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Widow, Washer Woman, Welfare Commissioner

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 3/20/20

She was born in Germany in 1887 and came to the United States as a young girl, eventually settling in Jeffersonville around 1914. Widowed within a year, she supported herself and her children as best …

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Widow, Washer Woman, Welfare Commissioner


She was born in Germany in 1887 and came to the United States as a young girl, eventually settling in Jeffersonville around 1914. Widowed within a year, she supported herself and her children as best she could. Through diligence and hard work, she became the first woman ever elected to countywide office in Sullivan County.

She was Susanna Potsch, who served as the county's Commissioner of Public Welfare from 1930 to 1935.

Not unlike many others during that time period, Nicholas and Susanna Potsch came to Sullivan County because he had taken ill in New York City and it was believed the healing environment in “the Mountains” would improve his condition. It did not, and Nicholas died in 1915.

Left to support her two daughters and possessing just an eighth grade education, Susanna went to work taking in laundry and cleaning houses. In the 1920 census she described her occupation as “washer woman.” Within a few years, she was hired as the housekeeper for former Sullivan County Sheriff Fletcher Rhodes, who was then serving as Superintendent of the Poor, a job that entailed, among other duties, overseeing the County Poor Farm in Thompsonville, where the Superintendent was expected to live.

During her tenure as housekeeper under Rhodes, Susanna assumed more and more responsibility for managing the farm, including purchasing goods, supervising the growing of produce, and keeping some of the records.

She lost her job when Rhodes was replaced by Calvin Hornbeck, but as the election of 1929 approached, and the Democrat's endorsed candidate for the position, John F. Durr of Youngsville, declined to accept the nomination, the party turned to Susanna to challenge Hornbeck. She accepted, and was elected that November.

She assumed office in January of 1930, and took to the position quickly, finding the annual salary of $2,000 a significant upgrade over what she had been earning cleaning houses. Within a few days after assuming office, she noticed that a number of the residents of the poor farm seemed to be getting drunk on a regular basis, despite the fact that Prohibition was still the law of the land.

“She reported the matter to the Board of Supervisors and to Sheriff [Ben] Gerow,” the Liberty Register reported in its January 30, 1930 edition. “The Supervisors were insistent that the condition be cleaned up at once, and the Sheriff, after consulting with District Attorney Gardner LeRoy and getting his advice, called upon the federal Prohibition office in Kingston, after doing a bit of scouting on his own hook first.”

Gerow discovered that a huge still was being operated by the caretaker of the Mayflower, a boarding house located adjacent to the poor farm. Several arrests were made and the still was destroyed. It was a high profile case, and reflected well on the new superintendent.

As fate would have it, Susanna Potsch took over the position, shortly thereafter renamed Commissioner of Public Welfare, just as the country was plunging into the Great Depression. Sullivan County was not to be spared, and the number of residents seeking refuge at the county's poor farm steadily increased. Unfortunately, under her supervision, the cost of feeding and caring for those individuals also increased, leading to harsh questioning of her managerial skills by the Board of Supervisors.

When she appointed her daughter, Edith Carpenter of Monticello, Assistant Commissioner, the move earned her further criticism, albeit mainly from members of the opposing party. Still, her impact on the operation of the poor farm could not be denied. She increased the efficiency of the farming operation and the amount of produce grown on the farm, and also improved the general living conditions there.

Despite the somewhat bumpy ride of her first term, Susanna was re-elected Commissioner in November of 1932, defeating Republican John A. Fine, the Bethel Town Clerk as Democrats throughout New York successfully rode the tide of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's landslide victory.

Her second three-year term was mostly a positive experience, and when the 1935 election season got underway, Republicans seemed desperate to regain the office. They nominated Margaret Engert of Mountaindale, foreshadowing the later widely accepted notion that the toughest candidate to beat in any countywide election is a Republican from Fallsburg.

Throughout the campaign, Engert and the Republicans hammered away at Potsch's managerial abilities, claiming that she kept poor records and lacked the education and the skill set to effectively manage the growing poor farm operation. Inexplicably, Potsch and the Democrats failed to counter these arguments, relying instead on a campaign that touted her ability to grow produce.

Engert won.

Incredibly, it wasn't until after the election that Potsch issued a statement refuting most of the Republicans' claims, pointing out that her records were regularly reviewed by the Board of Supervisors and State officials, and that no shortcomings or discrepancies were ever noted.

Although after-the-fact and inconsequential, Engert inadvertently diffused some of the criticism of Potsch's appointment of her daughter as Assistant Commissioner by immediately hiring her husband, William Engert, as farm manager and her mother-in-law as baker.

Following her defeat, Susanna Potsch returned to her home on Silver Heights in Jeffersonville, where her two brothers, Anton and Paul Schwatz, also lived. Following the communist takeover in Austria in 1952, a niece and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Seidl, fled to America and took up residence with her for a time.

As the years went by, Susanna began to regularly spend the winters with her daughter in Flushing. She died there in April of 1962. A funeral mass was said by Reverend Joel Munzing at St. George's Roman Catholic Church in Jeffersonville, and Susanna Potsch was buried next to Nicholas in the church cemetery. She was 75.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.


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