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Breaking the glass ceiling

John Conway
Posted 3/3/23

There were probably not many Sullivan County women less likely to be the first to win a county wide election than Susanna Potsch.  

She was born Susanna Schwatz in Germany in 1887, and came …

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Breaking the glass ceiling


There were probably not many Sullivan County women less likely to be the first to win a county wide election than Susanna Potsch. 

She was born Susanna Schwatz in Germany in 1887, and came to the United States as a young girl, eventually marrying Nicholas Potsch in New York City. When Nicholas took sick, the couple moved their small family to Jeffersonville in 1914, believing that the mountain air would help him recover. His condition did not improve, and he died the following year. 

Left to support her two daughters and possessing just an eighth grade education, Susanna began 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, overseeing the County Poor Farm in Thompsonville. 

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. She soon 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.” 

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. 

Shortly after Susanna Potsch took over the position, it was renamed “Commissioner of Public Welfare” and a number of agencies were added under her supervision. But the country was plunging into the Great Depression, and Sullivan County was not to be spared. The number of residents seeking refuge at the county’s poor farm steadily increased, and the cost of feeding and caring for them did, too, leading to harsh questioning of her managerial skills by the Board of Supervisors.  

When she appointed her daughter Assistant Commissioner, the move earned her further criticism, albeit mostly 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.   

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 nominated Margaret Engert of Mountaindale to oppose her. 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 welfare system. Inexplicably, Potsch and the Democrats failed to counter these arguments, relying instead on a campaign that touted her ability to grow produce.  

Engert won by less than 600 votes, as Republicans dominated the election cycle in the county. 

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 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 also 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 and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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