The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Shaw, Leslie Mortier
(November 2, 1848–March 28, 1932)

–17th governor of Iowa—was born on a farm in Vermont, the first son of Boardman Osias Shaw and Lavisa (Spaulding) Shaw. He helped his father on the farm and attended school with two goals: to get a higher education and move west to become a landowner. Upon graduation, he taught school and frugally saved his money until he had several hundred dollars. Then in 1869 he headed for Iowa, where his aunt and uncle lived in Mount Vernon.

    While attending Cornell College in Mount Vernon with his cousins, Shaw divided his time among selling fruit trees, teaching school, and working his way through college, graduating in 1874 with a B.S. He immediately entered the Iowa College of Law in Des Moines, graduating in 1876. Shaw settled in Denison to practice law. He married Alice Crawshaw on December 7, 1877. They had three children: Enid, Earl, and Erma.

    Starting out as an attorney, to pay office expenses Shaw sold fruit trees on the side, which later earned him the nickname "Old Apple Tree."Shaw had a gift for presenting his cases clearly and engaging the audience's attention, and is said to have won most of his cases.

    Shaw became interested in banking when he saw that farmer needed loans to operate their farms. In 1880 Shaw and his law firm partner, Carl F. Kuehnle, established the Bank of Denison, a private mortgage loan business, after inducing capitalists in Vermont to invest money in Iowa. Later Kuehnle and Shaw started banks in Manilla and Charter Oak.

    Shaw was also a leading layman in the local Methodist church and was superintendent of the Sunday school for 25 years. Each Sunday afternoon he would drive his horse and buggy to a country schoolhouse west of Denison, where he conducted an afternoon Sunday school class. Every morning after breakfast Shaw read scriptures from the Bible to his family, followed by prayer. Shaw was strict in matters of religion, and was opposed to dancing, which meant there were no inaugural balls when he later became governor.

    A popular orator on economic issues, particularly on his views of gold standard legislation, the Iowa Republican Party chose him to run for governor in 1897. Shaw's ability as a speaker was well known, and he often included a humorous story to bring his point home. Shaw incorporated homespun philosophy with a description of government finances in such a way that his audiences never lost interest.

    Shaw became governor of Iowa in 1898 and served two terms, ending in 1902. As governor, he established the Board of Control for Iowa's state institutions. He laid the cornerstone of the building for the Memorial, Historical, and Art Department; created the Library Commission; and established free public libraries and school libraries through out the state. He was the first governor of Iowa to drive a car.

    While Shaw was governor, he gained national attention for his speeches during presidential campaigns on the nation's finances. He campaigned while Theodore Roosevelt was running for vice president, and Roosevelt was impressed with Shaw's ability to captivate his audience while explaining financial issues in an understandable manner. When President McKinley was shot in 1901 and Roosevelt became president, he selected Shaw to be secretary of the treasury, where he served from February 1902 until March 1907. He was said to have averted several panics as a master of finance. He was hardheaded, logical, shrewd, and "apt to strain a point in order to help Wall Street out of scrapes into which the reckless financiers of the period were constantly plunging it."

    After leaving the cabinet, Shaw was president of banks in New York and Philadelphia, ultimately returning with his family to Washington, D.C., where he wrote and gave lectures throughout the country on finances and economic issues for the American Bankers Association. Shaw wrote two books: Current Issues (1908) and Vanishing Landmarks (1919). He advised banks and campaigned for every Republican presidential candidate until his death at the age of 83.

    Shaw died of pneumonia at his home in Washington, D.C. His remains were brought back to Iowa and placed in a mausoleum in Denison.
Sources include F. W. Meyers, History of Crawford County Iowa (1911); Benjamin Gue, History of Iowa (1903); Behind the Badge: Stories and Pictures from the DMPD (1999); Wm. R. Boyd, "Leslie Mortier Shaw," Annals of Iowa 34 (1958), 321–42; Earle D. Ross, "A Yankee-Hawkeye," Palimpsest 28 (1947), 353–66; "The Laying of the Cornerstone," Annals of Iowa 4 (1899), 146; "Notable Deaths: Boardman O. Shaw," Annals of Iowa 4 (1900), 398; Denison Review, 3/30/1932 and 4/30/1932; Plain Talk (Des Moines), 7/8/1926; New York Times, 3/28/1932 and 3/29/1932; Scranton (Pa.) Times, 3/30/1932; Hardwick (Vt.) Gazette, 4/7/1932; and Dale Maharidge, Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America through the Secrets of a Midwest Town (2005).
Contributor: Karon King