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  • 205. The Political Education of Harry Truman - Slack Grocery Building

    This is the old Slack Grocery Building at 211 West Lexington. The part of the building we’re interested in is down at the far end, where the drug store is? Upstairs above the drug store. This upstairs section was where the Rural Jackson County Democratic Club used to meet. It was here, in this building, in early 1922, that Mike Pendergast, who was Boss Tom’s brother, introduced Harry Truman and announced that Truman was the organization’s candidate for Eastern District Jackson County Judge. This was the first time Harry Truman’s name was mentioned in connection with a political office. It was also when Harry Truman first started learning about the inner workings of a political machine. Here’s how all this happened: In late 1921, Harry Truman was running a clothing store—a haberdashery—over in Kansas City, which wasn’t doing too well. In fact, they were going out of business. A fellow named Jim Pendergast, who was an army buddy of Harry’s and the nephew of Boss Tom, brought his father, Mike Pendergast, into the haberdashery and asked Truman if he would be interested in running for Eastern District county judge. The way the county was set up at the time was there were three judges, who were really commissioners rather then judges in the judicial sense. There was a presiding judge who was elected at large, and then there was an eastern district and a western district judge, each elected from their part of the county. Tom Pendergast had control of the western part of the county, and he already had his men in place as the presiding judge and the western district judge. But Tom didn’t control the whole county.That’s because the Democratic party was split into two factions. Tom ran the western faction, but the eastern faction was run by a guy named Joe Shannon, and Pendergast usually had to share the political spoils with him. So it’d be a real coup for Boss Tom to get a Pendergast man in office as the Eastern District judge, too, since that would give Pendergast control of the whole county. The problem was these judges held a lot of power and once in a while, after they were in office, they’d try to take over Pendergast’s operation. So Pendergast needed a man who was a) from the east part of the county, b) who could be elected honestly (which was always easier than trying to rig the election), and c) who would be loyal to the machine after he was in office. Harry Truman was perfect for the job. Plus Harry was a war hero, he had been a farmer so folks in the rural part of the county knew and liked him, he came from a good family and his father had been friends with Mike Pendergast…, and Harry needed a job anyway since the haberdashery was going out of business. So everybody got something out of this. And it all started right here, upstairs at 211 West Maple Street. After his nomination, he still had to campaign to get elected. He set up campaign headquarters about a block to the east, right up Maple Street. The address, though, 111 West Maple Street, is a little hard to find. It would be between 109 and 113 West Maple. Walk on up there and see what you find.