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Senator George Norris State Historic Site


Since 1968 the Nebraska State Historical Society has operated the Senator George Norris State Historic Site. The site has been designated a National Historic Landmark and serves as the preeminent interpretive site for George W. Norris and his career. The site hosts several events each year including quilt shows, needlework shows, garden tours, and holiday tours. If you have any questions about George W. Norris or the Senator George Norris State Historic Site just ask the curator.

George W. Norris and His Career

image of Senator George Norris
Senator George Norris. [N855-91]



George Norris represented Nebraska in Congress for over forty years. Although he was a Republican for most of his life, he believed firmly that it was his duty to act and vote according to his conscience, and not on the basis of his party affiliation. His fierce independence set him apart from many of his contemporaries and his uncommon integrity continues to inspire us today.

After a lifelong career in government, it was to his modest home in McCook, Nebraska, that George Norris returned, no richer or less humble than when he entered public life forty years earlier.

Senator George Norris State Historic Site image
Senator George Norris State Historic Site.


Norris was born in 1861 in York Township, Sandusky County, Ohio. When he was only three years old both his older brother and his father died, leaving his mother, Mary Magdalene Norris, to raise and provide for George and his six sisters. At the time, Mary Norris was forty-six years old and pregnant for the twelfth time. The Norris family farmed and lived in near poverty. Mrs. Norris instilled in young George a strong religious faith, a respect for education, and a fierce sense of right and wrong. These qualities returned to help George Norris time and again throughout his career in government.

 George Norris and his mother, Mary Magdalene Norris
George Norris and his mother, Mary Magdalene Norris. [N855-26]


By 1883 Norris had graduated from law school at the Northern Indiana Normal School at Valparaiso. To help finance his college education he taught school off and on for several years. Armed with his law degree and his farming and teaching experience, Norris headed west in 1885. He made a short and unforgettable trip to Washington state before deciding to settle in Nebraska. Norris had relatives in Nebraska and his mother held the deed to an eighty acre farm in Johnson County, near Tecumseh, Nebraska. After a short time in southeast Nebraska, Norris moved again; this time to Beaver City, Nebraska, in the beautiful Republican River valley.

 George Norris and friends in Beaver City
George Norris and friends in Beaver City. [N855-524]


 Pluma Lashley Norris image
Pluma Lashley Norris. [N855-525]


It was in Beaver City that Norris began to put down roots and develop a successful professional career. He met and married Pluma Lashley, daughter of a locally prominent citizen. They had three children together. Over the next decade Norris prospered as he developed his law practice and speculated in land. He built a building in Beaver City and began his life of public service.

Image of the Norris building in Beaver City
The Norris building in Beaver City. [N855-249]


In 1892 Norris was elected prosecuting attorney for Furnas County and three years later was elected district judge for Nebraska's Fourteenth District. To be closer to the center of his district Norris moved to McCook in 1899 and bought the house at 706 Main Avenue (now Norris Avenue) that would be his home until he died in 1944.

In 1901 tragedy struck when Norris's wife, Pluma, died leaving George with three young daughters to raise. Many lesser men would have withdrawn, but not George Norris. The next year he ran for the United States House of Representatives and won. In 1903 Norris married again. His new wife was a local schoolteacher and principal, Ellie Leonard. She was to be his lifelong companion.

 Ellie Leonard Norris image
Ellie Leonard Norris. [N855-112]


Norris spent ten years representing his district in the House of Representatives. In 1910, during his fifth term in the House, Norris launched a campaign to end what he believed to be an undemocratic practice. The Speaker of the House was entitled to control the flow of all bills that were introduced because he controlled the committee on rules.

 "Boss" Joseph Cannon image
Speaker of the House of Representatives, "Boss" Joseph Cannon. [N855-111]


In 1910 the Speaker was "Boss" Joseph Cannon, a Republican who ruled with an iron fist. After a bitter floor debate and skillful parliamentary maneuvering led by Norris, a group of reformers from both parties passed a resolution limiting the Speaker's autocratic powers. Norris had broken ranks with his party over an ethical question and earned a reputation as a man of integrity. Back home the Nebraskans who had elected Norris to the House of Representatives rewarded his crusading efforts by nominating and then electing him to the Senate in 1912. For the next thirty years Norris used his position in the Senate to fight to improve the lives of farmers and working people.

In 1917, as the United States was preparing to enter World War I, Norris once again found himself on the unpopular side of an issue. Based on his feelings that pro-war sentiment was being promoted by big business, he voted against U.S. entry into the conflict. For this act of conscience he was vilified throughout the nation and at home. He returned to Nebraska to confront his critics. When he addressed Nebraskans he said simply, "I have come home to tell you the truth," and honestly explained his feelings and beliefs. After his address, Nebraskans responded with respect and enthusiasm for his honesty and they again returned him to the Senate.

In the early years of his public life George Norris was a leader of the wing of the Republican Party known as the Progressives. The Progressives believed that government needed to become more responsive to the needs of the ordinary citizen. For most of Norris's career as a senator he promoted Progressive values, even long after the movement had ceased to be popular. One of the Progressive causes Norris championed was the "Lame Duck" amendment to the Constitution. Written and sponsored by Norris, the Twentieth Amendment eliminated the lame duck sessions of Congress in which outgoing members continued to hold office and vote for four months before the newly elected members took their seats. This amendment applied to both houses of Congress as well as to the offices of President and Vice-President.

 Nebraska state capitol image
Nebraska state capitol.


In Nebraska George Norris promoted the concept of the non-partisan, one-house legislature-the Unicameral. He believed that a one-house system would curb abuses of the conference committees. These committees allowed the ruling party to rewrite legislation to favor its own positions. In 1934 Nebraska voters enthusiastically endorsed the idea and in 1937 Nebraska became the first and only state to have a unicameral legislature.

During the mid-1930s Norris led the effort to create two federal programs that have had far-reaching effects on America's rural population. In 1933 the law creating the Tennessee Valley Authority passed, culminating a twelve year effort by Norris. The TVA was a plan to build dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries to control flooding and to generate low-cost electricity.

 Norris Dam marker image
Norris Dam marker. [N855-823]


Norris also sponsored legislation that called for bringing electricity to rural areas throughout the country. The Rural Electrification Act stipulated that power generation and delivery systems would be owned by the public for the common good, instead of by private companies. This was a very controversial idea in the 1930s. Automobile giant Henry Ford and other industrialists criticized Norris for introducing a plan that they considered socialistic and therefore un-American.

Norris defended his plan: "Every stream in the United States that flows from the mountains through the meadows to the sea has the possibility of producing electricity for cheap power and cheap lighting. This natural resource was given by an all-wise Creator to His people and not to organizations of greed."

 Image of Senator Norris in front of Norris Dam
Senator Norris in front of Norris Dam. [N855-415]


The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Act were George Norris's finest hours as a United States Senator. He believed that the controversy that surrounded them and the criticism that was leveled at him was a price well worth paying. The legislation's benefits to America's farmers seem unremarkable today. But in the 1930s life on a farm with no electricity was not much improved over what it had been in the Middle Ages-long days of back-breaking labor for both men and women.

As the United States entered the Great Depression of the 1930s, Norris once again faced difficult moral choices. In 1932 George Norris broke ranks with the Republican Party. The issue was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's candidacy for President. Norris believed that Roosevelt, a Democrat, would be better for the common people than conservative Republican Herbert Hoover. Norris campaigned for Roosevelt and suffered the wrath of the Republicans. In Norris's next election of 1936 he ran as an Independent and was returned to the Senate.

 Image of Senator Norris campaigning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Senator Norris campaigning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. [N855-43a]



In 1942 George Norris was seeking his sixth term as a senator. In this election he was running as an Independent for the second time. This time Norris wasn't as fortunate. For the first time since 1902 Nebraska voters failed to send him back to Washington. His political career was over and he came home to McCook.

 Image of Norris returning home in 1942
Norris returning home in 1942. [N855-304]


Less than two years later, on September 2, 1944, George Norris died. He was buried in the McCook Cemetery.

 Norris grave site in McCook image
Norris grave site in McCook.


In 1961 Norris was selected to be the first person honored by having his bust placed in the Nebraska Hall of Fame at the State Capitol in Lincoln.

Image of  Nebraska Hall of Fame bust of Senator Norris
Nebraska Hall of Fame bust of Senator Norris. [N855-24]


While many politicians find ways to enrich themselves through their powerful and wealthy allies, George Norris went to Washington a man of modest means and that is how he returned. His overriding concern was to help improve the lives of America's common folk-the working men and women, the farmers and small businessmen. Many of the simple things that most of us take for granted in our lives today, like electric lights and refrigerators, were out of reach for many of America's citizens in the early years of the Twentieth Century. George Norris couldn't accept that situation and spent his life working to improve the lives of all Americans. His honesty and integrity continue to be an inspiration to Nebraskans and Americans.

 Senator George Norris image
Senator George Norris. [N855-435]

 

 


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Last updated 20 May 2003
 

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