Fighting for Amanda's Dream (continued)

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

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.

Simeon Reed

Simeon Reed

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.