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Nutty 1890s governor left Oregon with two Thanksgivings

In 1893, famously irascible governor Sylvester Pennoyer made a mistake on the date of Turkey Day in a speech. But then, instead of admitting his error, he defiantly doubled down on it.

A woodcut portrait of Sylvester Pennoyer as he appeared in the late 1880s. (Image: Univ. of South Florida)

Oregon may not be the richest, or the largest, or the most powerful state in the union. But our fair state does indisputably have one thing over every other state:

We have more Thanksgiving holidays.

It’s a tradition that was originally referred to as “Pennoyer’s Thanksgiving,” after the curmudgeon of a state governor who first proclaimed it. Actually, it’s probably better described as a dead tradition, having been more or less completely forgotten long before the turn of the last century.

As far as I’ve been able to learn, Oregon’s second Thanksgiving was officially celebrated in only two years: 1893 and 1894. It was launched when the guv made an error in a speech, and then refused to admit his mistake.

Here’s the story:

In late October of 1893, Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer was getting ready to deliver his annual Thanksgiving Proclamation speech. He’d scheduled it for Nov. 1, in what seemed an obvious attempt to get ahead of President Grover Cleveland’s national Thanksgiving proclamation.

Pennoyer and Cleveland were not the best of friends. In fact, Pennoyer was best known — both in Oregon and around the nation — for a curt telegram he’d sent Cleveland the year before. It read, “WASHINGTON: I WILL ATTEND TO MY BUSINESS. LET THE PRESIDENT ATTEND TO HIS.”

Nor was the famous telegram an isolated incident. Pennoyer had a well-earned reputation as a loud-mouthed loose cannon, crotchety and autocratic and proud and preening.

Pennoyer was almost entirely unlovable. He was, it’s true, a great friend of the working man — so long as that working man was of northern European extraction, anyway. Pennoyer was an unvarnished racist who considered the abolition of slavery to have been a mistake, and he owed his election to a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.

As a governor, though, Pennoyer gave most of his energy not to racism nor to feuding with presidents, but to the Free Silver movement, which sought to add a silver standard to the existing gold standard of U.S. currency. The gold standard was causing all sorts of trouble in 1893 — which was, by the way, the year of a depression mostly forgotten by modern Americans, but which was, in human terms, as bad as or maybe even worse than the one that hit in 1929. The 1893 depression was the last time significant numbers of American women were forced to choose between prostitution and starvation. Pennoyer believed (correctly, according to modern economic theory) that it was precipitated largely by fidelity to the gold standard. There just wasn’t as much gold coming into the treasury as there was value being created by the growing American economy, and the result was a vicious spiral of plunging prices that made hoarding gold a better financial strategy than investing it. The problem would be solved eventually by the Klondike gold rush, but of course that was several years away.

Pennoyer’s preferred solution was to use silver as well as gold to peg the dollar. The wealthy elites — who controlled most newspapers, including the Portland Morning Oregonian — saw this idea as a dilution of their financial power, and opposed it bitterly.

So it was against this backdrop that Pennoyer stepped up to the rostrum to deliver his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1893.

“I do hereby appoint the fourth Thursday of the present month as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings he has bestowed upon this commonwealth during the present year,” he droned. “God has indeed been most beneficent to our state and nation, and yet unjust and ill-advised congressional legislation, having made gold alone full legal tender money, has so dwarfed and paralyzed business that the bounties of Providence are now being denied to hundreds of thousands of people within the national domain who are not only without employment, but are also without the means of procuring food, rainment or shelter.”

“While, therefore, the people of Oregon return thanks to God for His goodness,” he continued, “I do most earnestly recommend that they should devoutly implore Him to dispose the President and the Congress of the United States to secure the restoration of silver as full legal tender money.”

Now, granted, it was a bit odd to actually ask God to intercede with national monetary policy. But the man had a point. Ordinary people were suffering because of that policy, and the plutocrats who owned newspapers were not at all pleased at being chided for it. But fortunately for them, Pennoyer had also said something else … a minor thing, insignificant really. He’d proclaimed the wrong date for Thanksgiving. The holiday was traditionally held on the last Thursday of November; Pennoyer had said the fourth Thursday of November. Most years, it came to the same thing; this year, it did not.

Pennoyer, in other words, had proclaimed Thanksgiving a week early.

The newspapers pounced.

“Not satisfied with telling the President of these United States to mind his own business, Oregon’s estimable governor has, figuratively speaking, given Grover Cleveland another slap in the face,” intoned the Oregonian with high-minded sarcasm.

Nationwide, the tone was considerably harsher.

“Everything that this gubernatorial freak has done hitherto has been characterized by execrable taste and bad manners, but this, we believe, is the first time that he has been publicly and flagrantly sacrilegious,” huffed the Chicago Journal.

Amid such a response, any attempt by Pennoyer to correct his error in fixing the date of Thanksgiving would be unthinkable. So he doubled down: The rest of the country could do as it pleased. Oregon would celebrate Thanksgiving on his day.

So, how did that go? It’s hard to know. The newspapers of the day claimed that “Pennoyer’s Thanksgiving” was mostly ignored except for a few state agencies, and that the following Thursday, Oregon families sat down with the rest of America to the traditional feast. But then again, those newspapers weren’t exactly impartial observers in the fight.

In any case, just to prove he’d meant what he said, the governor did the same thing again in 1894, proclaiming Oregon’s Thanksgiving a week early.

The following year, there were once again only four Thursdays in November, and Pennoyer’s calendar once again called for Thanksgiving on the same date as the rest of the nation. By the time another five-Thursday month of November came around, Pennoyer was safely out of office, and nothing further was heard about Oregon’s second Thanksgiving.

But had Pennoyer still been around in 1941, he probably would have smiled when President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially changed the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of the month, to the fourth Thursday. (It would give people more time to shop for Christmas, he said.) The change was controversial, but it stuck. Pennoyer’s Thanksgiving was now the nation’s standard — as it remains to this day.

Nonetheless, the idea of having two Thanksgivings has a certain appeal. We could do worse than to resurrect this maverick Oregon tradition, celebrating Pennoyer’s Thanksgiving a week before the real thing as a sort of rehearsal.

So next time someone from outside Oregon wishes you a “happy Thanksgiving,” be sure to correct him or her: “That’s ‘Thanksgivings.’ Here in Oregon, we have two of ‘em.”

(Sources: Pintarich, Dick. “His Eccentricity: Gov. Sylvester Pennoyer,” Great Moments in Oregon History. Portland: New Oregon, 1987; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, 1893-94)