the issue of referendum and reform.

            During the early years of the twentieth century Coxey was preoccupied with business interests though he never really left the political scene.  In May of 1900 Coxey broke ground for three steel buildings to house furnaces.  He was plagued with problems, however; for example, workers struck quicksand when digging a pit for casting steel upright.  Additionally, it proved difficult to raise capital and recruit skilled laborers.  In 1902 his steel plant and Massillon quarry were given to a receiver and attempts to refinance were in vain; in November of 1904 he filed for bankruptcy.  His petition was accepted by the U. S. District Court in Columbus on April 15, 1905.  Coxey was left with a $285,000 debt.  By 1909, however, he had repossessed his Massillon quarry and held partial ownership of gold and silver mines in Nevada, an arsenic mine near Roanoke, Virginia and a factory making an arsenic pesticide at Norfolk.  He also organized a company to manufacture a gasoline-powered turbine engine and by 1913 he reportedly was a millionaire.

            In 1916, back in the political arena, Coxey was an independent candidate for Senator.  In the 1920’s, he set off with painted trucks and a large circus tent to tour the country in the interest of “money-at-cost.”  Motor trouble arrested the mission only 100 miles from Massillon, but sometime later he did tour the West.

            In the late 1920’s Coxey bought – reportedly for $17,500 – the famous red Minerva convertible which became somewhat legendary.  Its upholstery was alligator, its cover part mink, and its outside trim brass.  Coxey used the car both in political campaigns and when promoting the reforms he advocated.  Coxey never ceased to work for his monetary ideas.  During the Depression he even presented his plan to President Roosevelt in the form of a poem but this reportedly me with laughter and again, congress did nothing.

            In 1926 Coxey was the Republican candidate for representative to Congress in the 16th district; in 1928 he ran as the Republican candidate for U. S. senator of Ohio.  The only office to which Coxey was elected was that of Mayor of Massillon, a position which he held from 1931 to 1933.  He ran on the issue of public ownership of utilities and worked towards this goal through the term.  He was, however, defeated for reelection in 1933, 1941, and 1943.

            Coxey was the non-partisan candidate for U. S. Senator from Ohio in 1932 and he also tried to gain the Republican nomination for President.  Although delegated as Ohio’s preferred candidate, Senator Simean Fess, head of the Ohio delegation at the Republican convention, refused to recognize the papers certifying Coxey’s choice by a plurality of 26,987 votes in the primary and Coxey was eliminated from the nominations.

            Coxey ran again for E. S. Senator in 1934 on the Republican ticket, for President in 1939 on the Farm-Labor ticket, and for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1942.  He continued espousing his money at cost theories, however, and at one point, in 1937, spent several weeks in New York doing so.

            Always the businessman, Coxey re-discovered the theory of “galvanic action.”  He put it to use by marketing heel discs along with his “Cox-e-lax” – a mild laxative he swore by and supposedly drank for 50 years and to which in part he attributed his long life.  He put discs of copper and zinc alternately in the heel of shoes and the supposed chemical reaction provided relief from aches.  Coxey urged people to make their own as it was a simple process.

            At the age of 20, Coxey had married Caroline Ammerman with whom he had four children.  She sued for divorce in 1888 and 12 years later Coxey married Henrietta Jones with whom he also had four children – Legal Tender, Jacob, Jr., David, and Ruth Coxey Wilson.  Henrietta died on January 13, 1951 at the age of 84.  She had accompanied “General” Coxey on his march in 1894 with their first son who died shortly thereafter.

            Coxey was a life member of the American Trotting Association, a member of the Ohio Society of New York, and an honorary member of Hoboes of America.  He was also an enemy of prohibition and favored abolition of state and local control.  As early as the 1890’s he spoke in favor of women’s suffrage.  He was a reformer all his life.  He edited and published Sound Money, a newspaper which boasted a circulation of 14,000 within the first year.  His health steadily deteriorated after his wife’s death.  He suffered a stroke and died on May 18, 1951.  His funeral was attended by less than one hundred people and much publicity was given to the fact that Jeff Davis, “The Hobo King” and long-time friend of Coxey’s, was in attendance.  The Massillon flag flew at half-mast.  Coxey apparently died a poor man having spent his fortune promoting his ideas.  He was buried in Massillon Cemetery.  Massillon had been his home from 1881 until his death except for a period of about seven years when he lived in Mt. Vernon.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 


Hooper, Osman C. “The Coxey Movement in Ohio,” Ohio Archeological and Historical Quarterly, Vol. 9 (1901), pp. 155-176.

Howson, Embrey. Jacob Sechler Coxey: A Biography of A Monetary Reformer, 1854-1951. Embrey Bernard Hawson, 1973. (especially pp. 15, 16, 115-136, 269-271.)

Massillon, Ohio.  The Massillon Museum.  Case file on the Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers (“The Jacob Sechler Coxey Collection in the Massillon Museum” by David Palmquist)

Massillon, Ohio.  The Massillon Museum.  The Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers (Newspaper Clippings folders 57, 58, 59-72; Box 5, Folders 21-30; and Box 6, Folder 8.)

McMurray, Donald L.  Coxey’s Army: A Study of the Industrial Army Movement of 1894. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1929.

Vincent, Henry. The Story of the Commonweal Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1894.

See also:

Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan, and the People. Philadelphia and New York: F. B. Lippincott Company, 1964.

Nichol, Thomas. “Honest Money: An Argument in Favor of a Redeemable Currency.” Chicago, Illinois: Honest Money League of the Northwest, 1878 in Pamphlets Political – 1860-1884, at the Ohio Historical Society.

Unger, Irwin. The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Weinstein, Allen. Prelude to Populism: Origins of the Silver Issue, 1867-1878. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970.

NOTES TO RESEARCHERS

Provenance*:

            The Massillon Museum had for some time collected Coxey memorabilia including letter, photographs, and newspapers.  155 items were given to the Museum in 1971 by Mrs. Adele M. Coxey, who was married to Coxey’s son David for a time.  The bulk of Coxey’s papers, however, had been stored in a trunk in his attic.  These papers were owned by Mrs. Hugh Nile of Wellsville, Ohio, and used by Edwin Pugh for his master’s thesis “General J. S. Coxey, Politician” in 1957.  They consisted mainly of incoming letter to Coxey as well as family correspondence but also some business papers and miscellanea.  The printed material included over 1200 newspaper clippings, most of which were about Coxey.  Mrs. Nile gave the papers to the Mount Union College Library which in turn gave them on a permanent deposit to the Massillon Museum for conservation and filming.

            A letter from Coxey to F. L. Baldwin was given to the Massillon Museum by Miss E. DePeltquestangue.  A copy was transferred from The Baldwin Papers and integrated with the Coxey Papers.

            In an agreement made on August 17, 1973 between the Ohio Historical Society and the Massillon Museum, the Ohio Historical Society agreed to process the Coxey papers, prepare a final inventory, and prepare the collection for microfilming, as well as microfilm the collection.  The material was transferred on temporary deposit to the Ohio Historical Society in August, 1977.

            Six items from the Ohio Historical Society were integrated for filming only.  These consist of the five political broadsides in Box 3/Folder 3, and one stereoview in Box 5/Folder 14.  All other material is from the Massillon Museum.

            *Provenance was compiled from information in the case files of the Ohio Historical Society and the Massillon Museum.  Particularly helpful was the “Jacob Sechler Coxey Collection in the Massillon Museum” by David Palmquist.

Access:

            The Massillon Museum’s Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers are open for public use in the Massillon Museum under normal restrictions (please see rules for the Velma B. Erwin Research Room).  The six items belonging to the Ohio Historical Society are open for public use in the Library of the Ohio Historical Society.  The Ohio Historical Society’s microfilm edition of the Massillon Museum’s Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers is available for use at the Ohio Historical Society and at the Massillon Museum.

Finding Aids:

             A final inventory consisting of notes to researchers, a scope and content, a box/folder description, a biographical sketch, and a complete correspondence index has been prepared for the Ohio Historical Society’s microfilm edition of the Massillon Museum’s Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers.  Throughout the microfilm edition, a target has been filmed to indicate the contents of each folder.  Microfilm frames have been numbered consecutively.

To see the full inventory list of Jacob Coxey archival holdings in flipbook form, please click here.

Citation:

            Footnotes and bibliographical references to the Massillon Museum’s material should refer to the original material at the Massillon Museum and to the researcher’s use of the Ohio Historical Society’s microfilm edition.  An example is:

Guy Well to General Coxey, June 30, 1934—The Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. Papers, Massillon Museum (Ohio Historical Society’s microfilm edition of The Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. papers at the Massillon Museum, roll 1, frame 207)

            Reference to the six items belonging to the Ohio Historical Society should refer to the original material at the Society and to the microfilm edition.  An example is:

“On to Washington,” May 1, 1894—Broadsides, Political, Ohio Historical Society (Ohio Historical Society’s microfilm edition of the Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. Papers at the Massillon Museum, roll 3, frame 87)

Property Rights:

            Property rights to the Massillon Museum’s Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers reside with the Massillon Museum.  Property rights to the six items from the Ohio Historical Society reside with the Ohio Historical Society.  Property rights to the material which is on deposit from Mount Union College reside with Mount Union College.  The Ohio Historical Society exercises responsibility for physical custody of the master camera negative of the microfilm edition.  No duplication of the microfilm except paper prints not for resale may be made without written permission from the Ohio Historical Society.

Literary Rights:

            Literary rights to the Jacob S. Coxey, Sr. Papers have not been dedicated to the public.  Consideration of the requirements of literary rights is the responsibility of the author and his or her publisher.

Order Information:

            The microfilm edition may be purchased from the Microfilm Department of the Ohio Historical Society, Interstate 71 and 17th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio, 43211.

           For image and document reproductions arranged with the Massillon Museum, please see the rules, regulations, and fees. If you have questions, please email Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl.

Credits:

Cataloger, Author of the Final Inventory, and Preparator of the Microfilm Edition: Linda Elise Kalette
Project Supervisor: Gary James Arnold
Camera Operator: Delores M. Vikre
Microfilm Coordinator: Robert B. Jones
 

SCOPE AND CONTENT

            The Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. Papers, on microfilm, consist of two and three quarters linear feet of material (six Hollinger boxes).  In addition, there are over 1200 newspaper clippings, over thirty newspapers, and six broadsides.  The correspondence is arranged chronologically and is in boxes one and two.  The remainder of the collection is arranged alphabetically by type of material and chronologically within.  In most cases where there are duplicates, only one copy was filmed.  The material spans the period from 1872 to 1975.

            There is one linear foot of correspondence consisting of 550 letters from 241 correspondents.  This includes 100 outgoing letters (from Jacob Coxey Sr.), 41 letters from David Coxey, and 63 letters from Adele Schuster to David Coxey.  Many of the outgoing Jacob Coxey letters are copies and unsigned.  Correspondence pertains mainly to family matters, politics, monetary issues, Coxey’s bills, his marches to Washington, David Coxey, the Minerva car, and business concerns especially Cox-E-Lax, and electric heels.

            There is very little in the correspondence regarding Coxey’s famous march to Washington in 1894 although there is one letter written by him while in jail there.  Much of the correspondence from the 1920’s pertains to David Coxey.

            The newspapers and especially the clippings which date from 1890-1975, provide a rich source of information about Coxey and constitute the next largest group of material.  Among the newspapers are issues of Sound Money, the People’s Party Campaign Cactus, Coxey’s Daily, Coxey’s Highway, Money, and The Big Idea.

            Also included are a copy of The Story of the Commonweal (247 pages), bulletins, ten folders of congressional material, a piece of Coxey money, sixteen folders of financial records, several leaflets and pamphlets, papers of David Coxey, and numerous periodicals.  Audiovisual material includes seven stereoviews taken of Coxey’s Commonweal Army in 1894, some family photographs, and several pictures of Coxey.  Political campaign material dates from 1926-1943 and is also a good source of information.  Also included are numerous position statements, miscellaneous material, biographical material, and Edwin Pugh’s research material and master’s thesis about Coxey.

To see the full inventory list of Jacob Coxey archival holdings in flipbook form, please click here.

 
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