Walter M. Pierce papers , 1888-1969

Overview of the Collection

Pierce, Walter Marcus, 1861-1954
Walter M. Pierce papers
1888-1969 (inclusive)
89.25 linear feet, (89 containers)
Collection Number
Coll 068
Collection consists of correspondence, speeches, reports, photographs and material covering U.S. and Northwest history and politics. A major portion details Pierce's involvement with New Deal programs. The papers deal with agriculture, irrigation and land reclamation, public ownership, forest management, and the development of hydroelectric power. There are substantial files on the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration, files on significant government issues and minority groups. The subject files contain pamphlets and material on pertinent topics, speech files, bills introduced by Pierce, a newspaper clippings file, personal and estate papers, and drafts of Pierce's memoirs.
University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives
UO Libraries--SCUA
1299 University of Oregon
Eugene OR
Telephone: 5413463068
Access Restrictions

Collection is open to the public. Collection must be used in Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room. Collection or parts of collection may be stored offsite. Please contact Special Collections and University Archives in advance of your visit to allow for transportation time. Collection includes sound recordings, moving images, and digital files to which access is restricted. Access to these materials is governed by repository policy and may require the production of listening or viewing copies. Researchers requiring access must notify Special Collections and University Archives in advance and pay fees for reproduction services as necessary.

Additional Reference Guides

See the Current Collection Guide for detailed description and requesting options.

Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Historical NoteReturn to Top

Walter M. Pierce was U. S. Congressman for Oregon's Second District from 1933 to 1943, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Previously he served as Governor of Oregon from 1923 to 1927. An active member of the Democratic Party, Pierce was essentially a Populist by inclination. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal federal relief and regulatory programs, and an ardent proponent of public-owned and operated power facilities. His involvement with the national legislative process occurred at a crucial point of American history, the Depression and pre-World War II era, and his papers document the complex issues and trends of the times.

Born on a farm in Grundy County, Illinois on May 30, 1861, to Charles and Charlotte Clapp Pierce, Walter Pierce experienced what was at that time considered a typical rural boyhood. He attended local country schools, enjoyed public gatherings where politics, religion and philosophy were debated, and participated in such fraternal organizations as the Grange and the Masonic Ledge. His nativist outlook and Anglo-Saxon oriented goals and values, engendered by these early associations, remained with him throughout his life, occasionally conflicting with his usually progressive and individual-rights oriented policies.

Pierce began his career as a school teacher at age 17. Upon the advice of a physician who informed him that he had tuberculosis, Pierce moved west three years later in search of a drier climate. He eventually settled near Walla Walla, Washington. The townspeople of Milton, Oregon, spotted him at work at a nearby ranch and selected him to be their school teacher on the basis of his size; they had some "big boys" who needed to be "licked into shape." His desire to keep these "big boys" sober and receptive to education involved Pierce in his first political fight, driving saloons out of Milton. He was successful; hence the creation of the neighboring town of Freewater, where saloons could operate. Perhaps this success inspired Pierce to enter politics. At the age of 25, he was elected Superintendent of Schools for Umatilla County, a position he held from 1886 to 1890. He was less successful in his next attempt to influence public policy and practice. During his term as Umatilla County Clerk, 1890 to 1894, he joined forces with East Oregonian editor Sam Jackson to end the tyranny of the machine age by driving telephones out of Pendleton. The crusade failed.

Pierce entered state politics in 1903, when he was elected to his first two-year term as State Senator. He served for two additional terms between 1917 and 1921. During his years in office, he made the acquaintance of Jonathan Bourne, William S. U'Ren and other Progressive leaders, and thus became involved in the movement to establish direct election of Senators, and the initiative, referendum and recall options. These measures were designed to give the citizenry a far more direct voice in the operation of what was at that time one of the more notably corrupt state governments. The successful implementation of these options was widely acclaimed as the "Oregon system."

When he was not holding political office (although he always maintained political connections), Pierce practiced law and involved himself in a number of business ventures. He bought several farms, raised cattle and sheep, established a sanatorium at Hot Lake in Union County, acquired some mining interests and owned and operated a private power company in the La Grande area, among other things. He had married Clara Rudio, a former pupil, in June 1887; she died after giving birth to their first child, also Clara, in 1890. Pierce married his first wife's sister, Laura, in 1893 and they had a son, Loyd, and four daughters, Lucille, Helen, Edith and Lorraine.

In 1922, after completing his third term as State Senator, Pierce campaigned for the governorship against the incumbent, Ben Olcott. The election centered on the issue of public tax support for private schools (i.e. Catholic parochial schools), and Pierce won the election by opposing such support. He strongly believed in creating American citizens through the "melting pot" effect of public schools. The Ku Klux Klan, a major force in the anti-Catholic movement and influential in Oregon at the time, endorsed Pierce for the governorship. He tacitly accepted and used the connection. With Pierce's support, the 1923 Oregon legislature did indeed pass the "School Bill," denying public tax monies to parochial schools, but the legislation was overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court.

Pierce served as Oregon's governor for only one term. He was not particularly successful in obtaining support for his legislation and programs, and he was plagued with animosity from groups displeased with his unresponsiveness to their requests for patronage favors. The Ku Klux Klan, to whom he nay have owed his election, instituted recall proceedings against him on this basis. In addition, he antagonized big business owners and managers (predominantly lumber, liquor and private utility interests) by attempting to curb their free-wheeling activities and substantial profits. Something of a visionary, Pierce proposed a number of programs which were enacted at a later date, but were not acceptable or popular at the time. One of these proposals was a graduated income tax to supplement property tax revenues and remove some of the tax burden from the farms to industry.

Defeated in his bid for re-election in 1926, and suffering from the death of his second wife following a lingering illness in 1925, Pierce retired to his Grande Ronde farm. In 1928, he married for the third time, to Cornelia Marvin, Oregon State Librarian. She was highly respected in her own right for her efforts in organizing and developing Oregon's nationally recognized state library system, and she was to prove a valuable partner and ally in Pierce's legislative career as well. Pierce had lost most of his money by this time; his business ventures had ended unsuccessfully and his farms were heavily mortgaged. Cornelia Pierce bought one farm from him, and later bought hack much of the Grande Ronde farm after it had been foreclosed. But at the age of 71, Pierce's most productive years were still ahead of him.

In 1931, the Pierces campaigned for his election as U. S. Congressman from Oregon's Second District (eastern Oregon). This was a last-ditch attempt to provide a steady source of income and to continue Pierce's political involvement. The campaign was successful, providing the Pierces with the opportunity to participate in the development and implementation of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Pierce became a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, the Special Committee on Forestry, and he was deeply involved in the development of public hydroelectric power, particularly the Bonneville Dam and other Columbia River projects. He was an active supporter of labor and the many economic and social welfare programs created during the post-Depression period, and energetically introduced and supported legislation in these areas. Cornelia Pierce served as his office manager, secretary and frontline defense; much of the correspondence from her explains or defends her husband's actions and views. It was a busy and productive ten years.

Pierce's final defeat for the congressional position in 1942 was a bitter blow, and was probably due to his age (81). He and Cornelia retired to her farm in Eola, Oregon. He then wrote his memoirs and gave occasional speeches. Both Walter and Cornelia became involved with the anti-Japanese movement during World War II, which received impetus from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but existed long before. Japanese truck farmers had proven amazingly successful in many areas of Oregon (notably Hood River and Malheur Counties) and the economic competition they provided, along with their increasing numbers, threatened local residents. The Pierces were sympathetic to the fear of Japanese "takeover" and apparently remained undisturbed by the contradiction between their usual strung individual-rights orientation and their desire to deport even U. S.-born Japanese. They firmly believed the Japanese culture was antipathetic to true "Americanism."

An unfortunate family dispute over property occurred during the Pierces' last years together. In 1943, Pierce's daughters had him sign a will bequeathing his interest in the Grande Ronde and Sand Ridge farms to them, even though Cornelia had purchased both farms and owned them in her name only. In 1948, Cornelia discovered the will and confronted her husband, who burned it and agreed that he had no title to the property and no right to bequeath it. The relationship between Walter and Cornelia remained warm, but estrangement developed between Cornelia and the Pierce daughters. They sued Cornelia for a portion of her farm holdings after Pierce's death. The case remained in litigation for several years, and was finally decided in Cornelia's favor the day after her death.

Pierce was faithfully nursed by Cornelia in her Eola farm home through his last years of illness and incapacity, even though he frequently lapsed into comas. He died March 27, 1954, to be followed by Cornelia three years later (February 12, 1957). As he so frequently stated, he had thoroughly enjoyed his career and opportunities, and his contributions spanned a time of vast change.

Source: Bone, Arthur H., editor, Oregon Cattleman/Governor/Congressman: Memoirs and Times of Walter M. Pierce, Oregon Historical Society, 1981 (Oregon Collection F 881 .P524)

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The Walter M. Pierce Papers span the first half of the 20th century and are comprised of correspondence, speeches, reports and related material covering U. S., and particularly Pacific Northwest, history and politics. A major portion of the collection documents Pierce's involvement in the first ten years of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, providing detailed, ongoing accounts of the implementation and operation of New Deal economic and social welfare programs and their impact on Pierce's constituency and peers. The Papers are especially rich in the areas of agriculture, irrigation and land reclamation, public ownership and development of hydroelectric power, Columbia River development and forest management. There are substantial files on such Depression-era federal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration (emphasizing the Northwest); information on the situations and problems of minority groups, including Black Americans, Indians (Native Americans), Catholics, Jews and Japanese; and files on significant issues, i.e. national defense, transportation, aviation, Communism, the Supreme Court during the Roosevelt administration, economics and natural resources. The extended subject files on war document sentiments of U. S. citizens regarding World War II, and whether or not the U. S. should join the war in Europe. It also contains correspondence concerning Japan's December 1941 attack on the U. S. Naval Base in Pearl Harbor and the period immediately following.

Earlier correspondence in the Pierce Papers covers Pierce's years as State Senator and Governor in Oregon, the establishment of the "Oregon system" of direct popular government, and the various events and personalities that comprised the Oregon political scene after the turn-of-the century.

In addition to the correspondence files, there are subject files containing pamphlets and printed material on pertinent topics, speech files, bills introduced by Pierce into the national legislature, a newspaper clippings file, personal and estate papers, and drafts of Pierce's memoirs, with associated materials used in the biography of Pierce edited by Arthur Bone, Oregon Cattleman/Governor/Congressman: Memoirs and Times of Walter M. Pierce, Oregon Historical Society, 1981.

The photographs in the collection include 153 images, primarily personal snapshots of Pierce and his third wife, Cornelia Marvin Pierce, librarian of the Oregon State Library. Box 1 includes small prints and negatives. Box 2 is medium prints and a daguerreotype. Box 3 includes oversize prints.

The Pierce Papers, as currently arranged, are in actuality a combination of two separate collections. One set of papers was donated to the University of Oregon Library in 1942 and 1943 by Cornelia Marvin Pierce. It was designed to cover Pierce's congressional years during the Roosevelt administration and was comprised of the Pierce congressional office files. The second set of papers, containing primarily materials from Pierce's years in Oregon and local politics, was originally given to the Oregon State Library in Salem (also by Cornelia Pierce), but was transferred to the University of Oregon in 1979. The two collections have now been incorporated in order to reflect Pierce's entire career.

The papers initially donated to the University of Oregon Library in the 1940's arrived with subject headings, instructions and a designated arrangement from Cornelia Pierce, which maintained the organization of the files as they were used by the Pierces in Washington D. C. If this original classification system survives at all, it is only evident in the extended subject files (correspondence on special issues) and the legislative bill file. Over the years, a variety of people have handled the Papers, and five or six different staff members have made abortive attempts to reorganize them, thus confusing any original order. Also, a Pierce family member apparently donated more papers in the late 1940's or early 1950's, which were incorporated into the University's collection. The current arrangement of these files is a completion of processing efforts begun by other staff members, an attempt to restore whatever internal structure and order can still be perceived, and an amplification of the contents of the collection for easier access with a folder-by-folder listing.

The second set of papers, transferred to the University from the Oregon State Library, overlapped extensively with the University's collection. Although it did contain far more early correspondence, it also included much material from Pierce's congressional years. The State Library collection was the primary source for Arthur Bone's biography of Pierce and thus the collection arrived housed in envelopes identified by Bone and arranged according to his needs in structuring and writing his book. In incorporating this material with the papers already owned by the University of Oregon, the Bone arrangement was dismantled. The correspondence was filed chronologically and other materials were separated into their own series (i.e. Speech files and Personal papers) or combined with the appropriate subject-oriented files in the University collection. The multiple system of filing correspondence, while not ideal since it separates related materials, may be of some use to the researcher since it provides both chronological and subject access into the data.

The danger of subject entries, of course, is that one item may need to be filed in several places, as it covers more than one topic. Unfortunately, the size of the Pierce collection precludes more than the most cursory cross-referencing. It also precludes a correspondence name index.

Researchers using the Pierce Papers would be well-advised to take careful note of the inventory. Not only may material pertinent to a specific topic be filed in several different series, but within each subject-entry system there may be several headings relevant to a particular topic. (For example, regarding the anti-Japanese issue, material may be found in subject-organized correspondence under "Aliens," in the subject/issues files under that heading and also "Race conflict--anti-Japanese movement," in the Speech files under "Japanese issue," etc. Relevant correspondence also appears in the chronological correspondence files as early as 1910.) Cross-referencing has been attempted on a limited basis, but the inventory itself should be viewed as the best source of access.

This organization of the Pierce Papers is an attempt to arrange and describe two different collections that, although overlapping in content, have been divided for many years and have experienced different archival treatment. Though difficulties were encountered, accessibility should be enhanced by the partial interfiling of the two sets of papers, chronological arrangement of letters within each series, and the folder-by-folder listing of the entire collection.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Agriculture--Oregon
  • Governors--Oregon
  • Japanese Americans--Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945
  • Legislators--United States
  • New Deal, 1933-1939
  • Water-power--Northwest, Pacific

Personal Names

  • Pierce, Walter Marcus, 1861-1954

Corporate Names

  • Civilian Conservation Corps (U.S.)
  • Ku Klux Klan (1915- )
  • United States. Public Works Administration
  • United States. Works Progress Administration

Geographical Names

  • Oregon
  • Oregon--Politics and government--1859-1950
  • United States--Politics and government--1933-1945