No congressman in the Eighth Congressional District’s history has had the influence in Washington of Saginaw’s Joseph W. Fordney. And judging from records of those who preceded and succeeded him as representatives of the district, none was so popular.
Elected to Congress in 1898, he served twelve consecutive terms until his surprise retirement in 1922 at the age of 69 after 24 years as one of Washington’s key legislative figures.
Said Congressman Fordney in a news announcement which stretched across the nation: “I am tired; I am 69 years old; I want to rest now and be with my family.”
He had been high in the national councils of the Republican Party. His announcement caused deep regret, even consternation, among GOP partisans. One of its all-time best vote-getters, he had been something of a bellwether for his party in Michigan. His re-election, had he sought it, was considered a certainty.
As a legislator he had attained the rank of statesman, though one of friendly believability whose word was considered his bond. He had served skillfully and with a steady hand as chairman of that fount of national power—the House Ways and Means Committee. He knew the princes and heirs-apparent among America’s government greats and they paid respectful deference to “Congressman Fordney, the gentleman from Michigan.” He had been closely acquainted with five presidents under whom he served: McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson and Harding.
In his own words, he always claimed he was “a product of the farm, a typical American.” Of French origin, he was born November 5, 1853, in Blackford County, Indiana. Fordney was the youngest of a family of thirteen children. He himself raised thirteen children. He attended school only three months in his lifetime.
When he was a boy, he worked in a small sawmill his father operated. When he was 16, the family moved to Saginaw. The Saginaw Valley was beginning to flex its muscles as the growing lumber giant of Michigan. But for a few months after his arrival, young Fordney was a grocery store clerk and errand boy. Then he got a job in a lumber camp as chore boy at 50 cents a day, from the dark of early morning to nightfall. Continued self-study with what books he could come by, coupled with his earlier experiences in his father’s sawmill, helped him to get ahead. In the lumber camp, he became successively a log chopper, driver, timber scaler, cruiser and estimator. His industry and unusual ability with figures were recognized.
Fordney, confident of his knowledge of the lumber industry, interested others in the pinelands of Michigan and nearby states.
Now a young man with a wife and family to care for, he went to work for $1,800 a year and half the profits of lumbering operations in which he was newly involved. He could estimate the value of a stand of timber with uncanny accuracy. In a few years, he carved a fortune for himself and associates from the green-clad trees of the Midwest.
When the Michigan pinelands dwindled, as few ever thought they would, Fordney transferred his activities to the South and West. Around the turn of the century, his fortune made and secure, he returned to Saginaw and decided to enter politics. In 1895, and again in 1897, he was named city alderman. He also served as commissioner of public works. He first ran for Congress in 1898 and one of the planks in his platform, appropriately enough, was a protective tariff on lumber. As a new member of Congress, he had the prudence to say little, watch who carried the ball and to see if he could learn who called the plays. Fordney became an expert on tariff legislation and always was an advocate of high protective tariffs. He was co-author of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Bill of 1921. Sometimes wags in his congressional district would call him “Sugar Beet Joe” Fordney. Nor was it without point, because he always remembered that it was votes of his district’s sugar beet farmers which helped send him to Washington and he always kept their interests in mind.
An affable chap and, most of his life, a man of oaken sturdiness, Fordney was a gifted speaker who always got through to people because he never talked down to people anywhere. They felt him one of them. He had a seemingly limitless fund of jokes and anecdotes whatever the occasion. And he had his own spritely sense of humor. Of solid build, later inclined to portliness, he never lost his hair. Most of his adult life he wore a broad mustache which whitened with his hair. He always looked the personage he was. After his retirement from Congress, he maintained his political interests and was influential in state GOP affairs. He gave to the city land for one of the jewels of Saginaw’s park system—the west side’s Fordney Park. Congressional colleagues said Joe Fordney saw the United States House of Representatives as a model legislative body, large enough in the size and diversity of membership to reflect all segments of opinion. He recognized the sometime definition of politics as “the art of the possible” when he once in his career wrote that: “All legislation must be the results of compromise…in the sense that a harmonious American government can never be based upon the desire of any section or class to have its entire way, but upon concession here and sacrifice there that the whole country may enjoy an average of happy and prosperous living.”
Joseph Warren Fordney died January 8, 1932, in Saginaw.