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Hammill, John
(October 14, 1875–April 6, 1936)

–24th governor of Iowa—was born in Linden, Iowa County, Wisconsin, the son of George and Mary (Brewer) Hammill, both of English ancestry. When he was 13, the family moved to a farm near Britt, Hancock County, Iowa. He graduated from Britt High School in 1895, and two years later obtained an LL.B. from the College of Law, State University of Iowa. After admission to the bar, Hammill practiced law in Britt. In 1899 he married Fannie B. Richards, born in Garner, Iowa. The couple had no children.

    In 1902 Hammill was elected county attorney and was reelected in 1904. Next he was a state senator from 1908 to 1912. He was elected Republican lieutenant governor in 1920 and reelected in 1922. When Governor Nathan Kendall became ill in 1922, Hammill was acting governor for 10 weeks. He was elected governor in his own right in 1924 and was reelected in 1926 and 1928, winning each election by huge majorities. In 1930 he lost the primary for U.S. senator and voluntarily retired as governor after three terms in office.

    Hammill's greatest achievement lay in highway improvement. When he became governor, Iowa was known as "the Mud Roads State of the Union."Under his stewardship, by "legislating, locating, grading, draining and bridging" its primary roads, Iowa became one of the "best road states of the Union."Secondary roads had been the responsibility of counties and townships. The new Secondary Road Law consolidated control of all of them with the counties, reducing the number of administrative officials from 5,500 to 400 and producing practical administrative units. Secondary road funds were consolidated and simplified. As a result, hundreds of miles of secondary roads were graded and surfaced with gravel.

    Chaos had reigned over the state-run primary roads. Hammill brought order. Financial confusion gave way to a gasoline tax of two cents per gallon and later three cents per gallon, with five-ninths allocated to the primary roads and four-ninths to the secondary roads. When Hammill became governor, Iowa had fewer than 600 miles of paved primary roads and 2,500 miles of gravel roads. When he left office, Iowa had 3,340 miles of paved primary roads and 2,420 miles of gravel roads. When he came to office, 24 percent of the primary road system was unimproved; on his leaving office, only 3 percent remained unimproved. Hammill had drag ged Iowa "out of the mud."

    Hammill had many other achievements. A keen tax reformer, he could boast of reducing the state millage levy and the assessed valuation of property. Moreover, a State Board of Assessment and Review was created, which added millions to the assessment roll and drafted a program for tax reform. In agriculture, Hammill created the Iowa Industrial and Agricultural Commission, which played an important part in laying the groundwork for Congress to consider the farmer' cause. The commission also produced evidence that led to the reform of the Chicago Grain Market.

    The governor himself visited Washington, D.C., and played a part in the Federal Tariff Commission, which raised the tariffs on butter and corn. He also created a commission of 11 midwestern governors and 11 farm leaders, legislators, and professors–"The Committee of Twenty-Two"—which aroused legislative and public opinion in favor of various farm relief projects.

    In banking, many of Hammill's recommendations were embodied in "the most comprehensive recodification of the banking laws that Iowa has ever undertaken since banking was set up in this state."This reform was a model for other states in renewing their banking laws.

    Although women had had the vote since the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Iowa Constitution still insisted on males only being members of the General Assembly. In 1925 Hammill strongly urged the adoption of a constitutional amendment to delete this anomaly from the Iowa Constitution. "The women are to be highly commended and complimented in the thorough-going interest which they are taking in public affairs," he said. The amendment was ratified by referendum in 1926.

    Hammill was the first Iowa governor to mention aviation to the General Assembly. The legislature followed his lead and passed a law establishing air traffic rules and licensing of aircraft and airmen.

    When Governor Hammill left office, he returned to Britt, where he practiced law and looked after his three model farms in Hancock County. He died of a heart attack on a business trip to Minneapolis; he was 60 years old.
Sources include Governor Hammill's Third Biennial Message, Iowa House Journal (1931), 34–93; a front-page obituary in the Des Moines Register, 4/7/1936; and Earl B. Delzell, "Iowa Governors Who Were Masons: John Ham-mill Twenty-fourth Governor of Iowa," Grand Lodge Bulletin 39 (February 1938), 428–32.
Contributor: Richard Acton