BY MARGO DRUMMOND
Even as a child, Henry Allen Cooper, fondly known as “Little Hal,” earned notice as drummer for local Civil War recruits as they practiced marching drills before departing for battle. Too young to be a soldier, “Little Hal” remained behind in Burlington where his recurring mischievous behavior prompted his teacher to send him home. Undeterred, he mounted the roof of the family barn just behind the school and proceeded to pound on his drum until the ruckus annoyed his teacher to the point that she allowed him to return to class. Ironically, the Conkey Street School would later be renamed Cooper and the rhythmic “Henry Allen Cooper’s Island Wild Waltz” often played in his honor by Gideon’s Band at summer dances on Wild’s Island near his childhood home.
Nonconformity seemed to be a trademark of the Cooper family. Cooper’s father, Joel, was a local doctor, pharmacist, postmaster and sewing machine agent whose office sign read: “Pills and Plasters For All Disasters.” Cooper’s only sibling, Florence, became president of the Bank of Burlington 25 years before passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. And under the Cooper home at 117 N. Perkins Boulevard lay an Underground Railroad stop where Joshua Glover, a runaway slave, was briefly hidden before being spirited to Canada and freedom by a group of Racinians.
Cooper’s relocation to Racine came about following his 1881 election as District Attorney, a post in which he served unopposed for two more terms. His oratory and debate skills, honed while attending Union Law School, (later Northwestern Law School) in Chicago, were put to good use during his appearance before the State Supreme Court of Wisconsin, including the case against John Jambor over his attempted assassination of Racine’s controversial mayor, M.M. Secor.
In 1887, Henry Allen Cooper began his single term as a Wisconsin State Senator. During his tenure he authored a bill which resulted in the introduction of the Australian (secret) ballot. Cooper worked closely with Wisconsin’s Robert M. LaFollette to formulate the Progressive program advocating direct election of U.S. Senators which, though booed at the 1908 Republican Convention, became part of the United States Constitution some six years later. At the urging of local newspaper editor Frank Starbuck, Cooper ran for Congress in 1890. Due to a sweep by Democrats that year he lost but won two years later, going on to serve as representative of the 1st Congressional District for 36 years.
With his reputation as an independent but progressive Republican, Congressman Cooper was first assigned to the Rivers and Harbor Committee where he proceeded to oppose a key piece of legislation. Reassigned as chair of the Insular Affairs Committee following the Spanish American War, Cooper spent 10 years developing laws to secure self-government for Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and occupied Cuba. During the second decade of the 20th Century, he became ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee where he voiced opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in Mexican affairs. Cooper’s independent streak led him to join forces with fellow Democrats to limit the power of the Speaker of the House which ultimately proved successful. As debate over entry into World War One arose, Henry Allen Cooper, though not a pacifist, spoke for strict neutrality unless or until the United States was directly attacked. When war was declared however, he offered his full support.
Accused of being unpatriotic, Cooper lost his 1918 bid for Congress as a Republican and subsequently in an unsuccessful run as an independent. Re-elected in 1920, Cooper would go on to serve 11 more years during which time he applied his talents to such things as securing construction of the Lincoln Memorial for the nation’s capital as well as the naming of Constitution Avenue. Known as “Dean of the House” among his colleagues, Cooper was described by President Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography as one of five House members whom the President regularly consulted with.
For many years the Coopers maintained a residence at 913 South Main Street in Racine. But it was in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 1931, that Congressman Cooper, returning from a lively night session at the Capital, collapsed and died. Some 75,000 mourners paid their respects to the 80-year-old Congressman who, on the eve of the Great Depression, had procured funding for construction of the Racine County Courthouse and the city’s downtown post office. Henry Allen Cooper lies buried beside his beloved wife, Sarah, affectionately known to him as “Sally,” in Historic Mound Cemetery.
Margo Drummond’s interest in history began when she became involved with Preservation Racine. For 31 years, she taught high school courses on Racine History and Death and Dying, Issues of Living and Life. She wrote two books, “Blessings of Being Mortal: How a Mature Understanding of Death Can Free Us to Live Wisely and Well” and “Here’s to Your Health,” the history of brothers William and James Horlick and their company, Horlick’s Malted Milk.