Under his 10-gallon hat, his brow creased with effort. Cigarette ash teetered precariously over his suit. The Congressman stuck both index fingers down into his cowboy boot and yanked it up under his pant leg, getting ready for another day at the office.
Percy Gassaway arrived in Washington for the 74th Congress in 1935. A district judge and rancher from Oklahoma, he brought his cowboy lifestyle to the big city. “The judge is one of those who thinks poker playing is good legal training,” the Washington Post cracked before the election, adding that “first class entertainment is expected by all if he wins in November.” The new Representative did not disappoint.
Throughout his political career, Gassaway enjoyed courting controversies, and quickly zeroed in on Senator Huey Long. Long was critical of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Gassaway supported, and proposed a plan to redistribute wealth during the Depression. On the radio, Gassaway called Long a “tom-tit,” which he described as “a very small bird that tries to imitate a woodpecker” by attacking “the biggest tree in the forest”—how he imagined Long and Roosevelt.
The insult brought him attention and threats. A New Orleans broom salesman who claimed to be Long’s cousin challenged Gassaway to a duel with guns, “bare fists, brooms or any other weapons.” Although the Congressman made it through this pickle, he was injured in another congressional scrape. Gassaway “had to put a couple of fellows in their places” at a dinner for new Members when a man said he was too old to fight—or at least that’s what he told reporters.
In July of 1935, in the middle of the Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Long’s Share the Wealth plan, Gassaway put his cowboy-booted foot down. He gave Congress one week to bring prosperity back to the country. If this challenge failed, which of course it would, Gassaway had a plan: horses.
His proposal lacked specifics, but centered on the idea of fewer cars and more horses. Instead of spending money on automobiles and gas, the public would save with steeds. “I am prepared to speak anywhere, any time and at length on the return of the horse,” he said. He raised thoroughbreds back in Oklahoma and raced them in quarter-mile sprints.
One morning, Gassaway rode a horse to the Capitol. He lifted his hat as he passed the cameras to make sure they captured his antics. The photo caption suggested that Gassaway preferred his horse to a car not to save money, but rather as a solution to Washington’s perennial parking problem.
In typically vivid language, Gassaway called the House a “three-ring circus,” saying it reminded him of “a bunch of Texas steers on stampede.” Although he criticized other Members, his appearance and actions often created quite a spectacle around the Capitol.
Less than a year after his proposed plan to substitute horses for cars, the cowboy Congressman challenged his fellow politicians to a cow-milking contest. “I’ll meet them in any barn, on any street corner, or in any auditorium,” Gassaway confidently stated, “and beat them.” He explained that people in the East didn’t give enough thought to where their milk came from. “A contest like I propose would make them cow-milking conscious.”
In July of 1935, he told the papers that he was heading home. Despite the fact that Congress was still in session, he planned to spend the rest of the year with his constituents instead. Photographers snapped him setting off for home with his family by car (not by horse). Although he was absent for much of the next month until the session ended in August, Gassaway did return to the Chamber for several days. He introduced a bill to provide relief to the son of a Civilian Conservation Corps worker killed by a falling tree. His performance of going home, staged for newswire photographers, while Congress was still in session suggests a keen awareness of his image. That September, he placed fourth in a steer-roping contest in Antlers, Oklahoma, winning $50. His lassoing skills might not have been the quickest, “but onlookers agreed it was some kind of Congressional record,” the New York Times reported.
The cowboy Congressman was known for his stunts around the Capitol. From riding a horse by the East Front to calling Long a “tom-tit,” Gassaway entertained the media and the public. But as the Atlanta Constitution explained, the antics were a deliberate move: “Gassaway had his own ideas about how to represent his constituents. He maintained to his intimate friends that his horseback riding and other stunts about the capital were the best method of bringing the public’s attention [to] measures he advocated, or measures he didn’t.” Although they brought attention to his character and his issues, pranks were not enough to get him re-elected. After one term in Congress, Gassaway returned back to the ranch.
Sources: Atlanta Constitution, 16 May 1937; Baltimore Sun, 22 January 1935; Boston Globe, 16 May 1937; Los Angeles Times, 19 March 1935; New York Times, 8 April 1935, 27 March 1935, 30 September 1935, and 5 February 1936; and Washington Post, 16 September 1934 and 6 July 1935.Follow @USHouseHistory