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


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Short, Wallace Mertin
(June 28, 1866–January 3, 1953)

–Congregationalist minister, mayor of Sioux City, gubernatorial candidate, and labor journalist—was born on a farm near College Springs, Iowa, close to the Iowa-Missouri border. He attended the nearby Amity Academy, then Beloit College, eventually graduating from Yale Seminary as a Phi Beta Kappa in 1896. He married May Belle Morse that same year, and they had a daughter, Emily, and adopted two sons, John and Burton.

    In an era when the Social Gospel was prominent, Short was strongly influenced by the theology of Washington Gladden. Politically, he was a disciple of the Wisconsin Progressive Robert M. La Follette. Short's career as a clergyman spanned more than two decades, 1896-1918, when he served Congregational churches in Evansville, Wisconsin; Kansas City; and finally the First Congregational Church in Sioux City, where he added 250 members to the church's rolls between 1910 and 1914. He was an articulate pastor from the pulpit, was fluent with his pen as he authored sermons and tracts, and expressed a strong interest in community affairs. Unfortunately for Short's ministerial career, he tangled with the growing power of the Anti-Saloon League, as he refused to lend support to the organization or permit it to conduct programs in his church. It was also discovered that Short, seeking to express support for working folk, had become a member of the bartender's union in Kansas City. Short's continued opposition to prohibition (he thought that temperance was a matter of personal self-discipline) led to his dismissal in 1914 and ultimate defrocking by the hierarchy of the Congregational church. He proceeded to establish a new congregation, Central Church, in September 1914, which he served for the next four years. A minority of his First Church congregation followed him into his new church, which was located in a Sioux City theater.

    The controversial pastor's Social Gospel message and sympathy for the working class attracted the attention of Sioux City union leaders, who urged him to run for mayor in 1918. Short obliged, running on a platform espousing open government, a beautification program, economy, honesty, justice, and the golden rule for every person whether "worth a dollar or a million."The six-year tenure that followed his electoral victory was among the most turbulent in the city's history.

    In June 1918 one of Sioux City's major landmarks, the Ruff Building, collapsed, killing 39 people. Critics blamed the mayor for weak appointees who failed to enforce inspection codes. The mayor further alienated the conservative business community by defending free speech rights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), permitting them to meet in Sioux City and even addressing the group. He further enlarged his reputation as a "radical" by traveling to Chicago and speaking in defense of 100 "Wobblies" charged with violating the Espionage Act. Short was not sympathetic to radicalism, but believed that all citizens were entitled to free speech. His activities, however, led his opponents to force a recall election. The charismatic Short survived with an overwhelming victory and won two more elections in 1920 and 1922. He strongly defended labor during a bitter meatpacking strike in 1921 and a strike of railroad shopmen in 1922.

    Mayor Short also battled the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which was strong in Iowa during the 1920s. By 1924 he felt destined for higher office, but was defeated in his bid to achieve the Republican nomination for Congress. Two years later Short was thwarted in an effort to regain the mayoralty.

    By then in his late 50s, Short turned to a career in journalism. In 1927 he founded the Unionist and Public Forum. During the 1930s, the paper had more than 2,000 subscribers in Sioux City, and as many as 3,700 copies were printed, some of which were read by Iowa legislators. The paper demonstrated Short's support for the cause of both farm and labor elements in Iowa. Short and his paper backed the farmer who opposed mandatory bovine testing for tuberculosis, endorsed Milo Reno and his Farm Holiday movement, and helped organize the small but vocal Iowa Farm Labor Party.

    Still active in politics, Short was elected to the state legislature in 1930, but was swept out of office along with other Republicans in the Democratic landslide of 1932. He attempted to win the Republican nomination for governor in 1934, but won fewer than 25,000 votes. As the Farm Labor candidate for governor in 1936, 1938, and 1940, he received only minimal support. When he earned only 1.2 percent of the state vote in 1940, the party was eliminated from future ballots.

    Defeat did not remove the aging editor from political controversy. During the 1930s, he was attracted to Huey Long, William Lemke, and, for a time, Father Charles Coughlin, although he repudiated the cleric's anti-Semitic harangues. World War II brought him briefly into the Roosevelt camp, but by 1948 Short was supporting Henry A. Wallace 's quest for international peace and social justice. Meanwhile, Short, suffering from criticism from local union leaders along with advancing years and poor health, sold the paper he had edited for more than 20 years. Absent Short's leadership, the Unionist and Public Forum soon disappeared.

    Throughout his career, Short's politics contained both liberal and conservative elements. He never wavered in his advocacy of civil liberties, deplored both racism and religious intolerance, fought for unions both as mayor and editor, saw the family farm as the bulwark of American civilization, opposed the sales tax because of its impact on working people, and was a strong advocate of pensions. But he also feared too much centralized authority at the federal level and opposed a number of New Deal programs. Throughout his life, as a champion of common folk, Short remained faithful to the motto of his paper: "This is our country. It is a place for us to be happy in; not merely a place for a few to get rich in."

    When Short died in 1953, the New York Times noted that a "one time stormy figure in Iowa politics had died."Throughout his life Short had championed unpopular causes, waged spectacular battles, and led an often losing struggle to enhance the cause of the dispossessed. He was highly educated, but possessed charisma and the courage to attract attention and sometimes make himself a major force in Iowa local and state politics for half a century.
Sources An extensive survey of the long career of Wallace M. Short is in William H. Cumberland, Wallace M. Short, Iowa Rebel (1983). See also May Morse Short, Just One American (1943). A number of Short's publications and papers are in the Sioux City Public Museum and in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Short's relationship with the IWW is described in William H. Cumberland, "Plain Honesty: Wallace Short and the I.W.W.," Palimpsest 61 (1980), 146–60.
Contributor: William H. Cumberland