Kerr, Alice U. (1858-1949)

  • By Charles P. LeWarne
  • Posted 10/27/2007
  • Essay 8344
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Alice U. Kerr was elected mayor of Edmonds in December 1924, one of the first women mayors in Washington.  She served a single two-year term (1925-1927) occupied with issues of a small, growing city, and took a strong stance on some issues involving her views of lawlessness and morality, including the veto of a bill to repeal an ordinance regulating pool halls.  Before and after her tenure as mayor she was active in local civic and social activities.

Early Life in the Midwest

Kerr was born Alice U. Lewis on February 28, 1858, in Chicago where she was raised.  She married James Howard Kerr in 1879, and after 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. A Nebraska-born daughter died there.   

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.    

Moving to Edmonds

Then, in 1919, the family moved halfway across the continent to Edmonds.  With about 1,000 residents, the Puget Sound mill town offered a dramatically different environment from 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 also 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.   

Mayor Alice Kerr

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.  (“Says There Is Too Much”)

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.   (Flier)

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. 

Edmonds in the Twenties 

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.  (“Mrs. Kerr Takes 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."  (Whitfield, History, Vol. 1, p. 574).   

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

Pool Room Controversy

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.

Supporters of the repeal argued heatedly 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 (Edmonds City Council minutes, October 20, 1925).

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 that pool rooms posed a lesser menace to young people than did other institutions.

Official Duties and a Flaming Address 

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"  (“Mrs. Kerr Re-Elected”).   

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 (1868-1943), 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"  (“Entertain Edmonds City Officials”).   

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 1925, women 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.    

Edmonds Citizen

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 grandchildren, and great great grandchildren.  Services were held at the Edmonds Baptist Church, and her remains shipped to Ansley, Nebraska, to rest beside her husband.  

It was almost 70 years before another woman became mayor of Edmonds.  Laura Hall was elected 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.

Sources: Edmonds City Council Minutes, 1924-1927, microfiche in Edmonds City Hall; The Edmonds-Tribune Review, 1924-1927; Wm. Whitfield, Supervising editor, History of Snohomish County Washington, 2 vols. (Chicago & Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926); Marie Botnen, "Early Edmonds … City Has Woman Mayor," Ibid.,  February 12, 1969, pp. 1, 10; “Says There Is Too Much in Edmonds,” Seattle Star, December 8, 1924, p. 1; “Mrs. Kerr Takes Office as Mayor,” Ibid., January 9, 1925, p. 1; “Entertain Edmonds City Officials,” Ibid., June 12, 1925, p. 1; “City Pool Room Laws Removed,” Ibid., October 23, 1925, p. 1; “Mrs. Kerr Re-Elected Home Mission Executive,” Ibid., April 30, 1926, p. 1;  “James H. Kerr Passes Away,” Ibid., December 18, 1931, p. 1; “Local Boy on Casualty List,” Ibid., December 18, 1941, p. 1; “Mrs. Alice U. Kerr Former Mayor, Passes,” Ibid., August 11, 1949, p. 1;  “Many Pay Tribute at Funeral of Alice U. Kerr,” Ibid., August 18, 1949, p. 1; A. U. K., "What It Costs to Develop a New Country: A Pioneer Experience," Lincoln [Nebraska] State Journal, January 2, 1927 -- typescript in Edmonds Museum (Note: Although this is written in the third person it is clearly autobiographical); Mrs. J. H. Kerr, "What It Costs to Develop a New Country, Article  No. 2," typescript in Edmonds Museum; Flier announcing Mrs. Alice Kerr’s candidacy for mayor, Edmonds Museum.

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