Catalog Number: 2001.031.01
The Great War, known now as World War I, was a tumultuous time for many in Wisconsin. Founded in large part by German immigrants and their descendants, the state found itself torn between its country and its people. Almost unanimously anti-war, Wisconsinites worried over how fighting against Germany would affect their treatment during and after the war, as well as neutral rights and war taxes.
John Jacob Esch, a Wisconsin congressman from the La Crosse area, sympathized with the concerns of his fellow Wisconsinites. The son of a German immigrant himself, he listened to the pleas of his constituents to stay out of the war, reading and even keeping many of their letters to him. Esch himself had concerns about President Woodrow Wilson’s eagerness for war, and according to his constituents’ wishes, voted against the 1917 war resolution.
Though the war resolution passed, Esch remained a patriot. He directed his efforts as congressman to quickly end the war, voting to initiate a draft to swiftly built an army and for other legislation to aid the war effort, such as the public use of railroads for the war.
Before his 22-year tenure in Congress, Esch was a local Wisconsinite like many of his constituents. Born in Norwalk in 1861, his family moved to Milwaukee in 1865, and then to Sparta in 1871. He attended the University of Wisconsin, earning his law degree and passing the bar in 1887 before settling in La Crosse to practice law with the firm Winter, Morris, Esch, and Holmes.
Esch was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1898, and held his position as congressman until he was succeeded by Joseph Beck on March 3, 1921. At the time, he was one of the first Wisconsin congressmen to serve for more than 20 years, and both Democrats and Republicans cheered for him as he retired from the House. His interest in his constituents’ concerns, hard work and patriotism were well-reflected in his work as a congressman and his later work with the Interstate Commerce Commission and American Peace Society.
This wooden swivel chair with leather padding is believed to be one of the chairs Esch used during his career as a congressman. He later took the chair with him, likely after a remodel, and kept it until his death in 1941. Esch’s granddaughter, Ann Cline, bequeathed the chair to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 2001. Accompanying the chair was a letter from the Architect of the Capitol, George M. White. White validated that this chair came from the House of Representatives.
John and Anna Esch are going to be portrayed in this year’s Discover the Silent City: “1918: The Great War and La Crosse.”
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on August 25, 2018.