Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer served two terms from 1886-1894. He was a champion of the working man. His outrageous quips frequently appeared in national papers.
One of Oregon’s most colorful characters served two terms as the governor of the state. Sylvester Pennoyer won his first term, largely on a platform of expulsion of Chinese labor from the state.
Pennoyer was born in Groton, New York, on July 6, 1831. Though he graduated Harvard Law School, he never practiced law. He settled in Portland, Oregon in 1855. He married Mary A. Alien and they would have five children. He taught school, eventually working his way up to superintendent of the Multnomah County School District. In 1862, he invested in the Portland Lumbering and Manufacturing Company and amassed a fortune. He published the democratic newspaper Oregon Herald during the 1860s.
In 1886, he ran for state governor and won over Republican candidate T. E. Cornelius. He credited his success to the working men who helped him win the election, and so he pledged allegiance to them. He designated a labor day, eight years before it became a National holiday. He recommended compulsory arbitration of labor disputes in the days of weak unions.
Pennoyer was known for his outrageous utterances. Since Harvey Scott, editor of The Oregonian, opposed Pennoyer, such revelations were usually printed in the paper. Scott called him peculiar, eccentric, demagogic, and that he “seldom deviates into sense,” and when he does it is “a topic of no importance.”
One of Pennoyer’s assertions was that the citizens “spent more time in the outhouse than they did conducting business affairs.” He thought this was obvious from all the sewage in the Willamette River. The Chicago Journal reported: “A Jacksonville Oregon man has sued one of his neighbors for calling him a bigger ass than Pennoyer. He evidently does not appreciate hyperbole even when it soars into the regions of the impossible.”
He was very popular and the citizens reelected him over Republican opponent D. P. Thompson. Pennoyer advocated slavery and felt that the southern states could secede if they wanted to. He opposed Chinese immigration. He promoted government control of private enterprise. He supported reforms for farmers and workers but not corporate leaders and bankers. He supported schools, but not colleges, because he felt it was unfair to tax everyone to pay for something that benefitted only the wealthiest.
In the spring of 1891, President Benjamin Harrison was touring the western states. The governors of each state met the President and his cortege at the border of his respective state. Not Pennoyer. He told a newspaper reporter that, “I have no business to go to pay homage to him, on the contrary, when he visits he should rather pay his respects to me.” In the Oregonian, editor Scott wrote that his behavior, “made no precedent save in the sense that a jackass may perhaps may be regarded as a precedent to a mule.”
In 1892, Grover Cleveland was elected president. Pennoyer felt President Cleveland was at fault for the country’s economic woes, and sent him a Christmas card that accused the President of sabotaging the nation’s economy. He purposely declared a different day as the official observance of Thanksgiving than had Cleveland.
After Pennoyer’s term as governor ended, he was nominated by both the Populist and Democratic parties for the mayor of Portland in 1896. He won the election easily. He retired in 1898 to manage his ranch near Portland. He also donated some property to be used as a city park.
He died on May 30, 1902 at his Portland home. He was buried in the family plot at the Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland.
- McCormack, Win and Dick Pintarich, ed., “Great Moments in Oregon History,” excerpted from Oregon Magazine, Portland: New Oregon Publishers, Inc., 1987.