East Luther native had remarkable career in Oregon

Wellington County has produced a large number of people who achieved distinction elsewhere in North America.

Some of them have been subjects in this column over the years. This week features another: Hector McPherson, who is an important figure in the history of Oregon.

McPherson was born in 1875, to parents who farmed in the Tarbert area of Luther Township. Luther was at that time not yet separated into East and West portions. As the last area of Wellington to be settled, it enjoyed a boom through the 1870s and early 1880s, as settlers came in and attempted to turn swampland into farms.

Tarbert was, in the 1870s, a hamlet with a post office, store, school, and a church, a short distance to the north of Luther Village, which was later renamed Grand Valley.

The McPhersons were Scotch-Irish in origin, and Presbyterians in religion. Leaving school at the statutory minimum age of 14, young Hector took jobs as a farm hand for a couple of years, at farms in West Garafraxa.

He was an ambitious young man, intelligent and curious, but also stubborn and often inflexible in his opinions and attitudes. Those characteristics dictated the shape of his varied career. Bored with farm work and the minimal prospects it presented, he enrolled in the high school in Orangeville. He remained there for the Model School session, a basic program in teacher training that operated at many high schools in the latter part of the 19th century.

With his teaching certificate in hand, McPherson returned to the school where he had been a pupil only a few years before.

But McPherson grew weary of conducting a classroom after two years, and he desired a more stimulating atmosphere in which to exercise his growing intellectual curiosity. Queen’s University in Kingston accepted him as a student.

He graduated with an arts degree, then stayed on for a theology course.

That was enough for him to be accepted as a Presbyterian minister. He preached briefly at several churches in Ontario, and then went west where he saw greater opportunities. Soon he was the minister at a substantial church in New Westminister, British Columbia.

At the age of 30 he had secured an excellent position, and might have continued in a comfortable life. Hector McPherson, though, was not content. His thinking and reflection resulted in a lengthening list of theological positions of the Presbyterian Church that he could not support.

One Sunday he preached a sermon in which he argued that the God he loved could not consign a soul which He had made in His own image to eternal punishment.

Today such a sermon might be considered unorthodox, but in the early 20th century it caused a fury and scandal. His words ultimately led to his resignation from the ministry.

Freed from the pulpit, and recognizing the agricultural potential of the west, he decided to add to his education. He went to Europe, securing degrees in agriculture from two German universities.

That was a considerable achievement: his German had been learned in one high school course and a couple more at Queen’s.

Back in North America, he took a couple of additional courses.

All those courses were sufficient to secure him a position as a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Oregon in 1911. A couple of years later, he was elevated to the position of Dean of Agriculture.

As well as teaching economics courses, McPherson became familiar with most of the issues facing agriculture in Oregon. He became a champion of the Willamette River valley. That river was a tributary of the Columbia, running south through Oregon, between the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges. During the early 1920s, he wrote articles and delivered papers on marketing problems facing farmers there.

Angered at the way the state government was dealing with farmers and agriculture, McPherson ran for a seat in the state assembly. He was elected, but lost the next election two years later.

In 1926, McPherson left the university. In his later years he claimed he was fired for his opinions and his activities against the policies of the state government. Other sources, though, indicate that he resigned in order to head a group intent on reforming higher education in Oregon at both the public school and university levels. He stood again for public office, and was elected to the state assembly in 1927 and again in 1929.

At the same time, he returned to the practical agriculture he had learned as a boy. He purchased some land in the Willamette Valley and set up a dairy farm, using the most modern methods and techniques. The farm paid excellent dividends to McPherson, and served as a model for other farmers.

McPherson’s efforts at educational reform came to a head with the Zorn-McPherson School Moving Bill. It proposed the consolidation of various schools of higher education, the reform of teacher training, and the establishing of junior colleges teaching practical subjects. Bills such as this one had to be approved by a referendum. McPherson’s proposals were far-reaching, controversial, and expensive. At the worst of the 1930s depression, many opposed those costs. The campaign was a noisy and expensive one. The voters resoundingly turned down the bill by a margin of six to one.

An ardent Republican, Hector McPherson became an outspoken critic of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies regarding agriculture. He did not lose heart over the solid defeat of his educational reforms, keeping a toe in backroom Republican politics while he continued to operate his dairy farm.

In the summer of 1938, Hector McPherson returned to his boyhood home, staying about a week, as the house guest of Dr. J.K. Blair, the Liberal MP for Wellington North. It is possible that McPherson and the Doctor had known one another in the 1890s, and it is likely that they had been in communication during the 1930s. As an MP, Dr. Blair was something of a maverick, particularly regarding agricultural policies, and he may well have contacted McPherson, whose activities and ideas had received wide publicity.

McPherson attended a Sunday service at his old church, and listened with interest to proposals for conservation measures that would ultimately lead to the construction of a dam to flood a portion of the old Luther swamp.

Several local papers ran stories on McPherson’s visit to his old home. He was then 63, but still bubbling with fresh ideas, as well as adhering tenaciously to most of his old ones. Many suspected that his political career was far from over.

In 1939, McPherson stood again for the state assembly, and was elected. By then he was opposed to every policy advanced by Roosevelt. Oregon had benefited greatly by those policies, particularly with conservation, reforestation, and power generating projects. McPherson’s personal popularity outweighed his opinions on the New Deal projects in the minds of voters.

That term was the end of Hector McPherson’s public career. He continued to live on his farm, and had an earful of ideas, both old and new, for anyone who cared to listen.

He died in 1970, at the age of 95, one of the grand old men of Oregon agriculture and politics. Few Wellington County natives enjoyed such a varied and lively career.


Stephen Thorning