It was considered an unthinkable scenario: A young, Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar was in his first term as his state’s governor and was the quintessential “young man in a hurry.” He had committed numerous missteps during his term, but there wasn't a well-known candidate stepping forward to challenge him in the primary; in fact, it appeared that he would be the first sitting governor in 38 years to be renominated unopposed. The wind seemed indeed to be at Bill Clinton’s back. Then Monroe Schwarzlose happened and set the young man who seemed to be on the fast track to the presidency on to the first of a series of setbacks that would define the future trajectory of his political career.
Monroe Alfred Julius Schwarzlose hailed from Seguin in the Texas Hill Country – an area that was heavily populated with families descended from German immigrants who settled there in the 1840s. Born Sept. 6, 1902, to Hermann and Nathalia Schwarzlose,1 he had two younger siblings: Melanie, born in 1905, and Biance, born in 1907.2 Like many families in the region, the Schwarzloses made their living as small family farmers and cattlemen. Schwarzlose became a cattleman himself in his young adult years, raising and selling beef in Texas, California and Oregon until he was inducted into the U.S. Army in World War II. He had also competed in the rodeo circuit for a time. He married Sylvia Virginia Austin in Los Angeles in 1928, and they had a daughter, Carol. After being wounded overseas during his Army service, he was shipped back stateside to Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Schwarzlose stayed in Arkansas after his discharge in 1945, moving briefly to Conway, and finally settling in Kingsland in Cleveland County, where he raised turkeys and beef cattle.3 He made an early foray into politics in the mid-1970s as a Republican candidate for a state House seat from Cleveland County but was beaten in a 3-to-1 margin by a longtime incumbent.4 There was nothing about Schwarzlose’s first campaign to indicate the role he would later play in the governor’s race.
In 1978, at age 76, Schwarzlose became a surprise last-minute entry in what became a five-way Democratic gubernatorial primary that was won by then-Attorney General Bill Clinton without a runoff. Schwarzlose made what was for that time, outrageous policy proposals, such as a state lottery and legalized casino gambling. He made the argument that people were going to gamble anyway, so the state should have a share of the proceeds.5 Schwarzlose garnered 5,898 votes,6 or just slightly over 1%. But this almost comical campaign was about to take a more serious turn.
By 1980, first term Gov. Bill Clinton was experiencing difficulties ranging from an unpopular increase in auto registration fees; continuing charges of draft-dodging during the Vietnam War; his wife Hillary’s use of her maiden name; cost overruns at the state purchasing department; and resentment about his perceived overuse of out-of-state recruits to run state agencies. Establishment Democratic Party luminaries routinely complained that they were often ignored by Clinton and the young “troika” of advisers around him, commonly known as “the beards.” Further, the economy was falling into a serious recession in early 1980, causing a severe shortfall in revenue. Still, notwithstanding these ominous headwinds, by the time the primary ticket closed in March, no Democrat had stepped forward to challenge the ambitious young incumbent, who was now being stung by charges that he was bored with the job and was looking for bigger horizons. On the last day of the filing period, in walked overalls-clad Monroe Schwarzlose, who plunked down his filing fee in cash, ready to do battle with the young incumbent. An Arkansas Gazette article described him as “an engaging gentleman with good home-canning recipes and some fetching stories about turkey farming and bucolic life around his home in Kingsland."7
While Clinton’s campaign war chest contained over a half-million dollars by primary time, the 78-year-old turkey farmer from Cleveland County would only spend about $4,000 going to campaign events in his rusted pickup truck,8 distributing home canning recipes as his sole campaign literature. He made even more outrageous promises, such as pledging to donate his farm to the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association Boys and Girls Ranches for use as an orphanage and to fix two issues at once by filling potholes with hazardous waste.9 But Bill Clinton soon gave him an issue that for many Arkansas voters symbolized the perceived waste and mismanagement of his administration – the Special Alternative Wood Energy Resources (SAWER). The program was designed to give work to the poor by producing firewood for the elderly. Clinton received two grants totaling over a half-million dollars for SAWER, but when all was said and done, the program had only produced 12 cords of wood.
After the state newspapers broke the story, Schwarzlose invited reporters to his farm, where he held a press conference next to two piles of cut firewood of 12 cords each. One contained a sign reading, “Monroe’s Woodpile: Cost $25.00,” while the other was labeled, “Clinton’s Woodpile: Cost $500,000.” During the press conference, the assembled reporters were treated to the sight of a copperhead snake slithering out of one of the woodpiles, and Schwarzlose killed the reptile while the cameras whirred. He then told the assembled reporters that had the snake been in Clinton’s woodpile, the governor would have called in officials that knew how to identify a snake in a woodpile, costing another $40,000 to $60,000.10 The effect was devastating on the Clinton administration’s public image, and on the governor’s re-election chances.
There was no way for Clinton to effectively counter those optics, and it showed on primary election day: his challenger had collected an astonishing 31% of the vote, or 138,670 votes to Clinton’s 306,736.11 This gave renewed hope to the governor’s general election opponent, Democrat-turned-Republican Frank White. White rode these issues, as well as the Cuban Refugee Crisis at Fort Chaffee, to the biggest political upset in Arkansas history.
Schwarzlose made three more runs for governor: as a Democrat in 1982 and 1984, gaining 2% and 5% of the vote respectively;12 13 and in 1986, when he was 84, in failing health and unable to afford the filing fee, he ran as a write-in candidate in his final bid. Veteran political journalist Ernie Dumas commented during Schwarzlose’s 1984 bid that “even ‘Hee Haw’ gets tiresome on the third rerun.”14 Sylvia Schwarzlose died in September 1982,15 and the widowed Schwarzlose moved to Conway, where he married Dorothy Mae Cummins of Vilonia in 1983.16 His health continued to fail through the remainder of the 1980s and he died on Nov. 24, 1990, in the John L. McClellan Veterans’ Hospital in Little Rock. He was buried alongside family members in Zorn Cemetery in Guadalupe County, Texas.17 18 When asked for comment on Schwarzlose’s death, Clinton remembered him fondly despite the 1980 primary embarrassment, stating that he "really enjoyed knowing him."19 Schwarzlose’s only daughter, Carol Johnson, told the Pine Bluff Commercial, “I think he will be missed. He added a lot of color to the Arkansas political scene.”20
Monroe Schwarzlose was certainly a man that cut a colorful figure in the politics of the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a part of the political lore of that era, but more importantly, helping derail what was considered Bill Clinton’s fast track to the presidency. In the final analysis, it can be said that without “Monroe’s Woodpile,” the snake and Gov. Frank White, there may not have been a President Bill Clinton.
1. “Hermann Schwarzlose.” https://www.geni.com/people/Hermann-Schwarzlose/6000000065751913920
2. “Monroe Alfred Julius Schwarzlose.” https://www.geni.com/people/Monroe-Schwarzlose/6000000065751871913
3. “Monroe Alfred Julius Schwarzlose.” Tulsa World, November 26, 1990.
4. “Monroe Schwarzlose: American Politician.” https://peoplepill.com/people/monroe-schwarzlose
5. “Monroe Schwarzlose.” Academic https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/6712802
6. Paul Riviere, Secretary of State, ed. 1978 Arkansas Elections: A Compilation of Primary, Run-Off, and General Election Results for State and District Offices (Little Rock: Arkansas Secretary of State, January 1980), 34.
7. Kelly DeBrine, “Monroe Schwarzlose, political maverick, dies", Arkansas Gazette, November 25, 1990.
8. Ernie Dumas, The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of the Arkansas Political Mind (Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2019), 285.
9. John Brummett, “Swooning for the sassy.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 4, 2018. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/jan/04/swooning-for-the-sassy-20180104/
10. Meredith Oakley, On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1994), 237.
11. Paul Riviere, Secretary of State, ed. 1980 Arkansas Elections: A Compilation of Primary, Run-Off, and General Election Results for State and District Offices (Little Rock: Arkansas Secretary of State, January 1982), 38.
12. Paul Riviere, Secretary of State, ed. 1982 Arkansas Elections: A Compilation of Primary, Run-Off, and General Election Results for State and District Offices (Little Rock: Arkansas Secretary of State, May 1983), 20.
13. W.J. “Bill” McCuen, Secretary of State, ed. Arkansas Election Results 1984 (Little Rock: Arkansas Secretary of State, May 1985), 17.
14. Ernie Dumas, quoted in Greg Marx, “‘Remember Good Old Monroe Schwarzlose?’ An unusual editorial from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.” Columbia Journalism Review, May 18, 2010. https://archives.cjr.org/campaign_desk/remember_good_old_monroe_schwa.php
15. “Sylvia Virginia Austin.” https://ancestors.familysearch.org/en/L2TZ-7SY/sylvia-virginia-austin-1906-1982
16./17. “Monroe A. Schwarzlose,” obituary, New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, November 2, 1990, 2.
18. “Schwarzlose, Monroe Alfred Julius.” http://sites.rootsweb.com/~txguadal/zorn.html
19. Bill Clinton, quoted in “Monroe Schwarzlose.” Academic https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/6712802
20. Carol Johnson, quoted in “Monroe Alfred Julius Schwarzlose.” Tulsa World, November 26, 1990.