“A fair public school education is due every child and is of the utmost importance not only to the individual but to the welfare of the state.”
On 25 July 1858 in Jordanville, New York, Lydia McDonald, wife of John McDonald, gave birth to a son, and they named him William Calhoun. One of nine children, William grew up in New York, attending public schools in Herkimer County and the Casenovia Seminary at Casenovia. He elected to study law and supported himself during his studies by teaching primary school. After hearing about opportunities in the west, he left New York in 1878 and moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, serving two years as an apprentice at the law offices of Joseph S. Lorrence. Two years later in 1880, he gained admittance to the bar in Kansas.
In that same year of 1880, he left Kansas for the mining town of White Oaks in central New Mexico. At the time, White Oaks was a thriving town of 2,500 inhabitants. Here McDonald found many other people who had arrived from the eastern and mid-western states. Although Billy the Kid walked the streets and the miners frequented “bawdy houses,” visitors also encountered cultured and educated residents. On 9 July 1892, Charles Longuemare, editor and publisher of the El Paso Bullion attended a party given by J.Y. Hewitt for 200 guests. He wrote that during his stay, “I did not see a single revolver in sight, that peace and prosperity were visible everywhere and that as usual the editor of the Bullion found a hearty welcome and a kind greeting from all he met.”
Like the town of White Oaks during its golden years, William C. McDonald also prospered. Unlike other men who sought their fortunes mining, McDonald apparently stayed in the emerging town and worked as a clerk. Here he most likely discerned the need for a person with engineering skills because he almost immediately began working as a civil and mining engineer, staking out mining claims. He worked diligently and skillfully becoming a United States deputy mineral surveyor for New Mexico in 1881, a mere year after his arrival to the state.
In 1890, McDonald became manager of the Carrizozo Cattle Ranch Company, owned by an English syndicate. At that time, Lincoln County, created in 1869, comprised much of the southeastern corner of New Mexico. One of the most prominent industries was stock raising. The varied grasses provided an abundant supply of feed for herds of cattle and sheep throughout the seasons. More livestock occupied the land than did humans; less than five thousand people resided in the county. A few large industries conducted the business of livestock growing, including the Carrizozo Cattle Ranch Company. McDonald eventually purchased the ranch and operated his livestock under the “bar W” brand.
Once McDonald became settled in Lincoln County, he entered public service. He was elected as assessor of Lincoln County and served from 1885 to 1887. In 1891 he became a member of the New Mexico Territorial House of Representatives. He acted as chairman of the Board of County Commissioners from 1895 to 1897 and in 1910 was chairman of the Democratic Territorial Central Committee. He also served as a member of the New Mexico Cattle Sanitary Board. Apparently, his public service even extended to helping local boys learn their mathematics. Morris B. Parker, author of White Oaks: Life in a New Mexico Gold Camp, 1880-1900, lacked a semester’s worth of geometry and needed to learn it before he could attend school in New York. “A few weeks under the tutelage of Mr. W.C. McDonald, the local surveyor, remedied the defect.”
W.C. McDonald’s next turn at public service would be as the first governor of New Mexico. New Mexico became a state in 1912. Few expected that the democratic candidate would be successful in the upcoming elections. The Republican Party had dominated politics throughout the Territorial period. Confident in its record of protecting New Mexican’s personal and property rights, establishing public schools, and in general, marshalling the territory to prosperity, it fully projected its continued control of the state. Even the Democratic Party believed in the inevitability of a republican sweep in the election. A number of factors including local political bosses’ discontent with the ruling party, the denunciations of republican candidates by the press, and the concerted opposition of some large corporations, led to the defeat of the Republican Party’s candidate for governor. W.C. McDonald won the election with a plurality of 3,000 votes. He was inaugurated in Santa Fe on 14 January 1912.
In his inaugural speech delivered on 15 January 1912, McDonald spoke of the state’s recent victory in becoming a member of the union. “Now, we, the free, independent citizens of New Mexico, have at last come victorious from the battle, waged for full citizenship in a sovereign state, in that union established by their wisdom. As we look into the future, bright hopes of promise appear to some, and dark forebodings may dim the horizon of others. The past is history; the present is the dawn of the future. It is to the future we look and that future will be what we make it.” The governor also spoke of guarding the voter from election fraud, of fair taxation, and of the importance of developing irrigation to be put to beneficial use. Moreover, he spoke about preserving and conserving the public lands so “that the proceeds and revenues coming there from may go to our children as a vast heritage, resulting from the wise management of those who hold them in trust.”
McDonald had a deep concern for the public school system of New Mexico. “My interest in the schools of New Mexico is so great that I shall always willingly and gladly sacrifice, if necessary, my personal inclination and convenience and endeavor to advance what I believe to be of the greatest importance of all things to our new state.” As a representative in the Territorial legislature in 1891, he helped pass the “Pauline School Bill” that provided for the establishment of public schools throughout the territory, created an office of public instruction, and a territorial board of education. As governor, he championed an education for all children. He said, “A fair public school education is due every child and is of the utmost importance not only to the individual but to the welfare of the state.” He also believed that children should attend school for seven months. During the first years of statehood, the governor and legislature supported many provisions including the following: that all children, ages seven to fourteen, had to attend school; school terms had to be a least seven months in length; the impact of alcohol and narcotics had be taught; New Mexico history and civics had be taught; and that Arbor day was to be observed by the planting of trees. The state funded public schools by creating a permanent school fund. Funding came from five per cent of the proceeds of United States land sales and the sale of school lands. The state also created a reserve fund to aid those districts that were unable to keep schools open longer than five months.
As governor, McDonald had the power to proclaim the third Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving since; at that point, it had not become a federal holiday. In 1913, Governor McDonald proclaimed Thursday, 27 November 1913, Thanksgiving Day. “I urge upon all that this day be observed as one of prayer and praise to God for the many blessings enjoyed by our people. At the same time may we not forget the poor and needy, making the day what its name implies for all.” In 1914, he noted that “While a large part of the civilized world is plunged into a destructive and devastating war, we are at peace with the world.” In both years, he earnestly requested that all places of business close.
Although a democrat won the governor’s seat, both legislative bodies contained republican majorities. Initially, the governor and legislature seemed to work well together, but after the governor vetoed certain items in the appropriation bill, animosities between them grew and continued throughout McDonald’s tenure as governor. The two branches clashed on a number of issues including that of salaries paid to county officials. McDonald thought the legislature’s desire to pay high salaries was an extravagance. He believed it was unfair to run a county office as a sinecure for the elected county official, allowing low-paid clerks to do the work. They also quarreled over the role of the traveling auditor, Howell Earnest. Earnest went from county to county to audit the counties’ accounts, often exposing fraud and/or incompetence and creating animosities amongst all political parties. Despite this opposition, McDonald steadfastly supported Earnest and his work.
In 1917, though he relinquished his post as governor to the republican candidate, W.E. Lindsey who had defeated McDonald with a plurality of 846 votes, he continued to serve in various positions. When the United States entered World War I, President Wilson appointed him fuel administrator of the state. From his ranch in Carrizozo, he oversaw the business of conserving light and fuel, appointing county boards throughout the state to implement his plans. Shortly thereafter he died of Brights disease on 12 April 1918 in El Paso, Texas.
Photo: Governor William Calhoun McDonald #8149, State Records Center and Archives Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives. Reproducing prohibited without express permission from the State Records Center and Archives.
Commission of Public Records-State Records Center and Archives