Amanda Reed (in rocking chair) at home in Carmelita ca. 1900. Her residence in California would raise troubling legal implications for her will.

Amanda Reed (in rocking chair) at home in Carmelita ca. 1900. Her residence in California would raise troubling legal implications for her will.

Fighting For Amanda’s Dream

By Ted Katauskas | March 1, 2011

On May 11, 1912, thousands of people converged on a muddy cow pasture on the east side of the Willamette River to witness a momentous occasion—the laying of the cornerstone of the Arts and Sciences building (now known as Eliot Hall), the first permanent structure on the Reed campus. Excitement among Portland’s citizenry ran so high that organizers secured a train of 11 cars to carry the throng to the remote location.

After leading a rousing chorus of “America the Beautiful,” Dr. William T. Foster, the college’s first president, stepped forward and positioned a copper box on a granite slab beneath the gently swaying cornerstone while Charles H. Dodge, grand chaplain of the Masonic order, recited a list of the box’s contents.

“The tackle that held the stone suspended over its bed creaked, the slab settled gently into its place and the grand master tapped free the steel pins with which it had been suspended,” recounted the Oregonian. “Then he completed the ceremony of sprinkling the stone with the symbolic grains of corn, wine and oil, and turning, mounted the rostrum and spoke the closing words of the ceremony, prophesying a worthy building, housing a great institution.”

The grand celebration drew many of Portland’s most prominent citizens, but one face was conspicuously absent from the crowd.

Martin Winch, the nephew of Amanda and Simeon Reed, and the executor of their will, was nowhere to be seen. His absence was particularly striking because he played a monumental role in the creation of Reed College. Without Winch, the college would almost certainly have been stillborn, strangled by heirs seeking to claim Amanda Reed’s fortune for themselves.

Alone among these heirs, Winch, a social misfit with barely a high school education, took it upon himself to champion his aunt’s dream and rescue her legacy from the clutches of self-interested relatives in one of the most sensational court battles in Portland’s history.

The dispute made him a pariah in his own family. But that was just the beginning. Obsessed with fulfilling the dying wishes of his aunt and uncle, Winch spent the next four years jousting with his fellow trustees over the academic soul of the college. He ultimately lost—lost not just the battle, but the friendship of the only person who truly understood him.

You get a hint of his isolation from a photograph taken mid-life, a stiff formal portrait of Winch gazing expressionless at the camera, receding hair oiled and parted down the middle, moustache neatly trimmed, eyes peering with a hint of defiance through barely noticeable frameless round spectacles balanced upon the bridge of his nose.

But to gain a sense of how this drama played out, to render more than a two-dimensional daguerreotype image of who Winch really was, you need to travel backward in time, carefully sifting cubic feet of brittle-to-the-touch paper—letters, court transcripts, ledgers, telegrams, and newspaper clippings—archived in the sub-basement of Hauser Library and in the vault of the Oregon Historical Society.

Many pieces are missing from the historic record and may never be found. But with perseverance, it’s possible to assemble the most obvious pieces of the jigsaw into a border that frames the complicated and tragic puzzle of Martin Winch.

For as long as he could remember, Winch had worshipped his Uncle Sim. Growing up in Quincy, Massachusetts, the boy heard endless stories about the colorful character who quit school at 15, cut leather in a shoe factory, and then spirited his bride, Amanda, off to the wilds of Oregon to seek his fortune.

When Simeon Reed arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1852, Oregon was still a territory and Portland was a trading outpost with fewer than a thousand inhabitants, isolated from the rest of the world. The city’s only link to civilization was the steamship. Sensing an opportunity, Simeon invested his earnings in a startup that grew into the biggest shipping line in the Northwest, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company—the Google of its day.

The startup flourished and Simeon became a millionaire. He flaunted it. He built a garish mansion, a filigreed edifice with a slate roof perched atop a grassy knoll, with a burbling fountain and a cow grazing on the lawn. A founding member of the Arlington Club and an avid hunter (but not a good shot: an accident claimed two fingers on his dominant hand), he was a flashy dresser and drove a landau carriage with sterling harnesses to church. With a quick wit and a round belly, he was the toast of Portland’s elite despite the fact that he was clearly nouveau riche (“Mr. Reed’s taste was always for the gaudy,” recalled one friend).

Amanda Reed on the other hand, was the yin to Simeon’s yang: petite, reserved, a homebody who shunned ostentation, delighted in the laughter of children, and for their pleasure, purchased a magic lantern and a music box.

But the Reeds themselves remained childless until their 12-year-old nephew Martin arrived by steamship in 1871, grieving the untimely death of his father, and moved into their home. Uncle Sim assumed the role of father, and Martin became his protégé, quitting school after a few years to take a job as baggage clerk in the family business, building his own press, and running a print shop at night.

In 1880, Uncle Sim sold his quarter share of Oregon Steam Navigation for $1.25 million ($26 million today)—a profit of 2,378 percent—and rolled the windfall into a vast holding company and diversified his portfolio, accumulating mines, railroads, an iron foundry, real estate, farms, livestock, and, his passion, thoroughbred race horses. He built the tallest building in Portland, named it the Abington Building after his hometown, and installed Winch in a corner office on the top floor, as business manager, to oversee the entire operation.

As much as Winch admired his Uncle Sim—even naming his only son after him—the two men couldn’t have been more different. While Simeon chomped on Cuban cigars and swilled bourbon in the Arlington Club, Winch abhorred excess and joined the Temperance Legion. While Simeon played poker and raced horses, Winch tallied receivables. While Simeon was rotund and robust, Winch was slight and sickly, prone to anxiety, depression, and crippling rheumatism.

Winch was also a perfectionist who obsessed over details—a quality that made him an effective business manager but a difficult friend. Fixated on following Uncle Sim’s exact wishes, he sought approval for even the most minor decisions. (“Just before you left, Aunt Mandy asked me to get a gardener . . . He is, I should judge, about 27, a nice looking man and has an open honest face and looks as if not afraid of work.”) Uncle Sim never even opened many of his letters.

In 1892, Simeon’s kidneys began to fail. His doctor suggested a warmer, drier climate, so he and Amanda retired to Pasadena, California, and bought Carmelita, a mansion on 18 acres. Winch handled the move, sending three railcars of furniture, rugs, paintings, and statues to Pasadena. Three years later, Simeon suffered a paralytic stroke and died, leaving everything to his wife and urging her to devote a portion of the estate to “a suitable purpose of permanent value that will contribute to the beauty of this city and the intelligence, prosperity and happiness of its inhabitants . . . all the details I leave entirely to the good judgment of my wife in which I have full confidence.”

Winch dutifully kept the business empire chugging along until Amanda died at Carmelita of complications from gastritis and kidney disease in 1904. He was at her side, holding her as she took her last breath.

Her will, revealed two weeks later, caused a sensation. After providing for her heirs (particularly Winch, who received $100,000, more than anyone else) and some favorite charities, she directed the vast bulk of the estate, a king’s ransom, to found an “institution of learning” in Portland. “SCHOOL FOR CITY!” the Oregonian exclaimed.

But the excitement was premature. One morning in October, a California lawyer arrived at Union Station, walked to the Abington Building, climbed the stairs, and knocked on Winch’s door. His name was James A. Gibson, and he had come to make certain inquiries about the estate. His motives soon became clear. Eleven heirs, hungry for the fortune, were plotting to wage legal war. 

News of the suit they filed in Multnomah County Court on February 7, 1905, splashed across front pages from Seattle to Los Angeles. “Heirs Bring Action to Break Document,” ran the headline in the Oregonian.

In their complaint, the heirs argued that during the last 10 years of her life, Amanda had made her home in California, not Oregon. This claim, if true, would have profound legal significance, because in California—unlike Oregon—the law limited charitable bequests to no more than 30 percent of an estate’s value. (At the turn of the century, many states had similar “Mortmain” statutes, modeled after a medieval decree that prevented barons from bequeathing feudal land to churches.)

The heart of the issue was the interpretation of the legal term “domicile.” “Domicile is the place you intend to make your permanent home,” explains Bernie Vail, a professor of law specializing in wills and trusts at Lewis & Clark Law School. “It’s the law of the deceased’s domicile at the time of death that controls the will, not the place where they died or where they lived. The heirs had a legitimate argument. It was a factual issue. What was Amanda Reed’s intention: did she intend to remain in California or did she intend to return to Oregon?”

For Reed College, the answer would mean life or death. The Oregonian stated it most succinctly: “MILLION AND A HALF AT STAKE! If Her Home Was in Pasadena, the Bequest to Reed Institute Is Void. If in Portland, the Legacy Is Legal.”

Winch stood to benefit if the will was overturned; after all, he was an heir, too. But he had held Amanda’ hand on her dying day and vowed to carry out her wishes. He could not let the relatives carve up her fortune without a fight.

Imagine the packed gallery of the Multnomah County Courthouse on May 12: the heirs on one side and Winch, alone save his wife and son on the other, watching in dismay as Gibson, the heirs’ lawyer, led a parade of coachmen, maids, nieces, and nephews to the witness stand, where they laid bare one unpleasant detail after another: how Amanda often spoke of Pasadena as her home, how she dreaded the dreary winters of Oregon. Gibson clearly relished needling Winch, who dutifully recounted the day he packed up the Reeds’ mansion for their move to Pasadena, everything from the furniture to stones in the garden to the family cow grazing on the front lawn (“Q: Was that the cow that had been used in connection with the residence, to give the family milk? A: Yes.”). Gibson even put Winch’s 16-year-old son, Simeon, on the stand, demanding that the teenager admit that Aunt Manda had once been put on a train to Portland against her will. (He didn’t.)

Most entertaining was Winch’s wife, Nellie. When asked if she had ever heard Amanda compare Oregon’s climate to California’s, she responded tartly, “I have not heard Mrs. Reed express the awful horror of the Oregon climate which others seem to have.”

In spite of the parade of witnesses, the judge ruled that Portland was Amanda’s domicile, a verdict the Evening Telegram trumpeted with gleeful irony (“MRS. REED LIVED HERE!”). But the heirs were not going to give up easily. They appealed, lost, then appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. They also brought their suit before a more sympathetic judge in the superior court of Los Angeles, launching a whole new trial.

As that trial advanced, Winch received a remarkable letter from Carrie Graham, a friend of Amanda, who wrote to say that she had been following the legal drama in the newspaper at the Boston Public Library and wished to testify by mail. Winch took one look at what she had to say and wired her money for a train ticket to California.

In the Los Angeles courtroom, Graham recounted a conversation with Amanda that took place on a visit she made to Carmelita in May 1903. The two friends were discussing a newspaper article about the death of a wealthy Californian whose heirs contested her will. Amanda had deemed the matter “a disgraceful affair,” Graham recalled. “I said I hoped she had hers fixed up good and tight so no one could break it. She said no one could break her will . . . Then she seemed indignant over my question, and asked me who I thought would contest her will. I told her that I knew none of her relatives but Mrs. Winch . . . and I didn’t think she would contest it if she never got a cent; and then she talked about it . . . and then tears came to her eyes and she says, ‘If I thought any of my relatives would contest my will, it would break my heart.’”

You can picture the heirs squirming on the courtroom benches.

“She told me that this will was to provide for an institute of art in Portland, Oregon,” Graham continued. “And I said that might possibly be a reason or an excuse for contesting the will, and she said that her husband had left all her relatives as well provided for as he thought necessary, and that he certainly had a right to leave his money just as he pleased . . . she said it was a matter of trust with her.”

Winch’s decision to buy Graham a ticket to California may have been the best he ever made. Her testimony was the riptide that finally wrenched the will from the heirs’ grasp. The heirs lost the case in Los Angeles and finally conceded defeat in December 1906, when the Oregon State Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ decision, and cleared the way for the founding of the Reed Institute, the precursor to Reed College.

The Oregonian reported that the news “was received with much pleasure by Martin Winch,” who noted that Amanda wanted her fortune to benefit the people of Oregon. “And as executor of her will, I shall spare neither pains nor expenses to carry out her wishes to the letter,” he said.

Unfortunately, his tenacity would soon erode his triumph.

For a literalist like Martin Winch, following his Aunt Manda’s last wishes to the letter would prove to be as impossible as reaching the summit of an Escher staircase.

Her will mandated “an institution of learning, having as its object the increase and diffusion of practical knowledge,” including “departments of learning, galleries of art, natural and technical museums, appliances for manual training, and other appliances and appurtenances.” But it also  specified instruction in “literature, music, the arts and sciences.”

“She didn’t have a clear idea of what the institution was going to be,” says magazine consultant John Sheehy ’82, who is compiling an oral history of Reed. “What plays out, after the court case is settled, is a battle between Martin Winch and Thomas Lamb Eliot.”

The Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot dominated Portland’s cultural landscape. Hailing from a storied family with roots in Boston and St. Louis (which included T.S. Eliot), he founded the First Unitarian Church, the Oregon Humane Society, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society; worked to improve conditions in the county jail; ministered to orphans, the poor, and the mentally ill; championed public schools, the public library, and women’s right to vote. He enjoyed the confidence of many of the city’s leading citizens, including Simeon and Amanda Reed, who sang in his choir.

In 1887, Eliot had sowed the seed for his greatest ambition with Simeon Reed (who once said that children in public school should be taught “useful industry,” and advocated that school hours should be limited so they could do their real learning on the factory floor). He wrote Simeon a letter, proposing a lasting legacy, a “Reed Institute of Lectures,” and joked that it would “need a mine to run it.”

“The guy who was at his ear, who planted the idea of the college in Simeon’s mind, was Thomas Lamb Eliot,” says Sheehy. “Simeon dies, Amanda Reed calls Eliot in for a consultation, and he takes the opportunity to assist in shaping the will. You can see his invisible hand there in the contradictory intentions . . . There’s her husband’s preference for manual training on the one hand, and Eliot’s preference for the arts and literature and science on the other. They are diametrically opposed.”

Eliot, whose father founded Washington University in St. Louis, harbored grand ambitions for Reed as a beacon of learning and culture. Winch, ever loyal to his pragmatic aunt and uncle, insisted that Reed should be a vocational school.

In April 1909, Winch transferred the assets of the Reed estate, which, thanks to a local real estate boom, had blossomed to $1,821,560.48—$44 million today—into the coffers of the Reed Institute, and the struggle for Reed’s soul began in earnest.

Eliot wrote to the presidents of practically every liberal arts school in the United States, including his cousin, the president of Harvard, asking whether they believed Portland needed a liberal arts school or a technical college; almost unanimously they sent replies embracing the former. Not to be outdone, Winch took a train to the East Coast, visiting 12 cities and asking the same question of the directors of 32 trade schools and industrial colleges. He concluded: “I became convinced whilst in the East that the movement for manual training, which is now being taken up by the public schools and is being generally talked of and discussed everywhere, is going to take possession of the whole country,” and opined “that the real province of the institute is to supply fields not already covered or that I felt would soon be covered by the public or other philanthropic schools, that our work should be higher than they are likely to go.” In other words, Reed should be less like Harvard, more like Portland Community College.

At an impasse, Eliot invited Wallace Buttrick, the secretary of the General Board of Education, a higher-education think tank funded by John D. Rockefeller, to Portland to investigate and make an unbiased recommendation. Winch, whose health was never strong, was too sick to meet with the inquisitor. While Eliot wined and dined Buttrick at the grand ballroom of Portland’s fanciest hotel, Winch convalesced at a retreat in Hood River.

Without Winch to advocate for a vocational school, the outcome was predictable. Buttrick recommended a liberal arts school, and the board voted to accept his recommendation. Eliot traveled to Hood River to break the news.

Outmaneuvered, Winch reluctantly agreed to back the plan, accepting a compromise that left open the possibility of adding industrial training to the curriculum in the future. “PORTLAND IS TO HAVE BIG COLLEGE—Trade School Idea Is Dropped” the Oregonian declared.

Winch and Eliot dueled again over the school’s location. Winch favored a practical close-in tract in what is now Laurelhurst. Eliot preferred Crystal Springs, a 40-acre cow pasture in Sellwood, which in that day seemed far from the bustle of the city, offered as a gift by the Ladd family.

In February 1910, Winch, now recuperating at a hotel in Los Angeles, heard that the board had chosen Crystal Springs, and fired off an exasperated telegram:

protest against the selection of crystal springs site the city is growing north not south

Two days later, Winch wrote a letter to Eliot reiterating his objections and complaining that the trustees were ignoring Amanda’s wishes. Eliot responded with a conciliatory letter: “it seemed to us that in meeting the offer of the Ladds [is] consistent with the highest interests of the Institute. My only regret is that owing to your sickness and absence you did not [agree] with this decision.”

But Winch was in no mood to compromise. He replied in pencil, his penmanship conveying so much anger the abbreviated script is barely legible:

Dear Sir,

I beg to ack recpt of yr letter of 7th and have noted contents in reply can only say I regret deeply your action in the matter and were it in my power to stop it I would do so. As the trustees and myself have had opposite views on all most everything that has so far come up, I realize that I am powerless to be of any service to Mrs Reed in this matter. I enclose my resignation as Trustee which you will please deliver to them at the next meeting of your board.

Truly yours, MW

The board accepted Winch’s resignation on June 29, 1910, two weeks after an unfortunate event that, for Winch, must have been an unbearable public humiliation: the sale of Amanda’s furs and jewels outside the county courthouse.

For more than two years, Winch had pleaded with the feuding heirs to allow him to sell his aunt’s personal effects to a private buyer “in as quiet a manner possible,” but the heirs, worried that a collector would underbid, insisted on a public auction. Winch loathed the idea: “As an heir and participant in this bequest, I am unalterably opposed to the hawking of these things, which have been a part of Mrs. Reed’s life, at a public sale, and will never give my consent to such a course,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, the heirs prevailed. On the morning of June 12, 1910, collectors, bargain hunters, and the simply curious packed into a ramshackle cigar stand outside the county courthouse and haggled over Amanda Reed’s jewel-studded rings and bracelets and watches, her sealskin coats and sable muffs, even a feather boa, a public spectacle laid bare in the pages of the Oregonian.

“Diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies, all of the finest water and of magnificent size glittered profusely at the door of the Courthouse yesterday morning . . . The booth of the blind cigar dealer was used for the sale, and sheltered a large crowd of diamond buyers, while rain poured outside. Most of the interested spectators were jewelers, although a number of ‘ultimate consumers’ picked up bargains . . . Mrs. Reed’s furs went at great bargains, and were eagerly snapped up by the dealers.”

The sale netted $5,759.80. Split 15 ways, each heir received a check for $384.

The sale seemed to throw Winch into an emotional tailspin. Many years later, after his death, Eliot would hint at the way Winch’s struggles had warped his personality:

Owing to the absorbing character and limitations of specific tasks in which he was engaged, Mr. Winch was something of a recluse and led a detached life. There was thus placed, at times, somewhat of a barrier between him and the outer moving world of men and things. The conditions of his life may also have emphasized some peculiarities of disposition through which he was at times misunderstood, and by some, even antagonized . . . He endured bravely almost lifelong pains in body, and perhaps for this reason in his later years many of his thoughts and acts were “Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh.”

Winch seems to have spent the entire year of 1911 bedridden, according to the leather-bound journal he gave his wife, Nellie, for Christmas in 1910. In a barely legible scrawl, Nellie documented her husband’s sad decline:

Jan 11. Martin has rheumatism badly today and did yesterday also. It was sprinkling this evening . . .

Nov 22. Martin worse today, nervous and depressed. I am awfully worried . . .

Dec 25. A sad Christmas for us. A lot of
presents but Martin took no interest in them . . .
Not ‘Peace on Earth’ for us. Poor, poor Martin . . .

Even as Winch declined, the great endeavor he helped set in motion gained momentum. In July 1910, Eliot hired William Trufant Foster to be the college’s first president. The following year, Reed’s first class convened at the corner of Southwest 11th Avenue and Jefferson on a property that, as the story goes, Simeon Reed had won in a poker game.

It was snowing on the morning of January 4, 1916, and the entire student body and the instructors packed the chapel. Stooped with age and hard of hearing, Thomas Lamb Eliot stepped up to the pulpit, squinted at the double-spaced onionskin notes in his hands and announced that Martin Winch had died two weeks before.

“It is a great memory we have of this man who, in a generation of bitter striving for personal gain, proved faithful to a trust, loyal to his city and scornful of meaner things,” Eliot said. “We shall see to it that his name is securely held in the history of the College, that coming generations may know the gratitude we owe him.”

Eliot himself would be haunted by the unfulfilled compromise he made with Winch to add vocational training to the curriculum. For the rest of his life, he had to fend off gibes from locals who felt that Simeon and Amanda would have preferred something more practical.

As to the coming generations, they would know Winch’s name from the eponymous dorm in the Old Dorm Block; from his son, Simeon Reed Winch [trustee 1935–46]; and from his daughter-in-law, the legendary Mary Winch [trustee 1978–92]. There is also the rather enigmatic bronze plaque dedicated to Winch’s memory in the Capeheart Room, inscribed with a masterpiece of understatement: “He rendered valued aid in the founding of this college.”

Winch’s true monument is Reed itself—which is somewhat ironic, considering that his vision for the college was so radically different. Nonetheless, his memory is enshrined at Reed in a very literal way. At that grand ceremony a century ago, the copper box sealed under the cornerstone of Eliot Hall contained several artifacts, including a clause from Amanda Reed’s will—and a photograph of Martin Winch, defiant to the very end.

Ted Katauskas is a Portland writer.