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The Rise of a Dynasty


The rise to power of six men led Shelby and the county to political heights Cassie Tarpley Star Staff Writer

The time could be anywhere from the 1880s to the 1950s. The place could be Shelby, Raleigh, Washington, D.C., and points in between. The players are linked by birthplace, interest, temperament, training, blood and marriage.

The story is about "The Cleveland Dynasty."

In the child's game of pickup sticks, there is no design when the sticks are thrown down, but each of the sticks touches at least one of the others, sometimes more, so that one cannot be moved easily without nudging another.

So it was with a group of men, all from Cleveland County, who grew with, guided and shaped the political and social structure of their world. Their personal influence spanned more than six decades, and has rippled on long after they are gone.

The six - James L. Webb, his brother E.Y. Webb, O. Max Gardner, his brother-in-law Clyde R. Hoey, O.M. Mull and Lee B. Weathers - came to be called "The Cleveland Dynasty," "The Shelby Dynasty" or "The Shelby Ring."

They didn't set out purposely to build a formidable political network. It just evolved that way.

Weathers was the youngest and last to be dubbed part of the clan.

Their driving force was far from the infamy of other political "machines" such as Tammany Hall. Indeed, there was no "plan," no intent to deceive, rob or wield power for power's sake.

In his book, "The Living Past of Cleveland County," Weathers said, "It was coincidental that they should reach heights of fame in the same generation and from the same county."

Judge James L. Webb

The era began with a man Weathers described as "a true southern statesman," James. L. Webb.

From 1880, he served as mayor of Shelby, became a newspaper publisher, and was elected twice to the state Senate, but it was in his career on the judicial bench that he truly distinguished himself, Weathers wrote.

As district solicitor for 12 years, Weathers assessed him "a fearless and able prosecutor."

Appointed in 1894 to a vacancy on the Superior Court, he "was one of the fairest, most merciful, but just jurists in the state," Weathers said.

"He understood human frailty and usually gave a first offender a second chance," he said.

James Webb and his younger brother, Edwin Yates Webb, lent themselves as fine examples for others following in their steps, Weathers said.

"The high level of conduct of their courts ... lent dignity and prestige to other natives seeking political office and an opportunity for public service."

Judge E.Y. Webb

E.Y. Webb took his life's work to even higher political levels than his brother did, starting out in the N.C. Legislature. He served 16 years in Congress, where he helped lead the prohibition charge, and sat on the newly created Western North Carolina Federal Court from 1919 to 1947.

During the World War I years, President Wilson relied heavily on Webb's leadership for his war legislation. His expertise as chairman of the Judiciary Committee prompted his judgeship appointment, Weathers said.

Gov. Clyde R. Hoey

Clyde Roark Hoey won his first office before the last decade of the past century began.

In 1899, he joined the N.C. General Assembly in what was then the 32nd District. He was elected a second time in 1901, the same year E.Y. Webb was elected to the state Senate. In 1903, Hoey was elected a state senator.

Hoey may have been one of the first politicians to use the "don't ask - don't tell" approach. He didn't reveal during his first campaign that he was unable to vote for himself in that election, because he was only 20 years of age. He didn't become eligible to vote until five weeks after he won office.

Trained as a lawyer, he served as assistant district attorney for the federal court from 1913 to 1919, and was appointed to fill Webb's congressional post when Webb became a judge. He served out the term but did not run for it again, and returned to his law practice in Shelby.

In 1937, at age 61, he was elected governor of the state.

One biographer, Robert L. Thompson, wrote after his term, "Clyde R. Hoey came into the Governor's office a forthright, fearless and unaffected man, who was better liked and more admired in his home town than any other citizen. He left four years later, a forthright, fearless and unaffected man, who was better liked and more admired than any other citizen in North Carolina."

Gov. O. Max Gardner

Oliver Maxwell Gardner, a Shelby attorney, worked in the 1910 re-election campaign of Congressman Webb, and exposed to the process, decided to run for the state Senate.

His grandson, O. Max Gardner III, said his grandfather aimed high from the start.

As a child, the younger Gardner said, "He had decided he had political ambitions and set his sights on the governor's mansion. He was determined that's what he wanted to do."

Forming political alliances came naturally for Gardner, his grandson said. He was the only person to captain the football teams at both North Carolina and N.C. State. After graduating from what is now N.C. State, where he played football, he was given a scholarship in the sport while he attended law school at Carolina. He played one year before the NCAA was formed and passed the rule limiting players to four years.

However, even for the year he played at Carolina, he didn't play against N.C. State.

"I think that says more about his political skill and ability than anything else," said his grandson.

He also married the youngest daughter of Superior Court Judge James Webb, a leading light in local politics.

"My grandfather is often quoted as saying the best political decision he ever made was to marry Fay Webb," remembers his grandson.

In 1915, he became senate president pro-tem, the youngest person ever to hold the post. He also was appointed chairman of the Rules Committee.

Gardner survived a deadly train wreck as he was bidding for the lieutenant governor's job later that year, escaping with only a twisted back and broken leg and jaw.

A conservative - he had opposed child labor laws and a law giving the insurance commissioner power to set rates - Gardner announced a conversion to the cause of women's suffrage in his 1916 campaign for lieutenant governor. He won easily.

At the age of 33, Gardner presided over the state senate.

In his unsuccessful 1919 run for governor, he campaigned against Washington-backed candidate Cameron Morrison.

He beat Morrison in his later bid, and promptly appointed him to his cabinet.

Gardner guided the state through the Depression years, streamlining nearly every aspect of state government to save money.

Unlike Hoey, when Gardner left the Raleigh mansion in 1932, he set up his law practice in Washington, D.C., but his heart stayed in Cleveland County.

Soon after, he began sharing his financial success with Boiling Springs Junior College. His generosity led to the change in name to Gardner-Webb Junior College, a designation that also honors his wife, Fay Webb Gardner.

His final years of achievement included appointments as chairman of the advisory board to the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion in 1942, membership on the Joint Anglo-American Commission on Palestine in 1945, and the ambassadorship to England and the Court of St. James.

He died on the eve of his scheduled sailing for London.

The Honorable O. M. Mull

Montrose Meacham Ballard of Shelby remembers her grandfather, Otis (Odus, Odes) McCoy Mull, as "a big Baptist," "a big Democrat," more of a behind-the-scenes worker than the other Dynasty members and a man with fiery red hair.

"He was a big Baptist," Mrs. Ballard said, "and he always said when he died he wanted to have a brick in every church in Cleveland County. He did not want credit for the good things he did, he felt like you should do it quietly and unassumingly."

Politically, she said, he was known as the kingmaker.

"If you wanted to get something through the Legislature, you needed to get him on your side. He worked behind the scenes more than out front," she said. "I do not think he ever had any ambition to be governor. He wanted to help the governors get programs through."

Highlights during his career included major road paving and the beginning of the community college system.

Elected first in 1907 as a state representative, he served six regular and two special terms, and was speaker of the House in 1941. He was a key leader in establishing Bowman Gray School of Medicine, and the move of Wake Forest College to Winston-Salem.

"Oh, he was the most proud of Wake Forest," Mrs. Ballard said. "He sponsored the bill in the Legislature that established Bowman Gray School of Medicine and was chairman of the board when Wake Forest moved from the town of Wake Forest to Winston-Salem."

At the ground-breaking, she said, "When (President) Truman took the first shovel of dirt, granddaddy took the second. He felt that education was the key to everything. He felt like his education had taken him out of the cotton fields into the Legislature.

"Without his influence, I don't think there would be a Bowman Gray and therefore not a Baptist Hospital," she said.

"When I was born, my daddy was in the Navy," she remembered. "I stayed with my grandparents during war years, so as a child granddaddy was my biggest influence.

"I adored him, I thought he was just the smartest and kindest, most loving person I've ever known. My memories are more of the granddaddy rather than a statesman, but I know he wanted to be remembered more as a statesman than a politician."

Lee B. Weathers

Lee B. Weathers' son, former Star publisher Henry Lee Weathers, said, "Dad got involved with these men because he used to write a lot of their campaign material."

The "dynasty" designation didn't take hold until about the time Hoey went in as governor, Henry Lee Weathers said.

"Gardner went in as governor, then they went east for the next governor, then back west and got Hoey," he said. "It was an unwritten law back then to elect one from the eastern part of the state and then one from the west."

Shelby began to be called "the second capital of North Carolina," he said.

"It was same a number of times that the state was being run from Shelby."

Gardner went to Washington after he left the governor's mansion, he said, and would come home from time to time.

"He would call up his friends - Dad, Mr. Mull, and the rest. Dad would say, 'Come on son, we're going down to Max's house. Just sit in the corner and you'll learn something.' And I did learn something.

"It was fascinating to hear these gentleman talk about politics. The Gardners are a fascinating family. There were a lot of people that thought the world of them, and a lot of people that thought 'to hell with them.'"

The younger Weathers remembers Gardner's preparation in getting ready to go to England.

"He told his son Ralph to get ready all the stuff he'd need. He wanted some Cleveland County country hams to take over and show the queen."

He also gathered a pile of other "down-home" gifts.

"When he died, the day before he was to sail, Ralph had to get rid of all those things he had gathered up, so he gave a lot of the food to orphanages and other charities."

"All those men," he said, "they tried to do the best for their county and the state."

A current perspective

State Rep. Andy Dedmon agrees, and noted that the News and Observer in Raleigh recently selected Gardner as the most influential governor of the century.

"Our real estate office is in E.Y. Webb's home place, where he lived a good part of his life," Dedmon said. "A picture of the dynasty hangs near the front door. I guess I live with it a little bit every day."

Dedmon said not everybody who offers for public office has the same motivation as the dynasty members.

"You've got some Democrats who've been involved in politics a long time and take the time to know the history," he said. "The ones who really know the party history remember the dynasty, and they weren't alive when that was going on.

"I've enjoyed getting to know about our political heritage, and how at one time we really ran this state," he said.

Dedmon said a lot of people run for office now just to run for office, and party affiliation is a flag of convenience for them.

"They don't understand what the political history has been in this area, and just how influential we have been in the past, and we could be again.

"These fellows have set the bar for elected officials in Cleveland County. It is set very high, but it gives us something to shoot for. There's no reason we can't take that past and project that into the future," Dedmon said. "It just takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of will to do it."

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