Glenn Uminowicz - May 2009
Gas and Water Socialism
on the Eastern Shore
I stand now, and shall ever stand for the people. Insofar as in me lies, I shall checkmate all efforts to prostitute the rights of the masses to the interests of combines or classes or to that of any individual.
– Mayor Martin M. Higgins of Easton, 1910
In the public mind, he linked economic prosperity with an improved infrastructure. Moreover, he insisted that an activist progressive government served citizens better than any “money grasping utility company.” He admitted that civic improvements required an increase in taxes and that everyone needed to contribute their fair share. He demanded that all partisan, self-serving political bickering should be banished from policy-making decisions. At a time when the media was highly politicized, his actions were endorsed across the board. No one dared proclaim that they hoped he would fail. He was Mayor Martin M. Higgins of Easton.
Higgins was born in 1844 in Trappe. As a young man, he worked in stores in Trappe and Oxford. After moving to Easton in the 1860s, he became a storekeeper himself and eventually ran an insurance company. In the 1880s and ’90s, he launched his political career, serving in the House of Delegates and as Secretary of the State Senate. He remained a staunch Republican throughout his life.
In 1904, beginning with a series of letters in a local newspaper, Higgins led a popular movement for a new town charter for Easton that replaced the commissioner form of government established in the 18th century with a mayor and town council. In 1906, Higgins himself was elected mayor under the new charter.
From the very beginning of his term, Higgins revealed himself to be a representative of the Progressive Movement. This wide-ranging reform movement was national in scope and defied easy definition. It encompassed issues ranging from the trust-busting activities of President Theodore Roosevelt to women’s suffrage. Broadly speaking, progressives advocated good government, social justice, an individual’s obligation to provide public service, and the regulation of business.
Regarding approaches to regulation, historian George Brown Tindall observed that two extreme methods presented themselves to Americans. First, a strictly laissez-faire approach provided for little or no regulation, allowing business leaders to work out their own solutions to public safety and economic issues. In the late 19th century, however, this approach resulted in a boom and bust cycle in which periods of prosperity were punctuated by major economic downturns. In contrast to the business model, the socialist alternative endorsed public ownership in major areas of the economy. Prior to World War I, the socialist movement was by no means insignificant. By 1912, membership in the Socialist Party stood at 125,000. In that year, over 350 socialists held office in local governments, including the mayors of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Berkeley, California.
The one area where public ownership gained wide national acceptance centered on public utilities at the municipal level, so-called “gas and water socialism.” Upon election to office in 1906, Mayor Higgins declared his intention to remake Easton into a “sweet-smelling, clean, healthful and beautiful town.” His career as a gas, water, sewer, electric and paved street socialist was launched.
At first, things did not always favor the mayor. He admitted that constituents expected improvements to become evident quickly, not recognizing that the results of several decades of lethargy needed to be overcome. Throughout his mayoral career, Higgins railed against townspeople and political foes who did not want their quiet “Rip Van Winkle state” disturbed by his “wide-awake” progressive administration.
In 1908, however, voters awoke to the actual cost of Higgins’ proposals to construct an electric plant and a town-wide sewer system. They voted down the proposals by a wide margin and booted Higgins out of office.
Undaunted, the former mayor maintained the drumbeat for sanitation and civic improvements. Admittedly, Higgins had a valid point. Like many small towns, Easton’s streets were muddy when wet and dusty when dry. Sidewalks and curbing were lacking and, without a sewer system, the town could be less than sweet-smelling at times. Higgins pointed out that other Eastern Shore communities had invested in infrastructure and were growing at a faster rate than Easton. In support of his second bid for mayor in 1910, a local newspaper ran a cartoon entitled “AS OTHERS SEE US.” A horse was pictured splashing mud on a storefront and a passing pedestrian as a man struggled with a shovel to clear the street. The caption read, “This condition has been the greatest drawback in Easton. It will never be improved until sewers are installed and our streets paved.”
Moreover, electric and gas service provided by a privately owned company proved hardly adequate. Higgins described the firm as offering a “very disgusting quality of product.” In 1910, he renewed his call for sewer construction, paved roads and publicly owned utilities. This time voters responded favorably. They reelected Higgins as mayor and endorsed his plans for sewer construction and street work.
In June 1911, a pick-wielding Mayor Higgins strode into the middle of Washington Street. As one newspaper described it, the mayor then “Smote the Earth,” signaling the start of the sewer project. (Actually, some reports had it that Higgins needed to smite the oyster-shell-paved street several times before making a dent.)
Easton benefited from the first complete sewer system constructed in any Maryland municipality. In the early 20th century, privately owned companies often provided sewer service to well-off neighborhoods first, often leaving those “across the tracks” with no service at all. In his 1911 mayoral report, Higgins declared, “I am for municipal ownership.”
In 1914, his third term as mayor drew to an end and Higgins was appointed to the local utilities commission. One year later, a municipally owned electric plant went into operation. In 1923, Higgins served on the commission to purchase the gas plant. In short, over a period of several decades, Martin M. Higgins’ gas, water, sewer, electric and paved street socialist vision became reality. The mayor eventually chronicled his town’s progress in his modestly titled History of the Reincarnation of Easton (1926).
Of course, Higgins never intended to create a People’s Republic of Easton. He often insisted that government needed to be conducted along “sound business lines.” Like Theodore Roosevelt at the national level, Higgins built a coalition of progressive and conservative supporters. Local business leaders, for example, served on the public utilities commissions. In part, the success of progressive reforms resulted from the inclusion of conservative-leaning citizens within an activist government.
In 1914, as Higgins transitioned from being mayor to a seat on the utilities commission, Eastonians engaged in their annual spring “Clean City Day.” Started during Higgins’ term as mayor, this effort enlisted school children, boy scouts, and church, civic and business groups. They removed trash, swept sidewalks, cleaned yards and distributed “public fly traps.” The newspaper carried articles by the town engineer and local physicians on the benefits of sanitation.
Upon taking office in 1906, Mayor Higgins insisted that awakening civic pride was the first step in creating a “sweet-smelling, clean and beautiful town.” Clean City Day proponents intended to engage the whole community in a civic exercise. A local editor observed, however, “If the movement is communistic, even more is it individualistic. The perfect whole of anything is the coalescence of units that harmonize. The ultimate success of the clean city movement lies with you, the individual.”
Throughout his political career, Martin M. Higgins believed in an activist government that protected the health and welfare of local citizens. It also benefited private businesses. Higgins insisted, “A well-built piece of road is an inspiration.” It testified to the “solidity of a community.” It also carried residents and visitors to the doors of downtown merchants. Not just on Clean City Day, Higgins continually sought the coalescence of units that harmonized in his town. His legacy remains in the form of the Easton Utilities Commission that manages the town’s publicly owned utilities. Every time an Easton resident flushes or flicks on a light switch, they should thank Mayor Higgins.