Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal

By Bernard Sternsher | Go to book overview

Part I
Before the New Deal

1. A Biographical Sketch: 1891-1931

The predominant popular image of Rexford Guy Tugwell in the 1930's was, among his admirers, that of the urban reformer, or, among his detractors, the city slicker. His actual beginnings were rural. His ancestors came from the southern shires of England. On his mother's side were the Franklins, Rexfords, and Tylers, who moved westward across New York beginning in the eighteenth century. His father's people included the Tugwells, Truslers, and Leaverses. His grandfather Tugwell left Surrey, England, in 1852, landed in New York City, then moved inland to Chautauqua County in the lower part of the western tip of New York State. This grandfather was a cattle dealer known as a good man in a trade.1

Tugwell was born in Sinclairville, New York, on July 10, 1891, to Charles Henry and Dessie (Rexford) Tugwell. When he was thirteen years old, his family moved seventy-five miles northward to Wilson, New York, north of Buffalo on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, where his father, who two years before had shifted from the cattle and meat business to canning, purchased a fruit farm. Charles Tugwell soon became a moderately well-to-do orchard farmer and fruit and vegetable canner.

In 1911 Tugwell graduated from Masten Park High School in Buffalo, where he had enrolled for two extra years of secondary education in order to fulfill college-entrance requirements. It appears that his instructors did not see in him the makings of a scholar. The principal wrote his father that the boy was so unappreciative of educational advantages that he might just as well be taken out of school and put to work on the farm.2 The trouble probably was that Tugwell read so much at home that his classes bored him. As an avid reader he emulated his mother.3 His father, a journalist later alleged, never understood the

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