On Friday, June 15, 2018, the Trail of Governors unveiled three new statues: William H. McMaster, M. Q. Sharpe, and Ralph Herseth. In anticipation of the unveiling, this blog featured short biographical sketches of the three governors. The sketches were originally written for the Trail’s website.
William H. McMaster was born in Ticonic, Iowa in 1877 and was raised in Sioux City. Orphaned at 17, he graduated from Sioux City High School and from Beloit College in Wisconsin. While at Beloit, McMaster met Harriet Russell, whom he married in 1902. The McMasters had two children, William Jr. and Dorothy.
In 1901, McMaster came to Yankton County, South Dakota. He established several country banks in the Yankton area. In 1910, McMaster was elected to the State House, and in 1912 to the State Senate. A progressive, he sponsored the state’s first absentee voter law and legislation to regulate insurance. In 1916, McMaster was elected lieutenant governor alongside Governor Peter Norbeck, and in 1920, he was elected to succeed Norbeck as governor.
Governor McMaster led South Dakota through the post-World War I era of plummeting grain prices and falling land values, which led to a wave of farm foreclosures and bank failures. McMaster suspended foreclosures on state rural credit loans to farmers who made honest efforts to repay. He took on high retail gasoline prices by selling gasoline from state highway shops for 2 cents per gallon above wholesale cost, forcing retail prices down by as much as 10 cents a gallon.
McMaster oversaw the construction of the state cement plant in Rapid City, and supported a 1-cent gasoline tax to finance highway and bridge construction. During his administration, five Missouri River bridges were constructed, as well as the first concrete state highway, which connected Dell Rapids to Sioux Falls.
In 1921, McMaster vetoed a bill that would have increased the expense allowance for state legislators, because the bill had originally authorized construction of a hog barn and Brookings and had been significantly amended. This was the state legislature’s first “hoghouse” amendment.
In 1924, McMaster was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he joined Norbeck as an advocate for farmers and progressive causes. Following the 1929 stock market crash, McMaster was defeated for reelection in 1930 by Governor W. J. Bulow.
In 1933, McMaster moved to Dixon, Illinois, to assume management of Dixon National Bank. The bank’s owner, Charles R. Walgreen, who was the founder of the national drug store chain, recruited McMaster to Dixon because he believed his stature as a governor, U.S. Senator, and longtime banker would reassure depositors of the bank’s solvency. McMaster retired as bank president in 1946, and continued as bank chairman until 1964. He died in 1968 at the age of 91, the longest lifespan of any South Dakota governor.
Interest in McMaster has been revived recently thanks to efforts by Bernie Hunhoff to erect a South Dakota Historical Society Marker near the Meridian Bridge in Yankton to memorialize McMaster.