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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



There had been so many miscarriages and “hold-ups” in the various Senatorial elections in Oregon that one may not wonder at the conception and adoption of the “Oregon System” — “Statement No. 1,” as it is popularly called — by which members of the Legislature are required to pledge themselves to vote for that man who has previously been selected by the people as their choice for United States Senator — irrespective of the political complexion of the candidate or the Legislature.

In 1882, Dolph was elected at the very end of the session, though Mitchell had been the caucus nominee and voted for from the beginning. In 1885, Hirsch was the caucus nominee, but the opposition was strong enough to defeat him and there was an adjournment without any election. In the fall of the year Governor Moody called a special session for the one purpose of choosing a Senator. In 1889, Dolph was re-elected on the first ballot, as was Mitchell two years later. But in 1895, there was a struggle which lasted until the last minute of the session, when McBride was elected, and in 1897 there was no organization of the House at all, in order to prevent the re-election of Mitchell.

Governor Lord appointed H. W. Corbett to fill the vacancy thus made, but after considering the matter for several months the Senate decided that, since the Legislature had been in session and had failed to elect a Senator, it was not within the power of the Governor to fill such a vacancy. As a result of that decision, the Governor called a special session in October, 1898, at which time Joseph Simon was elected.

The deadlock in 1901 has just been described and its counterpart was had two years later. Thus, out of seven elections of United States Senators, five of them required the entire time of the session — two of these resulting in no election at all and one of them in no organization of the House, with no legislation on any subject whatever.

It is a disgraceful record and furnishes abundant justification for the change which the people of the State have forced until such time as the Federal Constitution may be amended providing for the popular election of United States Senators.

The contest for United States Senator in the session of 1903 was different in one important respect from its predecessors in the line of deadlocks. At the preceding session, there had been passed a law providing for a popular vote on Senators. It was known as the Mays law, for the reason that it had been introduced by Senator Pierce Mays and was fathered by those known as Mitchell Republicans for the purpose of forcing Senator Simon, whose term was just expiring, to a popular vote, the assumption being that on account of the charge against him of being a political “boss” he would not fare well in a popular vote and that his defeat would be more nearly assured than if it were left to the management of a Legislature — where he was as nearly “at home” as any man in Oregon. Simon had been a member of the State Senate for nearly twenty years and had been its president five times, occupying that position when elected to the United States Senate in 1898.

But at the end of Simon’s term, conditions were such that he was not a candidate before the Legislature for re-election and the authors of the Mays law had no use for it. In the meantime, I had been defeated for renomination for Governor through a series of combinations by the friends of the Mays law and decided to become a candidate for United States Senator under its provisions. Frankly, I had two purposes in this political move — first, to become a United States Senator, if I could secure the popular vote, and, secondly, to show, if I could, that my defeat for a renominatjon was not endorsed by the people and was utterly contrary to their wishes. At any rate this was my purpose, and I was willing to put the matter to a popular test.

The result of this move proved that I had not misunderstood the feeling of the people, but that I was mistaken as to the sincerity of the men who had passed the Mays law. Many of them were still in the Legislature, but they paid no attention to the popular vote whatever, though I had complied with every legal requirement. I had received thirteen thousand more votes than my Democratic opponent, C. E. S. Wood, who himself had received a larger popular vote than many of his Democratic colleagues on the State ticket.

When the Legislature met in January, 1903, and began voting for United States Senator, Charles W. Fulton was the leading candidate and ultimately won the election. It was known that he would be a candidate early in the year, and as he was a supporter of the Mays law when it was enacted, it was my purpose to force him to submit the question to a popular vote, but this he declined to do, preferring to trust to his chance of controlling the Legislature in the old way.

The Mays law was discredited in the house of its friends — it was emasculated before it produced any results. It was held to be a mere joke. I had taken no part in the preceding State campaign, preferring to allow the popular vote to be cast without using any personal solicitation for support, in order that no man might say I was unusually active, or, indeed, active at all, in my own behalf. My name was at the head of the official ballot, but I remained at home and made no speeches, wrote no letters — asked no help in any direction.

This utter indifference to the popular vote for United States Senator laid the foundation for the direct primary law, the direct vote for Senators after the method known as Statement No. 1, and, indeed, the entire “Oregon System,” and it would be as difficult to stem successfully the tides of the ocean as to secure a return to the old system in Oregon. To be sure, it has its imperfections which are patent to every observer, but so disgusted are the people with the old methods that they look with suspicion upon even a reasonable proposition for improving the new order of things.

Upon the last day of the balloting the name of H. W. Scott was presented, with the expectation on the part of some of my supporters that he would draw a sufficient number of votes from Fulton to win the election; but this was soon found to be impossible, and just as the hour for adjournment had arrived a stampede for Fulton was effected, as had been the time-honored custom in Oregon, “to save the good name of the State” and that “you may not go home to your constituents without having elected a Senator.” The old plan worked once again but for the last time.


Charles W. Fulton, the successful candidate for Senator, was born in Ohio in 1853, but moved to Iowa when a youngster, afterward to Nebraska, was admitted to the bar in that State and came to Oregon in 1876 to grow up with the country. He came at once to Portland and applied for a position in a lawyer’s office. Having failed in his first attempt, he went to another, but with the same result. He then went, in turn, to every lawyer’s office in the city and found them all “full.” As he arrived in Portland with but ten dollars in his pocket, he began at this juncture to take a serious view of the situation. Finally concluding that, as he had been reared on a farm, he could handle horses as well as anybody, he tried to get employment in a livery stable, but the stables were all supplied with an abundance of help. There was not a vacancy anywhere.

At this point he walked up the river one morning past the old “White House,” with no definite purpose in view other than to find something to do — anything. Just out of town he came across three men cutting cord wood on the bank of the river, and he thought that if the worst came to the worst — and it had about arrived at that point that morning — he would try his hand at the end of a maul with a wedge attachment. Here he remembered, however, that when at home with his four brothers the one thing he disliked above all others was chopping wood. He had often traded with the boys at chore time and agreed to do everything else if they would “get in” the wood. So he “passed up” that prospect.

Upon returning to town he met a lawyer who told him that George R. Helm, of Albany, was a young man of great promise, a popular politician and had no partner perhaps he could get a foothold with him. This looked and sounded good to Fulton, but that morning he had but twenty cents in his pocket and couldn’t well get to Albany or anywhere else. But he decided that he must see Helm, so he sold an old silver watch his father had given him years before for three dollars and seventy-five cents and went by boat to Albany.

There was a “rate war” on at the time between the Willamette River boats and the fare was but fifty cents to Albany, so Fulton went there in search of his fortune; but Helm was in ill health and did not want any partner or even an assistant. He then called upon J. K. Weatherford who had just been elected superintendent of county schools, and Weatherford did not want any help in his office — he was an attorney, also — but he said the directors of the Waterloo district, up on the Santiam, wanted a teacher and that if he could teach school he might get the job.

Fulton replied that he had never taught school but that he thought he could get a third-grade certificate — in fact, he’d have to. Accordingly, he walked to the Waterloo district, twenty miles away in the foothills of the Cascades, saw the directors and secured the school. He walked back to Albany the next day, obtained his certificate, for which he paid two dollars and fifty cents, and returned to Waterloo — on foot. His salary was forty dollars a month and “found,” that is, he boarded around with the pupils. At the end of the three months’ term he was worth one hundred and twenty dollars in money.

With this capital he went to Astoria and opened a law office. Business, however, was slow in coming his way and the records in the county clerk’s office will today show thousands of pages copied in Fulton’s handwriting — work done in order that his income might cover his office rent and other “necessaries of life.”

In conversation with Fulton this summer, I asked him his reason for locating in Astoria instead of Portland, where he removed a year ago. His reply was that, in common with thousands of others at that time, he thought the coming city of the Northwest would, of course, eventually be at the mouth of the Columbia River, and he went there in order “to be on the ground floor and grow up with the city.”

In 1878 Fulton was elected to the State Senate from Clatsop County and served for four years. He did not again appear in public life until his election to the Senate in 1890, when he served another four years. He was again elected in 1898 and a fourth time in 1902. He was a member of the State Senate at the time of his election to the United States Senate and was president of that body in the sessions of 1893 and 1901.

I first met Mr. Fulton in the session of 1880 when I was a member of the House and he of the Senate. Since that time we have always been warm personal friends, though often arrayed against each other in political warfare. He is a man of generous impulses, always loyal to his friends, and was for thirty years an unswerving disciple of John H. Mitchell, whose colleague he was at the time of the latter’s death. Since his entrance into the State Senate in 1878, he has been an active force in Oregon politics, as the preceding results will show, but met his first decisive defeat when, upon the expiration of his term in the United States Senate, he ran afoul of the “Oregon System” and was retired.

Mr. Fulton was a candidate for the nomination for Governor in the Republican State Convention in 1894, but after a warmly contested campaign was defeated by Judge W. P. Lord. In the senatorial deadlock in 1895, when Dolph was defeated for re-election, Fulton was the candidate voted for several times by the opposition, but without success. Several of his earlier aspirations were frostbitten — as were some of mine — and he was consoled by those who failed to be impressed properly by his claims — as I was — by the assurance that he “was young yet” — that his time would come later. This sop after awhile ceased to heal, even partially, the wounds inflicted on our pride and to us became a very tiresome joke. After Fulton’s defeat for the nomination for Governor, in 1894, I wrote him a letter of consolation — endeavored to cheer him up with the assurance that he “was young yet,” and must not expect too much until everybody else who wanted good public positions had died of old age, etc.

To this letter he responded very kindly, saying that other people perhaps understood such things better than he did, but that he would feel a d——— sight better if they would express themselves honestly and say in plain English that he was incompetent or dishonest or thoroughly undeserving. “But,” he concluded, “here I have been in the State Senate for eight years, was president of that body one session, have stumped the State several times and all getting gray-haired, stoop-shouldered and wear glasses — and now to be regarded as a political evergreen at my time of life would make a man prematurely old where everything else would fail. However, there is a whole lot of satisfaction in knowing that you are as young as I am. May you remain so.”

In talking over his early experiences in Oregon, Fulton said that when he hadn’t a dollar in his pocket, couldn’t get any kind of employment and didn’t have an acquaintance on the Pacific Coast, even that morning when he saw the three men cutting cordwood along the river south of Portland, after he had been turned down by all the livery stables in town, he was not at any time especially anxious, as he remembers it now, for he was young and strong, in good health, and had no fear of starvation or even of want. “Such powerful assets,” he said, “are youth and good health. I had worked all my boyhood on a farm and I guess I must have thought that no man has a surer grip on a living than a farm hand — grub and clothes. Rockefeller doesn’t get any more than that out of his millions that I have ever heard of, does he? No, I have had a thousand times’ more real worry over some dirty campaign lie than I had then with no money, no friends and no job. You see, I was young then, and nothing can permanently down a young man with good health — not if he wants to “stay up!”


Next Chapter - Geer reminisces on Thomas H. Tongue public service as well as the time that they descended into Crater Lake.


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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