Posts Tagged ‘First Woman Selectman’

Eleanor Miller with son, Steven.

By Jeff Woodburn

Eleanor Miller could never have imagined how her husband’s short trip down to the village to vote in the annual town meeting election, on March 9, 1954,  could have propelled her into office and both she and her husband, Velma “Val”  Miller, into Whitefield’s history books. Both that day would invariably be entangled in one of the town’s biggest political controversies, and when it was all over Mr. Miller, who that day was re-elected as selectman, was forced out of office, and replaced by his wife, who became the town’s first female selectman.

As Mr. Miller climbed the steep steps of the town hall, he may have worried about his chances of being defeated, and as he passed through the doors of the old town hall, the 41-year old dairy farmer may have wondered if he had moved too fast in the controversial firing of the longtime police chief. Once inside the hall, he walked past his nemesis, Murray Clement, the police Chief that he discharged two years earlier. Little did Val Miller know that Mr. Clement had been waiting all day for him.  As Mr. Miller approached the election officials and requested a ballot, Mr. Clement dropped a bomb shell that would rock the town for weeks, immediately change the political landscape and become a permanent part of local political folklore. He challenged Mr. Miller’s right to vote because he was not a citizen of the United States.

The Challenge. Harold Burns, then a young ballot clerk, remembers the awkward scene. “We were all terribly surprised,” he said. After all, Mr. Miller, who grew up in Dalton and graduated from the Whitefield High School, had been a voter in town for 15 years. “The Moderator, Richard French” the “Coos County Democrat” reported, “did not permit the challenged man to vote as no affidavit of citizenship was presented to him.” Nonetheless, Mr. Miller was re-elected, but was not sworn in as selectman. Over the next several days while Mr. Miller tried to secure documents proving his citizenship, the controversy spread through town. The details were noticeably absent from the weekly issue of the “Coos County Democrat.” The publisher, Clinton White, decided as he later wrote “with open reluctance to withhold the story until the investigation was completed.” The “Union Leader”, the state-wide newspaper, smelled a rat and made charges of a cover up engineered by the Mr. White and town officials. The conservative paper and ardent supporter of the Red baiting Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism crusade wrote a provocative article leading with, “A Federal investigation is being conducted into the citizenship of the former Chairman of the Board of Selectmen.” The story included several key officials including Mr. Miller, Selectman Maynard Gallagher and town attorney Walter Hinkley either refusing to comment or contradicting each other. On March 24, the “Coos County Democrat” ran a front page story on the citizenship challenge and refuted the “Union Leader’s” accusations, and reminded readers that “the Lancaster paper had supported ex-chief Clement in… his dismissal,(and therefore) an extreme effort was made to be fair to Mr. Miller.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Miller continued to put the puzzle of his citizenship status together. The story was complicated from the start. There was no exact record of where Mr. Miller was born. It was believed that he had been born in Middlesex, NB on January 9, 1913, but his half-sister believes he could have been born in Orleans, Vt. or possibly in other locations near the U.S-Canadian border. Further complicating matters was the fact that Val’s mother, Cora Miller, was born a U.S. citizen, but when she married Frank Miller, a Canadian citizen, in 1904, she automatically lost her status as a U.S. citizen. That marriage ended in divorce in 1924, when Val was 11-years old. It was presumably then that Mrs. Miller and her children moved to Dalton. In 1936, she regained her U.S. citizenship, but by then her son, Val, was 23-years old and no longer under his mother’s guardianship.

Mr. Miller apparently had some doubt about his own citizenship status and in 1938; he consulted with an attorney about starting the Naturalization process. At this point, he was advised by the attorney that “he didn’t have to, he was a citizen anyway” according to an article in the “Coos County Democrat”. It was then that Mr. Miller registered as a voter in Whitefield. In 1951, he ran and was elected one of the town’s selectmen. By September, 1953, he sought to reopen the question of his citizenship presumably to dispel rumors circulating around Whitefield. He consulted Myron C. Hubbert, Acting Examiner of the U.S. Immigration Naturalization office in Berlin.

Immediately after the challenge Mr. Miller’s attorney, Walter Hinckley, of Lancaster, indicated that Mr. Miller was in fact a U.S. citizen. Three days after the challenge on Mach 12, 1954, Mr. Miller went to the Lancaster to see the Acting U.S. Immigration Naturalization Examiner Hubbard. It is not clear why Mr. Miller went to the Lancaster office, rather than the Berlin office where he began the inquiry five months prior. Possibly, Mr. Miller and Attorney Hinckley felt a more favorable response was likely, or conceivably they believed the Berlin office shared private details of the case with Mr. Miller’s accusers, ex-chief Murray Clement or one of his associates. The case was transferred to the St. Albans, Vt. Office and later Examiner Percy Gee ruled that Mr. Miller was not a U.S. citizen. The “Coos County Democrat” made it clear to note that Mr. Miller “had every reasonable cause to believe that he was a citizen and ran for public office in entirely good faith.”

The Chief. While former Chief Clement may have won his legal battle to remove Mr. Miller from his position as a selectman, but it was Val Miller who garnered the sympathy of Whitefield’s townspeople. “People were ticked off,” said Kenneth Russell, Sr., who remembers the incident. “Somebody did him (Val Miller) wrong.” The insertion of Mr. Clement on the political scene was reminder of the actions that lead to his removal as the police Chief. A former Boston and Maine Railroad fireman, Mr. Clement became chief in 1929, and reined over the relatively somber days of the Great Depression, prohibition and World War Two. The winds of change were in the air. Even in small towns like Whitefield, returning veterans and other young people wanted to enjoy life and have a little fun.  Chief Clement, a stout and portly man with a mean streak, was determined to keep a tight grip on his town. “His presence kept us in line,” recalls Kenneth A. Jordan “I was afraid of him.” He wasn’t the only one. Chief Clement was notorious for using so-called “twisters” to gain control over people he was trying to detain. “He demanded and received obedience with them on,” said Mr. Jordan. The “Coos County Democrat” described a twister as “a chain that will exert pressure without cutting and its use is legal when required.” Mr. Jordan said they would draw blood and he specifically remembers Chief Clement putting them on a drunk and twisting them until the man’s wrists were bloody. Even those, who defended Chief Clement, said he had a penchant for violence. Edward Boswell remembers him as being “pretty fierce, (but) fair.”  He too saw the Chief draw blood. Chief Clement “beat the hell out of old Dan Beaton for being hot (drunk)… and he wouldn’t get into the (police) car.”

After 23 years as chief, Mr. Cement’s power was solidified, but his enemy list was growing and his old school approach was wearing thin. On September 6, 1952, a 19-year old was arrested for reckless driving and according to the “Coos County Democrat” “was taken to the jail and he resisted arrest, kicking and thrashing around and hollering until twisters were put on his arms.”What happened next is not exactly clear, but at least two current residents remember that the police were having as Robert Stiles recalled “a beating party” at the police station and Charles Canton, a prominent business and civic leader, who lived directly across from the station, intervene. One thing led to another and ultimately, Mr. Canton in the words of his grandson, Steve Canton, began “thrashing the cop.” A week or so later 61-year old Mr. Cantin died of a heart attack. The police brutality incident was investigated by the County Solicitor (attorney), Whitefield District Court Justice Harold E. Kier and the “Coos County Democrat.” All stood behind Chief Clement. The “boy” and his father both refused to point the finger at the Chief Clement and the “Coos County Democrat” wrote, “the boy’s father told this newspaper… that the boy had not been injured at all,” and then concluded with “these statement are reported that circumstances will not give credence to exaggerated stories.” Apparently, the selectmen were not so convinced and on September 22, they signed a letter addressed to Chief Clement that “his services were no longer be required” and that Burton McLain, of Lancaster, had been appointed the new chief. No reasons were given as to why the long time chief was let go, and the Union Leader reported that the firing took place “only a few month before his date of retirement.”  The chairman of the Board of Selectmen was none other than Val Miller, who 17-months later would seek re-election.

Mr. Miller, the aspiring dairy farmer, had more pressing problems than to worry about the ex-chief. He had to build a barn. Six days after Murray Clement was fired, the town rallied together to rebuild the Miller’s barn, which had been lost by a $25,000 fire a year before. As many as 75 people participated in an old fashion “barn raising.” The Milk Pail, a dairy farming journal, wrote the “a new barn, the first of its kind in New England is completely fire proof”. Newspapers from as far away as Boston covered the event.  This public outpouring of support clearly demonstrated that most people thought, as Robert Stiles said, that “Val Miller was a helluva nice guy” and as Kenneth Jordan, Jr. said, most people were “glad that he (Clement) was gone.” “Everyone knew that Murray Clement hated my father,” said Joan Miller Bateson, and the reason was clear: Val Miller did something few people did he took on Murray Clement and won. By 1954, Mr. Miller was still popular, but that could not fix his citizenship problems.

The Woman.With Val Miller out, the remaining two selectmen, Maynard Gallagher and Edward MacDonald, needed to appoint a replacement to fill the 3-year term. Little information is available about the reasoning or the process, but the choice was both historic and defiant. The selectmen appointed Eleanor Miller, who became Whitefield’s first women selectmen. At 41, she was born before women had won the right to vote, but no grand announcements about the historic nature of the appointment came from her or anyone else. It just seemed like natural thing to do. “It just wasn’t a big deal at the time” recalls Kenneth A. Jordan.

Most observers believed the appointment was designed to give Val Miller the last laugh and not let Murray Clement get away with usurping the will of the voters. Some, like Robert Stiles, then a town employee, believed that Mr. Miller continued to call the shots. “Eleanor was appointed,” he said, “but Val did it.” Joan Miller Bateson remembers her mother as a loyal wife, but she “had a mind of her own.” To comprehend Mrs. Miller, one must understand the events that shaped her formative years and her all encompassing role as a farmer’s wife. She seems defined in a many way by the events of her time namely, Prohibition and the Great Depression.  In that era, the home was the central place to demonstrate piety and frugality, and within the shadows of their husbands and the culture of the time, many women were strong, influential partners. Nowhere were these partnerships more pronounced than on a farm, where the work never ended. The Millers got into farming when most people were getting out, and by Whitefield standards they were large. By the 1950’s, dairy farming was declining due to the centralization and standardization of dairy production.  State law and larger wholesalers, like H.P. Hood, for whom the Miller’s supplied milk, required expensive improvements to ensure milk sanitation. A large steel holding tank was a vivid sign of changing face of agriculture on the Miller’s farm. It was razed along with the farm to make way for the Weeks Medical Center a few years ago. Mrs. Miller dealt with the business side of the farm and although quiet, she was comfortable dealing with the many customers as well as wholesalers. Ruth Waid, who as a young girl worked for and lived with the Millers, said “Eleanor was hard working… more the type to listen (than talk.)” She “did not go all out for politics,” but she was principled.  There was at least one political view that Mrs. Miller cared deeply about, Mrs. Waid remembers, “No liquor whatsoever. I can safely say the she (Eleanor) was against drinking (and for prohibition).” Most remember her, as Peter Packard, then a young farm hand, as caretaker making sure everyone was well fed and looked after.

Mrs. Miller also had a background that surprised many, including her own children. In her early years, she worked at the State House in Providence, RI and later the North Providence city office. But all that was before she married Velma Miller, and thereafter, as a selectmen and even when she died unexpectedly in 1966 the news accounts referred to her as “Mrs. Velma Miller.” Her own name doesn’t even appear in her obituary, but it is affixed in the town’s history as are the events that lead to her appointment.

The sequence of events

March 5, 1951               Val Miller elected Selectman

September 6, 1952         Allegations of police brutality made against Police Chief Clement

September 22, 1952       Selectmen fire Police Chief Clement

September 28, 1952       Community “Barn-Raising” rebuild state of the art barn for the Miller’s farm

March 9, 1954

Ex-Chief Clement challenges Selectman Miller’s citizenship

March 30, 1954

Eleanor Miller appointed Whitefield’s first female Selectman


Val Miller becomes a Naturalized U.S. citizen

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