LOSCHO Womens Legacy ProjectThe Women's Legacy Project of Snohomish County, Washington seeks to honor our foremothers by recording and sharing their personal histories, their ability to adapt to the forces of change and their constant vigilance as stewards of the diverse cultures of our society.
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WLP Story Number 33 ~ 

ALICE U. KERR ~ MAYOR OF EDMONDS, 1925-27
By Charles Le Warne
 

In December 1924, Edmonds narrowly elected Alice U. Kerr as mayor, one of the first women to lead a Washington city.

Kerr was born Alice U. Lewis on February 28, 1858, in Chicago and raised there. After marrying James Howard Kerr in 1879, and the births of three children, the family homesteaded on the prairies of central Nebraska. The hardships of life in a “dugout” home and then a sod house, she believed, helped shape character. Such women worked alongside the men. The several neighbors, however scattered, enjoyed social gatherings, religious observances, and music. She taught school to her own and neighboring children and in time the family built a frame house.

But town life beckoned, and the Kerrs moved in the early 1890s to nearby Ansley. He ran a mercantile business and both engaged in Ansley’s civic and social life.

Then, in 1919, the family moved halfway across the continent to Edmonds. With about 1000 residents, the Puget Sound mill town offered a dramatically different environment than the Nebraska prairies. The couple joined the First Baptist Church and Alice was elected assistant clerk. She became active in local and statewide Baptist circles and was president of the Edmonds Coterie Club, a women’s group that promoted cultural and social activities. Many women who sought political office during that time had their grounding in such organizations, but Kerr chafed at being called a clubwoman.
She entered the race for mayor late in 1924 at the behest of citizens decrying lax public behavior and poor law enforcement.  "There has been too much booze, too many pool hall disturbances and too slack an administration of the law here for the public good, " Kerr told one audience.  With Mayor Matt C. Engels unopposed for reelection, she entered only two days before the final vote and did not conduct a formal campaign.  Single-page fliers announced that “Mrs. Alice Kerr" was running at the request of "an earnest group of representative citizens of Edmonds wishing a change of city administration."  A "sticker" candidate, she asked voters to write her name on the ballot.  

On the first count a single vote defined her victory over Mayor Engels who gained two recounts before the City Council awarded Kerr the victory by 163 to 159. Despite stated concerns about lax law enforcement, Kerr early on assured residents that rumors about radical changes were unfounded.

At the next council meeting, "the city hall [was] filled with people, breathlessly listening to every part of the proceedings" as Alice Kerr was formally introduced by Mayor Engels and sworn into office. After Engels noted his accomplishments, his successor pledged to carry out official duties to the best of her abilities, acknowledging two sides to every question. She received a box of flowers from citizens, and the process of governing the city got underway, much of the work mundane. Edmonds in the middle 1920s was a fast growing town socially and economically: "a live, busy industrious little city of which they may well be proud."

Thus, most of Kerr's concerns during two years as mayor were those of a growing town that needed to develop infrastructure and meet such needs as street expansion and paving, lighting, and parking ordinances. Waterfront improvements were made and a new ferry landing built. A new fire truck was purchased, and there were city beautification projects. Most encountered little opposition.

Then, the arrest of a pool room owner who had allowed a young boy to buy candy in the confectionary area of his business prompted controversy. City regulations did not allow minors in such establishments, but the owner denied he had to comply. Council members proposed to repeal the ordinances that governed the control and licensing of pool rooms.

In a “heated discussion” supporters argued that pool rooms were the only businesses paying city license fees that did not allow minors to enter their front rooms to purchase candy or ice cream, or to get haircuts. Nor was there evidence that pool halls contributed to crime. One council member suggested that the city should own and operate such establishments. The discussion extended to whether women should be allowed in pool rooms. The ordinance to repeal passed by a five to two vote, but Mayor Kerr’s opposition prompted applause from the audience.

 
A week later, Mayor Kerr issued a formal veto message outlining why she considered it "unwise to do away with all restrictions governing these places." Her veto, the first to occur in seven years, prevented the law from going into effect unless the council overrode it. She cited a United States Supreme Court ruling that pool rooms and card rooms required restrictions and argued that removing such restrictions would deny home rule. Furthermore, "a wide open, unrestricted, law defying policy would be unjust to our minors, disloyal on the part of the Mayor, and unfair to the law-abiding citizens of Edmonds." Her closing statements reflected her moral standards: "To serve as a city official, required sacrifice, subjects one to public criticism, but does not demand a surrender of moral convictions, or principle." She argued that “no self-respecting Mayor will fail to exercise the high privilige [sic] and duty of safe-guarding to the best of his ability, the youth of her city, the rights of law-abiding citizens and expressing a wholesome regard for the laws of the State of Washington." Thus, she refused to sign the ordinance.

The council overruled the veto by the same five to two margin though supporters claimed they might prepare a more satisfactory alternative. One member suggested other institutions posed a "greater menace to our young people than pool rooms."  

Kerr’s moralistic stance was reflected when she proclaimed a nightly nine o’clock curfew for children.  But she did not entirely blame the youth for unruliness.  To a Baptist women’s conference she delivered a flaming address condemning “high-powered cars, guaranteed to make from sixty-five to ninety miles an hour” along with bootleggers and booze distillers who “give the youth their hell's brew. . . . Let's put the blame where it belongs, and confess that the example set by the grown-ups makes the honest parent pity the rising generation." 

Mayor Kerr led an Edmonds delegation to visit Seattle officials.  They conferred with Mayor Edwin J. Brown, a onetime Edmonds resident who that day announced he would run for the U. S. Senate.  The party’s luncheon hostess was city council president Bertha Knight Landes, soon to be elected mayor of Seattle, the first woman to head a large American city.  Mayor Kerr later addressed the council offering thanks and a welcome to Edmonds, "the sleeping porch of Seattle." 

Kerr's official functions were carried out with little regard for her gender, although newspapers often referred to her as Mrs. J. H. Kerr or Mrs. Kerr, even though official documents used the name of Alice U. Kerr. In March of 1925, ladies of the Baptist Church threw her a surprise birthday party with a decorated cake and an afternoon of quilting; a similar event would not likely have been reported had the mayor been male. When she left office, the Edmonds Coterie presented her with "a beautiful mirror," on behalf of the ladies of Edmonds.

Mayor Kerr declined to run for re-election, but she remained active in civic and church affairs, the Coterie, and the Edmonds Music and Arts Study Club.  James H. Kerr, died on December 15, 1931. A decade later their 26-year-old grandson became the Edmonds’s first casualty of World War II.  A naval officer, he was killed during early Japanese attacks on the Philippines. 

Alice Kerr was 91 years old when she died early on Wednesday, August 10, 1949.  Her three remaining children all lived in Edmonds, and she also left grandchildren, great grand children, and great great grandchildren.  Services were held at the Edmonds Baptist Church, with her remains shipped to Ansley, Nebraska, to rest beside her husband. 

Not until half a century after Kerr’s term as mayor did other women hold elective office in Edmonds.   Several served on the council and two went on to the mayor's office:  Laura Hall in 1992, succeeded four years later by Barb Fahey.  Alice Kerr was not forgotten.  Another successor, Mayor Gary Haakenson, took the lead in naming public rooms in the City Hall for notable predecessors; a second floor conference room honors Alice U. Kerr.

 
SELECTED SOURCES

Edmonds City Council Minutes, 1924-27, microfiche in Edmonds City Hall.
The Edmonds-Triune Review, 1924-27.
Marie Botnen, "Early Edmonds . . . City Has Woman Mayor," Edmonds Tribune- Review, February 12, 1969.
“Mrs. Alice U. Kerr Former Mayor, Passes,” Edmonds Tribune-Review, August 11, 1949, p. 1.
A. U. K., "What It Costs to Develop a New Country: A Pioneer Experience," Lincoln [Nebraska] State Journal, January 2, 1927. Also typescript in Edmonds Museum. The article is written in the third-person but is clearly autobiographical.
Mrs. J. H. Kerr, "What It Costs to Develop a New Country, Article #2," typescript in Edmonds Museum.
“James H. Kerr Passes Away,” Edmonds Tribune-Review, December 18, 1931, p. 1.

 
2007  Charles LeWarne  All Rights Reserved