George William Norris


 


George W. Norris was born in Sandusky County, Ohio, on July 11, 1861. He came to Nebraska with his law degree in 1885 and was elected prosecuting attorney of Furnas County in 1892 then District Judge of the 14th Judicial District in 1895. Judge Norris moved his family from Beaver City to McCook in 1899 to be more centrally located in his district. He and his wife, Pluma purchased 706 Main Avenue (now Norris Avenue) which was built in 1886 by railroader, Frank Harris. The house would remain his home base for the rest of his life.

Pluma Norris died following the birth of her third daughter in 1901 and George’s sister came to Nebraska to help care for the children. This enabled Norris to run for the House of Representatives in 1902, which he won. In 1903 he married local school teacher and principal Ellie Leonard. She was to be his lifelong companion.

He spent 10 years in the House of Representatives before moving on to the Senate at age 51 in 1912. He served 30 years in the Senate for a total of 40 years in Washington representing Nebraska.

In 1910, when Norris was in his fifth term in the House of Representatives, he launched a campaign to end the autocratic rule of the Speaker of the House, "Boss" Joe Cannon.

In the 1930’s his legislation to provide for Rural Electrification (REA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) gave millions of Americans access to many of the simple conveniences enjoyed by people living in cities for decades. For example, the city of McCook had electricity on July 4, 1889, but out in the country just a few miles, it was 1948 before REA was available to bring electricity to them. Labor saving electricity was a regular part of rural life after that.

A few of the other accomplishments of George Norris were the 20th (Lame Duck) Amendment to our constitution , the Norris-LaGuardia Act and Nebraska’s one-house form of government, the Unicameral. Norris traveled the state at his own expense and nearly wore out his own car campaigning for the idea of the one-house legislature.

Norris compared the Unicameral to a business institution such as a bank. The governor was like the president, the legislators were the board of directors and the people were the stockholders. If a bank needed but one board of directors he reasoned, why should a state need any more governance than that.

Throughout his career he said his "conscience was his only guide". He was true to himself and fought for the farmers and the common men and women of this country.

His home, with its original contents and Norris’s last car, a 1937 Buick Special were given to the State of Nebraska in 1967. The Sen. George Norris State Historic Site is a branch museum of the Nebraska State Historical Society. It is open 9:30-12:00 and 1:00-5:00 Tuesday through Saturday year round. There is a nominal fee charged for non-Nebraska State Historical Society members. Annual month-long special displays: Post-WWII Quilts in March; Spinning, Weaving & Needlework in June; Pre-WWII Quilts in September.

Sen. Norris and his family are buried at Memorial Cemetery, three blocks north to "J" Street and 16 blocks west, the east entrance on J Street to the lighted flagpole at the first intersection. Computer touch screen directory located at east entrance.


  


The Norris House

The Sen. George Norris State Historic Site served as the home of George Norris from 1899 until his death in 1944. Ellie Norris, George’s second wife, lived here until 1968, when she was 94 years old.

Mrs. Norris and Norris’s daughters from his first marriage decided at that time to give the house, its contents and his last car, a 1937 Buick, to the State of Nebraska.

The house was built in 1886 by a railroader, Frank Harris and his wife Nettie. Norris purchased it in 1899. Norris was moving his family to McCook from Beaver City to be closer to the towns he served as Judge of the 14th Judicial District.

George Norris’s first wife, Pluma, died in the house following the birth of their third daughter in 1901.

He married Ellie Leonard in 1903 and they traveled between McCook and Washington D.C. for the next 40 years while George served Nebraska in Congress.

The house was rented out when they were not here because they were never wealthy and needed the money. When the girls were in school they didn’t make the long trip back very often. The house became run down. The local newspaper publisher, Harry Strunk, was referring to it as the "eyesore of McCook".

About this same time, the late 1920’s-early 30’s, there was a move to run George Norris for president. Sen. Norris made plans to build a new Spanish style house but the depression hit and that was impractical. The old house was remodeled in what he called "his own little WPA project in his own home town".

In the remodeling the front and south wraparound porch was incorporated into the house, the four bedrooms upstairs became three larger ones, each with its own bathroom. A fireplace and a front staircase were also added.

He always loved this house and retired to it when he was defeated in 1942 at 81 years of age. He sat in the sunroom and dictated his autobiography, The Fighting Liberal, just five weeks before he died, in September of 1944.

One of the reasons the family wanted the house intact is that it helps us understand who George Norris was. Unlike most politicians, he changed very little. He lived and he legislated just about the same at the end of his 40 years in Washington as he did at the beginning. He was a simple honest man who always fought for the common man and undertook legislation that would better the life of the common men and women

Copyright 2001 Linda Hein

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