The Plattsburgh Daily Press in late 1894 fact-checked the boasts of M.W. Howard, age 32, of Alabama, and George M. Southwick, age 31, of Albany, who each claimed to be the youngest member of the incoming U.S. House of Representatives.
Actually, it was local Representative-elect Wallace T. Foote Jr., who would still be 30 when he took office, that would have the distinction. Foote represented New York’s 23rd District, which included Essex, Clinton, Franklin, Warren and Washington counties.
Foote, a Republican from Port Henry (on Lake Champlain), not only was the youngest member of the 54th Congress. The New York World ranked him the “most handsome man in Congress,” and the Aspen Daily Times of Colorado dubbed him “the Apollo of the House.”
The 1894 congressional race in Northern New York, when Foote won his first of two terms, attracted national attention because of the politician’s youth.
“It was only a few years ago that he was studying Greek and playing baseball at Union College. … But when he came home, he put away his two sheep skins and donned a pair of overalls,” The Scranton Tribune of Pennsylvania reported. “’Wallie’ Foote, as he is known up there, has proved himself a very clever politician.”
Actually, the overall years were between when Foote graduated Union College with a degree in engineering in 1885 and when he enrolled at Columbia Law School a couple of years later. During the interim, he took work as a day laborer at Cedar Point iron furnace in Port Henry and worked his way up to superintendent.
Foote, “a handsome, curly-haired, wealthy, young man from the northern part of the state” got his break in 1891 when he married Mary S. Witherbee, daughter of J.G. Witherbee, principal shareholder of the Witherbee & Sherman mining company, the Evening Star of Washington D.C. reported on Oct. 4, 1894. “Her father is a political, as well as financial, power in that part of the state,” the paper reported.
By the time he ran for Congress in 1894, Foote and his wife owned the “Bohemis,” a luxurious Port Henry residence overlooking Lake Champlain, where the couple held concerts, driving parties and yachting parties. Foote was a partner in a law firm, one of his law partners being the Essex County Democratic chairman.
Foote had run unsuccessfully on the Democrat and Knights of Labor party lines for state Assembly in 1887, but, at some point, switched enrollment and was active in the Republican party for the rest of his life. The heavily Republican enrollment in the region essentially assured victory for Republican candidates.
In 1894, Foote and two other Republicans publicly sought the GOP congressional nomination. The others were former state Sen. R.C. Kellogg of Elizabethtown, in Essex County, and former state Assemblyman and former U.S. Rep. Henry G. Burleigh, a political powerbroker from Whitehall, in Washington County.
Kellogg dropped out early in the process. Burleigh dropped out the day of the congressional nominating convention and agreed to second Foote’s nomination and be chairman of his Washington County campaign committee. Party primaries were not yet held in New York, at that point.
Burleigh, realizing he did not have enough votes to secure the nomination, bowed to “the binding rule of rotation,” an unwritten tradition that the nomination rotated between counties each time an incumbent did not seek re-election. It was Essex County’s turn.
Foote campaigned on a platform that focused on the necessity of tariffs to protect the region’s iron ore industry. Democrats criticized Foote, formerly one of their own, as an insider “of his lately adopted party” who had no experience in elected office.
Republicans said Foote “represents the young and progressive elements in the party.” Foote, who had won the public speaking prize his junior year at Union, proved to be an entertaining campaigner.
“The eloquent and patriotic address made by Wallace T. Foote Jr., Republican congressional candidate, at the veterans’ reunion yesterday shows him to be possessed of a bright mind and senatorial ability of high order,” the Daily Press reported. “It is evident the Republican honor was worthily bestowed.”
On another occasion, at Rouses Point, Foote “captivated his audience at once with his pleasing personality and held them captive for more than an hour with a speech full of facts with occasional bursts of eloquence and many humorous illustrations.”
Shoemaker Pete Govro shook hands with Foote after the meeting and quipped, “Your name is Foote. Well, you have a good foot hold here tonight.”
In the general election Foote handily defeated Democratic candidate Winslow C. Watson of Plattsburgh and People’s candidate De Myre S. Fero of Glens Falls.
Portrait of Wallace Turner Foote Jr, courtesy Autobiographies and Portraits of the President, Cabinet, Supreme Court and Fifty-Fifth Congress, Volume 1. 1899.