Sidney Johnston Catts, Sr.

Ex-Governor Sidney J. Catts Dies at His Home Here Monday Night


Florida’s most colorful citizen of the present generation, if not of the state’s history, and one who was certainly the state’s most forceful governor, departed from the walks of this life with the death, about two o’clock Monday morning, of Sidney J. Catts, at his home on Live Oak avenue. Funeral services were held Tuesday afternoon at the First Baptist church, of which organization he was a former pastor, by Rev. Sheppard Bryan. Interment was at the Magnolia cemetery, under the direction of the local Masonic lodge. Active pall bearers were A. F. Bullard, M. N. Fisher, Howard Cawthon, A. G. Douglass, H. E. Murray and W. O. Campbell.

The ex-governor is survived by his widow, two sons, Sidney K., Jr., and Douglass, and two daughters, Mrs. K. R. Paderick and Mrs. Joe Brown, of Jacksonville, and Miss Ruth, of DeFuniak Springs. Another son, Rozier, died within the past year.

Sidney Johnston Catts would have been a remarkable personage and “front page” material at any time and under any conditions, but it was his record as war-time governor of Florida, that made him a nation-wide figure, and to this day, no more frequent query meets the DeFuniak resident sojourning in another and distant state than something like this “DeFuniak Springs; let’s see, oh, yes that’s where Governor Catts lives. How is the old gentleman now?” or some different wording of the same question.

Mr. Catts, born on his father’s cotton plantation in Dallas county, Alabama, on July 31,1863, came to DeFuniak Springs in 1910, to assume the pastorship of the First Baptist church here. He was ordained a minister in the Baptist church in his native state in 1885, serving various churches in that state until he came here twenty-five years later. He served the DeFuniak church during the 1910-1913 period.

The ex-governor was no stranger to politics and political campaigns when he entered the gubernatorial campaign here in 1916, having, previous to his removal to DeFuniak, made a race, an unsuccessful one, against J. Thomas Heflin, a character, in his way, almost as colorful as was Mr. Catts, for congress. Both men climbed the political ladder in later years–Catts as governor of his adopted state, and Heflin as a United States Senator.

His campaigns in Florida, both for the Democratic nomination, and following that, his successful campaign for governor running on the Prohibition ticket, made political history in this state. The state supreme court, following a hotly-contested court action, awarded the nomination to Mr. Catts’ opponent, W. V. Knott, now the state treasurer, and following this decision, Mr. Catts stumped the state as the candidate of the Prohibition party, and was elected on that platform. State-wide prohibition became a part of the state constitution during the Catts regime, and the state remained dry until repeal succeeded prohibition in 1934. His 1916 campaign established two precedents in Florida politics: Sidney J. Catts was the only governor of the state elected under any banner other than that of the Democratic party, and his defeat of Knott was the only time that a nominated candidate for the governor’s place was ever defeated.

Mrs. Catts received the following telegram of condolence Monday from Governor Dave Sholtz and his cabinet, and of which W. V. Knott now state treasurer, is a member: “We are deeply grieved to learn of the passing of your husband, and extend to you and your family our sincere sympathy in your bereavement.”

Mr. Catts’ entry into the political game started a new era in political campaigns in this state. In this day, when every candidate for governor, or for a lesser state office, tours the country with a loud speaker, that form of publicity attracts but little attention; but when Mr. Catts introduced the loud speaker into Florida state politics he started something that attached much interest to his campaign, but this was only a minor matter so far as the far-seeing shrewdness of the astute Mr. Catts was concerned.

Combining his roles of circuit-rider preacher and backwoods politician, Catts told his campaign audiences of a vision, in which his mother appeared to him and directed him to do his “duty,” caused him to seek the governorship. His political meetings usually took the form of the old-fashioned revival service, with prayers for guidance, shouts from the audience and the passing of the plate.

His “old black stump” speech–given effectively on many occasions–has a place in the annals of Florida’s political history. In it he told how he was “inspired” to leave his bed at night, go into the woods, get down on his knees and pray or enlightenment with his arms encircling “an old black stump.”

“An angel,” he would declare in fervent tones, sometimes came to comfort him, but sometimes did not–“and then I knew old Catts had done wrong, and I kissed the old black stump with tears of repentance in my eyes.”

His earnestness and fire, which made so great a hit with his constituency in the days of his campaign for governor, departed largely when failing health robbed him of his strength, but at times a flash of this old-time earnestness, with which he swayed church congregations and political audiences in his earlier days, would make him for a time the Catts who was so dominant a character in the decade between 1910 and 1920.

In the Breeze office a few years ago, while talking of the counterfeiting charge upon which he had been indicted by a federal grand jury, and which he claimed, and his many friends believed, was a “political frame-up,” he said to the writer, “There I was sitting there, worried and perplexed, and a vision came to me, and a Voice spoke in my ear, ‘You old fool,’ it said, ‘what does it matter, whether you are convicted or cleared of this little petty charge?’ and do you know” the ex-governor continued, “from that moment on, I didn’t care a particle whether I was convicted or released,” and no one hearing the man’s flashing tones could doubt for a moment his entire sincerity.

[Source: The Breeze, March 12, 1936, Page 1]


Former Governor Is Buried At DeFuniak Springs Cemetery

By the Associated Press

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS, March 10.—The home town folks buried Sidney J. Catts today in a little hillside cemetery a mile east of here.

Many were at the First Baptist Church to hear simple last rites for Florida’s war-time war-time governor, the man who said of himself two years ago “Nobody is interested in old Catts now.”

He died here yesterday in his 73rd year, after an illness of several days.

The funeral congregation was made up to some extent of those who knew Catts back in the days when he was the town’s Baptist preacher. A yellow brick church has replaced the frame structure which he served as pastor a quarter century ago.

“A veteran at the cross who had lived his promised time,” was the funeral tribute by young Shepard Bryan, present pastor of Catts’ old church.

“He didn’t want to be called Governor Catts,” said the Rev. Bryan. “He asked me just to call him ‘Brother Catts.’ He was a faithful friend, true to his principles, strong in his convictions. Our hearts are heavy today.”

Quietly, the little congregation filed out behind the family—Mrs. Catts, three daughters, two sons. Thirty-five cars followed the hearse as it moved slowly through the city on the way to the cemetery.

There were no high state officials in the church to join in the final tribute to Florida’s “backwoods orator” governor.

[Source: The Palm Beach Post, 11 March 1936, Page 2]

[Burial: Magnolia Cemetery, DeFuniak Springs]

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