MICHIGAN TRAILS
GENEALOGY and HISTORY
 

Woodbridge N. Ferris
Governor (1913 - 1917)

 

 Woodbridge Nathan Ferris was born in Spencer, Tioga County, New York, on January 6, 1853, and died in Washington, D.C. on March 23, 1928 at age 75. He rests eternal at the Highland View Cemetery in Big Rapids, Michigan.  

Mr. Ferris attended Spencer Academy, Candor Academy and Owego Free Academy in New York and the Oswego (NY) Normal and Training School (1870-73). He also was a student in the medical department of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (1873-74).

Woodbridge was principal of the Spencer Academy (1874-75), of the Freeport (Illinois) Business College and Academy (1875-76), was principal of the Normal Department of the Rock River University (1876-77), and was co-founder and teacher of the Dixon (Ill.) Business College and Academy (1877-79). He was superintendent of schools in Pittsfield, Illinois from 1879-84.

In 1884, Woodbridge established the Big Rapids Industrial School, later renamed Ferris Industrial School (about 1885), Ferris Institute (about 1898), Ferris State College (1963), then Ferris State University (1987). He served as president of Ferris until his death in 1928.

Woodbridge was once the president of the Big Rapids Savings Bank (First National Bank and Trust, Chemical Bank) from May 1, 1902 until his death in 1928. Mr. Ferris campaigned for the United States Congress in 1892 and for Governor of Michigan in 1904 and 1920. He was elected Governor of Michigan twice (1912 and 1914). He was elected to the United States Senate in 1922 and served until his death.

Woodbridge received honorary degrees from Michigan State Normal college (Eastern Michigan University), Olivet College, the University of Michigan and University of Notre Dame.

On December 23, 1874, he married Helen (Nellie) Frances Gillespie. She was born on September 7, 1853, and died March 23, 1917. She was a graduate of Oswego Normal and Training School's English department.

Mr. and Mrs. Ferris had three sons: Carleton Gillespie (Sept. 18, 1876-Nov. 24, 1961); Clifford Wendell (June 3, 1881-Sept. 20, 1881); and Phelps Fitch (April 16, 1889-Dec. 10, 1935). On August 14, 1921, Mr. Ferris married Mary E. McCloud (1882-1954).


FERRIS WAS FIRST DEMOCRAT TO BREAK STATE'S TRADITION

Won Election to Senate in Face of Rock-Ribbed Republicanism of Michigan; School Teacher, Former Governor Was One of Most Picturesque Figures in Politics; Always a Fighter for His Beliefs

Woodbridge N. Ferris, the school teacher, shattered the rock-ribbed republicanism of Michigan when he overcame a normal republican majority of half a million votes and was elected to the United States senate in 1922. He battered down a sacred tradition of the Wolverine state -- a tradition inviolate for 70 years that no democrat could be elected to the upper house of congress from Michigan -- and won the senate seat from Charles E. Townsend by a  margin of 13,000.

Michigan's "good gray governor," as Senator Ferris was called during the two terms he served as the state's executive, was in his 71st year when he entered the senate; a thin, spare, slightly, stooped figure, with lean, spectacled face and eyes that flashed energy and power. He was always the schoolmaster; rarely the politician. He was a dynamo, a bundle of nerve force, a fighter in the ranks of democracy more because of his enthusiasm more because of his enthusiasm for its principles than for any emolument the party might confer upon him.

Then, as afterward, it was a case of the party seeking the man, it was eight years later -- in 1912 -- that Mr. Ferris again was a gubernatorial candidate, and this time he was elected. Two years later he was re-elected, winning over Chase S. Osborn, a former governor.

After serving two years as governor, Mr. Ferris resumed his school work at Big Rapids, leaving his books only in 1920 to seek the governorship again, and going down with his party in the republican landslide.

The superlative achievement of Mr. Ferris' political career was his election to the United States senate Nov 7, 1922. It climaxed one of the most spectacular campaigns ever aged in Michigan. "Newberryism" was the Ferris battle cry, and he carried it to every corner of the state. It was the single wedge that could cleave the republican rock that had withstood democrats' assaults for three score and 10 years.

HELD LITTLE HOPE

"When I entered the race." Senator Ferris said afterward, "I had not the faintest hope of being elected. I felt that only a miracle could win for me. However I entered the campaign with all my strength, and decided to fight to the last ditch."

One of the points raised by republicans against Mr. Ferris' election was his age, and this drew a prompt and characteristic reply from him. "If age and physical conditions are to be issues in this campaign," he said, "I'll put on the boxing gloves with Mr. Townsend any time he wants to start."

A log cabin on a wooded farm near Spencer, Tioga county, New York, was Mr. Ferris' birthplace, Jan. 6, 1853. It was a time, as he later said, when sewing machines and kerosene lamps were luxuries.

Young Ferris' early years were filled with hard work and schooling. The education was carried on, he said, with a degree of regularity that "defied storms and ordinary ailments." The first eight years of attending school he described as "the horror of my life/" Yet he lived to become the founder of a school that has more than 20,000 graduates in the United States.

WAS TEACHER FIRST

When he was 14 years of age the future United States senator entered Spencer Union academy and from this point on his educational progress was rapid. There followed alternate periods of student life and teaching at rural schools.

OBITUARY

WASHINGTON, March 23,  (AP) -- Sen. Woodbridge N. Ferris, of Michigan, died here at 6:15 o'clock Friday morning from an attack of pneumonia. The 75-year-old veteran of Michigan political battles succumbed after a little more than a week's  illness which began with a heave cold he could not shake off.

It had been planned to take him to Battle Creek as late as last Friday if his condition did not improve. That evening, however, he began to break rapidly. Then pneumonia set in, and the efforts of physicians to prolong his life proved futile.

STIMULANTS FAIL

Dr. G. W. Carver made the death announcement. He said the aged senator had a sinking spell Thursday and stimulants failed to revive him. He died Friday morning in his apartment at the Washington hotel.

Those at the bedside when the end came were Mrs. Farris, two sons, Carleton and Phelps Ferris, Mrs. Ferris' brother, John McCloud, and Gerrit Masselink, vice-president of the Ferris institute and college mate of the senator.

Since last Saturday, little hope had been held out for the recovery of the senator, who was known as the "good gray governor" of Michigan and the man who broke through that state's normal republican majority of 500,000 votes to be elected to the senate in 1922 as a democrat, something that had not been done in 70 years.

In an effort to stave off the encroaching disease in the bronchial tubes, Dr. Carver had called in a navy specialist, Lieut. Com. Walter A Bloedern, and Dr. Carey T. Grayson, who was President Wilson's personal physician, but their work was to no avail. The senator's advanced age had contributed to his rapid decline.

ANNOUNCED RETIREMENT

On March 7, Senator Ferris announced that because of his age, he would not be a candidate for re-election and at the same time came out for the nomination of Senator Walsh, democrat, Montana, for the presidency, because he is a dry.

"I want it distinctly understood," he said, "that I do not decline to run because of any fear of the result. It is only in great emergencies that a democrat can be elected in Michigan, but even if I felt sure of being defeated that would not deter me from running if I thought I owed that duty to those who have supported me."

DEMOCRATS DIVIDED

Ferris' announcement for Walsh was regarded as creating the first split in the theretofore unbroken sentiment among Michigan democrats for Governor Smith of New York.

Ferris recognized the "greatness" of Smith, but said he had been a dry for 44 years and could not reverse himself. He also wanted to see the "religious issue eliminated from party politics."

Senator Ferris' health had not permitted his taking part in senate activities for several months prior to his death.

CALLED "OUTSTANDING"

DETROIT, March 23 (AP) -- Senator Woodbridge N. Ferris, who died Friday in Washington, was on eof three outstanding leaders in the democratic party in Michigan since the commonwealth was admitted to statehood in 1837.  John Fitzgibbon, veteran political writer of the Detroit News said Friday.

The other two, he said, were Lewis Cass and don M. Dickinson.

The writer pointed out that the public career of Senator Ferris "was in years when the democratic party was being repeatedly defeated by overwhelming majorities. He attributed Senator Ferris' success largely to his "personal popularity," and to his corage, his wisdom, his energy and to the fact that he was firm in his convictions.

Fitzgibbon recalled that Senator Ferris' "disregard of harmful political consequences to himself when duty confronted him was conspicuously illustrated ruing the strike in the upper peninsula copper mines in 1913."

 

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