19. Martin L. Davey: Horation Alger in the New Worlds of Tree Care and Partisan Politics
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HILE MARTIN Davey was struggling to save the Davey Tree Expert Company during the Great Depression, James Truslow Adams published his Epic of America (1931) in which the Pulitzer prize–winning historian pondered the status of the American Dream. The Dream moved in the world of numbers, exploit, and money, but its more complex formulation reflected the vision of “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller” for everyone , with “opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement .” The Dream was the very soul of the nation, and it separated Americans from the nations of Europe. When the Depression lingered year after year, however, many grew bewildered over the meaning of the Dream. Martin Davey was not among them, for he saw himself as the exemplar of the Dream. He was born on July 25, 1884, in Kent, Ohio, the third of seven children of John Davey and Bertha Reeves. In 1907, Martin married Bernice Chrisman, with whom he had four children. In his twenties, he undertook a leadership role in the family tree care business and built it into a modest-sized company. Soon thereafter he entered politics, and at age twenty-nine began the first of three terms as mayor of Kent. After his stint as mayor, he served four nonsuccessive terms as a U.S. congressman (Democrat) from Ohio’s Fourteenth District. His defeat in the Ohio gubernatorial race in 1928 laid the groundwork for two successful campaigns for governor in 1934 and 1936. As Ohio’s fifty-third governor, he saw a state that was experiencing all the harsh problems of the Great Depression, including closed banks 19 240 Martin L. Davey: Horatio Alger in the New Worlds of Tree Care and Partisan Politics RONALD LORA  W vantne_3rd_chap19.qxd 11/10/2003 3:34 PM Page 240 and schools, soaring unemployment, and bankrupt local governments . The stormy politics of Depression-era Ohio led to his defeat for renomination in 1938, and two years later, after winning the Democratic primary election in 1940, he lost heavily to incumbent governor John Bricker. Following his defeat, Davey retired from politics to devote his energies to the Davey Tree Expert Company, which he continued to serve as president until he died on March 31, 1941. A Horatio Alger Story The popular Horatio Alger books, published during the last decades of the nineteenth century, provided a formulaic version of the American Dream: a poor boy could become a millionaire, a peddler a rich merchant, and a farm boy a president. The Alger hero—honest, manly, and ambitious—was on alert for his main chance in life. The goal was to be successful. 241 MARTIN L. DAVEY FIG. 15 Martin L. Davey. Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society. vantne_3rd_chap19.qxd 11/10/2003 3:34 PM Page 241 If we make allowances for a life lived in the twentieth century, Martin Davey’s life in many ways reflects the Alger version of the Dream. No evidence exists that Davey had read Struggling Upward, a classic Horatio Alger story of success, but his unpublished autobiography resonates with its central point: Luke Larkin (the hero) “has struggled upward from a boyhood of privation and self-denial into a youth and manhood of prosperity and honor.” Luck played a role, but “he is indebted for most of his good fortune to his own good qualities.” Martin Davey’s father did not die while Martin was young, but the son was born poor. In his autobiography, he stated: “[Father] never knew how to handle money very well. The result was that he went deeper and deeper into debt. . . . What I can remember is the misery of my own suffering, and how I cried and cried for Mother to get me some mittens.” Just as bitter was the derision it brought: “The circumstances under which I grew up—poverty, debt, and the ridicule of other children—instilled in me a feeling that I was not as good as other people. . . . It had a depressing influence on me, and could have blighted my life, if circumstances had not taken me away from home at the age of seventeen.” Like many of Alger’s heroes, Martin wanted more than material success. “Ragged Dick,” for example, wanted above all else to achieve respectability: “You may not become rich . . . but you can obtain a good position, and be respected.” For Martin, that meant having a place of one’s own (better than the “rude little two...


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