A successful corporate attorney in New York City, Westmoreland Davis decided to return to Virginia, his boyhood home, in 1903. He purchased Morven Park near Leesburg, and there applied his boundless energy and ideas to make it an agricultural showplace. Morven Park became a testing station for new methods of raising crops and selective breeding of livestock.
In the first two years, he planned and began the improvements he envisioned for the farm. He studied and researched everything he could find about rejuvenating the land. First he had each field deeply plowed and applied lime. Afterwards, he planted cowpeas, which were cut early and then allowed to regrow before being turned under the soil to nourish it. Thereafter, crops were planted in rotation to preserve the fertility of the soil.
Davis personally designed changes for efficiency to each of his farm buildings. Rather than bringing in outside help, he paid his farm hands extra wages to do the construction. He added windows to the cow barns and poured concrete floors. Easily
cleaned drains were added to the aisles.
For the dairy, he bought prize-winning bulls, and 150 Guernsey cows directly from the Isle of Guernsey. They were soon producing high grade yellow cream, in great demand by top hotels in New York and Washington for ice cream. Davis also bought top bloodstock to start his hog and sheep operations.
Davis put his livestock to work as well, believing that work kept the animals in better temper and health. His orders that all stock were to be treated kindly and gently produced a sort of petting zoo–all the animals sought attention from people.
In 1905, the Davises purchased the 600 acres of Big Spring Farm across Rt. 15 from Morven Park. Big Spring was a horse farm where Davis bred heavy draft horses for farm work, as well as light riding horses and hunters.
Foxhunting was a passion of both Mr. and Mrs. Davis. They were early and active members of the Loudoun Hunt, of which Mr. Davis later became master, and formed the Leesburg Riding Club during the hunt’s off season.
The Davises entertained lavishly at Morven Park at hunt breakfasts and balls. They enjoyed exciting sport during a two week match between a pack of American and a pack of English foxhounds, and were among the few that saw every meet through to the end. Davis served as Master of the Loudoun Hunt for two seasons, but the position required more time than he was able to give. He resigned in 1908, but not before helping to organize the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America.
In 1912, Davis purchased the Southern Planter, a farm journal, to publish his ideas and the results of his experiments. He used the Southern Planter’s editorial columns to strike out at what he considered injustices to Virginia’s farmers. He attacked the Legislature for what he termed “paltry sums” appropriated for the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and urged the state to support the Farmer’s Institute, which later became the Agricultural Extension Service of Virginia Tech. Through this publication, and as President of the Virginia Dairymen’s Association and the Farmer’s Institute, he gained the trust of Virginia’s farmers, whose support ultimately would help him to win the race for governor in 1917.
Westmoreland Davis’ introduction to Virginia politics came through his dedication to progressive farming. Beginning in 1910, he lobbied for a bill in the Virginia legislature which would regulate the production of lime, used to enrich worn out farmland. The lime bill also sought to reduce the rates railroads charged to transport lime to farmers. Though not initially successful, Westmoreland Davis’ proposed reforms eventually were passed by the legislature. He became increasingly involved in politics over the next several years, mostly seeking support for farmers around the state. Many progressive laws were enacted with Davis’ help, including the creation of a legal reference bureau for farmer-legislators, an increase in appropriations for rural schools and roads, and the creation of farmers’ cooperatives.
Early in 1915, supporters began to suggest to Westmoreland Davis that he run for the governorship. Though considered an outsider by the “Martin Machine,” the powerful Virginia Democratic Party faction led by Senator Thomas Martin, Davis still considered running. In June of 1916, he announced his candidacy for the 1917 Democratic primary.
Davis’ entry into the gubernatorial campaign made it a three-way race between himself, Lt. Governor J. Taylor Ellyson, and Attorney General John Garland Pollard. Ellyson was supported by the Martin Machine, and therefore considered the likely winner. Despite this, and regardless of Davis’ own belief that he did not have a chance of winning, he ran a hard fought campaign. While continuing to win victories for farmers in the legislature, Davis traveled throughout Virginia, speaking to large crowds at public gatherings and to individuals at country stores or in the farm fields. “Westmoreland Davis Clubs” sprang up around the state, beginning with a local group in Davis’ home county of Loudoun.
On primary day, August 7, 1917, Westmoreland Davis surprised the Martin Machine by winning the Democratic party nomination, with less than half of the 90,000 votes cast. Ellyson and Pollard split the remaining votes. At this time in Virginia’s history, a win in the Democratic primary was a virtual guarantee to win the general election in November, and Davis did just that. Despite the fact that the Martin Machine offered little help, Davis defeated the Republican candidate, Thomas Jackson Muncy, by a wide margin. On Friday, February 1, 1918, Westmoreland Davis entered the capital city of Richmond, to be sworn in as the 55th governor of Virginia.
During his campaign, Westmoreland Davis promised an administration that would be run as efficiently as a successful business. Always known for his organizational skills, he applied these to his new role as governor of Virginia. His first item of business was the creation of an executive budget. In his published Platform, Davis stated “We should scientifically administer our present state revenue rather than continually seek new subjects of taxation....” He instituted an executive budget that became known as the “Virginia Plan,” a model copied by eight other states. It gave the responsibility for Virginia’s financial planning to the governor, who then would prepare a budget for approval by the legislature. The legislature could increase or decrease funding for budgeted items but could not add new items, therefore reducing partisanship and inefficiency.
Governor Davis also emphasized improvements in Virginia’s prison, educational, and highway systems. Medical care was improved for prisoners, and for the first time, they were allowed to read newspapers. Industries were established in prisons for the manufacture of items used in state institutions. In education, Governor Davis enlarged financial allocations to schools and increased teachers’ salaries.
A great deal of Governor Davis’ time when he first entered office was spent on home front efforts during the First World War. His policy of streamlining government operations fit well with the cutbacks necessary to the war effort. Davis led the effort to raise funds by attending war bond rallies and purchasing bonds himself. He visited soldiers at Newport News and Camp Lee, and wrote letters of condolence to families who had lost fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons in the war.
On November 11, 1918, Governor Davis was awakened late at night with news of the armistice, and by 4:00 am, the city of Richmond was lighted and full of activity. In 1919, he returned to Leesburg for a ceremony at the courthouse to honor and award medals to each veteran from Loudoun County.
After his 4-year term as governor, Davis ran for the U.S. Senate in 1922. This second challenge to the Virginia Democratic Machine was unsuccessful, however, and Davis retired to Morven Park to pour his energies into agriculture and community organizations once more.
He continued testing new methods for growing crops as well as raising purebred livestock. In the early 1930s, he began raising turkeys, eventually having as many as 20,000 in his flock. The turkeys won top prizes in competitions where they were shown. Within ten years, Morven Park had become the largest supplier of turkeys in the United States. Westmoreland Davis died in 1942, and is buried at Morven Park.