Carrying a Torch for Garfield

Caroline C. Morris

Historically, voters in Wisconsin have known how to light it up in presidential elections. In the twenty-first century, Wisconsin voters attend lively town hall debates in Milwaukee; in the late nineteenth century, Wisconsin voters played with fire. On sticks. In large crowds.

Without electricity and without large convention centers, political enthusiasts generally had to meet outside in open spaces. Given the demands of the harvest season, political rallies in the fall were often held at night, so farmers could attend. Bonfires were a popular means of illumination for the nighttime rallies, but if attendees wished to perambulate in an organized fashion – that is, to have a parade – they would need portable light.

This lantern would have been screwed onto a large stick, filled with kerosene, and then held aloft to provide light from above. The fuel tank is balanced on gimbals, so gravity would keep it steady despite the movement of the person carrying it. The wooden shaft may have been adorned with hand-drawn political imagery. It also may have been a broom, to symbolize “sweeping out” the bad guys. Political rallies – then as now – were boisterous affairs, and one wonders that there was never a mass conflagration.

This torch was made by the A&W Manufacturing Co. of Chicago in Jan. 1880, and most likely played a role in the election of Republican candidate James A. Garfield later that year. Garfield was from Ohio, and Midwesterners supported him in a bloc. Garfield could count on strong support from Wisconsin, where the Republican Party had been born in 1854 in Ripon’s schoolhouse. Wisconsin Republicans were outspoken critics of slavery in the 1850s and ardent supporters of Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860s, but were losing some ground to a new voting bloc of farmers and immigrants by the time of the 1880 election. Garfield, a former Civil War general and hard-scrabble Midwesterner, rallied the Wisconsin Republicans, however, and Garfield carried both La Crosse and Wisconsin in Nov. 1880. 

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.