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Ashland businessman aided KKK-backed governor in 1920s

After Ku Klux Klan-backed candidate Walter Pierce won an election in 1922 to become Oregon's governor, he sent a telegram to prominent Ashland businessman Jesse Winburn.

"You are the one who did more than any other man. You made victory possible," Pierce told Winburn in the telegram.

Pierce spent $15,000 on his campaign to win the governorship, with Winburn contributing more than half of that amount. In today's dollars, Winburn's contribution would be worth approximately $116,000, said local historian Joe Peterson, who has researched Winburn's support for the controversial governor.

But why did Winburn, who was Jewish, support a candidate endorsed by the KKK — which in the 1920s had broadened its attacks beyond blacks to include Jews, Catholics and recent immigrants to America?

Peterson will explore that question during his history talk "Strange Bedfellows: An Ashland Jewish Businessman and a KKK Governor?" at noon on Wednesday, April 6, at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave., and again at noon Wednesday, April 13, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

Peterson said he became intrigued by Winburn's support for Pierce and decided to research the issue.

"Here he was the largest contributor to the campaign of a candidate for governor who was supported by the Klan. It didn't make sense," Peterson said.

Originally founded after the Civil War, the KKK gained a foothold in southern states as whites resisted Reconstruction efforts to increase racial equality. The KKK experienced a revival in the early 1900s and spread across America, broadening its attacks on different groups.

Anglo-Saxon Protestants were increasingly suspicious of Catholics immigrating from southern and Eastern Europe, Peterson said.

"In the 1920s, the Klan was different than it had been after the Civil War," he said. "It was anti-immigrant and super-patriotic. Leading Protestant families were involved. It was considered to be a fraternal organization like the Eagles, Masons or Elks. There was a normality to it in the 1920s. With our 2016 brains, we have trouble relating to the idea it could ever have been considered normal. The KKK was spread throughout the United States."

Oregon was a hotbed for KKK activity in the 1920s. A contingent of 100 KKK members marched in Ashland's annual Fourth of July parade in 1922, Peterson noted.

Anti-semitism was common in America, leading many Jewish citizens to change their last names. Winburn's original last name was Wineburgh, but he Anglicized it to Winburn and converted to the Christian Science faith, Peterson said.

Harry and David Rosenberg, who founded the Harry & David pear and specialty food empire, took on their stepfather's last name of Holmes. They feared they would lose sales because of rising anti-semitism, Peterson said.

Sitting Gov. Ben Olcott defiantly refused to collaborate with the KKK, despite its rising popularity in the early 1920s. The Klan backed Oregon's Compulsory School Act, which required children to attend public schools and was meant to shut down private religious schools run by Catholics and Jews.

During his candidacy, Pierce supported the Compulsory School Act — a move that won him the support of the KKK.

A clue about Winburn's financial backing of Pierce's campaign comes in the form of Pierce's proposed tax policies — not the candidate's position on controversial social issues, Peterson said.

Winburn had attended an event in Ashland's Lithia Park at which Pierce spoke about his desire to eliminate property taxes and adopt a state income tax. Winburn, who was part of an effort to promote Ashland as a mineral water resort town, wanted to invest in Ashland real estate, Peterson said.

Winburn was already a multi-millionaire, having made his fortune in New York City through subway advertising before coming out West, Peterson said.

"He liked Pierce for his tax plan," he said. "Jesse Winburn was a businessman. He could see how the tax plan would benefit him."

After he was elected, Pierce failed to win passage of a state income tax.

The KKK also turned on the new governor, mounting an unsuccessful recall effort after Pierce failed to install KKK members in key posts, Peterson said.

Pierce also fought for several progressive causes, including prison reform and reforestation efforts, according to historians.

As for Oregon's Compulsory School Act that attacked private religious schools, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional in a 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters ruling.

Pierce, a Democrat who won the 1922 election with sizable backing from Republican voters, failed to win re-election when many Republican voters switched back to a Republican candidate in the 1926 election, Peterson said.

In addition to bankrolling Pierce's gubernatorial campaign, Winburn donated generously to Ashland civic causes — with gifts ranging from two swans for Lithia Park to construction of the Winburn Way Community Center for the Ashland Women’s Civic Improvement Club, according to historians.

"He did a lot of things for the city, but also wanted political favors in return," Peterson said.

Perhaps disillusioned that his donations didn't win him more political control, Winburn moved away from Ashland after only a few years — but left behind a permanent mark on local and state history, Peterson said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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Walter Pierce was elected Oregon's governor in 1922 with the support of Ashland businessman Jesse Winburn and the Ku Klux Klan. photo courtesy Joe Peterson
Jesse Winburn is photographed at a party with his children at his forested camp in the Ashland Watershed. Photo from Southern Oregon Historical Society, No. 08466