Wallace Mertin Short was born in 1866 on a small farm three miles east of College Springs, Iowa. As part of a farm family, he attended school only when he wasn’t needed for work on the farm, which was generally only four months out of the year. When Wallace Short was twenty-one he enrolled in college in Beloit, Wisconsin. In 1896, at age 30 Short graduated from Yale, married his fiancée May Morse, and became a Congregational Minister. Short accepted his first pastoral calling in Evansville, Wisconsin. He was a minister in Evansville between 1896 and 1903. Eventually Mr. Short would accept a pastorate at the Beacon Hill Church in Kansas City, Missouri.
In 1909, after hearing Wallace Short preach at the Beacon Hill Church in Kansas City, Missouri, the deacons of the First Congregational Church in Sioux City, Iowa offered Mr. Short a pastorate. When Mr. Short arrived in Sioux City it was the second largest city in Iowa with a population of 47,000 residents. Just weeks after his arrival in Sioux City, Short made headlines in the newspapers when three men attempted to rob him. Short broke his cane over one of his mugger’s heads and fled to safety. Short called the police and later identified a man in custody as one of the robbers. Later that week Mr. Short was asked to come to the police station where Police Superintendent Whitley presented him with an ebony cane. The gold handle of the cane was inscribed with the words, “From the Sioux City Police Department.” After the incident, Mr. Short, became a local hero.
By 1914 Mr. Short began speaking publicly about two controversial issues of the time, temperance and labor unions. In Iowa, temperance had always been a controversial issue and by the time that Short arrived in Iowa anti-saloon sentiment was growing. Those supporting temperance attempted to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed or even end the production or consumption of alcohol. Short’s views on temperance were contradictory to most Protestant ministers and he refused to participate in Sunday evening lectures to further the cause of the temperance movement. In 1914 the Woodbury County Anti-Saloon League determined that it was time to try and stop the 47 saloons from operating in Sioux City. When Short refused to allow Anti-saloon League speakers to present their views in his church the deacons of the church overrode his objections. Later, when Mr. Short encouraged the First Congregational Church to allow working persons to serve on the board of directors in rotating positions, the deacons were alarmed. Mr. Short wanted to allow common persons to participate in the decision making processes of the Church. On May 9th 1914 Mr. Short was forced to resign his pastorate. Wallace Short opened his own Church in 1914 called the Central Church. Short believed opening an independent Church would allow him to focus on issues of social justice. Social justice was the idea that a community should give all individuals and groups within that community fair treatment.
Mr. Short began investigating the employment conditions in Sioux City to see if workers were being treated fairly. This brought him into contact with an organization called the International Workers of the World. In history, the organization is also known as the “Wobblies”. The “Wobblies” wanted to organize agricultural workers in Sioux City, but in 1914, the town was plagued with unemployment so the presence of the “Wobblies” created a panic. “Wobblies” were not welcomed by existing labor unions or business owners. Short, although disagreeing with the philosophy of the “Wobblies” was not afraid to talk with the members and he stood up for their right to speak publicly about their ideas even though they were unpopular.
Wallace Short was nominated to run for mayor of Sioux City in 1918, as the Labor Party candidate. The workers in Sioux City voted for Short, despite his connection with the “Wobblies”. Short was an outspoken advocate about labor issues such as better working conditions, shorter working hours, and better pay. Despite strong opposition from the business community, he won the election. Within his first term as mayor, the Ruff disaster, an influenza outbreak, misconduct by another council member who ran on the labor ticket, and the “Wobblies” issue, created the perfect combination of factors which lead to the only recall election in Sioux City’s history. A recall election could be called in order for a community to vote on a new mayor. In the election the people voted to allow Mr. Short to remain the mayor. Mr. Short was elected mayor again in 1920 and 1922.
In 1921 and 1922 labor strikes protesting conditions in the meatpacking industry shut down the city. During a packing house strike in 1921-1922 Mayor Short alerted the city police and then personally boarded the strike-breaker’s train to escort them out of the city. When, a striker was killed Short presided as the minister over the funeral.
In 1924, after losing another bid for mayor, Mr. Short ran as a candidate for Congress. He lost the election and became the editor of the Sioux City Union Advocate. In 1930 he was elected to the Iowa legislature and served a two-year term. He sought the Republican nomination as governor in 1934, but received only 43,000 votes. He then organized the state Farmer-Labor party and was its candidate for governor in the next three elections.
Mr. Short served as mayor for six years during a time that was called a building period for Sioux City. The city’s population had grown from 47,828 people in 1910 to 71,227 people in 1920. In order to provide for the growing population a great deal work needed to be accomplished. The automobile was becoming popular when Mr. Short was mayor. As mayor he worked to pave many streets in Sioux City and to provide sanitation services to all parts of Sioux City. Mr. Short also provided for the opening of the Big Sioux River Bridge which provided a highway transportation link with Sioux City’s South Dakota neighbors. The city’s police, fire departments, and court systems were all centralized with the opening of the Municipal Building at 6th and Water Streets during Mr. Short’s terms as mayor. Mr. Short was a Progressive Era mayor who supported important changes, such as a woman’s right to vote and better working conditions and wages for workers. These issues were very controversial during the time that he was mayor and his opponents often stated that “he was a man ahead of his times.” Mr. Short’s opponents were probably right, but the changes that Mr. Short worked so hard for eventually came into being.
The Packing House Worker - Vol.12 No.1, January, 1953.
“Wallace M. Short, Ex-mayor, editor, and clergyman, succumbs at 86.” Sioux City Journal, January 2, 1953, Obituaries.
The History of Sioux City, Iowa. George Lindblade productions, 1991. (movie)
Just One American, Mrs. Wallace M. Short. (1943, by Mrs. Wallace Short)
Wallace M. Short: Iowa Rebel, William H. Cumberland. (The Iowa State University Press, 1983)
Sioux City A Pictorial History. Scott Sorenson and B. Paul Chicoine. (The Donning Company/Publishers, 1982)