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Walter Marcus Pierce (May 30, 1861 - March 27, 1954) was an Americanmarker politician, a Democrat, who served as the 17th Governor of Oregon and a member of the United States House of Representatives from . A native of Illinoismarker, he served in the Oregon State Senate before the governorship, and again after leaving the U.S. House. Pierce is also the namesake of the United States Supreme Courtmarker case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters on compulsory public education.

Early life

Pierce was born to Charles M. and Charlotte L. (née Clapp) Pierce, Jacksonian Democrat farmers in Morris, Illinois on May 30, 1861. At the age of 17, he began teaching school despite having only a secondary education.

In 1883, motivated by both his recent diagnosis of tuberculosis and the idea of Manifest Destiny as propounded by Horace Greeley, Pierce moved west. After arriving in Portland, Oregonmarker in June 1883, he was not able to find work. After a period during which he worked the wheat fields of Walla Walla, Washingtonmarker, he earned enough money to finally settle in Milton, Oregonmarker in Umatilla County. There he returned to a career in education and established a successful farm.

As an educator, Pierce was drawn into local politics. He became well known for his pro-temperance views, and regularly spoke out against saloons selling alcohol to his students. In 1887, he married one of his students, Clara R. Rudio, who died during childbirth only three years later. The child was named after her mother. He married Clara's sister Laura in 1893. They had five children: Loyd, Lucile, Helen, Edith and Lorraine. Laura died of cancer in 1925. Pierce's third wife was Cornelia Marvin, the Oregon State Librarianmarker, whom he married in 1928.

From 1886 until 1890, Pierce served as superintendent of Umatilla County public schools. From 1890 until 1894, he served as Umatilla county clerk, and earned enough money from land transactions to further his education. He then returned to Illinois with his family to attend Northwestern Universitymarker, earning his Bachelors of Law degree in 1896.

Early political career as a state senator

After graduation, the Pierce family returned to Oregon, where Walter set up a successful law firm in Pendletonmarker. From 1896 to 1906, he managed a power company, speculated in land, and became one of the state's most renowned Hereford cattle breeders. He was again elected county clerk and served 1899 to 1903.

Pierce won a seat in the Oregon State Senate in 1902. In his first term, he unsuccessfully attempted to win passage of prohibition legislation, while successfully winning passage of a state subsidy of $6 per child for education. He was defeated at the polls for reelection, and retired from politics for a decade beginning in 1906.

While out of politics, Pierce continued local and statewide activities. He was a founder of the Oregon Farmer's Union and the Public Power League, headed the State Taxpayers League, and took a seat on the board of Regents of Oregon Agricultural Collegemarker from 1905 to 1927. He began advocating for using the Columbia River for hydroelectric power during this time. Pierce was also the promoter of the Hot Lake Sanatorium Company in Union Countymarker. He and fellow owner Parish L. Willis were accused of fraud by another investor, but cleared by the courts of any wrongdoing in 1918. The former sanatorium is now the Hot Lake Hotelmarker and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Pierce won the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 1912, but lost to Harry Lane in the general election. In 1916, he was reelected to the state senate. In 1918, Pierce ran, unsuccessfully, as a progressive Democrat against incumbent Governor James Withycombe. In the next election, in 1920, he lost his senate seat by only twenty-seven votes.


In 1922, with aid from the Ku Klux Klan, Pierce ran a successful campaign for governor against Ben W. Olcott.

At the time, the Klan was growing in influence and power across the state, and had drafted an overtly anti-Catholic and anti-semitic compulsory school bill, which addressed the issue of public tax support for private schools such as Catholic schools. Governor Olcott was perceived as Catholic, and defiantly refused to work with the Klan in any way. Pierce tacitly accepted the Klan's endorsement and lent his support to the school bill. He was swept into office with the largest margin of victory recorded in an Oregon governor's race.

As governor, Pierce was at odds with a Republican-dominated legislature. His administration was able to continue the road-building policies of the previous two administrations, but could not win passage of a state income tax or assessed value license fees for automobiles. He attempted to gain support from progressive Republicans on issues of prison reform, reforestation, and hydroelectric development, but divided the state Democratic Party by endorsing Robert M. La Follette for President in 1924. The Ku Klux Klan, which had endorsed him only a few years earlier, began an unsuccessful recall effort.

In the 1926 elections, Republican I. L. Patterson defeated Pierce. Upon leaving the Governor's office, Pierce returned to his ranch in Grande Ronde, Oregonmarker.

During his tenure, Pierce oversaw the passage of the Compulsory Education Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker in 1925, on the grounds that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

In 1928, Pierce ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd Congressional District seat. He declined to run for a second term as governor in 1930, but tried once more for Congress in 1932. He was elected amid excitement over the landslide Presidential election victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Pierce would become a staunch supporter of FDR's New Deal, serving in Congress until his electoral defeat in 1943.

One of the oldest politicians in Oregon history, Pierce retired from politics at age 81. He and his wife Cornelia retired to Eola, Oregonmarker.

Pierce and his wife both became involved in the anti-Japanese movement during World War II, in response to a concern on the part of local residents about the success of Japanese truckers in certain areas of Oregon.

Pierce died near Salem, Oregonmarker on March 27, 1954. Cornelia died on February 12, 1957.

See also


  • Oregon State Library
  • Klooster, Karl. Round the Roses II: More Past Portland Perspectives, pg. 122, 1992 ISBN 0-9619847-1-6
  • Walter M. Pierce, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Bone, Arthur H. editor, Oregon Cattleman/Governor/Congressman: Memoirs and Times of Walter M. Pierce, Oregon Historical Society, 1981.

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