The Way Back: Garnering Gavels

Unlocking the vault of UT history

Among UT’s vast collection of artifacts are 160 gavels that once belonged to John Nance Garner. In 1931, as Speaker of the House, Garner shattered his gavel. The press ran with the story and people nationwide sent the veteran Texas congressman replacements. Elected vice president the next year, Garner presided over the Senate and was tasked with pushing through Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Garner used almost every gavel he received, which was both a nice gesture and smart PR—Texas newspapers lapped it up.

The gavels are made from all sorts of materials—walrus ivory from Alaska, wild cherrywood from Big Bend, mesquite from Mexia, and longhorn steer horns. One, it was said, was sourced from a tree Sam Houston planted, while another was allegedly made with the Cedar of Lebanon—the same wood “with which Noah built his ark,” as pointed out in the Daily Texan.

When Garner returned to Texas in 1941 (after a bitter falling out with Roosevelt) he donated them to UT. As for his political papers, he burned most of them.

Photos from John Nance Garner papers/UT-Austin’s Briscoe Center


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