Gertrude Dills McKee, North Carolina’s first woman state senator, was the daughter of Dillsboro founder William Allen Dills. She married E.L. McKee of Sylva, an early developer and associate of C.J. Harris.
Gertrude McKee was born in 1885, before either Dillsboro or Sylva was incorporated, and she died in 1948, after being elected to a fourth term in the N.C. Senate but before serving in that session. A prominent Democrat, McKee was a delegate to all four national Democratic conventions that named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as their party’s nominee.
However, because of the social customs of her day, contemporary accounts in The Sylva Herald typically referred to her as “Mrs. E.L. McKee.” The May 3, 1944, edition of The Herald describes her role in nominating FDR four times, crediting “Mrs. McKee” with “a distinction few have had, and especially women.”
Four terms in Senate
Her terms in the N.C. Senate were not consecutive; she was elected in 1930, 1936, 1942 and 1948. The 32nd senate district she was elected to represent included Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Polk and Transylvania counties. The Sylva Herald’s 1951 Centennial section describes “Mrs. McKee” as “one of the outstanding public speakers of this area,” saying that “because of her wide range of knowledge concerning county, state and nation, she could entertain an audience on almost any subject.”
That article also lists other McKee accomplishments, saying that her early interest in the Jackson County Public Library led to a seat on the Library Board, and that her “interest in public welfare attracted attention and she was appointed a member of the State Board of Public Welfare.” In addition, she served as president of the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1925-1927; president of the North Carolina Division of the U.D.C. (United Daughters of the Confederacy), 1928-30; president of the Southern Council of Federated Clubwomen, 1926-28; member of the North Carolina Education Commission, 1929-39; chairman, Jackson County Board of Education, 1933-35; trustee, Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University), 1921-25; trustee, Peace College, 1930-38; trustee, Brevard College, 1934-48; and member of the Commission for the Consolidation of the Greater University of North Carolina, 1931.
The Herald’s Centennial section article closes with this paragraph: “Her work in the General Assembly during three terms as Senator attracted attention, especially in educational and public welfare work. A measure which she sponsored for North Carolina, pertaining to public welfare, has been copied by a number of other states. Because of her interest in education, in county affairs and the General Assembly, the training school building at Western Carolina Teachers College was named the Gertrude Dills McKee Building in her honor. (WCU’s McKee Building, completed in 1939, was built to house Cullowhee’s elementary school – a training school for college students preparing to be teachers; it remains in use, housing several WCU departments including history, anthropology/sociology and modern foreign languages.)
McKee and her husband were also the original owners of High Hampton Inn, which continues to operate in Cashiers.
First woman governor?
An article titled “The Lady Senator” by R.C. Lawrence appeared in the June 5, 1943, edition of The State magazine, now known as Our State. In the last paragraph, Lawrence speculates that McKee might become North Carolina’s first woman governor.
“Ours is a progressive state, and we may yet follow the example of Nevada and Texas and elect a woman Governor. And who knows but that this may be the lady from Jackson! Thus far her county has not given our state a Governor, but as no county west of Asheville has produced a Chief Executive, one may be even now in the making in the person of Senator McKee,” Lawrence writes. “She is in the very heyday of her fine powers, growing constantly in the public favor, and it may well be that some future day may find her acclaimed as the Chief Executive of the Tar Heel State.” (Local historian George Frizzell believes the writer meant Wyoming rather than Nevada.)
Despite her statewide fame, Gertrude McKee was someone who fit easily into small-town life and was known around Sylva as “Gert” or “Miss Gert.”
Rachel Phillips, who died in 2014, said during a 2003 interview that Gertrude McKee was “plain as an old shoe,” and “was witty and jolly, not high-falutin’ at all, but very aristocratic-looking. She made everybody feel special.”
When Phillips was born in 1919, Gertrude McKee gave her the wicker baby carriage she had used when her own sons were small. ”I remember that carriage,” Phillips said. “It was in our family awhile.” Phillips also remembers Gertrude McKee’s kindness during a sad time. ”I remember when my father died – I was 12,” Phillips said. “They had brought his body back to the house, and everybody came by. Mr. and Mrs. McKee were at our house, and she told me and my two cousins to go up to her house and make ourselves at home. I guess she thought we looked out of place with all the grown-ups. When she came home later, she made us sandwiches and hot chocolate before we left.”
Gertrude McKee’s eldest son, the late William Dills McKee, who died in 2004, also said his mother had a good sense of humor. “She liked to tell jokes, but not risque ones,” he said during a 2003 interview.
W.D. McKee called his mother’s personality “hard to describe,” and said “She didn’t drink – she didn’t need to because she could go to any kind of gathering and chat vivaciously. She was outgoing and really liked people.”
He remembered being impressed by his mother’s ease in front of crowds and skill at public speaking. “Once when I was visiting her in Raleigh, she’d been asked to make the commencement address at Peace College. “I asked, ‘Mother, have you written your speech?’ She said, ‘I don’t have to write it down – I know what I’m going to say.’” His mother displayed no nervousness at all when addressing groups, and he never saw her use any notes, W.D. McKee said.
One story about Gertrude McKee made the newspapers during her years in the state Senate.
“She was the only woman in the Senate at that time, and a bill came up that had something to do with child labor. Mother wanted some provision of it changed, and in the course of advocating her point of view, she said, ‘I’ve raised two boys at home, and I think I know more about boys than anyone else in the Senate.’ Another senator said, ‘I’d like to ask the senator from Jackson how she knows more about little boys than we do when we used to be little boys ourselves.’”
W.D. McKee also shared a story that he said his parents used to tell with amusement about each other. It seems that when she received her honorary doctorate from UNC-Greensboro, Frank Porter Graham, the university president, said many complimentary things about her, W.D. McKee said. “It sort of got to my father’s ego, to hear his wife praised so, and he teased her and said, ‘I guess next you’ll be getting a degree in veterinary science.’ And she said, ‘I guess I deserve one – I’ve lived with a jackass for 30 years.’”
Young Gertrude Dills received little formal education due to the scarcity of local schools in the waning years of the 19th century. Her father, who built the Jarrett House, then named the Mt. Beulah Hotel, constructed his family’s home next door to the inn, and Gertrude received most of her lessons from guests who stayed there. “But when she went to Peace College, she made the highest grades ever,” W.D. McKee said. “She was very intelligent.”
Children came first
His mother loved the church and sang in the choir at Sylva Methodist, W.D. McKee said. Ironically, though the McKees were stalwarts at the Methodist church, Sylva First Baptist Church is now located on the site of E.L. and Gertrude McKee’s former home. According to W.D. McKee, his parents owned 2 acres, and the back part had always been used as a garden and orchard. But around the time he was born, his parents decided to make a formal garden out of it and did so with the help of landscapers.
“My mother was very proud of her garden,” he said. “Then I grew up enough to start playing baseball and basketball. We kept the grass worn down, and it was no longer a beautiful garden, but Mother didn’t mind. She was glad for everyone to gather there in the afternoons, and she forgot about keeping it a garden. She turned it over to the children, and everyone called it ‘the park.’”
According to W.D. McKee, his mother was very proud when WCU’s McKee Building was named in her honor. “She was enormously pleased that (Western) named something for her while she was still alive,” he said.
A historical marker acknowledging McKee stands on Sylva’s Main Street. It reads: “Gertrude Dills McKee. First woman elected to N.C. Senate, 1930. Civic leader and clubwoman. Home was 50 yds. west.”
The essay in support of McKee’s marker, found on the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program (www.ncmarkers.com) includes the following information:
“McKee (1885-1948) was in her day among the state’s most prominent women and brought to the legislature a wealth of experience in public affairs.
“Her first involvement in politics came in 1928 with her participation in the campaign for Congress of Zeb Weaver. Two years later Gertrude McKee successfully sought the state Senate seat from the Thirty-second District. She jokingly referred to her forty-nine male colleagues as ‘my children.’ As chair of the public welfare committee, she took a special interest in child labor laws and old age assistance. Voters returned her to the Senate in 1937 and 1943, the year in which The State magazine speculated on the possibility of her becoming North Carolina’s first female governor. In 1948, she died three weeks after being elected to a fourth Senate term.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.