Governor Frank Lowden (R-Ogle County); his budget reforms made Illinois a model for the nation

Illinois has a long history of Governors taking office under difficult circumstances. Governor John Wood assumed the office when his predecessor died just before the civil war. John Beveridge became Governor in 1873 after just ten days as Lieutenant Governor.  Others have taken office suddenly following deaths, resignations and an impeachment, while still more were elected and inaugurated through the normal process, only to take office amidst war, economic crisis, social unrest or other grim trials. But Governor Frank Lowden (R-Ogle County) falls into the latter category in a big way: facing each one of these challenges during his term as the state’s 25th Chief Executive.

Frank Lowden was born in Minnesota and raised in Iowa, but came to Illinois for his higher education and career. Graduating from Union College of Law, now Northwestern, in 1887, he practiced law for 20 years, taking a break to serve as Lieutenant Colonel of the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Infantry Regiment in the Spanish-American War. After the war, Lowden became a law professor at Northwestern, where Lowden Hall still bears his name. In 1896 he married Florence Pullman, daughter of Chicago entrepreneur George Pullman.
A lifelong Republican, Lowden declined a post in President McKinley’s administration, but did accept a seat on the Republican National Committee. His first run for office came in 1904, when he competed for the nomination for Governor at what became known as the deadlock convention: Lowden fell on the 79th ballot to eventual Governor Charles Deneen. He was not deterred, and in 1906 was elected to Congress, where he served until 1911.
By 1916, Lowden was ready to try again for the Governorship, and this time was successful. But as he took office in January 1917, storm clouds loomed on the horizon. The state’s finances were a mess, the nation was just weeks away from being pulled into a world war, and civil unrest was brewing in Chicago.
One of Lowden’s first orders of business was to straighten out the state’s balance books. He instituted a reorganization of state government to make it run more efficiently, and put in place a budgeting system which led to better oversight of the spending of taxpayer dollars. The result was a streamlined system of spending which allowed Illinois to both cut taxes and increase spending on public education. Lowden also reached agreement on the creation of a system of “hard roads,” the forerunners of today’s state highway system.
But while Lowden toiled to put the state’s house in order, conditions elsewhere in the world were declining. Three months after Lowden became Governor, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war with Germany. America’s entry into World War I was unpopular in the Midwest, with its large German immigrant population, as well as an Irish community which opposed aid to England. Lowden first gained national attention in 1917 when he clashed with Mayor Bill Thompson of Chicago over a meeting of a pro-German group. When Thompson refused to interfere, Lowden stepped in, deploying the state militia to break up the meeting.
It was a precedent which sadly did not end with the conclusion of the war in 1918. A year later, deadly race riots broke out in Chicago. When local authorities could not end the rioting after five days, Lowden again intervened, sending in the national guard to restore order. In the aftermath, he created the Chicago Commission on Race Relations to study the causes of the riot and to propose solutions. Its 1922 report found that housing and labor segregation in Chicago had contributed to the tensions that led to the riot, and started Illinois on a slow but relentless path toward righting those wrongs.
Lowden’s national profile was enhanced by his decisive actions during and after the war. Illinois’ governmental reorganization and budget reforms were being held up as a model for the nation, and by late 1919 Lowden was considered a contender for the White House. He began to speak out on national issues, favoring adoption of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and opposing the League of Nations. His name was placed in nomination for President at the convention, and he led in three of the ten rounds of voting, but the nomination and the Presidency eventually went to Ohio Senator Warren Harding.
Lowden left office in 1921 and returned to his home near the Rock River town of Oregon, which he had named “Sinnissippi Forest,” from a Native American term for rocky river. He left a legacy of budget reform, but also of conservation. Lowden believed in reforestation as a method of preventing soil erosion and he planted around half a million trees, mainly pines, in the course of his lifetime.
Lowden wrote of Sinnissippi in his autobiography that, “I like to think of this beautiful and fertile spot as the place where my children and my children’s children and their children after them will gather long after I have become dust, and in the shade of the old trees my own hand had planted.” In 1992, the state purchased Sinnissippi, and it became Lowden-Miller State Forest, adjacent to Lowden State Park.
In declining health, he moved to Arizona where he died in 1943. Governor Frank Lowden is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.