William Lewis Douglas
Painting: Arthur Merton Hazard, 1912

Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: 1905-1906

There was little in the first thirty years of William L. Douglas' life to suggest he was destined to be an industrialist and Governor of Massachusetts. He was born in Plymouth, the son of a sailor, who died when Douglas was five. Mr. Douglas attended school intermittently and from the age of seven worked for his uncle, a shoemaker. Douglas learned this trade, working as a journeyman shoemaker until the Civil War. He enlisted in the Massachusetts 58th regiment and was wounded at the battle of Cold Harbor. He was discharged in 1865.

Douglas pursued his fortune making and selling shoes in Colorado, but he returned to Massachusetts in 1868. In 1876, he began the W.L. Douglas Shoe Company, which boomed becoming a major employer in Brockton. The factory was able to manufacture 20,000 pairs of shoes per day, which supplied W.L. Douglas Shoe Stores in seventy-eight cities.

Douglas entered politics serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives 1884-5 and in the Massachusetts Senate in 1887. He was elected Mayor of Brockton in 1890. Running as a Democrat in 1904, Douglas defeated incumbent Governor John Lewis Bates.

In his first week as Governor, Douglas faced a firestorm of protest from residents of Cape Cod enraged by the Commonwealth's intention to establish a leper colony in the small town of Brewster. So many protesters traveled from Cape Cod that the railroads had to add an extra train. Douglas ended the plan, sold the Brewster property, and found a new location on the Cape, at Penikese Island, which was the former site of The Anderson School of Natural History, which Louis Agassiz directed in the 1870s. Though protest was voiced, Douglas refused to schedule public meetings on the topic, and the Commonwealth staffed its first treatment program for leprosy under Douglas' administration.

Governor Douglas also created the Douglas Commission to determine how education could be reformed to better prepare Massachusetts' work force. The commission recommended increased industrial education opportunities, which paved the way for industrial education programs in Massachusetts' public schools. Douglas was stymied by a Republican majority in the legislature, and returned to his business and private philanthropy.