Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview
Oral History Interview with
Harry L. Abbott
April 4, 1990
Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: Mr. Abbott, would you tell us where and when you were born?
ABBOTT: I was born March 12, 1894, in Chester, Pennsylvania.
JOHNSON: When did you move out here?
ABBOTT: I moved out here in November of 1912.
JOHNSON: With your parents?
ABBOTT: My parents were in Pennsylvania at that time.
JOHNSON: Oh, you came out here by yourself?
ABBOTT: I came out here by myself.
JOHNSON: What were your parents' names?
ABBOTT: Thomas Perry Abbott.
JOHNSON: And your mother's name?
ABBOTT: Her name was Greer.
JOHNSON: And your full name is Harry . . .
ABBOTT: Harry Lambert Abbott.
JOHNSON: So you came out here by yourself in 1912.
ABBOTT: Yes, my father was here at that time in Sugar Creek. He worked for the Standard Oil Company. I came here to be with him, which was a short time.
JOHNSON: What was his position with Standard Oil?
ABBOTT: He was operator of the process department at that time.
JOHNSON: Didn't they bring in some immigrants, especially Croatians and Serbs, to operate the equipment over there?
ABBOTT: To do the heavy work, yes, they did. They brought in a lot of immigrants.
JOHNSON: What did you do after you got here? You worked for the Standard Oil, you say, for a short time?
ABBOTT: I went to school. I went to a business school, Spaulding Commercial College; I believe it was at Tenth and Oak at that time.
JOHNSON: So you went to Spaulding.
ABBOTT: I took shorthand, typing, English. I graduated from that school.
JOHNSON: What year did you graduate?
ABBOTT: That was in 1913.
JOHNSON: Did you know that Harry Truman attended Spaulding?
ABBOTT: I didn't know him at that time, no.
JOHNSON: But he did attend the college back in 1901.
JOHNSON: When did you first meet Harry Truman?
ABBOTT: I first met him when I was working in politics. I was young and ambitious, and I got acquainted with him in the Masonic Lodge.
JOHNSON: Oh, in the Masonic Lodge. Which lodge was that?
ABBOTT: That was my first acquaintance with him, which wasn't too personal at that time. I had numerous talks with him when he ran for County Judge. I polled and practically ran that district in north Fairmount. I talked to him a number of times during that period.
JOHNSON: Now, how about the lodge, just to back up a little
bit. Which lodge did you and Harry belong to?
ABBOTT: I belonged to 76, which is 75 years ago, and he belonged at that time to Grandview. Grandview at that time was pasture land; now it's taken into the city. His home I think is still there, an historic home.
JOHNSON: Yes. What was your occupation, or your job, at this time? What were you doing for a living after you graduated from Spaulding?
ABBOTT: Well, at that time, jobs were hard to get, especially for a man. They were part time and the teacher that I graduated under, Mrs. Moore, advised me to go to the Government and sign up as yeoman and make a career out of it. I still wasn't too old yet, and when I brought the paper home for my father to sign, that caused a little disturbance. He didn't like that very much.
So, from there, I worked at the Kansas City Southern [Railroad].
JOHNSON: But did you work for the Federal Government, for a while?
ABBOTT: No, I passed the test.
JOHNSON: But you didn't work for them?
ABBOTT: I didn't work for them because my father had to
sign the papers, and he wouldn't sign them. I was under age.
JOHNSON: So then you took a job at the Kansas City Southern.
ABBOTT: I went down there and I worked there for a while, and then at the Standard Oil for a while. I left there and came back under the same payroll number. Those days they didn't have very good bookkeeping; it was pretty crude. That place started up in 1904 and this is not too much later.
JOHNSON: But your job with them was what; was it bookkeeping or accounting?
ABBOTT: With Standard Oil, no. I started out as a laborer, pipe laborer. If I remember correctly, it was $1.90 a day, ten hours.
JOHNSON: Ten-hour day.
ABBOTT: I was pretty ambitious and I advanced. I got promoted to the process department and then from the process department I went on up to night superintendent.
JOHNSON: Did you serve in the Army, or serve in the Armed Forces in World War I?
ABBOTT: No, I was exempted by Standard Oil, because so many of the young men had been in Class A, which I was in too, and they went into the Armed services, but they exempted me. They couldn't afford to clean house and they had to have people that knew what was going on. They thought I was more valuable there.
I worked under the FBI during World War I at the plant and again in World War II.
JOHNSON: You were kind of a look-out for them? You watched. . .
ABBOTT: I was on their rolls. We had a lot of ethnic people there and they didn't even go under their own names. About half of them had a different name. And they were from countries that weren't very friendly to us at that time. My job was to keep a check on them.
JOHNSON: Were there any cases of espionage, or sabotage, anything like that?
ABBOTT: That was very much on the mind of the Government at that time. A lot of these men worked under me and I got pretty well acquainted with them, and I knew which ones might cause trouble and those that wouldn't. I had several sessions with the FBI, but nothing really bad ever turned up.
JOHNSON: So you stayed with Standard Oil then for a long,
long time, is that true?
ABBOTT: I went there the first time in 1913, and I stayed then and I retired in September 1958.
JOHNSON: From Standard Oil?
ABBOTT: Yes. That's 31 years ago.
JOHNSON: And you're here in Sugar Creek all that time?
ABBOTT: I lived in Fairmount all that time, within about three blocks, for the entire time.
JOHNSON: Is that right?
ABBOTT: Early in life, when I could get things together, I didn't like paying rent and I built my own home.
JOHNSON: Oh, you did?
ABBOTT: I'm still living in that home today. That's 60- some odd years old.
JOHNSON: I'll be.
ABBOTT: I didn't like debt, and never did, my whole life. Well, if you didn't have the money to pay for it, you didn't need it. That was my attitude.
JOHNSON: You didn't borrow much, then.
You say, you first met Truman in 1922 during that
campaign. Was that the first time you met him?
ABBOTT: Well, I'd seen him in lodge previous to that.
JOHNSON: Yes, sure.
ABBOTT: I got on a talking basis with him during the campaign because he was out checking all the time, and he was worried about the district I lived in because it was about three-to-one Republican. I carried that for him; I carried that big. By the way, I got fired doing it.
JOHNSON: Now, you say you carried it. Did you . . .
ABBOTT: What I mean, I went from place to place and told them why we thought we should have Truman. He was a man of his word; we needed a lot of work done in that district, and he'd do it. And it turned out that I was right.
JOHNSON: And the reason you were doing this was that you had become acquainted with Truman through the Masons. That's how you got acquainted with Truman.
JOHNSON: Well, what were your early impressions then of Truman? When you first got acquainted with him in the Masons, what were your impressions of him? How did he
impress you at the time?
ABBOTT: He was just a man among men. If you'd talk to him and you began to learn about him, you was for him all the way. He was honest, he was decent, he was loyal and he was for the average man. Someone you could depend on.
JOHNSON: So you helped him then in that 1922 election in Fairmount. Is that a precinct or a ward?
ABBOTT: The precinct was in Fairmount. Well, the building is the same that was there in 1922. I stood out in front and talked with him several times, in regards to the political situation over in that part of the country, what we needed.
JOHNSON: What did you feel you needed at that time?
ABBOTT: Well, we needed drainage bad. See, at that time, north of Kentucky Avenue was what was called the McElroy farm. That was all vacant; there were only two houses there; that was the McElroy mansion, and the caretaker's place. That mansion sat up on the river, up on the bluff. The area began to build up after he was elected; it began to build up over in there and they sold a lot of property, almost like it is today. However, today I understand that is set aside for redevelopment, but they have never done nothing about
I don't know whether I'm connecting anything in these things up or not, whether they mean anything.
JOHNSON: There aren't many people around; there are few people around, that remember the 1922 election. You're one of the very few that were involved with that.
ABBOTT: Let me tell you this. This is kind of funny. I had ideas of my own. I tried to listen to everybody and then I used my own judgment. I used my own judgment in taking a Democratic car that was paid for downtown by Pendergast and his outfit. They didn't like that, but it was all right with Les Byam; he was the master boy out here at that time. But downtown got a hold of it someway, and at 3 o'clock in the afternoon they came to me and said, "You can't do this." I said, "Listen, these people are going across the line [party] and voting for Truman; that's my interest in this." Nevertheless, they told Byam, "Pay him off; get rid of him."
So, I went over to the drug store with him, and I received $7. In that little vault, there were stacks of bills; heaven knows how much money was in there. I said to Les, "Les, what in the name of God are you going to do with all that money?" Well, he was pretty tight-fisted; after it left Pendergast, it never went
JOHNSON: This is Pendergast money?
ABBOTT: And that learned me a whole lot about politics.
JOHNSON: Money talks.
ABBOTT: I wasn't naive any more.
JOHNSON: Well, now, you mentioned the drug store. Les Byam, did he have a drug store?
ABBOTT: Yes, he owned the drug store there on the corner.
JOHNSON: In Fairmount.
ABBOTT: Les was a pretty good friend of mine, and we talked things over many times after they put him out of politics. We'd laugh about it. He'd laugh about firing me that day.
JOHNSON: How about this car you're talking about? Was this a car that was to be used for campaigning purposes?
ABBOTT: It was a car that was hired to bring in their own people.
JOHNSON: Okay, these were cars . . .
ABBOTT: But they didn't want Republicans riding in a Democrat car.
OHNSON: Well, sure.
ABBOTT: That was a stain on them. That wasn't the way I looked at it. What I was looking at is to elect Truman.
JOHNSON: So there were Republicans, evidently, who voted for Truman.
ABBOTT: Oh, yes.
JOHNSON: And you were bringing these people, who were Republicans, but wanted to vote for Truman.
ABBOTT: The people that was driving the car, I'd tell them to go pick them up.
JOHNSON: Oh, okay. But you knew that they . . .
ABBOTT: I wasn't driving the cars, I was just overseeing it.
JOHNSON: But you were confident that these people would vote for Truman?
ABBOTT: Oh, yes, very much. I knew them.
JOHNSON: Were these veterans, for instance? Masons and veterans voted heavily for Truman, I guess. How did you know these people were going to vote for Truman?
ABBOTT: I trusted them. They trusted in me.
JOHNSON: They weren't necessarily veterans of the war, or Masons then. They were just people that you knew.
ABBOTT: No, the Masons didn't have a thing to do with it. That was a personal thing between I and Truman. I never let that interfere with anything. That's personal, and on the side.
JOHNSON: Sure. Do you remember what the vote was there in that Fairmount district?
ABBOTT: I don