Law of the land
By Steve Lundeberg (Steve Lundeberg, the Democrat-Herald’s associate editor, has been an editor and reporter at the paper since 1990.)

At age 134, the firm founded by James K. Weatherford is the state’s oldest with continuous family involvement

ALBANY — Filled with anecdotes of migration, self-improvement, tragedy, perseverance and public service,

Albany’s oldest business boasts a history whose richness rivals that of Oregon itself.

The law firm of Weatherford, Thompson, Cowgill, Black & Schultz traces its roots to 1875. In July of that year, Missouri native James K. Weatherford was admitted to practice law in Oregon, and he chose to set up shop in Albany.

One hundred thirty-four years later, Weatherford’s great-great-grandson, Mike Cowgill, is among the law firm’s eight attorneys, making the firm the state’s oldest with continuous family participation.

Born in 1848, orphaned in 1862 and reaching Oregon via wagon train in 1864, J.K. Weatherford went to work for the Thomas Kay Woolen Mills in Brownsville upon his arrival in the Northwest.

Ultimately, he enrolled at Corvallis College — the precursor to Oregon State University — graduated in 1872 and quickly became superintendent of schools in Linn County (Albany.)

On the side he “read law” with an Albany attorney, paving the way for the Oregon Supreme Court to admit him to practice, which he did for 60 years until his death in October 1935.

1875 proved to be an altogether eventful year for Weatherford as he also won election to the Oregon Legislature — and was chosen as speaker of the house.

On top of his work in law and the legislature, Weatherford was a 29-year member of the Albany school board and a 44-year member of the board of regents of Oregon Agricultural College (which Corvallis College had become on its way to becoming OSU; iconic dormitory Weatherford Hall, which opened in 1928, is named after him).

A number of the firm’s other attorneys branched into politics as well. They include:

• D.R.N. Blackburn, who worked with Weatherford in the 1880s and then was elected attorney general in 1898.

• George E. Chamberlain, who also joined the firm in the 1880s and subsequently served as Linn County’s district attorney, an Oregon House member, Oregon’s first attorney general and the state’s governor; he won gubernatorial elections in 1902 and 1906, and served in the U.S. Senate from 1909 until 1921. (Chamberlain was also an owner of the Albany Democrat newspaper for about two years starting in 1882).

• Mark Vern Weatherford, who went to work with his uncle in 1910 and in 1927 became the Democrats’ state party chairman. As a divisional ordinance officer uring World War I, he devised a widely copied system of repairing artillery pieces without having to remove them from the field.

• James Knox Weatherford, who in 1928 passed the bar exam a year shy of his law school graduation and joined his grandfather’s firm. Also trained as an engineer, he went on to serve in the Oregon House, as Linn County’s district attorney, and on two different school boards. “Young J.K.,” as he was known at the firm, came to the office almost daily until his death in January 1995 at age 93. The weather station he set up outside an upstairs window remains in place.

• Orval Thompson, who went to work in 1938 at the firm that now bears his name and served in both the Oregon House and Senate. Born in 1914, he died after moving to Texas in the early 2000s.

The last person named Weatherford to practice at the firm was Harrison M. Weatherford, Mark’s son. He was born in 1925, joined the firm in 1952 and died in a car accident in 1979.

The firm’s offices, still in their original location at 124 First Ave. S.W., occupy a building that was once three separate structures. The building underwent a historical renovation in 1995-98.

Cowgill and colleague Ed Schultz, who gave a reporter and photographer a tour of the place in February, say more restoration is in store, though no time frame is in place.

“Before we die,” Cowgill said.

The plan is to remodel the building’s upstairs — where the law offices were located until 1948 — and lease out the space, and also to put in another commercial building in the adjacent park lot, which the firm also owns.

The second building and the law firm’s upstairs would be served by an elevator between them. The setup would preserve the well-known brick wall on the firm’s iconic east exterior wall, and the dry goods advertisement that’s been painted on it for rougly a century.

Steve Lundeberg, the Democrat-Herald’s associate editor, has been an editor and reporter at the paper since 1990.