Chapter Nine: Wallis Nash...A 'Gift' to Corvallis College from Victorian England

By George Edmonston Jr. and Tom Bennett

Arrival in Corvallis...

Wallis Nash came to Oregon to build a railroad. He stayed the rest of his life to build a university.

Of the many talented men and women which Oregon State President Benjamin Lee Arnold assembled on campus to help him run the state's new land-grant college, Nash would be one of the best and one whose work and influence would have far-reaching effects.

He arrived in Corvallis on a white Willamette River stern-wheeler on a Saturday morning, May 17, 1879. The town's small newspaper, the Corvallis Gazette, had announced the day before that a "party of English gentlemen and capitalists" would be arriving with him. Actually, the Gazette had it wrong. The group was mostly young people who hoped to become Benton County farmers.

As soon as the group left the boat and walked into town, Nash was a bit taken aback by the appearance of Corvallis. Later he would write, "The season (rainy) was unusually late and the streets of the little town were ankle deep in mud and crossed by planks a foot wide." Trying to keep their shoes as dry as possible, Nash and company went immediately to a local hotel where they stayed several days.

Early adult life and career...

Nash, a vigorous lawyer of 41, with dark, curly hair, receding hairline and neatly trimmed mustache, was the quintessential young Victorian empire builder. He married Annie Budget in 1866. They had a son named Wallis Gifford but it cost Annie her life, dying soon after he was born. In 1871 Wallis remarried, this time to Louisa A'Humity Desborough, and to them were born a total of nine children - three girls and six boys. It is important we know their names because many of them appear again later in this story, in ways that have little to do with their parents. In addition to half-brother Wallis, they were Ruth, Vivian, Oscar, Oliver, Desborough, Percival, Dorthea, Louis Darwin and Roderic.

Eminently successful on the London scene, oftentimes representing some of the country's most important public figures, Nash arrived in the Pacific Northwest eager to apply his problem-solving skills to help areas of the world he believed were less developed than his own. He was also not shy about saying so to anyone who would listen.

Colonel Hogg's railroad...

This was not the young lawyer's first trip to Oregon. Two years earlier, Nash and three others had traveled from London to the Willamette Valley in a fact-finding mission for British and German investors interested in learning more about a railroad project being touted at the time by a Col. T. Edgenton Hogg, a colorful and very persuasive promoter who lived in a large, two-story white house that occupied the ground on which Waldo Hall now sits (1907). At the time, townspeople informally referred to the place as "The Hogg House."

In short, before committing any money, the investment group wanted Nash and company to conduct an independent investigation of this guy Edgenton Hogg and his claims that a fortune could be made in the rails. Nash led the expedition and returned with a favorable report. In many ways, it was glowing.

Relocating to Oregon...

We know a lot today about his trip. Shortly after his return to London, Nash published a book about the journey titled, Oregon: There and Back in 1877. It made him an instant success and established him almost overnight as England's leading authority on the Pacific Northwest. On page after page, Nash gave descriptions that showed Oregon to have vast potential for economic and agricultural development. He painted Oregon as a wonderful place to live and raise a family, claiming that to an Englishman the "climate here in Benton County is simply the most delightful and healthful in the world."

When it became public that he planned to move his family to Oregon (more about this later), he was deluged with inquiries from "fathers, uncles and guardians of young men," whom, they hoped, he would take along to become "farmers, stock raisers and sheepmen," in the new country. Nash discouraged most of these because he was convinced few were prepared to face the conditions they would face. He could have made up several cricket teams from the lot, he said, but no settlers. He did choose, however, to take along what he described as a "motley company" of individuals that included, in addition to the three Nash boys, a baby girl, a nurse for the baby, a cook, the Nashes' personal gardener, a cousin who had been a highlander guardsman, a newly married couple and, last-but-not-least, four boys whose relatives made a "moderate monthly payment" to Wallis and his wife to help support them as long as they were under their care and supervision.

Friends had hoped to dissuade the Nashes from making the momentous move. It meant Wallis and his wife, Louisa, leaving behind a lucrative and promising law practice and a comfortable commuter's life in rural Down, a small village near London where a good friend and neighbor was the imminently famous Charles Darwin. In fact, Darwin was among the more famous in a long list of distinguished clients handled by the Nash firm that included Henry Bessemer of the steel-making process that bears his name and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.

Tragedy strikes...

But there were good reasons why the Nashes wanted to pull up stakes and move. It's often been written that the chief impetus for the Nash family relocation came from Wallis' fascination with Hogg's plan to build a railroad from the Oregon coast back east to Boise, Idaho, and beyond, thus linking the Willamette Valley to San Francisco (via the coast) and the rest of the world. Corvallis was to be a major stop and shipping point along the way. In addition, examples were being set all over America on just how much money could be made in railroads. Oregon was still trying to catch up, and Nash knew it.

Nash clearly loved the Pacific Northwest. You can see it throughout his writings. Raised as an outdoorsman, he relished the trip in 1877 from Corvallis to the Oregon coast, exploring on horseback the proposed first leg of the new route, living a wilderness experience, hunting, fishing, and camping along the rivers and in the valleys of the beautiful Coastal Range. He liked the rough-hewn settlers and admired their pioneer qualities.

However, there was another reason, a tragic one, the one that for this writer remains the most compelling excuse they had for their drastic decision to leave England. Within a year of his return, Nash and his wife would lose four of their children--Ruth, Vivian, Oscar and Oliver-- to scarlet fever, all inside a week. Wallis Gifford, the Nashes' firstborn, survived and made the trip to Oregon with his parents.

Wallis and Louisa were devastated, to be sure, and, as he would later write, "...life at Down had become impossible." With their world in fragments, they decided to start a totally new life in far-off Oregon with their surviving children, Desborough, Percival and Dorthea. After settling in Corvallis, the couple had two more children, L. Darwin and Roderic. Desborough and Percival were starters, a lineman and running back respectively, on Oregon State's first football team in 1893.

Once the Nashes had made up their minds, they embraced their new home wholeheartedly. Wallis completed his paperwork for U.S. citizenship immediately and became an American, he later said, "as soon as the Constitution allowed." In no time at all, both he and Louisa were deep in the social life of Corvallis.

And Colonel Hogg, anxious to have the legal and business help Nash brought to the table, bent over backwards to make his new partner's family feel comfortable.

The "Hogg" House...

Hogg remodeled and enlarged a spacious house on land near the College Farm on a hill just west of town. This was the "Hogg House" mentioned above and from the beginning, the place was always open to their fellow emigrants. They quickly became known to the locals as "the English colony."

The "Hogg House" eventually became the family's town house when Nash resumed the British pattern of town-and-country living. Deep in the Coastal Range, he purchased 1,800 acres in a lovely green valley that eventually became a stop on the new Hogg/Nash rail line; still there today, the tiny town of Nashville, Oregon, was a result.

For the next five years, the business of Hogg's railroad occupied most of Nash's time. Competing groups, particularly in Portland, bitterly opposed Hogg because his route--from Corvallis to Newport--cut the distance between Willamette Valley farms and the California markets by 250 miles, as compared to shipping from Portland or Astoria. Farmers could save several days and lots of money with Hogg's new railroad. It was the shippers who stood to lose.

Nash spent countless hours with local and state governments in Benton County and Salem taking care of such matters as coordinating surveys, rents and mortgages, issuing stocks and bonds, and monitoring legislation on railroad grants and shipping rates.

Before Nash's arrival, Hogg had raised a considerable amount of money to start the new venture, but not a mile of track had been put down, alarming both old and new stockholders. Now with the help of Nash and an experienced contractor from San Francisco--none other than Hogg's brother William Hoag (who chose to spell his name differently from brother T. E.)--the colonel reorganized the company as the Oregon Pacific Railroad, with himself as president and his brother William as vice president and general manager. Nash was named second vice president and legal counsel. Things began to happen. Hogg's railroad was finally under way.

But it was short-lived, with a history full of frustrations and failure. At its peak, the company owned enough rolling stock and had put down enough track to provide daily passenger and freight service from the Oregon coast to the foot of the Cascades. It also owned three riverboats on the Willamette and ran weekly steamers between Yaquina Bay and San Francisco. By 1896, after many Benton County investors had lost a great deal of money, Hogg's venture ceased to exist, eventually becoming a feeder line for the Southern Pacific.

Wallis Nash also lost money to Hogg and yet stayed with his company for 20 years. The work occupied a great deal of his time. Lucky for Corvallis' young land-grant college, however, Nash did find time for other activities; indeed, it is remarkable how many other things he managed to do during the same period and it is here that we might look, ultimately, for his greatest public achievements.

Wallis Nash and Corvallis College...

Even before his arrival in 1879, statewide criticism of Corvallis College had been growing, especially in Salem, which was still tasting sour grapes after having lost in its bid to have its own hometown school, Willamette University, designated as Oregon's land-grant college. For the next six years, a heated debate raged statewide about the legality of the state's agricultural college being controlled by a board of trustees appointed by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. At issue was retention of the federal land-grant status of the college. Opponents wanted the agricultural side of Corvallis College separated from the Southern Methodists and their "church college" and moved to some other location.

We don't really know how Nash personally felt about the M.E. Church, South, but we do know he had a passion for education and felt strongly that the state should be in control of its own land-grant college. We also know how much he prized scientific farming and how important he felt agriculture was to the future of the Willamette Valley. At the same time he couldn't help but see the college's halting efforts on the experimental farm, which was literally just to the east of his front yard (today, Waldo Hall and M.U. East). He became immediately determined that the Agricultural College, as it was now being called, had to remain in Corvallis and knew sooner or later, he would have to get directly involved.

Appointed to Board of Regents...

In 1885, the legislature created the Board of Regents to take charge of the Agricultural College, replacing the church appointed Board of Trustees. Nash was chosen to be a regent and named secretary of the board, a post that deeply involved him in almost all the details of the college administration for the next 13 years.

The legislature also required that new facilities, free of debt, be constructed near the College Farm as soon as possible. A massive fund-raising effort got under way throughout the county, with Hogg, brother Hoag, Nash, and President Arnold coming through with generous contributions toward the new quarters.

As secretary of what many students and townspeople were now calling "Oregon Agricultural College" or just "OAC," Nash was charged with restructuring the school's faculty, a reflection of a growing tendency on the part of President Arnold to keep Nash busy in what he called "academic areas."

Faculty recruiting...

And so, with wife Louisa helping every step of the way, the two set out to write to every agricultural college in the country for information on faculty organization and pay, then used their new-found knowledge to launch a nationwide search for qualified instructors, This was the first attempt to school history to recruit teachers for OSU on a such a large scale.

Ironically, one of his first hires came from the ranks of the "English Colony." George Coote, a landscape gardener, became the first foreman of the horticulture department. As "college horticulturist," Coote spent years planting trees and shrubs on campus in an attempt to beautify the ever-expanding grounds and facilities. Much of his handiwork is still around today but his masterpiece remains the double-row of Dutch Elms that today line the "Pathway" leading from 11th Street West to Benton Hall and the original site of the "Trysting Tree."

Louisa Nash is given the most credit for bringing to Corvallis the pioneer woman educator and medical doctor, Dr. Margaret Snell, who became the first professor of household economy and hygiene (home economics) in the Far West. In accepting the position, Snell, in essence, established the first "college" of home economics in the western United States.

Nash's personal interests also began to surface at this time. He helped direct the annual Farmers' Institutes across the state, bringing the college's latest information on grain, stock and fruit growing to the people who needed it.

This activity would grow into the college Extension Service.

As for his great artistic love--music--instruction at OAC changed from an outside activity, paid for by individuals, to a regularly listed subject in the 1889 catalog. In 1897, music became a separate department in charge of one of Dr. Snell's first graduates...Miss Dorthea Nash.

All five Nash sons also attended Oregon Agricultural College: Gifford, Desborough, Percival (all born in England), and Roderic and Darwin, born in Oregon.

Wallis Nash's involvement in the minutiae of daily affairs in the college shows up in countless papers in the OSU Archives--some of great importance and some almost petty.

In one case, he painstakingly amasses the credentials of 30 candidates from all across the country to be considered by the regents for the college presidency; in another we find him firing off a stern little memo on a Saturday morning in April 1892, canceling a dance in the Girl's Hall.

"Please stop this at once!" It will never do to allow dancing in the Girl's Hall when we stopped it absolutely in the Cauthorn Hall." In both cases, his sense of order and fairness was unmistakable.

Although an almost shadowy figure today, Wallis Nash in his time would have been known by everyone in Benton County, to all OAC students and alumni and to many citizens throughout the state. Not only was he a prime mover at the college, he also influenced state legislation in such important areas as uniform railroad freight rates for farmers and the workmen's compensation law.

Nash left OAC in 1898 and moved with Louisa to Portland, where he continued to have an influence on Oregon's economy, both as an attorney, and as president of the Board of Trade from 1906 to 1909. He also spent several years as an editorial writer for the Oregon Journal and the Morning Oregonian.

Nash spent his last years at his beloved Rock Creek Ranch near Nashville, always surrounded by family and his mementos of a rich and productive career. He died there on March 13, 1926, leaving many descendants who have become important citizens in his beloved Oregon.