Ruth Bass: New Ashford once counted first in U.S.
RICHMOND -- Berkshire resident Bill Jordan, a World War II veteran, observed Veterans Day weekend celebrating the 237th birthday of the Marines that he proudly joined at the age of 18. He tried to enlist at 17 as a high school student, and the Navy doctor in Albany turned him down, saying he had flat feet. A year later, he tried again, this time in Springfield, and that doctor didn't care a whit about his arches, apparently. He ended up in the Pacific War at Iwo Jima.
But one of his fondest memories of American history predates World War II by decades and concerns a great aunt he barely knew. The Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote went into effect for the Warren Harding/James Cox presidential election, and in pre-dawn New Ashford, Mass., Jordan's great aunt cast the first ballot in the nation in that election.
Jordan family lore has it that Phoebe was, because it was the first election after the Nineteenth Amend ment was ratified, the first woman ever to vote in the United States. But several states -- Wyo ming was way out in front, for instance -- had allowed women to vote and to hold office for a number of years.
Phoebe Jordan remained the nation's first voter for the next three presidential elections. Before dawn, the polls would open at the one-room schoolhouse in New Ashford, and Phoebe would make her way down from her Brodie Mountain farm to be first in line. In 1920, she was among 34 of the 36 registered voters who would fulfill their long-standing tradition of reporting their results first.
These days, everyone expects that first result to come from Dixville Notch, N.H., where voters gather at the hamlet's well-known resort hotel at midnight and start voting at 12:01. Within minutes, they are ready to close the polls. But that tradition did not start until 1952, the year Dwight David Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson. This year, the Demo cratic and Repub lican candidates tied in Dixville Notch with five votes each.
When Phoebe cast her first vote, she started a tradition in New Ashford. Apparently Ohio had already acquired its lasting tradition as a key state years, which was one reason both Harding and Cox, their eyes on a pile of electoral college votes, were from Ohio.
Bill Jordan remembers meeting his great aunt when he was "a real young kid," but he didn't really know her. He recalls that she was very small, and her obituary notes that she never weighed more than 100 pounds and managed, despite her size, to run the mowing machine in summer and the snow plow in winter.
She also operated a charcoal kiln, and for some years after family members died, she operated the 400-acre farm herself with the help of a couple of hired men.
The Nine teenth Amendment not only allowed her to vote but to be on the Republican town committee, so she would have voted for Harding in 1920. But in the 1930s, she switched parties to support Franklin Delano Roosevelt and chaired the Democratic town committee.
She came to New Ashford at the age of 7 to live with an aunt in the farmhouse she had seen "raised" in 1881 in the customary way, with farmers coming from all over the region to help out and enjoy the cider and doughnuts. In early January of 1940, she became ill and decided to close the house for the winter and live in Dalton. She died just a few days later at the age of 75, her place in history well noted in the local press -- and still alive in her family's memories.
Ruth Bass has written a history of her mother's family, in addition to two novels. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.