On Jan. 10, 1921 — 100 years ago tomorrow — Len Small was inaugurated as the 26th governor of the state of Illinois. He became the first man from Kankakee County to occupy the state’s highest office.
Becoming the governor of Illinois was the culmination of a 25-year-long political journey for the 58-year old Republican. His first public office, won in 1895 at the age of 33, was election to the Kankakee County Board of Supervisors, representing Kankakee Township. The following year, Small won another election, this time as clerk of the circuit court.
He was active in the Republican Party at both the county and state levels (in 1899, he became a member of the party’s state Central Committee). His first political victory at the state level came in 1900, when he was elected senator from the 16th District.
At the end of his four-year term in the Senate, Small set his sights on a statewide office: treasurer of Illinois. He served in that post from 1905-07; a decade later, he again was elected treasurer, serving from 1917-19. Between the two terms, he held a federal appointment from 1908-12 as assistant U.S. treasurer in charge of the sub-treasury at Chicago.
Small’s first try for the governor’s office was unsuccessful; he was defeated in the 1912 Republican Primary election by incumbent Gov. Charles S. Deneen. The outcome was different eight years later, in the 1920 Republican primary, when Len Small became the party’s candidate for governor by outpolling incumbent Lt. Gov. John G. Oglesby and two other candidates.
In the November general election, Small decisively defeated the Democratic candidate, James Hamilton “Ham” Lewis, by a margin of more than one-half million votes. A major theme of Small’s successful campaign was his promise to “pull Illinois out of the mud.” He would do so by continuing and expanding the state’s efforts to build thousands of miles of paved highways connecting Illinois cities and towns. By the time the two-term governor left office in January 1929, Illinois had more than 7,000 miles of “hard roads,” far more than any other state.
Inauguration Day, blessed with mild weather, began at 11 a.m. with a military parade through the streets of Springfield.
“The booming of cannon, blaring of brass bands and the measured tramp of thousands of feet today greeted the installation of Len Small as … governor of Illinois,” wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Daniel F. Sullivan. “The ceremonies were the most pretentious that the capital has witnessed since 1896, when John R. Tanner became governor. They served to bring to Springfield thousands of persons from all parts of the state — Chicago alone sending 2,000.”
Leading the way from the Leland Hotel where the governor-elect and Mrs. Small were staying, was the 250-piece University of Illinois band and the university’s ROTC unit, several-hundred strong.
Five regiments of the Illinois National Guard followed the ROTC cadets. The final unit, reported the Tribune, was “the cadet corps of the Morgan Park Military academy, under the command of regular army officers, furnishing the personal escort to the governor and the governor-elect.”
The hour-long parade ended at the State Capitol building, where legislators, judges and government employees were waiting.
“Both the House and Senate were in joint session when the inaugural party entered at 12 o’clock,” noted the Kankakee Daily Republican. “The Hall of Representatives was crowded to the utmost before the inaugural party appeared. Hundreds of disappointed Republicans drawn to Springfield by the prospect of a seat at the inaugural continued their search for a ticket until the parade had ended.”
Following a short speech by outgoing Gov. Frank Lowden, Len Small approached the rostrum where Chief Justice Cartwright of the Illinois Supreme Court was waiting.
“Tremendous applause greeted the appearance at the Rostrum of Mr. Small. He took the oath of office at 12:23 p.m.,” reported the Daily Republican. “… A great cheer went up from the crowd and continued for several minutes. … It was only a starter, however, because when Mr. Small delivered his inaugural message, he was repeatedly interrupted with applause and demonstrations.”
In his 45-minute speech, Gov. Small touched on many issues that had been debated during the election campaign, but strongly stressed the importance of carrying out the “hard roads” program.
“One of the pressing needs of the present day,” he proclaimed, “is to find means to bring our city and country populations into closer relationship, to the end that the advantages enjoyed by one may be applied to the benefit of the other. … The surest means of bringing city and country together … is the highways which bind our towns and communities to each other. In my opinion, the greatest economic good that can be accomplished for the country districts of our state is to push this road system to completion.”
Following the speech, Gov. and Mrs. Small hosted an afternoon reception at the Executive Mansion for the more than 100 friends and supporters from Kankakee County who had come to Springfield for the inaugural festivities.
A larger event was scheduled for that evening.
“The first social event of the new administration will take place tonight,” reported the Daily Republican. “Governor and Mrs. Small have invited everyone to their reception.”