The Political and Public Life of Herman A. Schmidt of Winona, MN

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Herman August Schmidt

Herman Schmidt built a modest political and public career in Winona during the Progressive Era, from Chief of Police to local Democratic Party official.

Herman August Schmidt was born in 1879 in Wilson, Winona County, Minnesota, the son of Silesian (German) immigrants Wilhelm Schmidt and Louise Guenther. At the young age of thirteen, Schmidt was employed as a stenographer for the insurance firm of Posz, Gile, and Smith in Winona. By 1901, he was a partner of the firm Posz, Gile, and Schmidt (later just Posz and Schmidt). However, this firm was set to merge with two other insurance companies in 1909, forcing Schmidt to retire from the business.

Also in 1909, Winona held its city elections. Schmidt’s business partner, Henry W. Posz, was running as a Democrat for the office of city assessor. At the top of the Democratic ticket, running for mayor, was William E. Hamilton. A controversy during the mayoral campaign was a rumor that Hamilton had already selected somebody for Chief of Police. He took pains to issue a statement to the press refuting this rumor. It did not matter- the Democrats swept the city elections in a landslide.

Chief of Police, 1909-1911

The Chief of Police position came to the fore again after the election. Probably on the recommendation of Posz, Hamilton appointed Schmidt for the job. The Winona Republican-Herald newspaper labeled the appointment as a “big surprise.” Big, perhaps, because Schmidt was over six feet tall and stout, but a surprise because it went against the tradition of appointing from within the police department. Schmidt lacked police experience, but the newspaper reported that it was generally viewed that he would make an excellent chief.

Based on official annual police reports, Schmidt was an excellent Police Chief. The number of arrests increased from 546 in 1908 to 787 in 1910. Granted, most of these arrests concerned petty crimes like vagrancy and intoxication, but it took diligence to carry them out. This diligence was also applied to the Sunday closing law (or Blue law) of prohibiting alcohol sales on Sundays. Schmidt ordered patrolmen to report to headquarters whenever they saw parties entering saloons or stores connected to saloons on Sundays.

On January 9, 1910, officer Frank Monahan reported to Schmidt of several men entering Ludwig and Edward Griesel’s grocery store, which had an attached saloon. With the store’s doors locked, Schmidt, Monahan, and Sergeant John Looby waited in the Minnesota cold for three hours, peering through frosted windows and witnessing 8-10 men scrambling for hiding places inside. When one of the Griesels arrived and unlocked the front door, the officers gained access. There was no one in the barroom, apparently only a card game was interrupted. Still, saloon keepers had to keep on their toes.

Woodrow Wilson

After Hamilton lost in his independent reelection bid for mayor in April 1911, Schmidt was ousted as chief. The next year, Schmidt dove into local Democratic politics. He finished second in the Democratic primary for county treasurer, but was named county committee chairman of the party during the crucial 1912 election. He organized public party meetings throughout the county and from them he was able to boast to the Republican-Herald, a day before the election, that Winona County would go for Woodrow Wilson for president.

Privately around this time, Schmidt worked as a Northwestern Railways detective, then as manager of the Winona Abstract Company and as an insurance agent. But he continued to be involved in local politics. In 1916, he was chosen as secretary and treasurer of the Winona County Democrats. He helped organize festivities during National Woodrow Wilson Day in Winona, which promoted the president’s reelection campaign.

In 1922, Schmidt ran for the non-partisan office of Clerk of District Court. Before the primary election, Schmidt ran newspaper ads with his picture stating that he was well-qualified for the office. He offered his two years as Chief of Police, twenty years in the fire insurance business, and eight years as manager of the Winona Abstract Company as proof. Unfortunately, Schmidt finished third in a seven-man race, just short of advancing to the general election. After this Schmidt did not get seriously involved in public life again. He died in 1947.

It was not a great public career, but Herman Schmidt strove to install the principles of good government through his work in the Democratic party, as Chief of Police, and as a candidate for several local offices. People like Schmidt were and are the backbone of local public service.

Sources:

  1. Little Sketches of Big Folks, Minnesota 1907, R.L. Polk & Co., 1907.
  2. U.S. Federal Census 1880, Minnesota, Winona County, Wilson, page 3, household #20 (William Smith).
  3. Winona Republican-Herald, various issues, 1909-1947.
  4. Winona city directories, 1892-1909.
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