She had the nickname of “Hell’s Belle,” but colleagues remembered Gracie Pfost as a kind and gracious woman who was dedicated to her constituents.
A plaque on the exterior of the Boone County Heritage Museum, which originally served as Harrison High School, lists some notable graduates of the school. Among them is Gracie Pfost (1st US Congresswoman).
Just who was Gracie Pfost?
She was not a graduate of Harrison High School.
Gracie Bowers was born on March 12, 1906, in a log cabin near Harrison. Her father, William Lafayette “Fate” Bowers had been born in 1880 in Georgia. Her mother was Lily Wood Bowers. She had two brothers and two sisters.
In 1911, Gracie moved with her family to Idaho.
Pfost quit school at 16 and went to work as a milk analyst for the Carnation Milk Company in Nampa, Idaho. In 1923, she married John “Jack” Pfost (pronounced “post”), her supervisor who was twice her age. The couple never had any children, but during their 38-year marriage, Jack was a strong supporter of Gracie’s political career.
In 1929, Pfost graduated from Link’s Business School in Boise, Idaho.
It was at this time that Pfost became involved in politics at the local level. She served as a temporary replacement for the Canyon County clerk, auditor and recorder. When her predecessor resigned, Pfost served full-time for 10 years.
In 1941, Pfost was elected treasurer of Canyon County and served for another 10 years. She also served as a delegate to five consecutive Democratic Nation Conventions beginning in 1944.
In 1950, Pfost won the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat that represented northern Idaho. She lost by 783 votes to the Republican candidate, John Wood, a 72-year-old doctor and World War I veteran.
In 1952, at the urging of her husband, Pfost again ran for Congress. Again winning the nomination, she ran an exhausting, yet enthusiastic campaign. There were no television stations on which to advertise, so Pfost and her husband put 20,000 miles on their Pontiac driving throughout the 400-mile long district. Her campaign slogan was “Tie your vote to a solid post – Gracie Pfost for Congress.”
Pfost received a boost from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who attacked Wood’s record in Congress, including his efforts to derail the United Nations.
In a state that in the 1952 presidential race went for Republican Dwight Eisenhower by a 2-to-1 margin, Pfost defeated Wood by almost 600 votes out of 109,000 cast.
When Pfost took office in January, 1953, she became Idaho’s first woman in Congress. She got assigned to the Public Works, Post Office and Civil Service and Interior and Insular Affairs committees. From 1955 to 1961, Pfost chaired the Interior and Insular Affairs Subcommittee on Public Lands, which oversaw over 450 million acres of federally managed lands.
Pfost proved to be a skilled campaigner. In 1954, she went to a county fair and challenged GOP opponent Erwin Schwiebert to a log-rolling contest.
“If a man dumps me, he’s no gentleman,” Pfost said. “If I dump him, I’m a superwoman.”
Pfost fell off the log, but won the election by 9,000 votes.
During her time in office, Pfost was fastidious in cultivating her constituent base. She sent personal congratulations to each high school graduate in her district and a card and childcare book to new parents. Throughout the rest of the decade, she won with at least 55 percent of the votes, and in 1958, she won a personal best of 65 percent.
A dam became the defining point of Pfost’s political career. She earned her nickname “Hell’s Belle” for her strong support of a federally funded dam on the Snake River at Hell’s Canyon, Idaho. She fought stubbornly against private power interests and their political allies, calling them “the gimme-and-get boys in the private electric utilities.”
Private interests wanted a three-dam project. Pfost claimed she was the target of a smear campaign by the private companies.
“I don’t intend to be bluffed, bullied or frightened by the private monopolies,” she said.
Though Pfost introduced several bills to construct the Hell’s Canyon dam, she was bitterly disappointed when, in 1958, Congress voted against it.
Pfost was notable in other areas. She was critical in making sure that legislation making Alaska a state passed the House in 1958. She was an advocate of a 10 percent pay hike for postal employees. In 1956, she supported a school construction bill that would provide new schools for the millions of Baby Boomers entering the educational system. That same year, she pushed for a critical farm bill that would help a sagging agricultural market. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
During her ten years in Congress, Pfost missed only two of 909 roll call votes, a 0.2 percent rate that was better than the 2.1 percent rate of all representatives combined.
Jack Pfost died suddenly in 1961. Gracie was devastated by the loss of her beloved husband and political confidant.
In 1962, Pfost decided to leave her safe House seat and run as the Democratic candidate for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Henry Dworshak. Running against Republican Len Jordan, Pfost lost by 4,881 votes.
After leaving the House, Pfost was appointed Special Assistant for Elderly Housing at the Federal Housing Administration.
Pfost died of Hodgkin’s disease on August 11, 1965, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She is buried in Meridian, Idaho.
In the August 12, 1965, Congressional Record, several of Pfost’s former House colleagues paid tribute to her.
“Gracie always had a laugh, time for courtesy and graciousness,” said one, “and a time for consideration for any Member’s problems.
“She was never petty or small. Her spirit was as large and splendid as her State.”
Another congressman said, “Gracie Pfost loved people. When she won public office, she gave herself totally to the task, living for the people she served, devoting her life to their causes.”
This is article is part of a series about Boone County history and provided by the Boone County Heritage Museum. The museum is located at 124 South Cherry in Harrison. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday. Closed on Sunday and Wednesday. For more information on the museum, call 741-3312 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.