Webfoot Grangers

Editor’s Note: During my ongoing research into the history of the late 19th century, I came across a curious book entitled “A Webfoot Volunteer: The Diary of William M. Hilleary,” (1965 – Oregon State University Press). It recounts the Civil War-era activities of United States Army Corporal William M. Hilleary, in the form of a diary he kept for his fiancĂ©, Irene “Liebe” Cornelius. They were married several years later, and lived on a farm in Turner, Oregon. This diary was later published by Oregon State University Press. The introduction, by editors Herbert B. Nelson and Preston E. Onstad, includes the following account of Liebe and William’s involvement with the Oregon State and National Granges. It offers a small glimpse into The Oregon Granger movement, and it’s involvement and close ties to education, notably Oregon Agricultural College, the precursor to Oregon State University.

In 1873 [William M.] Hilleary became a charter member of the Turner branch of the Patrons of Husbandry, a national association of farmers, whose lodges were called “Granges.” He and his wife actively engaged in Grange work for more than twenty-five years. By 1891 he became secretary of the State Grange, having previously served in one or two minor capacities. Finally in 1896 he was elected to the office of Worthy Master of the Oregon State Grange. Mrs. [Irene L. Cornelius] Hilleary is noted as the first to memorize the master’s work and as lecturer in her local Grange. Of more importance, she was for four years Oregon editor of the Pacific Rural Press, the official organ of the Grange, for which her husband occasionally wrote articles.

As Oregon delegates to the National Grange, Mr. and Mrs. Hilleary traveled extensively. Their first trip east took them to Washington, D. C., where, before the convention opened, they made a patriotic tour of the country surrounding the capital. They also had the privilege of meeting President Grover Cleveland when all of the delegates were introduced to him by the Worthy Master of the National Grange, J. N. Brigham, who was destined to be Assistant Secretary of Agriculture under President McKinley.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Hilleary served the National Grange faithfully during each of the four sessions they attended. Both served on a number of different committees, and Mr. Hilleary in particular was responsible for writing a large number of resolutions. He supported all of the Grange proposals, but was particularly interested in free rural mail delivery, a postal savings banking system, a canal across Nicaragua, and education in general. He was also particularly interested in scientific education for the farmer and promoted this idea whenever he could.

An excellent opportunity to advance education in Oregon arose in 1896 when he was made Master of the State Grange, for by law the state Grange Master, ex officio, became a member of the Board of Regents of Oregon Agricultural College. During his four-year term on the Board he served with three college presidents and helped to select the third, the famous educator, President T. M. Gatch. In his public life as in his private life he was both conservative and progressive. As a Regent, Hilleary served on the Agriculture and Chemistry Committee, and the even more important Finance Committee.

A motion made by Hilleary and adopted by the rest of the Board brought bookkeeping permanently into the curriculum. Realistically, he argued that young farmers needed to be able to keep their own financial records. Another Hilleary motion led to the installation of electric lights in the college buildings. He sat in session with Governor Lord of Oregon and served with future Governor Withycombe. He took his job seriously, never missed a meeting, and always endeavored to bring the young college and the Grange together for their mutual benefit.

Apparently old soldier Hilleary never lost his interest in his military experiences. In 1883 and 1884 he published a condensed form of his diary under the title “Recollections of a Linn County Volunteer” in Samuel S. Train’s Harrisburg Disseminator. When Hilleary stepped down from the seat of Master of the Oregon Grange, his public life seems to have come to a halt. He had reached the peak of success in his own state and in his own organization. His oldest child Clara, who had enjoyed some local distinction as a poet, died in 1903. From Hilleary’s family scrapbook we can infer from the number of entries that she was something of a favorite. Certainly after this date there exist but few examples of Hilleary’s writing. In 1909 Hilleary made a speech in Corvallis about his military experiences

The part of this speech that is in his own hand displays the shaky penmanship of an old man. In 1909, after forty one years on his farm, he and his wife finally went to live with his younger son Lloyd in Brownsville. Here he continued his veteran’s work as adjutant of the Oregon Volunteer Veteran’s Association. In 1913 his first son Homer died, another blow to the old veteran. In 1915 his once lively pen was scratching out painfully plain letters about fallen veteran comrades. In 1917 he was elected Commander of the Oregon Volunteers, but he did not live to serve out his term of office, dying in an Albany hospital following an operation. It was perhaps fitting that his obituary, which filled a full column in the Oregon Grange Bulletin, should be written by C. H. Walker, chaplain of the Oregon Grange and formerly the famous Capt. Cyrus H. Walker of the Oregon Volunteer Cavalry. Hilleary was buried in Turner after an impressive funeral attended by old friends, Grange members, and veterans from all over the Willamette Valley.

His wife died two years later at her home in Brownsville, leaving a large number of relatives and two grandchildren but no one to carry on the name of William M. Hilleary, teacher, soldier, farmer and Patron of Husbandry.

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