Gouverneur's Rhoda Fox Graves, NYS Political Trailblazer — by Lawrence P. Gooley

Bucking the odds is a common theme of Walter-Mitty-type fantasies — overcoming daunting obstacles to become a winner, or a hero at some level. Few of us actually live the dream, but sometimes it happens, and during Women's History Month, an incredible North Country example comes to mind: Rhoda F. Graves of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County.

 

The extreme unlikelihood of her becoming a historic figure in state politics makes her story all the more compelling. And the details are amazing.

 

Extreme unlikelihood? Well, consider that for the first two-thirds of her life, the groundbreaking events of the final third were hardly even possible. For one thing, she was a woman, and politics was almost solely the purview of men. Women couldn't vote, a right they had sought for nearly a century — and the idea that men would elect a female legislator in New York was an absurdity. Aside from that, she was in her late forties at a time when life expectancy for American females was in the low fifties. For most women in that situation, it was time to break out the rocking chair and wait for the end. But Rhoda Graves was not most women.

She was born in July 1877 in Fowler, in southwestern St. Lawrence County, about five miles southeast of Gouverneur. Her parents were Leander and Rhoda Austin, but her mother died in childbirth. Rhoda was placed with the nearby family of Lafayette and Rhoda Fox, who adopted her before she was two years old. Her father had remarried by then, but Rhoda remained a Fox. She attended area schools and was a very attentive, capable pupil (at age 10 in Spragueville she had no absences or tardies and carried a 96 average). After graduating, she worked as a teacher at Rossie, Oswegatchie, and other area schools into the early 1900s, and lived in the village of Gouverneur.

 

She frequently visited with friends living in several area villages, and socialized often. In the late 1890s, her most frequent companion was Perle Graves, a village resident nine years her senior. They married in late April 1905 (he was 36; she was 28) and had two sons, Paul (1907) and Mark (1910). Perle was a clothing-store clerk, but forged a close friendship with Frank Seaker that would deeply affect how Rhoda's life unfolded.

 

With many friends among farmers (he was raised on a nearby farm) and connections among the local chamber of commerce's 90 members, Perle assisted Frank on an important project: getting elected to the New York State Assembly in Albany. Seaker was the unanimous nominee, won the election, and took office in January 1912. Perle, already serving the party in different capacities, was named in March to the Republican County Committee and became an alternate delegate to the state GOP convention. In winter 1913, courtesy of Seaker, Perle held a clerk job in the Assembly, and the following year was a Railroad Committee clerk (the family moved with him to Albany until the job was done), prompting rumors that he might one day seek an Assembly position.

 

The Graves and Seaker families traveled and socialized together, and in late 1915, Perle and Frank formed a business partnership, purchasing a Main Street corner lot in Gouverneur, where they spent approximately $20,000 ($503,000 in 2019) on building a large, two-story garage to house the Seaker-Graves Motor Company.

 

Personal, political, and business ties between the two families remained strong, and clearly had an impact on Rhoda's future. During that same period, while handling the traditional job of housewife and mother to two young boys, she became active in the affairs of multiple organizations. Back in 1904, the year before she married, Rhoda was elected vice-president of the St. Agnes Guild of the Trinity Church, her first leadership position as an adult. Many more would follow during the decade spanning 1910 to 1920, when she played a very active role in guiding the paths of several organizations, including the local  WCTU unit (Women's Christian Temperance Union, the national anti-alcohol organization), the Gouverneur library, the Women's Relief Corps (a patriotic group in support of America's army), and the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). She served on Red Cross committees, was team captain on drives for the YMCA and the Victory Loan Program, and attended meetings of the Northern New York Federation of Women's Clubs, which brought many groups together for common causes.

 

Two factors stood out in Rhoda's evolving persona: her role in most organizations progressed to leadership positions; and the common sense, personality, and other traits that got her there attracted many appreciative admirers.

 

In early 1918, while maintaining the positions she held, Rhoda began gravitating towards politics. With the benefit of hindsight, a convergence of events that provoked the change becomes evident—her husband's and Frank  Seaker's political success for nearly a decade, her own achievements on behalf of multiple organizations, and the burgeoning women's movement, especially the push for suffrage. (© Lawrence Gooley, 2019)

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