"Doc" McKee and his demise: the 1932 election
November 5, 2010
McKee’s Jewelry Store and Optometry, operated by ‘Doc’ F.S. McKee, became one of Aspen’s most enduring businesses. The prominent Hyman Avenue location displayed jewelry, watches, musical instruments, eyeglasses, giftware such as mirrors and powder boxes for women, and even hosiery. If your vision was impaired, “Doc” would examine your eyes and assemble your glasses.
McKee married a much younger woman, Dot, and they resided on the second floor above their store. Even though they operated one of Aspen’s more profitable enterprises, the McKees used a privy in the alley behind the store and took their baths in a washtub.
In the late 1920s, a younger man moved into town and won Dot’s heart. The McKees divorced and Dot moved to Florida with her new beau. ‘Doc’ closed the store and moved to Florida, too, still wanting to be near Dot. He apparently bought a fruit orchard, as he sent fruit boxes to a number of Aspenites for Christmas for a few years.
McKee felt homesick for Aspen, so he returned. He restocked his store with consignment items.
Like most of Aspen’s store owners, McKee was a lifelong Republican. He was active in the party and believed that President Hoover was a shoe-in for reelection in 1932. He thought that Hoover was almost guaranteed a majority vote in Aspen.
McKee was obviously not paying attention to public sentiment. Hoover, who coined the term “Depression,” chose that word because he did not believe that the economic downturn was similar to the panics of the 1890s and early 1900s. He believed this crisis was all in people’s heads. Hoover thought that business would increase once Americans agreed with his pronouncements that the recession had already ended.
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Hoover and the Republican Congress helped out the banks, but refused to take any other action. With 15 million unemployed Americans, two million of them on the road looking for work, few agreed with Hoover’s position. Colorado, suffering from the Dust Bowl plus low prices for agricultural and mineral products, entered the Depression before many other states. Some Aspen mines barely maintained a payroll, but they were desperate because the price of silver reached its lowest point in its history, much lower than the price that followed the Panic of 1893.
Hoover dropped the last straw before the election when he ordered General MacArthur to rid the capital of “communists and criminals.” Thousands of unemployed veterans of World War I, and their families, had encamped in Washington demanding an early payment of their promised veteran’s bonus. MacArthur’s tear gas assault against those veterans, women and children turned Americans against their president. The contrast between Hoover’s stance and Franklin Roosevelt’s comments, such as “We must put behind us the idea that an uncontrolled, unbalanced economy, creating paper profits for a relatively small group, means or ever can mean prosperity,” sealed Hoover’s fate.
Roosevelt won in a landslide, capturing 42 of the 48 states, including Colorado. He gathered 472 electoral votes; Hoover got 59.
In 1932, my mother worked as a clerk at Kobey’s, a clothing store next door to McKee’s. When she arrived at work the day after the election, she found McKee sitting on the sidewalk with his feet in the gutter and his head in his hands. She stopped to talk to him, but he would not answer. She and Homer Van Loon, the owner of Kobey’s, kept an eye on him as they worried about his mental condition. McKee, who had made bets on the election all around town, felt devastated both by his financial losses (rumored to have consumed everything he owned) and by the fact that Roosevelt, the Democrat he hated, had won.
Aspen’s mayor called Dot in Florida and implored her to come and take McKee back to Florida. He never recovered and soon died.