Here to return to
OREGON FARM LIFE
I WAS at a scattered village in a wide alluvial valley that was bordered by irregular wooded hills. Spring had arrived some time before, and the new leafage was well started, the grass was getting ankle high, dandelions, violets and buttercups were in bloom, and the garden posies were opening out around the homes. Most of the orchards were past their blossom season, but the apple trees were blushing in full splendor. Men were ploughing and harrowing, and some were planting corn, and some were hoeing their garden patches, where, though it was only mid-April, the peas, lettuce, cabbages and other things were all green and thriving, and the strawberries were beginning to shed their first petals.
A variety of produce was raised in the region, but the great prune orchards were especially noticeable. About the barns were numerous hogs and calves, and in the pastures were grazing flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. There were large fields of wheat, and of oats and vetch sowed together, and of alfalfa. In the depths of the valley flowed Cow Creek, an innocent-looking stream just then, but showing signs in the gullies neighboring that it was a wild and wide-reaching torrent in flood-time. During the high water many of the outlying farmers are cut off entirely from the village, and others can get to it only by keeping to the high ground and crossing fields and climbing fences.
The prosperous serenity of the country was attractive, but scarcely stimulating, and when somebody chanced to speak of a place, six miles back in the hills, named Canyonville, I was eager to see it and visions of wild and picturesque beauty floated through my mind. I started in the early afternoon and tramped the dusty road in the warm sunshine up and down an endless succession of little hills. Sometimes I was amid farm fields, or pastures, sometimes in the sober fir forest. In the more open pastures grew occasional oak trees, their limbs raggedly fringed with moss. Occasionally there were thickets of chaparral frosted thickly over with blossoms, and humming full of bees. The little lizards were out enjoying the sunshine, but at my approach would scud to shelter with a quick rustle through the dry leaves. The birds sang, and far aloft in the sky sailed some stately buzzards.
When I reached Canyonville the day was drawing to a close, and the cows were drifting in from their pasturage, The place was a small trading center. It did not look very flourishing; for the main street was grass-grown, and many of the little stores on either side were vacant and had their windows boarded up. The most conspicuous of the village buildings were two diminutive churches, perched on the same knoll, both dilapidated, and one never had been painted. However, the hamlet, taken as a whole, in its setting of steep, fir-clad hills was quite delightful.
I found lodging at the Overland Hotel, the only hotel in the place, but there was a stumpy, two-story building down the street that was formerly a rival. Latterly it had been used as a dwelling, though its sign was still up — “The Grand Central.” “More name than house,” one of the villagers remarked, and really, one would hardly expect so impressively named a hostelry in a remote country village.
Like nearly all the buildings on the main street, whether shops or residences, my hotel stood snug to the board walk and had a piazza roof reaching out along the whole width of the front over the walk below. The piazza floor served as a sidewalk, but it also served the inmates of the hotel as a support for their chairs when they chose to sit in the open air. There I established myself soon after I arrived and rested and looked about. On the opposite side of the street was a group of boys squabbling playfully. They would snatch off each others’ hats and give them a throw, and this seemed to entertain them until one hat was tossed up on a roof. The roof was low, and by standing on a window ledge and clinging to the eaves the owner of the hat with the aid of a stick poked it off. Then he jumped down to the ground. A comrade laid hold of the hat again, but the owner became savagely belligerent and exclaimed, “You let loose o’ there you dirty idiot, or I’ll hit you with this stick.”
At the gate
That put a damper on the game and brought it to an end. The stout, elderly landlady of the hotel had come to the door. She called one of the boys over to her and said, “Roy, how’s the folks?”
“Oh, they’re pretty well,” he replied.
“You don’t look like you been workin’ none,” she continued. “I wish you’d go to your house and bring me a few pounds o’ butter.”
As he moved off she said to me, “His people make good butter, though it’s claimed that the creamery here makes the best. The old fashioned country butter ain’t to be depended on. I’ve got three cows myself, but I use all the milk and cream. The only thing I don’t like about the cows is that I have to do my own milking. Women do a good deal of the milking around here.
“This is a nice place to live. You can’t get rich; but even if you could, I don’t know that you could take any more with you when you died.”
After supper, when the cows had been milked and the other work done, the hotel family both transient and permanent, gathered about the office stove, and as it was now dusky, Ella, the hired girl, lit the lamp. The evening was chilly, and one of the men spoke approvingly of the warmth that came with genial vigor from the little stove.
“Well,” remarked the landlady, “you can always depend on Ella to make a good hot fire, because the girl who does that is sure to get a smart husband.”
“That reminds me,” said a teamster who was a local lodger, “I heard yesterday that Ed Slosson had married the Widow Weaver.”
“What in the world is he thinkin’ of!” cried the landlady. “She’s old enough to be his mother. He must be a-losin’ his mind.”
“I guess he had a likin’ for the old lady’s farm,” responded the teamster. “All the people up the valley where she lives have got fine places. Their buildings are good and their land is all fertile and easily handled. Down this way most every ranch is mortgaged, but up there they own their places clear. I’d like a good ranch myself; and yet if I had the mony I don’t suppose I’d buy one. You can’t get a really first-class ranch for less than ten thousand dollars, and I don’t know of any such in the county that will pay four per cent. on the price asked.”
“I’d hate to ranch up where the Weaver place is,” said another of the party. “It’s too far from any village.”
“Most every place has its faults,” commented the teamster. “You know where my brother lives. That’s nice country, but I wouldn’t live there on account of the water, though they say those that get used to it like it and don’t want any other. They would just naturally starve to death if they couldn’t get some of that old sour mineral water to drink. It’s worse even than city water. I tell you, in summer, city water is as warm as dishwater and don’t quench your thirst at all. Hain’t that so?”
“Talkin’ about mortgages,” said the other man, “I’ve imagined when I was drivin’ along that I could tell every place that wasn’t paid for by the look o’ the buildings. Lots o’ men would do better to let their land go to the holder of the mortgage and pay crop rent instead of interest. That’s what I been tellin’ Albert Lannagan he’d better do.”
“Albert used to have a good stake,” observed the teamster, “but he don’t have the knack o’ keepin’ what he has like his father did.”
“That was once a great ranch for apples,” continued the other speaker; “but there ain’t been no right good apples in Oregon for twenty years. The old orchards have all failed like on account of the San José scale.
However, I don’t believe we could equal the Eastern apples anyway. Apples are a cold climate fruit. Last year our crop was ruined by that hot day we had. The thermometer went up to 108, and, in addition, the wind blew hard, and every apple was scalded on the windward side. There’s one thing about it — we don’t have to hurry pickin’ ‘em for fear of frost. I’ve seen apples hangin’ on the trees perfectly good at Christmas.”
“I was readin’ in the paper that Oregon apples beat the world,” remarked a man who had not spoken before.
“Oh, that ain’t so at all,” affirmed the teamster. “They don’t compare with those back in Michigan where I come from.”
“I don’t believe you’re a good judge,” the other retorted. “When a feller is young he has an appetite for fruit, and it never tastes the same afterward.”
“That ain’t the case with me,” responded the teamster. “I enjoy fruit as well as ever I did. When it comes to apples I’m like the boy that set out to eat a barrel of sugar. He e’t all he could and quit.”
“When I was a boy,” said the other, “it used to be a great thing to go off in the woods and have a chicken roast. Some of the boys would steal the chickens. If I’d done that and my father had found it out there wouldn’t have been enough left of me to tell the story. We used to take our own chickens. But I remember soon after I and my wife was married, two young brothers of hers come in one evening with some chickens they’d stolen and wanted ‘em cooked for them to have a picnic. ‘Boys,’ said I, ‘I’ll tell you right now you won’t get them chickens cooked in this house. You’ve stole ‘em and they may make you trouble. Best thing you c’n do is to say nothing to nobody and throw ‘em out over the back fence.’
“So that was what they did. Then they went home, and pretty soon I stepped out and picked up the chickens. They were dead, and there was no use o’ wastin’ ‘em, and my wife cooked ‘em. The boys ate some o’ those same chickens; but they never did know that the chickens wa’n’t ours. I’d learned ‘em a lesson. It I had let ‘em go on as they’d started there’s no knowin’ what they would have done later.”
“I wish business would pick up here,” said the landlady. “There’s nothing a-doing much in the woods since the timber cruisers got into trouble. They have been havin’ this racket over them a good while now. The government ain’t a-goin’ to allow them to be smugglin’ the forest any more, and that’s kind o’ stopped business a little bit. It wa’n’t many years ago this place supported six or seven saloons. Now it’s prohibition. Oh, it used to be a good deal more lively.”
“I can mention one thing we ain’t gone back much on,” said the landlady’s grandson who was sitting on an old sofa at the back of the room, “and that’s lodges. We’ve got the Masons, and the Odd Fellows, and Rebeccas, and Eastern Star, and Degree of Honor and Knights of Pythias, and Woodmen of the World, and two or three others. The people are kind o’ lodge crazy, and some belong to all the different lodges. We did have a grange, but the granges around here have all busted up.”
It was nearly nine o’clock, and the various members of the hotel gathering each took a candle and made their way upstairs to bed.
Out at the rear of the hotel a bell was suspended on a pole, and I was awakened by its rude jangling the next morning at a quarter to six. Fifteen minutes later it again rang to make certain that everyone in the hotel and in the village should know that breakfast was ready. When I went downstairs I met the landlady coming from the barn where she had just finished milking. The village was astir, and the smoke was rising lazily from home chimneys, and there were occasional passers clumping along on the board walks. The cows and horses were being turned loose to graze on the village streets and out into the surrounding forest.
By eight o’clock the schoolboys began to gather at the battered two-story schoolhouse, which was on the borders of the central village cluster. Apparently they wanted plenty of time to play baseball; for after a little loitering about the front steps, they resorted to a near common and a game was started. It was a large school, and rustic youths were plentiful, and the game was quite spirited. Nearly every boy wore overalls, and some came from home without their coats, and some were barefoot. I judged that as the season advanced they gradually shed their garments until they only retained the overalls and a shirt. A number of youths were reduced to those necessaries already. The orthodox head-covering was a straw hat with a broad brim that was rakishly turned up behind and down in front.
When school-time approached, girls became as abundant as the boys, but their attire was neat and pretty and was not at all suggestive of the barn and the fields as was that of the boys. It was a pleasure to see a village so teeming with children, and all of them so hardy and genuinely rural.
In the hamlet itself the men folks were now resorting to the post-office, and presently the stage came in. Then they got their mail and after more or less visiting dispersed, and the village settled down to its usual sleepy quiet. I went back into the country to have a look at the happy valley where all the land was superlatively fertile and all the buildings substantial and all the farmers rich. It was an attractive region, but after having heard it described so enthusiastically it hardly came up to my expectations.
What interested me most in my ramble was a man I encountered by the roadside splitting out “shakes.” The material he used consisted of sections of straight-grained fir about thirty inches long. These had been roughly split out of a large tree into squarish blocks six or seven inches through. He would set one up on end and with his frow and maul ream out the thin boards quite deftly and rapidly. These home-made shakes were a very common roofing on the farm buildings, especially the barns and sheds. Pine was the most desirable material, but not a great deal grew here, and the man had resorted to fir. The chief trouble with the latter was that in nailing it to the roof it had a tendency to check, and a good many pieces had to be thrown away on this account.
The man was elderly, and he had come to the region when it was new, over half a century ago. We got to talking, and pretty soon I sat down on his pile of shakes. Then he took out his pipe and after filling and lighting it seated himself on a log. “It was in 1853,” said he, “that I first saw this country. We’d come out here hunting for Oregon — that is, hunting for Oregon farmlands that were as good as we’d heard tell of. We were six months getting to the coast region from our old home. Now, you can step on a railway train and get here in less than six days. Look at the progress of the world, will you? I gosh! if a man had advocated building a railroad across them plains in those days they’d ‘a’ hung him. They wouldn’t ‘a’ believed it could be did.
“We had flint-lock guns. Then the cap-lock was invented, and the brich-loader; and it wa’n’t long before a man wouldn’t pick up a muzzle-loader if he saw one lying in the road. Muzzle-loaders shot good, but they were too slow. One man with a brich-loader was equal to twenty-five with the old-fashioned sorts.
“This country was all wilderness and Indians. The mountains was wooded, but the valleys was prairie. There was some large timber in the valleys, but no underbrush, and the land was covered with bunch grass that growed thick and tall and was the finest feed possible. You could turn out your horses in the fall and they’d find plenty to eat and would keep fat as hogs all winter. Oh, Lord, yes! But as time went on this country got to be heavily sheeped, and the sheep e’t off and tramped down the bunch grass till it was run out. The grass that’s took its place is pretty poor. In the summer, which is when we have our rainless season, things dry up and you got to feed your cattle and keep on feedin” ‘em straight through the fall and winter. If we have right early rains in the fall the grass may turn green a little, but it don’t make growth to amount to anything.
“You see lots o’ young trees growin’ everywhere the plough ain’t gone, and what I said about there bein’ so much prairie land don’t seem likely, does it? Well, I’ll tell yer — it’s a thing I kind o’ hate to mention because I’m afraid people’ll think I’m a liar — the reason of there bein’ grass instead of underbrush and thick forest was that the Indians set fires to keep the land clear and make good range for their ponies, and easy hunting.
“We took up a donation claim. All we had to do was to settle on the land, and it was ours. In a few years that was done away with and they substituted the homestead claim, and you had to pay something for your ranch. We put up a log house with a stick and clay chimney at one end. The boards for the floor we reamed out of four-foot cedar, and after bein’ laid we levelled them with an adz and plane. The doors had wooden hinges and latches that we made ourselves. Iron was expensive. Nails was two bits or more a pound, and we mostly got along without ‘em. For the roof, to save usin’ nails, we put on a pole over each course of shakes to fasten ‘em in place.
“Oh, the early settlers had it pretty tough. We talked a jargon that was got up for the Indians; and that was taught in the schools. I used to could speak that jargon better than I could English and we had an i-dea that was goin’ to be the standard language here in Oregon. Grazing was the principal business. The man with ten acres fenced had a big place. There was plenty of wildcats and panthers, and black and brown bears, and you can find a good many still back in the mountains. Coyotes are about the worst pest now, though I can’t say they’re so awful bad. They kill sheep and ketch turkeys and chickens and anything like that.
“We used to raise better wheat then than we can at present; but we didn’t have any of our modern machinery for handling it. We tramped the grain out with horses or cattle. We’d clear up a circle on the ground about thirty feet across, and some people would build a platform. Then around the outer part we’d lay a ring of sheaves with the butts inward. There were several ways to do the thrashing. Perhaps the commonest was for a feller to get on a saddle horse and lead another and go round and round over the grain. I’ve rode a horse like that a many a day thrashing. Sometimes a yoke of cattle would be driven around instead of horses. Often a post was set up in the middle of the circle with a long arm to it, and the horses hitched to the end of that and set to goin.’ From time to time we’d stop to turn the sheaves or to throw out the straw, rake the grain into a heap in the center of the circle and put down more sheaves to tramp.
“Now I’ve got to git to work, and I want twenty dollars from you. The information I’ve given is worth that, ain’t it?”
NOTE. — To see the Oregon farm country, probably one could not do better than to explore the Willamette Valley south of Portland. From the agricultural point of view this is a very attractive region and you will find much to please you in soil, crops, climate and people.
A very interesting freak of nature in the south-western part of the state is Crater Lake. Medford in the Rogue River Valley is the nearest railway station. The distance is 85 miles and the road fairly good. The round trip can be made by automobile in two days. The lake is over 6,000 feet above the sea among the heights of the Cascade Mountains, where it occupies the abyss 0f an extinct volcano. It is about 5 miles in diameter. Around it rises a perpendicular wall Of rock from 500 to 2,000 feet high. The lake is 2,000 feet deep. It has no visible inlets or outlets, but the water is fresh and pure, and of a wonderfully clear ultramarine hue. The volcanic cone of Wizard Island rises from the water to a height of 845 feet, and is a curious instance of a crater within a crater. There is a launch and rowboats on the lake, and the fishing is excellent. The district containing this lake has been set apart as a national park.
A hollow among the hills