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DAKOTA IMAGES | William H. McMaster

DAKOTA IMAGES | William H. McMaster

William H. McMaster served the state of South Dakota in both its legislative houses, as governor, and as United States senator. He is most remembered, however, for involving the state in the gasoline business to ensure affordable fuel for South Dakotans.

Born 10 May 1877 in Ticonic, Iowa, McMaster spent most of his youth around Sioux City, Iowa. In 1899, he graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he gained a reputation as a noted intercollegiate debater. McMaster moved to South Dakota in 1901, opening a bank in Gayville and becoming increasingly interested in politics.

Voters first elected McMaster to the South Dakota House of Representatives in 1911. Two years later, he won election to the state senate. From there, he quickly moved up the political ladder, serving as lieutenant governor from 1917 to 1920 and as governor starting in 1921. During his two terms between 1921 and 1925, McMaster followed the line of progressive Republicans by implementing government programs to assist the public.

His fight against American oil companies was his most high-profile moment as governor. In 1923, believing the price of 26.6 cents per gallon of gasoline was prohibitive for South Dakotans, McMaster ordered the State Highway Department to sell fuel to the public at sixteen cents per gallon. After meetings with the governor, the major oil companies agreed to match the price. For the next two years, however, McMaster continued his “gasoline war,” stimulating competition and driving prices down by authorizing the highway department to sell fuel when prices at privately owned stations became excessive. While the state legislature supported his policies, a United States Supreme Court decision against them ended the state’s venture in October 1925.

In March 1925, McMaster had moved on to a seat in the United States Senate, where he served one term until 1931. From the Senate, he continued fighting for government support of farmers, especially after the stock market crash of 1929. After failing to secure a reelection bid in 1930, McMaster returned to banking and moved to Dixon, Illinois, where he remained until his death on 14 September 1968. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Dixon.