Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Honolulu’s First Mayor - Joseph James Fern

The Organic Act (enacted April 30, 1900) established the territorial status of the Islands; with it, the legislature was authorized to create towns, cities and counties within the Territory.

In 1905, the Territorial Legislature passed “The County Act” (Act 39) which formed the basis of modern local government in Hawaiʻi. It established five counties: Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i and Kalawao.

Hawai‘i’s 5th County (encompassing the Kalaupapa Peninsula and surrounding land) remains under the jurisdiction of the state's Health Department; the other four counties were governed by elected Boards of Supervisors.

Contrary to the suggestion in the name of the enabling “County Act,” State government retained many traditional county government functions and over the next many decades took on even more, making Hawai‘i the most centralized state government.

The state continued to administer the court system, public health, welfare, correctional and school systems in addition to all harbors, airports and major highways.

The County of Oʻahu began operating on July 1, 1905, and two years later was renamed the City and County of Honolulu; it was governed by a Board of Supervisors.  Later, a mayor was added to the Board of Supervisors.

Honolulu's first campaign for Mayor had two principal candidates: John Carey Lane, Republican; and James Joseph Fern, Democrat.

On January 4, 1909, in the McIntyre building at Fort and King Streets, the City and County of Honolulu inaugurated its new municipal government and its first Mayor, Joseph "Joe" James Fern (who had won the election by just seven votes (Lane did not want a recount.))

Joseph Fern was born in Kohala on the Big Island in 1872, to James and Kaipo Fern, a Hawaiian family of modest means.

His schooling was rudimentary, and he was commonly referred to as being self-taught.  At the age of twelve he went to work for the Union Mill Plantation of Kohala, driving a bullock cart loaded with fire wood from the forests on the upper slopes down to the mill.

He left the Big Island in 1892 and headed to Honolulu.  In the city, his first job was as a mule-car driver for the Hawaiian Tramways.  He eventually worked as shipping master for the Inter Island Steamship Company.

Fern was thrice-married, his first bride, Julia Natua, presenting him with two children, Julia and James, before her death, and his second wife, Sheba Alapai, giving birth to twelve, Joseph Jr., Mary K., Nancy, George, Kaipo, Elizabeth, Marion, Mary, Keo, Santa Clara, Henry and Esta. Sheba died in April 1910. His third wife, Emma Silva, married Fern in August 1910 in Honolulu, when he was already mayor of the city, they had one child, Victoria.  (Johnson)

In 1907, Joe Fern was elected to the Board of Supervisors of the County of Oʻahu as a Democrat, one of a minority of three on the seven-man board.

Warm-hearted, welcoming, with a sense of humor, Fern brought his personal style to City Hall. He built a city government and proposed acquiring land for parks and playgrounds. A devout Catholic twice widowed, he lived modestly on Alapa‘i Lane and reared fourteen children. (Chapin)

In 1915, he lost a reelection bid against John Lane.  That year, for the first time, Honolulu's budget passed the million-dollar mark, the increase reflecting a general growth in property valuations in the city.

After leaving office, Fern was appointed City Jailer. When Lane tried to run for reelection, Fern challenged his successor again and won by 300 votes; he retook the Mayor's office on July 2, 1917.

Fern died February 20, 1920 from complications with diabetes, while still in office.

Evidence of his popularity among the people he served, Fern was granted a state funeral and was laid in the throne room of ʻIolani Palace. During the burial rites at the Catholic Cemetery, the United States Army Air Corps presented a fly-over ceremony in a V-formation.  Fern Elementary School and Playground are named in his honor.

The newspaper, often vehemently opposed to Fern, wrote the following: "Mr. Fern stood in the relation of a father to his people. He was one of the old school of Hawaiians, open handed, sympathetic and always ready to help his people. Daily there was a stream of Hawaiian poor crowding his waiting room and corning to him for assistance in family rows, for legal advice or a loan or to straighten out trouble with their children."

"While the supervisors at times fought him tooth and nail and criticized him in no uncertain terms in open meeting, he nevertheless had the respect of all of them. He is sincerely mourned by the board, by all the city employees and the people of the city generally."  (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, February 21, 1920)

The image shows Joseph Fern, Honolulu's first Mayor (HHS;)  in addition, I have added other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.

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