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MERCER: SD senator led Congress to Labor Day

PIERRE -- Remember James Kyle?

He was South Dakota's most improbable U.S. senator. Officially an independent, he served his first term with the Democrats and his second with the Republicans.

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During that first term, Kyle sponsored the federal law in 1894 creating a new national holiday.

His legislation designated the first Monday of September as Labor Day.

Seven years later, Kyle was dead. So too, the independent movement that first elected him.

At a memorial service in the U.S. Senate the next spring, the man who succeeded him noted Kyle's accomplishment of enshrining Labor Day on the nation's calendar.

"For all time will this day be recognized and observed by the laborer and his friends," said U.S. Sen. Alfred Kittredge.

"Labor never had a better friend than Senator Kyle, and no one better understood its needs or extended a more sympathetic and helping hand," Kittredge continued.

What made James Henderson Kyle such an improbable winner of a U.S. Senate seat?

Kyle was the minister at Plymouth Congregational Church in Aberdeen and finance officer for Yankton College in 1890 when, at a Fourth of July gathering at Aberdeen, he was asked for a speech.

That led the independents -- a true third party at that time and second only to Republicans in political strength in many parts of South Dakota -- to nominate Kyle for election to the state Senate.

He won a desk in the Legislature and headed to Pierre for the January start of the 1891 legislative session.

In those days, the state's senators and representatives in the Legislature decided who got South Dakota's two seats in the U.S. Senate.

After South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889, the Legislature selected the original pair: A temporary two-year term for Gideon Moody, of Deadwood, and a full six-year term for Richard Pettigrew, of Sioux Falls. Both were Republicans.

Legislators at the 1891 session, with Kyle among them, needed to choose someone for a full six-year term for the seat Moody held.

Republicans had one more state senator than Democrats and Independents combined. But in the state House, Democrats and Independents had one more seat than did Republicans.

Republicans initially offered Moody again. He couldn't break through.

The three sides deadlocked for a month, voting six days a week each noon and conducting two ballots most days.

After 27 days and 40 ballots, and many other candidacies that faltered, the decisive tally on Feb. 16 gave Kyle 74 votes, while the Republican replacement candidate, Thomas Sterling, drew 56.

Kyle and Sterling didn't emerge as popular candidates until late. Kyle won after a shift of at least 10 votes from Democratic candidate Bartlett Tripp over the weekend. Kyle then aligned with the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate in his first term.

Kyle ran for re-election in 1897, again as an independent. Republican legislators gave him the second term. He then aligned with the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate.

Kyle died on July 1, 1901, in Aberdeen. He was 47. Friends claimed he was more of a Republican.

Labor Day seems proof of his real allegiance.