Anna Riddell came to the town of Hadley in Saratoga County, NY, from Boston in 1910 after marrying a local man. She first made the local paper in 1915 when The Saratogian reported, “Mrs. Anna Riddell has purchased a Ford runabout which she intends to operate herself after taking a few lessons.” Apparently, the lessons were a success and Anna’s love for automobiles flourished.
In 1920, when Riddell’s house was destroyed by fire in the middle of the night, the family barely escaped with nothing but their nightclothes, and “a Dodge touring car belonging to Mrs. Riddell which was in a building connected with the house was saved through great difficulty because of the deep snow.” No longer just a hobby, Anna had become a chauffeur for hire and was among the first women to obtain a driver’s license in Saratoga County.
In addition to her passion for cars, Anna also showed conviction for civic groups and local government. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement and volunteered for the Red Cross during the First World War, chairing liberty loan drives and serving as a member of the Red Cross Motor Corps in Hadley.
In 1923, Anna decided to run for town supervisor. She was up against incumbent Lester Fowler, a fellow Republican, which forced her to run as an Independent. In a closely contested race, Anna won by just nine votes. On November 7th, 1923, the headline in The Saratogian read “Hadley Woman Elected to Board of Supervisors Setting County Precedent.” Anna served on the Child Welfare Committee and the Equalization Committee, also serving as chairwoman of the Board of Canvassers.
Most supervisors in Saratoga County serve two-year terms, which was the case for Anna. In 1925, she was defeated by J.H. Smead, who had formerly served as a supervisor in the town and was held in high regard. She kept herself busy, no doubt helping with the family business, a feed and grain store in Hadley, but also serving as a deputy for the Saratoga County Sherriff’s Department in 1926 and 1929.
In 1931, when it was rumored that Supervisor Smead planned to run for Saratoga County Sheriff, Anna threw her hat in the ring and was once again pitted against Lester Fowler, this time in a primary. Both Lester and Anna wanted the seat vacated by Smead and it was no secret that there was bad blood between them lingering from the former contest. It all boiled over on a summer afternoon when a chance meeting at the local gas station turned ugly.
According to an article that appeared in The Saratogian on August 5th, 1931, Riddell and Fowler found themselves at the Rozelle Filling Station in Hadley at the same time and while “visiting” the conversation became heated. According to Riddell, Fowler “called her a name which could not be printed. ‘You can’t call me a name like that’ Mrs. Riddell says she told Fowler, ‘and then he got up out of his chair and struck me in the face, nearly knocking me over.’ She says she was attended by a physician.”
Fowler’s side of the story was a bit different, he stated, “on the occasion in question the woman involved was guilty of breach of the peace of loud and profane language, and of violent conduct, during the course of which she committed an assault upon him. Fowler denies that he struck the woman and her entire version of the controversy.”
As a result, Fowler was arrested and charged with assault in the third degree and a hearing was scheduled for August 7th, 1931 in front of Justice of the Peace S. L. Holland in Hadley. However, at the eleventh hour, a Supreme Court Order referred the case to the Saratoga County Grand Jury. As a result, no further action could be taken on the case until a Grand Jury convened in October, after the primary election was to be held.
The results of the primary were as close as they could be: Lester Fowler led Anna Riddell by one single vote. Despite Anna’s call for an inspection of all the votes, Fowler was declared the winner. Anna did go on to run in the general election as an Independent but was unsuccessful. The following month, the Grand Jury failed to return an indictment for Fowler’s assault charge.
Despite her loss, Anna continued to stay involved in local government. She served as Tax Collector over multiple terms during the 1930s. After the death of her husband, she moved to Saratoga Springs and lived with her son Carl. She passed away in 1957 at the age of 82 in the Wilton Nursing Home. At the time of her death, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors passed a Resolution in Memorium recognizing Anna for her service as the first woman on the county board of supervisors.
Though her fisticuffs with Fowler at the gas station may have been the best documented fight in her life, we shouldn’t lose sight of the other major struggles that produced a positive outcome for her community and illuminated her strength of character. Anna entered an arena that few women had previously ventured into and the courage it must have taken is admirable. She continued to push boundaries of acceptable female employment, not the least of which were chauffer and sheriff’s deputy, and made history.
Thanks for taking the road less traveled Anna, it gives the rest of us something to aspire to.
Photo of Anne Riddell courtesy 1924 Board of Supervisors Proceedings Book.
Lauren Roberts is the Saratoga County Historian. She is co-host of the WAMC podcast A New York Minute in History, along with NYS Historian Devin Lander. Roberts co-produced the recently released documentary Harnessing Nature: Building the Great Sacandaga, which chronicles the creation of the Sacandaga Reservoir.