A five–term Representative from Idaho, Gracie Pfost was a consistent critic of private gain at the expense of the public interest. The press dubbed Congresswoman Pfost “Hell’s Belle” for her unremitting crusade to develop the proposed Hells Canyon High Dam and hydroelectric facility as a federally managed program. The massive project, which would have been situated along the Snake River in her northern Idaho district, took advantage of one of the longest gorges in the country. “It is a natural dam site,” Pfost declared. “All we need is to plug up that river with some concrete.”1
Gracie Bowers was born in an Ozark Mountain log cabin on March 12, 1906, in Harrison, Arkansas, daughter of William L. Bowers and Lily E. Wood Bowers. Her family, which included four siblings, moved to Idaho in 1911. She quit high school at age 16 and took a job as a milk analyst for the Carnation Milk Company in Nampa, Idaho. A year later, in 1923, Gracie Bowers married John W. “Jack” Pfost (pronounced “post”), her supervisor and a master mechanic who was twice her age.2 During their long marriage, Jack Pfost remained an enduring source of support for his wife’s political career which, she admitted, was “more or less a joint venture with him.”3 The couple had no children. In 1929, Gracie Pfost graduated from the Link’s Business School in Boise, Idaho. During this time, she became involved in politics on the local level, working as a temporary replacement for the Canyon County clerk, auditor, and recorder. She ended up working full–time in this position for a decade after her predecessor resigned.4 In 1941, after losing her first bid by 1,500 votes, Pfost was elected treasurer of Canyon County, a post she held for another decade. She also served as a delegate to five consecutive Democratic National Conventions, beginning in 1944. Throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s, she and her husband owned and operated a real estate business.
In 1950, Gracie Pfost won the Democratic nomination in the race for the open congressional seat which represented all of northern Idaho, including the panhandle area up to the Canadian border. She lost the election by 783 votes to GOP contender John T. Wood, a 72–year–old doctor and World War I veteran. In 1952, at the urging of her husband, Pfost again challenged Wood.5 She entered the Democratic primary and easily trumped three male challengers. With enthusiasm, Pfost ran an exhaustive general election campaign. There were no television stations on which to advertise, so she and her husband canvassed the 400–mile long district in their Pontiac car, logging more than 20,000 miles.6 Pfost received a boost from Eleanor Roosevelt, who used her syndicated column to attack Wood’s record in Congress, particularly his efforts to derail the United Nations. Her slogan contained a pun on her name: “Tie Your Vote to a Solid Post—Gracie Pfost for Congress.”7 In a state that went for Dwight Eisenhower on a 2–1 basis (her district favored Eisenhower by 25,000 votes), she narrowly edged out Wood by 591 votes of about 109,000 cast.8
When she was seated in the House in January 1953 as Idaho’s first woman in Congress, Pfost earned assignments on the Public Works, the Post Office and Civil Service, and the Interior and Insular Affairs committees. Jack Pfost worked as an unpaid assistant in his wife’s office and was her constant companion. Her assignment on Interior and Insular Affairs was a plum for a junior Member from the West because of the vast tracts of public land which fell under the panel’s jurisdiction. From 1955 to 1961, Gracie Pfost chaired the Interior and Insular Affairs Subcommittee on Public Lands, which had oversight of more than 450 million acres of federally managed land.9 She first attracted national attention as a member of the Select Committee to Investigate Tax–Exempt Foundations, which probed the finances of such philanthropic organizations as the Ford Foundation and the Fund for the Republic, to determine if grants were distributed for “un–American” activities. On May 24, 1954, Pfost and Wayne Hays of Ohio walked out of the hearings and accused the committee of permitting unreliable testimony against foundation employees and failing to require witnesses to submit prepared statements or digests of testimony prior to their appearances. As a result of their withdrawal, the committee voted in July to end its hearings. Pfost dissented from the final committee report, which concluded that several foundations had unwittingly subsidized subversive ventures.
Pfost was an adept and calculating campaigner. During the 1954 campaign, she attended a county fair and challenged GOP opponent, Erwin H. Schwiebert, to a log–rolling contest. “If a man dumps me, he’s no gentleman,” she observed. “If I dump him, I’m a superwoman.”10 She fell off the log first but won the election by about 9,000 votes. She fastidiously cultivated her constituent base, sending personal congratulatory notes to each high school graduate in her district and a card and childcare book to new parents.11 From 1954 through the next three elections, she won by pluralities of 55 percent or more and ran ahead of the Democratic presidential ticket in 1956 and 1960. In 1956, she beat Louise Shattuck, a staffer for a former GOP Idaho governor, by 10 percentage points. In 1958, Pfost won a personal–best 65 percent of the vote. After 1952, she was not challenged in the Democratic primaries until 1960 and, then, won handily.12
A dam became the defining point of Pfost’s political work. It was during the 1952 campaign that she had earned the nickname, “Hell’s Belle,” because of her stalwart support for the construction of a publicly funded and operated dam at Hells Canyon. As part of the Snake River project on the Idaho–Oregon border, the proposed dam would provide hydroelectric power and irrigation for a large section of the Northwest. Advocating publicly funded construction, she fought stubbornly against private power interests and their political allies, whom she branded “the gimmie–and–get boys in the private electric utilities.”13
Throughout the 1950s, the subject of Snake River development was a divisive issue in the politics of the Northwest. Characteristic of a national debate during the decade, grounded in the legitimacy of federally operated programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, advocates of regional development through low–cost public power squared off against those backing private utilities.14 In April 1953, Pfost introduced the first of several bills that proposed construction of a massive, multi–purpose dam across the Snake River at Hells Canyon to provide cheap electricity and construction jobs to spur Idaho’s flagging economy. Regional power companies objected, lobbying instead for the development of a series of three smaller dams. “There can be no argument that the high dam at Hells Canyon will give the people the most for the least expenditure on their part,” Pfost told colleagues in a floor speech.15 Later, the Congresswoman claimed that she was the target of a smear campaign by private utilities companies in her own state—as she dubbed it, the effort to “Get Gracie Pfost.” “I don’t intend to be bluffed, bullied or frightened by the private monopolies,” she declared.16
But the Congresswoman could only bitterly protest in August 1955 when the Federal Power Commission granted the Idaho Power Company a license to construct the three–dam proposal. Pfost charged that the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration was dominated by the big business interests which scuttled federal oversight. When President Eisenhower sought U.S. funding to construct the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, she protested that Hells Canyon should come first. “I think it is time for the administration to stop double–talking and get the high Hells Canyon Dam under construction,” she said.17 Pfost and her supporters suffered a final defeat in July 1957 when a majority of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, all the Republicans and two swing Democrats— with firm backing from President Eisenhower—voted to discard her dam construction bill. Pfost claimed that the rejection of federal funding was “strangling the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest.”18
Hells Canyon did not completely eclipse other legislative interests for Pfost. She also had a critical hand in making sure that the legislation approving Alaskan statehood in 1958 passed the House.19 Pfost was an outspoken advocate of a 10 percent pay hike for postal employees.20 In 1956, she supported a school construction bill to provide for new schools to meet the millions of “Baby Boom” grade–schoolers who were just then entering the educational system.21 That same year she pushed for passage of a farm bill to help relieve a sagging agricultural commodities market.22 In 1962, Congress passed a bill that Pfost authored to construct the $3.5 million Mann Creek irrigation project in Idaho.23 Pfost also supported the Equal Rights Amendment.24
With Jack Pfost’s sudden death in 1961, Gracie Pfost lost not only her husband, but her closest political confidant. In 1962, when Idaho Senator Henry C. Dworshak died, Pfost chose to leave her safe House seat to run as the Democratic candidate in the fall election to fill the remainder of Dworshak’s unexpired term. Pfost ran against former Governor Len B. Jordan, a Boise rancher who had been appointed three months earlier by Idaho’s GOP governor to an interim position in the Senate. Pfost lost narrowly by only 4,881 votes (51 to 49 percent), failing to carry her home county of Canyon. After her political defeat, she was appointed Special Assistant for Elderly Housing at the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Gracie Pfost, suffering for several years from Hodgkin’s disease, served at the FHA until she died at age 59 on August 11, 1965, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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