Governor Walter M. Pierce's Administration
Source: Text courtesy of the Oregon State Library.
Born on May 30, 1861, near Morris, Illinois, to Charles M. and Charlotte L. (Clapp) Pierce. Brother of Charles, George Mary and Minnie. Pierce grew up in a Jacksonian Democrat farm home and journeyed west as a young man, settling in 1883 near Milton in northeastern Oregon. He married one of his students, Clara R. Rudio, in 1887. who died in childbirth in 1890; on September 3, 1893, married Clara's sister Laura, who bore him five children: Lloyd, Lucille. Helen, Edith and Lorraine; Laura Pierce died of cancer in March 1925; in December 1928, married Cornelia Marvin. first State of Oregon Librarian (1905).
After serving as teacher and Superintendent of Schools for Umatilla County from 1886 to 1890 and as County Clerk from 1890 to 1894. during which time he prospered from fees paid for land transactions, he returned to Illinois with his family to seek a law degree. In 1896 he received a Bachelor of Laws degree from Northwestern University at Evanston.Returning to Oregon, he practiced law for a decade in Pendleton; speculated in land; owned and operated the Grande Ronde Electric Company; and became one of the state's best known and most successful breeders of Hereford cattle.
In 1902 Pierce won election to a four-year term in the Oregon State Senate. winning passage of a $6.00 per child state support for educational purposes and supporting the unsuccessful effort at prohibition. Defeated for reelection in 1906, Pierce helped organize the Oregon Farmers' Union; became President of the State Taxpayers' League; organized the Public Power League; and served on the Board of Regents of Oregon Agricultural College from 1905 to 1927. Urging the use of the Columbia River for electrical power, a policy he endorsed throughout his public career, Pierce unsuccessfuIly sought the Democratic nomination for United States Senator in 1912, losing to Harry Lane, the general election winner. In 1916 Union and Wallowa county voters elected him to the Oregon Senate.
A progressive, Pierce challenged Republican incumbent James Withycombe for the governorship in 1918. losing 65,440 votes to 81,067. In 1920 he lost his senate seat by twenty-seven votes. Undaunted, Pierce won the governorship 133.392 to 99,164 in 1922 with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan. by supporting the Compulsory School Bill, and winning many Republican votes because of Governor Olcott's presumed Catholicism. He championed prohibition and a law banning alien land ownership, pressed for adoption of Oregon's first income tax, for liberal labor measures. prison reform, state-owned and operated hydro-electric projects and other progressive measures: many of these proposals were blocked by the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature.
Seeking to overcome that disadvantage by joining forces with Republican progressives, Pierce further fragmented his party by supporting Robert M. La Follette for President in 1924. Although he failed to strengthen his party, opponents acknowledged that he was one of Oregon's strongest governors. Nonetheless, in 1926, with emotions reduced, Republicans (who composed 70 percent of Oregon's voters) elected I. L. Patterson (120.073 to 93,470) over Pierce. After his governorship Pierce failed in 1928 to win Oregon's Second District Congressional seat.
Choosing not to run for governor in 1930. Pierce again ran for Congress in 1932 and, with Franklin Roosevelt's landslide victory won. A loyal New Dealer, he represented the Second District for the next Five terms until his defeat in 1942 at age eighty-one. He retired near Salem, Oregon, and died on March 27. 1954.
1. Gerald Schwartz. "Walter M. Pierce and the Tradition of Progressive Reform:
A Study of Eastern Oregon's Great Democrat." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
Washington State University, 1969;
2. Robert E. Burton, Democrats of Oregon: The Pattern of Minority Politics, 1900-1956
(Eugene. Oregon, 1970);
3. George S. Turnbull, Governors of Oregon (Portland, Oregon, 1959).
4. The Walter Pierce Papers are scattered: extant gubernatorial papers are in
the University of Oregon Library in Eugene; those for the Congressional years in
Special Collections, University of Oregon Library, Eugene;
others are located in Multnomah County Library and the Oregon State Historical Society,
Portland, and in the Walter M. and Corneila Marvin Pierce Library, Eastern Oregon College, La Grande.