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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Clarke, George Washington
(October 24, 1852–November 28, 1936)

–21st governor of Iowa—was born in Shelby County, Indiana, one of three children of John and Jane (Akers) Clarke. When he was four, the family moved to a farm outside Drakeville, Davis County, Iowa. There Clarke worked on the farm in the summer and went to school in the winter, and later walked the four miles to and from high school in Bloomfield, the county seat. Upon leaving school, he became a teacher, first in the country, then in Drakeville, and finally in Bloomfield.

    In 1874 Clarke went to Oskaloosa College, graduating in 1877. The next year he enrolled in the Law Department of the State University of Iowa, where he obtained his law degree. After graduation and admission to the bar, he settled at Adel, Dallas County. He was elected justice of the peace and formed a law partnership with John B. White in 1882 that lasted until he was elected governor in 1912. On June 23, 1878, he married Arlette Greene. The Clarkes had two sons and two daughters.

    Clarke's state political career started in 1900, when he was elected a Republican representative for Dallas County to the 28th General Assembly. He made his mark, and upon reelection to the 29th General Assembly, he became chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He was elected Speaker of the House for the 30th and 31st General Assemblies. He proved to be an outstanding Speaker, conspicuously fair-minded, punctilious, and a fine orator on state occasions. Next, he was elected lieutenant governor in 1908 and 1910, and again proved a popular presiding officer in the state senate.

    In 1912 Clarke was nominated as the Republican candidate for governor. The Roosevelt Progressives split the Republican vote that year, so that Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidential vote in Iowa, with Roosevelt second and Taft, the regular Republican candidate, third. However, Clarke, as a regular Republican candidate for governor, obtained a narrow plurality over the Democratic candidate, with the Roosevelt Progressive candidate third.

    As governor, Clarke was particularly concerned about the decline of rural schools, for, as he said, "the necessities of farm life almost preclude the farm boy from the town high school.... If he cannot come to the high school in town then the high school must go to the country."His solution was the consolidation of country schools: "Here would be the stimulus, excitement and interest that come from numbers."Clarke's plan began to work, for in 1915 he could speak of legislation enabling state aid to consolidated schools, the right to acquire up to five acres for school grounds, and the establishing of public recreation and playgrounds for schools. He could list the achievements of more children in school, the highest pay ever for teachers, 49 new high school buildings, better schools, and, in the two preceding years, an increase of 64 consolidated schools out of a state total of 80 such schools in Iowa.

    With Clarke's slogan–"All that is done hereinafter in the improvement of our roads ought to be with the view of permanency"– the Road Law of 1913 was passed. It included a powerful State Highway Commission at Ames. With other road legislation, the 1913 law brought in a new era of road making and bridge building in Iowa.

    Clarke maintained that Iowa's laws "with reference to industrial accidents are entirely inadequate, inapplicable, unjust and wasteful to both parties."He determined to take action on industrial deaths and maiming. He maintained that the burdens should be laid on all as part of the cost of production. The General Assembly duly passed the Employer's Liability and Workmen's Compensation Act.

    The greatest controversy during Clarke's time as governor came in 1914 in his campaign for reelection. In his inaugural address and again in a special message on March 26, 1913, Clarke advocated the extension of the capitol grounds by purchasing more land. Clarke maintained that the grounds were inadequate now and would be entirely inadequate in the future, and that beautification was required. The 33rd General Assembly duly passed the Capitol Extension Bill.

    By 1915 the executive council's spending would reach nearly a million dollars on 175 lots for the Capitol Extension scheme. During his 1914 reelection campaign, first Clarke's Republican opponents and then his Democratic opponents claimed that the rate of spending on the Capitol Extension was highly extravagant. Clarke fought them off and defended the members of the General Assembly who had supported the Capitol Extension, successfully saving some of them from defeat. In the event, Clarke was reelected by an overwhelming majority.

    Clarke retired as governor in 1917, and for a year was dean of the law school at Drake University. Then he quietly returned to life as a lawyer at Adel.
Sources include Johnson Brigham, Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens (1915); Edgar R. Harlan, A Narrative History of the People of Iowa (1931); and Emory H. English, "George W. Clarke," Annals of Iowa 33 (1957), 553–71.
Contributor: Richard Acton