MICHIGAN TRAILS -
GENEALOGY and HISTORY

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Governor W.N. Ferris
1913 - 1917


Residence of Gov. W.N. Ferris in Big Rapids MI - Contributed by Paul Petosky

Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, a Senator from Michigan; born in Spencer, Tioga County, N.Y., January 6, 1853; attended the academies of Spencer, Candor, and Oswego, N.Y., the Oswego Normal Training School 1870-1873, and the medical department of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1873 and 1874; principal and superintendant of various schools in Illinois 1874-1884; settled in Big Rapids, Mich., where he established the Ferris Industrial School in 1884 and served as president until his death; president of the Big Rapids Savings Bank; unsuccessful Democratic candidate for election in 1892 to the Fifty-third Congress and for Governor of Michigan in 1904; Governor of Michigan 1913-1916; unsuccessful candidate for Governor in 1920; elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1922 and served from March 4, 1923, until his death in Washington, D.C., March 23, 1928; interment in Highland View Cemetery, Big Rapids, Mich.

He was married first to Helen Francis Gillespie and second to Mary Ethel McCloud. He was the son of John and Estella Reed (Spence) Ferris Jr.



Excerpt from -- Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State
By Willis Frederick Dunbar

On the state level, Osborn stuck with his one-term pledge and was not a candidate for reelection. The Republicans nominated Amos Musselman to succeed Osborn. Roosevelt's Progressive Party put up a full state ticket headed by Lucius W. Watkins as its gubernatorial candidate, while the Democrats nominated Woodbridge N. Ferris for governor. The latter, who had also been the party's candidate for governor in 1904, had become widely and favorably known in Michigan as the founder and head of Ferris Institute in Big Rapids. Ferris Institute was a school where practical subjects were emphasized and where students with small means could get an education. Ferris and his wife took a deep personal interest in each student, and over the years made many friends.

It was the split in the Republican ranks that gave the Democrats both nationally and in Michigan, their best chance at victory in many years. The Michigan campaign was especially contusing, with the incumbent Republican governor openly supporting the Progressive candidate for president, but at the same time insisting that he was still a Republican and refusing to come out in support of the Progressives' slate of state candidates. Because of Osborns backing and Roosevelt's popularity, Roosevelt received the plurality of the popular vote in Michigan and gained all the state's electoral votes — the only time between 1852 and 1932 that the Republican presidential candidate was shut out in Michigan's Wilson, the national winner in this election, ran third in Michigan, behind Roosevelt and Taft; bur in the gubernatorial contest, the Democrat, Ferris, ran ahead of his opponents, receiving 194,017 votes to 169,963 for Musselman and 152,909 for Watkins, thus becoming only the second Democrat to be elected governor of Michigan since the formation of the Republican Party in 1854. Ferris's victory, however, was more an indication of his personal popularity than it was of any resurgent Democratic strength, for the Republicans picked up all the other elective state executive offices, with the Progressive candidates for those offices running close seconds and the Democratic candidates trailing in third place. The Republicans also retained comfortable majorities in both houses of the legislature. The election demonstrated that the Republican Party was still clearly the majority party in Michigan, but it also was the first indication of an independent streak in the Michigan electorate that sometimes would lead it to vote for the candidate and not for the party — a tendency that would become more and more evident in later years.

As governor, Ferris pushed for additional Progressive reforms, and although he lacked a majority of his own party in the legislature, he was able to achieve much of what he asked for through a coalition of reform-minded legislators. In 1913 this reform coalition submitted to the voters a proposed constitutional amendment to provide for the Progressive reform known as Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. With its adoption, the voters had the power, through the petition process, to propose or reject legislation and to remove elected officials from office. Along with the institution of the direct primary, this furthered the goal of the Progressives to democratize the entire political process and provided a mechanism that voters would employ with increasing frequency in the years ahead.

Ferris would have had little chance of winning a second term in 1914 if the Republicans had reunited their forces, but that party was Still torn by dissension and was unable to mobilize its full strength against him. A Detroit attorney, Alex Groesbeck, had emerged from the wreckage of the 1912 campaign as a powerful new force in the Republican Part)'. Although he had been a Taft supporter, as the newly selected chairman of the Republican State Central Committee Groesbeck sought to persuade the Roosevelt insurgents to return to their party. In addition, Groesbeck persuaded the parry regulars to accept these defectors and give them committee assignments. Groesbeck was quite successful in these efforts. In the process, he was also seeking support for his own campaign to become the party's gubernatorial nominee in 1914. When Groesbeck formally launched his campaign late in 1913 he recognized he would have opposition. Chase Osborn, after leaving the governor's office at the end of 1912, had gone on a world tour, proclaiming disinterest in seeking the governorship again. When he returned to Michigan, however, he quickly responded to the calls of his friends and entered the 1914 primary race. Groesbeck figured that Osborn would be strong in the outstate areas but that his own support in Wayne County would offset Osborn's support elsewhere in the state. Although basically a conservative, Groesbeck sought support from the Progressive wing of the party by advocating a few reforms, such as the abolition of child labor and the establishment of a labor conciliatory service. He also counted on the support of the conservative party regulars who blamed Osborn for the rift in the parry ranks that had lost them the governorship in 1912. But Frederick C. Martindale, who was serving his third term as secretary of state and was also from Detroit, entered the primary and angrily attacked Groesbeck for seeking to deny him the nomination to which he felt he was entitled because of his past record of success in state elections. The result was another badly split Republican Party, with Osborn emerging as the victor in the primary with 58,405 votes to Martindale's 47,942 and Groesbeck's 43,137. Much of the Osborn vote probably came from Democrats who crossed party lines (a practice that was possible under the secret primary election system adopted in 1913) since Ferris had no opposition in the Democratic primary.

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