McCormick Estates Records, 1841-1969

Scope and Content Note

During his career Robert Knowles was regarded as one of the most effective members of the Wisconsin Legislature. However, his small collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin only hints at the reasons for this high regard. Unlike most state legislative collections dating from the same period, the small Knowles collection appears to have been weeded prior to donation, perhaps to present a documentary record of those aspects of his career thought to be most important. The records that were selected speak chiefly to his leadership in the National Republican Party and the national legislative reform movement. Only incidentally do they treat his role as a district representative or his role in state legislative issues. In fact, the only organic legislative file (and this file documents only the 1957 session) was received with and is part of the Warren P. Knowles personal manuscript collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. A few papers in the Robert Knowles collection concern his personal and political relationship with his brother, but even these items are lacking in candor.

All personal files, as well as all files about the Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation that were received with the collection, were returned to the Knowles Family at their request.

The biographical material in the ROBERT KNOWLES PAPERS includes a large file of clippings, a 1985 oral history interview, scrapbooks, photographs (the originals of which are housed in the Visual Materials Archive in Madison), and records of his service as a bomber pilot during World War II. The lack of focus on Knowles' career in the Wisconsin Legislature elsewhere in the collection is partially compensated for here by inclusion of a tape recorded oral history which was conducted by Tim Ericson, former archivist at the UW-River Falls Area Research Center. In this interview Knowles reviewed the increasing professionalism of the Wisconsin legislature, the establishment of national organizations to improve legislative operation, his work on seat belt legislation, the political turmoil of the 1960s, and his own decision not to run for governor. A related oral history interview concerning his youth in River Falls is part of the St. Croix Valley historical collection held at the River Falls Area Research Center at call number River Falls Mss AW.

The World War II materials include a fairly complete file of official orders, Army Air Force training materials and logs, memorabilia, and correspondence. The correspondence, which is primarily incoming and which chiefly dates from 1945, when Knowles was stationed in Idaho, includes personal letters from family members and from lifelong associates such as Tom Doar and S.J. Auringer and professional correspondence concerning his unsuccessful attempt to become a commercial pilot after his discharge from the service. Particularly interesting is a file of monthly reports, 1942-1945, which recorded the hours flown in particular types of aircraft and a notebook which recorded his activities immediately before and after D-Day in brief, diary-like accounts.

Photographs (the originals of which are housed in the SHSW Visual Materials Archive) include a snapshot of Knowles' crew on D-Day and several show his family or other personal activities. Most however reflect his political career. Included are images from his swearing-in ceremony, from the 1964 and 1968 Republican National Conventions (filed with that series), other conferences, speeches, and other events.

The scrapbooks contain news clippings and photographs which document Knowles' political life. Several which were in bad physical condition have been microfilmed and destroyed; others are available in paper form. Photographs from the scrapbooks are held with other Knowles photographs in the Visual Materials Archive in Madison.

Robert Knowles' Senate papers consist of correspondence that is alphabetically-arranged by subject, press material, and campaign files covering elections between 1964 and 1976. The correspondence bears heavy evidence of conscious selection, and it consists chiefly of files on the national organizations in which Knowles was active. Among the few folders about district issues is the file on the proposed termination of Minnesota-Wisconsin tax reciprocity, a law originally proposed by Knowles. About the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures there is a draft evaluation of the Wisconsin Legislature, congratulations and a souvenir booklet on Knowles' 1974 Legislative Leadership Award, and a memo prepared by the CCSL on the functions of the lieutenant governor. Involvement with the National Conference of State Legislatures is primarily documented by briefing material for a trip to China sponsored by NCSL. Other overseas experience which grew out of association with such national organizations is the file on his Nigerian consultancy for the International Communication Agency in 1981 and his Foreign Service inspection tour in 1970. The Nigerian work is represented by summaries and participants evaluations. The foreign service file documents a planned inspection of the U.S. embassy in Sydney. This inspection never took place, however, because Knowles' mother died shortly after his arrival in Australia. The file does include several lengthy personal letters about his reactions to conditions in Taipei, Bangkok, and Singapore, which Knowles visited in order to prepare for his assignment. Also interesting are several chatty letters from his secretary in Madison about office matters while Knowles was absent.

Except for a file containing memoranda prepared for Ernest Keppler of the Senate Organization Committee that are characteristic of Knowles' thoughtful approach to legislative reform, information on Knowles' interest in this issue in Wisconsin is scattered and disappointing. (Several items of this type can be found in the file of miscellaneous correspondence.)

In the file originally labeled “Miscellaneous correspondence I thought you might want to keep” is a 1974 column by Knowles for journalist John Wyngaard, a 1973 letter that summarized Knowles' public reasons for not seeking the gubernatorial nomination, biographical letters about his experiences at River Falls State Teachers College, and a summary of the results of his 1975 and 1976 legislative questionnaires.

The remainder of the Senate office correspondence varies in value. For example, while there is a folder of correspondence with his brother Warren dealing with personal and political matters both before and during Warren's tenure as governor, there is also a file of “crackpot” letters and another on Mary Garland Miller, a local poet. The Warren Knowles correspondence is very important because no material from his post-gubernatorial years is included in the former governor's own papers. In addition to a few truly personal items, this file contains some frank comments from Warren about Republican politics and the quality of party candidates during the 1970s. Also included is a report on a 1970 trip to Alaska and some political malapropisms, the collection of which was a Knowles hobby.

Perhaps the best representation of Robert Knowles' involvement with state legislative issues and the citizens of his district may be found in the press material section. The press releases and Legislative Report columns are virtually complete for the last thirteen years of Knowles' public career and consequently an excellent record of his views, but they are virtually nonexistent before 1963. Although covering a wide range of topics, the speech file is also incomplete and no informal floor remarks are included in the papers. Of special interest is one speech in which Knowles reminisced about his River Falls boyhood, using that topic as a springboard for an extended discussion of his political philosophy.

Records of Knowles' early election campaigns (1964, 1968, and 1972) consist largely of form letters and campaign correspondence originating from his Madison office. The 1976 election, which ended his career, is more completely documented, and these files include financial records, scripts for radio spots, sketches for campaign ads, publications distributed by Senate and Assembly campaign committees, and a large quantity of correspondence from advocacy groups and PACs.

The National Republican Convention files primarily consist of correspondence sent or received in his Madison office about the conventions; files created during his months of work in the convention office are not included and presumably these records were turned over to the party. The files include some correspondence dating from both before and after his active convention management that was exchanged with leaders such as Ray C. Bliss, Ody Fish, and Stanley York; some expense statements; and, for the 1968 convention only, a file of contracts with the Fontainbleau Hotel.

The WARREN KNOWLES PAPERS consist largely of correspondence about research on family history carried out by the governor himself and by Shirley Town Port, a free-lance genealogist he employed. In addition, there are ancestry charts prepared for him, copies of military pension records for several ancestors dating to the 18th Century, original correspondence of Faith Blakeney and other members of the Blakeney family to whom the Knowles were related; and papers of Judge Warren Knowles pertaining to the purchase of his River Falls home. Governor Knowles' financial investments during the 1930s and 1940s are also documented here.