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Fifty Years in Oregon was written by Theodore T. Geer, a grandson of Joseph Carey Geer and a shirttail ancestor of ours.

I have put much of the book on this website. I started because several chapters describe the early roots of our family history in Oregon. I kept going because I found many of the chapters from this perspective on the early settlers and the history of Oregon to be quite interesting.

Table Of Contents

This book was originally published in 1912 by The Neale Publishing Co. If you are interested in a copy, search at Powell's Books.

Fifty Years in Oregon

BY T. T. Geer, formerly Governor of Oregon, and one of her native sons



One of the important acts of the Legislative session of 1887 was the passage of a law creating a Railroad Commission. It was the first session of the Legislature after the inauguration of Sylvester Pennoyer as Governor and he had incorporated into his inaugural address a goodly amount of his idiosyncrasies on political as well as economic questions. Pennoyer was full of them, not really, it was generally believed, but for the effect it had upon the “populace,” to which he was appealing for support in his public career, upon which he was then just starting. He had made his campaign for Governor in the spring of 1886 upon the question of exclusion of Chinese from the State and, as such an appeal is always received with favor by most people, and especially those known as “working people,” it was a good “slogan” to wield, and in the hands of a man like Pennoyer it was effective to the last degree.

Governor Pennoyer was for ten years the central figure in Oregon politics. In his earlier life he had been a school-teacher in Portland and afterward editor of a paper, but he had been in retirement until his nomination for Governor in 1886. The Chinese question had been vigorously agitated for a year or two prior to this, and the time was ripe for a man of Pennoyer’s ability to appeal to the voters along the line of “the masses against the classes,” “the money power,” “Caesar,” etc., and he came to the front for the reason that he saw his opportunity. No public man in Oregon has ever been a more thorough aristocrat. No man ever saw him on the street or in public anywhere without his standing collar of the Henry Clay style. His manner was exceedingly stiff and his bearing almost painfully dignified. Yet he was always approachable by the humblest of men and received all callers at the executive office most cordially. He was a very kindly man at all times, and was always conscious of the fact that Bill Smith could cast as effective a vote as the Hon. So and So. Therefore Pennoyer never lost sight of the importance of cultivating the friendship and admiration of Bill Smith and all his personal friends.

In the spring of 1886, the Oregon Republicans had nominated Colonel Thomas R. Cornelius for Governor, one of the best and most favorably known of the early pioneers, a farmer by occupation and a man who should have received every Republican vote in Oregon; but the campaign had but opened when it was discovered – or the claim was made that it had been discovered – that at some time not very far in the past Colonel Cornelius had employed a Chinaman to wash some shirts – and the revelation of this unpardonable offense against good government and the rights of man was more than his otherwise faultless record in Oregon for forty years could overcome. Everywhere the people were informed of the lack of sympathy on the part of Colonel Cornelius for the laboring man – as proven indisputably by the incident of his laundry patronage – and Pennoyer was not the man to permit the common people to be imposed upon without emphasizing the danger to which they were subjected if a man of this character were allowed to occupy the highest office in the State!

So Pennoyer was elected and inaugurated in January, 1887. In his inaugural address he gave expression freely to his peculiar ideas upon the Federal Constitution and the usurpation by the courts, State and national, of the powers which belonged exclusively to the State Legislatures and to Congress. The Legislature had enacted a registry law which the Supreme Court had pronounced unconstitutional. This act of the court was denounced by Governor Pennoyer as being plainly beyond its power or right, and he contended to the Legislature in one of his messages that, notwithstanding the decision of the Supreme Court, the law still stood and was really in effect. Of course this position was absurd in the extreme and it created great merriment in the Legislature and out of it. The following is an abstract from the Governor’s message:

There cannot be found in the Constitution of Oregon any warrant for such a proceeding. There cannot be found in the Constitution any provision by which the judges of the several Courts of Oregon are exempted from obedience to the laws of the State. There cannot be found there any warrant by which they can suspend, by an order, the operation of a law which that Constitution expressly declares shall never be suspended except by the Legislative Assembly. By that instrument they are bound to obey and enforce the law, and are not privileged to disregard and nullify the law. In that instrument there is no provision by which the unanimous will of the people in regard to this registry law, regularly expressed in a legislative enactment, can be thwarted by any two or three men in the State. Judges cannot make or unmake laws, but like others, they must obey the laws.

After supporting this most remarkable position by an extended argument, he closed with this statement of his conclusion:

Finding, therefore, no warrant, either in the State or Federal Constitution, for the Judicial Department to nullify an enactment of the Legislature, the conclusion is irresistible that the Registration Act as passed by the Legislature of Oregon is the law of the land today, and that the order of the court suspending the operation of such law was in violation of Section 23, Article I, of the Constitution, and therefore that it was void and of no effect.

This astonishing exposition of constitutional powers as between the. Legislative and the judicial departments of government gives a very fair illustration of what was popularly known in those days as “Pennoyerism.” His most intimate acquaintances knew that he knew better than sincerely to hold to many of his publicly expressed opinions; but he was in politics to win, and these extreme utterances, especially if they are directed against the established order of things, never fail to touch some sort of popular chord and to win a following. A following was what Pennoyer always wanted, and it was what he generally had.

Parenthetically, it may be admitted that for a man in politics to have a following, if it is strong enough to bring about desired results, is not a really objectionable thing.

I was not a member of the Legislature of 1887, but was present at the delivery of Governor Pennoyer’s inaugural address and witnessed the amusement with which this part of it was received by the assembled lawmakers, as well as by those in the galleries. It created a great sensation, and that this pleased the Governor immensely was plainly seen. That was what hewanted, for one of his peculiarities was that he would rather be abused at any time than to be ignored.

Within a week or two after this incident I wrote a letter to the Oregonian, a column in length, reviewing this stand of the Governor on the powers of State and Federal Courts, sprinkling it quite liberally with ridicule and closed with this paragraph:

For many years past it has been the custom of Californians to ship Oregon apples to their State, label them California apples and send them to Eastern markets, they have imported Columbia River salmon by the thousands of cases, re-marked them as California salmon and secured fabulous prices for them in the markets of the world; Oregon lumber is re-shipped East as California lumber, and even California geographies never fail to locate Mt. Hood inside the northern boundary of the Golden State; but all these offenses, these sins of commission and omission, will be swept into the bottomless pit of forgiveness and forgetfulness if hereafter our neighbors on the south, as well as all other outsiders, will speak of Governor Pennoyer of California.

To this letter I signed the name of our country post-office, “Macleay,” not feeling disposed to sign my own name to a communication of so personal a nature. It created a little ripple on the surface of the local political sea at the time, was copied in some of the State papers, commented on here and there and was soon forgotten – by me.

As was said at the beginning of this chapter, this session enacted a law establishing a State Railroad Commission, by the terms of which the Governor was to appoint the two members who were to compose it. It was required that one of them should be a Democrat and the other a Republican. They were to serve for two years at an annual salary of $2,500, with an appendage called a clerk. To be one of these members was a desirable position and, naturally, there was some excitement among certain people as the time approached for the appointment to be made – ”on or before the first of April.”

Being a farmer, and having some experience in public affairs, several of my friends began working with the Governor for my selection as the Republican member of the Commission. I did not then know him personally, but he had heard of me, I learned, and was somewhat disposed to look upon my appointment with favor. Things were in this condition when, one forenoon about ten o’clock in the last week of March, I received my mail from a neighbor who had been to Macleay, and in it was a letter from the “Executive Office” in Salem, and it was addressed to me in the well-known, fine, even chirography of Governor Pennoyer. At once divining the possible nature of its contents, I had it read in a jiffy. He merely asked me if it would be convenient for me to call upon him in the immediate future for a little consultation. I was planting potatoes in a small field above the house at the time, but within an hour I had changed my clothes, partaken of a light luncheon, saddled “Coly” and was on my way, though I was not sure where I was going.

Upon arriving at Salem, I tied my horse to a large maple tree on the edge of the campus of the Willamette University, directly opposite the State House and within a hundred yards of where the old Oregon Institute stood, where I attended school in the early ‘60s. I soon presented myself to the Governor who received me very cordially. Proceeding to the point without delay, he said he had been asked to appoint me as the Republican member of the Railroad Commission and wanted to talk the matter over with me. He said he had already decided to appoint Hon. James H. Slater, of La Grande, as the Democratic member and wanted to know if I could work agreeably with him on the Commission, in case of my selection. I replied that I could, especially since I had known him intimately during my ten years’ residence in Union County; besides, I was in no humor just then to argue with His Excellency the expediency or desirability of appointing any particular man to the Democratic place on the Board. The fact was I could have worked agreeably with any Democrat in the State whom the Governor might have desired to favor, as near as I can come at this date to analyzing my sentiments. I was only concerned as to the complexion of the Republican side of the Commission, and I did have a decided preference as to who should fill that particular place.

Mr. Slater, who had served two years in the lower House of Congress and a full term as United States Senator, was fully equipped to serve on the Railroad Commission and, as I recall the conversation now, I extolled his many excellent qualities more enthusiastically to Governor Pennoyer just then than I had ever done before.

The interview ended, I went down on the main streets of Salem and, to strengthen my prospects, requested a few prominent Democrats who were personal friends of mine to do a little “rustling” with the Governor in order to make my appointment sure; this they said they would gladly do. So I went home, happily dreaming of receiving a commission of appointment, splendidly engraved, together with the congratulations of my friends from different parts of the State. I considered, too, the possibility of hiring a hand on the farm to do the very hard work while I looked after the interests of the public.

But alas for the vain hopes of man! The next day at noon I received the Salem Daily Statesman, and there, in glaring headlines, was the announcement that the Governor had appointed on the Railroad Commission Hon. James H. Slater, of La Grande, and Hon. George A. Waggoner, of Corvallis!

That afternoon I finished planting my potatoes, but at digging time the following October it was impossible to decide whether that part of the field had been planted north and south or diagonally with the compass, and the yield was a cross between the Early Rose and the White Kidney, though the latter variety had been outlawed in that section for twenty years. A large share of the potatoes came out of the ground cross-eyed, and all were heavy at the heart!

I had never been a very ardent admirer of Governor Pennoyer, but after that mistake of his there was no time in his career when I could persuade myself that his judgment could be relied upon in an important emergency. He was too fickle.

When I had sufficiently recovered to make another trip to Salem – which was in the following July, I believe – I learned that when I had requested some of my Democratic friends to intercede for me with the Governor it soon became known to a few other Democrats with whom I had had some political tilts in preceding local campaigns and who proposed that I should not “get ahead” politically, if they could help it. These at once went to His Excellency and told him what they had heard. He replied that he was, indeed, thinking very strongly of my appointment, etc.

“But,” they said, “did you know, Governor, you are about to appoint the man on the Board who wrote that letter to the Oregonian a little while ago signed ‘Macleay?’ “

“You don’t mean to say he is the man who wrote that letter?” inquired the Governor.

“He is the very man,” they informed him, “and surely you won’t put him on the Board of Railroad Commissioners. There are a number of other Republicans who are applicants and who would be decidedly less objectionable to Democrats generally.”

Possessed with this bit of information, it was as easy for the Governor to erase my name from the list as it was for him to wink his eye at one of his sly jokes – and that means it was no effort at all.

During the month of May, 1901, fourteen years after the occurrence of the above episode, and when I was in the Executive chair, I visited California. President McKinley was there at the time to witness the launching of the battleship Ohio. One day, with my wife, I visited San Jose and while there called upon Alfred Holman, then editor and proprietor of the San Jose Mercury. Holman was a native of Oregon and was for a number of years a member of the editorial staff of the Oregonian. Soon after entering his office, he suggested that he should invite in the Mayor, president of the Board of Trade and a few other celebrities, with their wives, and give us a dinner at our hotel, and this was done. During the progress of the meal, Holman had a lot of fun recalling some of our Oregon experiences. He was relating to the guests how for a good while it had been one of my fads, while on the farm, to write letters for the papers, and how he had frequently had difficulty in deciphering my handwriting. “And,’ he added, “he used to write mighty good stuff, too.”

“Yes,” I interrupted, “I remember one letter I wrote to the Oregonian a few years ago that cost me five thousand dollars.” Before I could get any further with my story Holman quickly inquired:

“How was that? Did her husband get hold of it first?”

And, notwithstanding this break, Holman has been strangely permitted to live to this day, though soon after that he moved to San Francisco, where he now owns the Argonaut.

The man, George Waggoner, who “usurped” my place on the first Oregon Railroad Commission was a member of the session of the Legislature in 1880, where we became good friends, a relation which has been maintained to date. But I knew him first while I lived in Union County when he was a resident of Walla Walla. One day in the early spring of 1876 my wife had made a “pieplant” pie, and as it was a great delicacy, being the first fruit of the year, and all kinds of fruit being very scarce in that country in those days, my two little tow-headed girls, Maud and Dosia, aged respectively five and three years, could hardly wait until the noon hour for the pleasure of tasting it. In fact, they had been watching the growth of those few stalks of rhubard for two weeks, and each day came in reporting that they were sure they were large enough to pull.

So this day the little things stood by the table as heir mother stewed the fruit and made it into a pie. They watched it as it was placed in the oven, and as it came out, full of juice. We were about to seat ourselves around the table when there was a shout at the front gate. Upon investigation it proved to be two Walla Walla hog buyers who were anxious, they said, to get their dinners. It is never customary in the country to refuse a man his dinner, so they were invited in and after seeing that their horses were fed we began the meal.

This unexpected intrusion made it necessary for the two little girls to wait, and as they stood in the partition door between the kitchen and sitting-room, leaning against the “jamb,” they presented about as doleful pair of countenances as one would run across in an average lifetime. I am perfectly honest when I say that I felt so sorry for them in their disappointment that I did not enjoy either the meal or the visitors. They – the visitors – had voracious appetites, it being my opinion then, I remember, that they must have been fasting since leaving Walla Walla three days before, and were just coming to.

When it came time to “pass the pie” my wife cut it in six pieces, remembering the little girls. The visitors were fairly ecstatic in their praises of the pie. It had been years since they had had the pleasure of eating a pieplant pie; they had always been wonderfully partial to that kind of pie anyway; they wondered why farmers did not raise more rhubarb, since they understood it was easily grown. And, then, my wife was certainly an expert at making pies, for they had not found anything quite so good in all their travels. By this time their consignments were gone and, with knives firmly gripped in their right hands and forks in their left, they looked at those two remaining pieces with a yearning that was fierce to behold. I was certain that if I didn’t invite them to have another helping they would rake the remnants in anyway so I asked them to have another piece. I passed the plate, and unhesitatingly, without a tremor, without batting an eye, the gallant Walla Wallaians accepted the invitation, – the remainder of that pie went glimmering and the plate was empty!

At this phase of the catastrophe I looked at the children, and they rushed out of the house, screaming with all their might, and down into the raspberry “patch.” There I found them, as soon as I could excuse myself, crying as if their hearts would break and like Rachel of old, they refused to be comforted. Upon my return, I told the guests one of the girls had beet stung by a yellow jacket, though that insect was no due for yet four months. And yet they had really been “stung!”

One of these men of abnormal appetite, was George Waggoner and the other was Obadiah Osborne, a preacher in the United Brethren Church. They were, of course, entirely unconscious of the part they had played in the tragedy of the pie. In January, 1891, when I was Speaker of the House of Representatives, my daughters, then eighteen and twenty years respectively, visited me for a few days in Salem. Happening to meet Waggoner in the corridors of the State House, I informed the girls, after an introduction, that he was the man whom they had never forgotten, recalling to his mind at the same time the two little girls who had so suddenly fled from the kitchen on that day ‘way back in 1876, – trying to escape from a yellow jacket, in April.

The instance was related in the presence of a dozen House members and it was unanimously agreed among them afterwards that it was the only time in their acquaintance with Waggoner that he was plainly embarrassed. He apologized profusely to the girls, urging a furious appetite in extenuation, but seemed wholly unable to think of a way of making restitution that would be in any sense adequate.

And yet, Waggoner is a pretty good man, when you come to know him well.


Next Chapter - Anecdotes from the Oregon Legislature, session of 1889: James Blundell, John Waldo, and John Apperson.


If you are interested in finding this book, Fifty Years in Oregon, it can often be located at Powell's Books in Portland which is one of the largest used book stores in the United States or, through the Alibris service which catalogs used books from stores across the country. For more information on the Geer Family, visit the Geer Family website. Other resources and references include:


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