WA Secretary of State Blogs

The Tale of the Washington State Bird, Volume 2: Emma Otis the Bird Chairman, and the Garden Ladies

GoldFinchFrom the desk of Mary Paynton Schaff

Read Volume 1 here

From 1943 until 1951, the matter of designating an official Washington state bird languished.  Legislators seemed reluctant to bring the matter to a vote and interested outside groups appear to have lost hope in forcing their lawmakers to act.  Finally in 1951, another wave of interest in making the willow goldfinch official broke ashore, courtesy of a group of determined women from the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs.

Enter Emma Otis, whose obituary caught the attention of our staff last October.  After Emma’s death, her granddaughter, Nancy Pugh, kindly shared with us some of Emma’s handwritten notes about her efforts to make the willow goldfinch Washington’s official state bird. Following some general observations about the goldfinch, its behavior and birdy character (“Responsibility seems to rest lightly upon the shoulders of the goldfinch”), Emma provided some context for these remarks:

This is the original script I used at a meeting of Capital District of Garden Clubs, when I was Bird Chairman for the District (Pierce & Thurston Counties). Concluded by saying that I hoped someday that this bird would be officially adopted as the State bird. The President asked if I would like to make a motion to that effect, which I did. Went something like this, “I move that the Capital District of Garden Clubs of WA go on record as favoring the adoption of the Willow Goldfinch as the official bird of the State of Washington and that it be presented to the State Federation of Garden Clubs for approval and an attempt be made to present it at the forthcoming meeting of the Legislature.”

The historical record is rather quiet on just when and how this was accomplished.  It is probable that Emma’s speech took place prior to the beginning of the 1951 Legislative Session, which convened January 8, 1951.  We consulted our collection of Olympia Garden Club manuscript materials, and unfortunately evidence to support Emma’s story was missing from the Olympia club’s 1950/1951 meeting minutes – probably because she spoke at a district meeting and not an Olympia club meeting.  The minutes do indicate there was some sort of state bird billboard campaign (no specifics provided) and it’s quite likely that the Federation of Garden Clubs encouraged its members to write letters petitioning their legislators.  Schoolchildren may again have been involved; a March 1963 Seattle Times article indicates that their vote in 1951 determined the fate of the state bird.  Again, evidence is not forthcoming regarding this claim.

The only other clear documentation of the leadership provided by the Federation of Garden Clubs on the GardenGate1951-excerptmatter of the state bird was a blurb that appeared in the March 1951 Olympia Garden Club newsletter, The Garden Gate.  Blanche Andreus and Gwen Hofer are specifically mentioned for their hard work in getting the “Bird Bill” passed.  As one might now expect, additional research into the background of these ladies and the work they did on behalf of the willow goldfinch was also unfruitful.

However they accomplished it, the women of the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs put enough pressure on the Legislature that lawmakers were finally ready to act once they convened in 1951.  Senate Bill 318 was introduced by Senator Carlton Sears of Thurston County on February 15, 1951.  The stage was now set to get the willow goldfinch on the books as the official state bird.

Stay tuned for Volume 3 to see just how the Legislature responded to their call to action.

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