Baler During The American Period: The Reign Of Quezon
by Manuel L. Quezon III

Not far from the plaza in front of Baler Church is a marker that dates back to the Commonwealth period. It says that to Baler was sent an American expedition to succor the Spanish. The year was 1899. The marker itself is telegraphic-brief and to the point-in the information it contains about that expedition. The marker informs us that on the morning of 11 April, the USS Yorktown, a gunboat under the command of Commodore William Sperry, USN, anchored in Baler Bay. Its mission: to enact the attempted relief of the Spanish garrison of four officers and fifty men besieged in Baler Church. What the marker does not tell us, in any great detail, is what follows the arrival of the gunboat in Baler Bay.

What Truly Happened

Commodore William Sperry directed an ensign, W. H. Standley, to go ashore with a message for the commander of the Spanish garrison. Standley, on board a whaleboat from the ship, headed for shore under a flag of truce. As the whaleboat headed into the bay, a squad of Filipino soldiers gathered at the beach, awaiting him. A Filipino officer, Major Nemecio Bartolome approached the boat. Standley met him and through an interpreter informed the major of his mission to deliver a letter intended for the commander of the Spanish garrison. Major Bartolome replied that he could not allow him to communicate with the garrison; furthermore, no one could approach the church without being fIred at. He also warned Standley that in view of the fact that Americans were fighting the Filininos. he would decline further communication with him and that should he approach the beach again, he would be fired at.

Ensign Standley returned to the ship, reported the failure of his mission to the commanding officer, who decided that another attempt to contact the garrison should be made. He instructed Standley to go ashore again. He was fired at. He retreated to the ship. Sperry surveyed the strategic situation. It was not promising, but he said,

"I hate to go back and report to the admiral that 1 have been unable to carry out his order. On the other hand, it seems nonsensical to attempt to force our way through when we have no information whatsoever as to the location of the church nor can we obtain any information from the highest lookout station on the ship, as nothing is visible from there."

Standley suggested the possibility of obtaining information on the location of church by climbing to the summit of Point Baja (Ermita), fringed by the Kinalapan-Pingit River south of the town. The commodore was skeptical about the possibility of reaching the summit without being spotted by Filipino insurgents. That evening, the commodore summoned Ensign Standley and Lieutenant James C. Gillmore, the ship's navigator, to the poop deck. Permission to make the attempt to scale Point Baja as given.

At dawn on 12 April 1899, the whaleboat was lowered from the starboard side of the Yorktown with Lieutenant Gillmore and fourteen other men.

They ferried Ensign Standley and Quartermaster J. Lysaught by Munting Gasang below Point Baja. After the two disembarked, Gillmore pulled away. Standley and Lysaught made their way up the summit and mapped out the area where Baler Church was located. Standley accomplished his mission without incident and returned to the beach. They were picked up by another boat from the ship. Meanwhile, Gillmore and his crew pressed onward to their assigned area, the mouth of Kinalapan- Pingit River as diversion, taking soundings of the water depth along the way. For no apparent reason, Gillmore decided to go upriver despite a warning from an onlooker-a portent of things to come.

About a kilometer from the outfall of the river on its sharp bend (known then as Ubbot) , Gillmore and his crew were ambushed. An American sitting at the bow was shot right in the forehead; two other crewmembers were soon mortally wounded. Another was then killed. When Gillmore finally ordered the white flag raised, the firing ceased. Everyone was ordered off the boat with the exception of the dead and the wounded. They were lined up on the beach to be executed. However, before the command for execution was given, a man on horseback came galloping along the river bank yelling to stop the onslaught on orders from the mayor. The American prisoners were marched to town and kept there for three days then taken to San Isidro, Nueva Ecija. From Nueva Ecija they were taken further north to the Ilocos region. The captors then deserted the prisoners. A Colonel Luther Hare and his party rescued the Americans on 28 December 1899.

Thus was America's first entry into the history of Baler and it was an unmitigated disaster. But the ill- fated Gillmore expedition at least left Baler with a valorous footnote in the Philippine-American War.

Trouble In Tayabas

The experience of the province Tayabas, to which Baler would soon be attached, was on the whole not particularly more sanguine. General Elwell Otis viewed Tayabas and all other Tagalog provinces as the most difficult to subdue. American prospects, the American military commander felt, were brighter in provinces in Northern Luzon than in "the southern Tagalog provinces of Cavite, Batangas, Laguna, and Tayabas [which] offered barren ground for benevolent assimilation." The energies and resources of the United States were thus concentrated on non-Tagalog provinces, while the Tagalogs were slated to bear the brunt of the war. Only after the government of the First Republic was captured or dispersed would he devote his attention to the Tagalog provinces. He would send the 8th Corps of his forces to perform the task because his original commander for the job, General Henry Lawton, became a casualty. However, by January 1900, a 2,SOO-man brigade under the command of Brigadier General Theodore Schwan swept through Cavite, Batangas, Tayabas, and Laguna. At this point Baler would only enter the scene once and briefly because of Colonel Frederic Funston, who landed his forces at Cape San Ildefonso at the onset of the effort to capture the elusive General Emilio Aguinaldo.

The fighting in Tayabas was not as bitter as in Batangas. As an American historian puts it:

"The guerrillas in Tayabas were so disorganized and fractious that, at [General Mariano] Trias's request, [General Miguel] Malvar took over the province in January 1901, and dispatched his brother-in-law, Eustacio Maloles, to sort things out. Maloles proved unable to coordinate the province's feuding movements, and for most of the [Filipino-American] war the province's main contribution was as a sanctuary and source of supplies."

With Tayabas placed by the Americans under the Second Military District (Batangas, Laguna, and Tayabas), Colonel Cornelius Gardener entered the scene. The commander of the 30th Infantry occupying Tayabas, Gardener issued a proclamation that "no spirit pf revenge is contemplated by the military commander but the goodwill towards all peaceable people" (the operative word being "peaceable" of course, as a characteristic of Filipinos deserving the velvet glove instead of the mailed fist). Gardner was an extremely active commander, saying believed "mere pills will be more effective than bullets."

"[H]e boasted that within six months of its arrival, the 30th had opened schools in every town it occupied. He insisted that his garrison commanders set up civil governments, recruit police, and cooperate with the local authorities. In the face of much evidence to the contrary from his own officers, Gardener steadfastly insisted that Tayabas was peaceful."

Indeed "pacification" was no picnic. By mid- 1900, it was clear to the Americans that "few Filipinos would serve as officials, even in Tayabas," while "the insurgents, however little they challenged the [American] soldiers, appeared able to murder individuals or destroy property with relative impunity."

In May 1900, Gardener had to impose a "form" of "reconcentration" in Tayabas for a brief time. By April 1901, even with Aguinaldo captured, "practical steps to revitalize the resistance" were still being undertaken by General Malvar. Maloles was sent to Tayabas with instructions for the surviving soldiers of the First Republic to avoid combat except under exceptionally favorable circumstances; to preserve their weapons; and to reject the Federalistas organizing in enemy- occupied territory to preach assimilation by America. But the resistance in Tayabas collapsed by May of that year. Maloles surrendered although resistance continued to sputter on under the "somewhat shaky" leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Zurbano. The Americans resorted to more drastic methods throughout the military district, and while the severity of these methods was felt strongest in provinces like Bataan, an American military investigator in 1902 did discover seventeen separate incidents of torture in Tayabas involving eight officers.

And yet collapse, when it came, was swift for the Filipino resistance, as was the beginning of the redrawing, literally, of the political map. Appointed Military Governor in March 1901, Coloner Gardner reestablished the district of El Principe, consisting of the towns of Baler and Casiguran, and the missions of Dipaculao and San Jose de Casecnan in November 1901, and incorporated them into the province of Tayabas.

From Military To Civilian Government

The Philippine Commission, the legislative organ of the American government in the Philippines, had already passed Act. No. 82 (known as the New Municipal Law) on 31 January 1901. In July of the same year, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the "Philippine Insurrection" finished, and transferred supervision over colonial affairs from the military to a civilian named, William Howard Taft. By February 1902, the military government in Tayabas came to an end, and the first civil governor, Colonel Harry H. Bandholtz, was appointed. Unique among American officials, Bandholtz was elected governor in his own right by Filipinos in the first gubernatorial elections (or, to be precise, by the worthies of the province, since only wealthy property owners who held office as municipal counselors, served as the electors for governor). The governor, in turn, appointed a ten-man council to manage the affairs of the towns of Baler and Casiguran, a state of affairs that lasted until 1910.

When Manuel Luis Quezon launched his candidacy for the governorship of Tayabas in 1906, the announcement was made in Atimonan. His hometown did not figure in the campaign, and would not matter, politically, until his return from having served as resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., to run for senator in the 1916 elections. In that interval, Baler made the transition from being run by an appointed board to having municipal elections of its own. The first mayoral election in Baler held in 1910 resulted in Benito Angara being elected, and thereafter was conducted yearly up until the election of Manuel A. Gonzales in 1926.

No Small-Town Politics

The political culture of Baler during this period was unique. The town had a broad middle class, and there were neither upper nor lower classes. Each family would typically have a residential house and lot in town and a small piece of land to farm in the countryside. This meant there was no servant class, a typical feature almost everywhere in the country. Thus there were no "command votes" that could be delivered as the largely equitable distribution of wealth prevented the creation of entire factions under the leadership of particular people. People tended to vote along family lines but everyone was practically related. Elections instead were decided by the ability of candidates to withstand the heckling of rivals (and relatives, which often comprised the entire town) in face-to-face debates. Thinking on one's feet and maintaining one's aplomb in the face of catcalls and other forms of derision (one candidate, for example, would be greeted with rooster noises by oppositionists) mattered more than promises or the kind of patronage dispensed in other places.

This kind of direct democracy, in a population small enough to make it impossible for candidates to put on airs, and which fostered a demanding and rambunctious electorate, was a characteristic of Baler life even during the Spanish era; it would persist as a characteristic of Baler politics until the waning decades of the 20th century. The Baler kind of politics was exemplified by its most famous son, Manuel L. Quezon, whose lack of class-consciousness (which mystified his opponents who couldn't figure out where his "common touch" could have come from), whose ability to withstand even the most hostile of audiences, and whose agility as a debater, went against the grain of national politics as it existed in the Philippines up to that time.

Indeed, the bulk of the American period, from Quezon's rise to the presidency of the Senate in 1916, to his inauguration as president in 1935, placed Baler firmly on the political map. In the political debates between those who were for and those against the Hare-Hawes Cutting Law, Baler was always against it. When its most famous son thundered the need for a great unity among the people against the enemy (whether some American proconsul like Leonard Wood or a Filipino opponent such as Sergio Osmena), the town band would set itself up in the plaza and the latest political anthem would be played again and again, day in and day out. There are still residents who can recall that band grinding out Colonel Walter Loving's "Marcha Collectivista" from sunrise to sunset. The chess-game in Manila would be dissected, the moves and counter-moves endlessly debated; and the pace of life in the town quickening and slowing down depending on the proximity of elections. This period of fanatical partisanship-the small town band untiringly in honor of Quezon-was duplicated throughout the length and breadth of the Philippines, but surely victory for its star was sweeter (and inevitable) in comparison to say, large and cosmopolitan Cebu.

Peacetime In Baler

The Baler of the 1920s and 1930s was a place, as in almost all places in Tayabas, where coconut was king, although for Baler, the bounty would also come from the sea. People set out in small boats to the Casiguran straits and haul in tuna in such enormous quantities that boats were often in danger of sinking from the overload. The memories of those who can recall that period are joyful ones of abundance and community spirit. The 1920s too, witnessed a concentrated effort to begin breaking Baler out of the isolation imposed by geography.

In 1925. the Baler-Bongabon road was begun, and in the next year, the municipal and communication building was constructed. Baler was no longer just accessible by sea or a multi-day ride on horseback. From the hamlet of Kalanan, a winding unpaved road zigzagged dizzily along the curves of the mountain cliffs to a scenic spot called Boundary. The demarcation site between the provinces of Nueva Ecija and northern Tayabas was developed into a resting station and sanctuary for the road builders, at a place located roughly about 68 kilometers west of the town of Baler on the Sierra Madre Mountain range and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Another contemporary engineering effort was the transformation of Natulo, a waterfall, into as a source of fresh water for the residents of Baler.

The onset of the mid-1930s and the Common- wealth did not radically transform Baler. Pre-World War II generations of Filipinos nostalgically named that period Peacetime. Manuel Luis Quezon came home to visit from time to time and he preferred to arrive by sea, even as his wife preferred to travel by land whenever she could. The Casiana, the presidential yacht, would glisten in the distant horizon, moored off Baler Bay. The President and his family would hop onto a launch from the bay and enter the mouth of Duungan river, traversing it until they alit on the banks of the inland waterway. Relatives and local bigwigs awaited the First Family to help them to dry land. A permanent feature would be hordes of youth magnetically drawn to Quezon. Many an old timer today would tell the same story of how they swarmed around and followed the man who never disappointed them each time by showering them with silver coins.

The sole manifestations of the new Philippine state headed by Baler's favorite son came in the closing years of that era. The Church of Baler was renovated at the suggestion of First Lady Aurora A. Quezon in 1939. On 8 March 1940, the Baler-Bongabon Road was inaugurated and finally linked Baler to Central Luzon. A vacation house for the president was also constructed at Cemento beach.

The president's vacation house was built between rows of coconut groves adorned with climbing bougainvilleas covering the redwood narra walls. Surrounding the house were fringes of cabatiti bushes that clustered around talisay, kadil, baligago, and ylang ylang trees. The river of Cemento that flowed into the Bay was dammed and converted into a swimming pool for the president's family. The estate sat on some five hectares of rolling woodland overlooking Baler Bay formed from the headland of Point Encanto northwest to Point Dibutunan west of Casiguran.

But Cemento, completed between 1940 and 1941, marked the end as war came to Baler with the destruction of the radio station on 17 December 1941; occupation, again, would be the town's fate. As the flag of Spain had been taken down, to be replaced by that of the fledgling First Republic, so too, were the American Stars and Stripes and the Sun and Stars of the Commonwealth, to be replaced by that of the fledgling First Republic, so too, were the American Stars and Stripes and the Sun and Stars of the Commonwealth, to be replaced by the Flag of the Rising Sun.