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Fifty Years In Oregon

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Fifty Years in Oregon was written by Theodore T. Geer, a grandson of Joseph Carey Geer and a shirttail ancestor of ours.

I have put much of the book on this website. I started because several chapters describe the early roots of our family history in Oregon. I kept going because I found many of the chapters from this perspective on the early settlers and the history of Oregon to be quite interesting.

Table Of Contents

This book was originally published in 1912 by The Neale Publishing Co. If you are interested in a copy, search at Powell's Books.

Fifty Years in Oregon

BY T. T. Geer, formerly Governor of Oregon, and one of her native sons



From the foregoing brief account of the relation which the first Board of Trustees of the Willamette University bore to the subsequent political and material development of Oregon Territory, it will be seen that they were men of ability and of unusual energy, young, most of them, and dominated by the determination to accomplish definite objects. While conducting their personal lines of business they devoted much of their time to the demands of the new school, which was in that dangerous transition state from a mere Indian manual training institution, which had proved a signal failure, to the beginning of a great university, such as had been the ultimate dream of its founder, Jason Lee.

And the vision of its founder has literally come true. From the first, this pioneer institution has been a great factor in the educational development of the entire Northwest, many hundreds of the most prominent men and women of this region having at one time been students within its walls. Everyone of these has since been loyal to its needs and hopeful for its continued growth and usefulness. After nearly sixty years of activity in all that makes for better manhood and woman hood, in the meantime passing through many seasons of financial depression and encountering opposition in unexpected quarters, it is to-day on a better footing than at any other time in its long history. Several men of wealth have given endowments which, in the aggregate, afford substantial assistance, and still others are arranging to increase the present sum to a total amount which will end all anxiety with regard to finances.

Naturally, the opportunities afforded for education in every department of practical endeavor by the State University at Eugene and the Agricultural College at Corvallis have greatly increased the difficulties with which an institution like the Willamette University, depending solely upon private funds for its support, must contend, and for a time, just after these two State-supported schools began successfully to reach out over the State for their pupils, “Old Willamette” was sore pressed for the necessary means of support. Indeed, at that time and for some years afterward, its attendance had fallen off to such a degree that many of its old supporters feared that it might not be able to keep up the fight for existence. But fortunately it had a small regiment of loyal friends imbued with the spirit of old Father Waller – its indefatigable solicitor for funds for a third of a century – who, once enlisted in a fight, “stay put.”

In addition to this, it received further aid through the unusual fidelity of its Faculty, many of whom refused to accept their salaries, though little able to afford such a sacrifice, in order that the all-too-scant funds available might be applied to the payment of obligations demanding immediate settlement. Among these especially loyal friends should be mentioned Hon. Willis C. Hawley, at present the Representative of the First District in the lower house of Congress, who for several years was president of the University during its severest trials. His salary at one time was in arrears more than he would admit; but he maintained his position through it all and applied that indomitable energy, which is one of his characteristics, to gaining the victory that afterward came as a reward for unselfish devotion to a noble cause. And Mr. Hawley had several colleagues in the Faculty who manifested the same spirit of self-sacrifice.

When I entered the Willamette University in September, 1863, I was twelve years old and had for the two years previous attended what was known as the Central School, the two at that time being the only schools in all Salem – though “all Salem” at that time could claim but about twelve hundred people. There were two rooms in the Central building, one upstairs and one down. The principal was A. C. Daniels, an old fashioned pedagogue, whose chief characteristics, as I now remember him, were his uniform kindness, and uniform laziness, as manifested by the constancy with which he remained in the large swivel chair he occupied. He was also noted for his excellent penmanship. He could make “copy” for the writing class that would equal the best specimens of “store” copy to be found in the “boughten” books. I veritably believe that my failure to develop at any subsequent time a good “hand” was the direct result of the discouragement I felt when, in passing my desk occasionally in his search for evidences of mischief, he would volunteer to write me a “copy.” He did it with such ease and painful perfection that the contrast between my efforts and his was most depressing, and I was hindered from any possible development along that line. It seems to be one of the characteristics of our human nature that it detests a model which is super human. In other words, the “model man” is usually quite tiresome and is never required to feel the burden of an overwhelming popularity. The average man ad mires more the sort of good man whose excellent qualities he feels he can not only emulate but may possibly surpass. Give him that kind of a model and he feels that he can proceed hopefully, but with a “perfect man” perpetually before him as an example his hopes droop and his ambition withers. Many a man possessed with the highest purposes has failed as a husband because his wife has constantly held before his tired vision the numberless excellent qualities which her first husband radiated at all times as from a battery of concentrated perfection. Too much brilliancy dazzles and destroys.

However, typewriters have since been invented and I long ago forgave Mr. Daniels for his one fault. I never knew what became of him, but I was very much pleased to-day to discover among my old books a copy of Sargent’s Fourth Reader, on the fly-leaf of which is my name, written by Mr. Daniels, followed by the words: “Presented to him by his teacher, A. C. Daniels, May 2, 1862.”

This book, which was a favorite in the public schools at that time, would be a curiosity now if devoted to such purposes, since it contains nothing of a simpler nature than Cicero’s oration on the expulsion of Cataline, the great address of Samuel Adams in favor of American independence and Edmund Burke’s tribute to Marie Antoinette, in which he eloquently gives expression to his lament over the decline of chivalry. Incidentally, it contains Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and a liberal extract from an oration by a man named Webster in reply to some remarks by a Senator from South Carolina, called Hayne. The character of its contents is of the best, but somewhat heavy. It was given me, I presume, by reason of its having been the last of the spring term of school, and as a reward for the beautiful (?) deportment which had characterized me during that period.

I found between two leaves, about midway of the book, an old faded flower, doubtless placed there by me during that term of school, more than forty-nine years ago. It probably never has been exposed to the light in the interval. To be candid, I have given more time to thinking about this tiny reminder of the past than to either Webster’s speech on his father’s log cabin in the New Hampshire hills or to Cato’s message to Caesar, since it seems of vastly more importance-to me. I choose to believe that it was the gift of one of the many pretty girls who were pupils at that school, and I have found no difficulty in settling back in my chair, while the click of the typewriter ceases, and falling into a pleasant, half-sad reverie as I recall the faces of a dozen little beauties of about my age who were then on the verge of budding into young womanhood. This flower was the innocent gift of one of these; but whether the donor was Maggie, Alice, Julia or Lizzie – how shall I ever know? But as it would have made little difference then, so multifarious were the charms of the little tempters, and so free was I from showing any partiality to any one of the pretty members of the disturbing galaxy, it should not cause me any particular anxiety of mind now.

Nevertheless, when I closed the book a few moments ago and replaced it in the old-fashioned bookcase where many souvenirs of former times are stowed away, I carefully placed that flower where it has lain so long undisturbed, making certain that it had not fluttered to the floor, and I wondered where many of my intimate associates of that time are to-day.

The old Central School was a landmark in Salem’s history. Many of the poorer families sent their children there because they could not afford the higher rates charged at the Institute, but there were young men and women listed among its pupils who in after years rose to prominence in the affairs of the Northwest. Among the students during my attendance there was “Billy” Stanton, who was paralyzed from his hips down, and who traveled over town and to school in a three-wheeled wagon which he propelled with a crank. He attended school regularly, and it was a duty of two volunteers each morning to carry him up the stairs to the recitation room. Notwithstanding his affliction, he lived to be past fifty years old and enjoyed good health most of that time.

The Central building was used for school purposes until the summer of 1906, when a later generation committed an act of near-vandalism by selling the land on which it stood to the city for a site upon which to erect a modern brick high school building. This beautiful and imposing structure now graces (?) the spot where fifty years ago many of us had our introduction to spelling schools and their kindred agencies for social pleasures and educational improvement. The old Central itself was moved a block away and made to face Commercial Street, where it now serves as a hall for miscellaneous public gatherings, etc.

One frosty morning in January, 1891, when I was serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives, I took a stroll after breakfast down to the old Central, the first time I had seen the old architectural relic of former days in nearly thirty years. It was too early for books to be taken up, and a small regiment of boys and girls was engaged in playing “tag” – boys and girls that knew me not and cared not a whit who the stranger was that halted, apparently interested in their game. I believe I entertained a feeling of pity for the little brats, as they appeared to be having a good time when I knew very well that they were the victims of one of those illusions that really delude – for there was, in fact, nothing there to create any fun. I could not have been deceived about the matter for I was there and could see for myself. I could not deny the fact, proven before my eyes, that the human family is undoubtedly on the toboggan slide of retrogression, and that children are not what they were a generation before – for Billy and Sam, Jennie and Mollie, Kate and Jerome and many others, were absent. The play was a sham and a mockery. Sorry for them, I went within the old familiar door and ascended the winding stairs, down whose banisters I had slidden a thousand times – and they were the identical stairs and banisters, too, used in those days instead of the modern elevator. And do you ask if the girls resorted to the banisters for purposes of rapid transit? If so, please withdraw the inquiry, for some of those very girls are still living in this country and are inveterate readers of every book that is issued to the public! I went into the same old doorway and feasted my eyes on the old walls, windows, seats, ceiling and floor, for evidently there had been no change. The pedestal upon which Mr. Daniels sat in his swinging armchair remained intact, but it seemed less high from the floor, the room itself was smaller, and, in fact, the entire building seemed to have shrunk perceptibly since the days of its youth. My stay was brief, since the teachers had begun to arrive, and with an apology I withdrew, but I was more or less depressed all day as a result of my side-trip to the old Central, and frequently I found myself recalling some of the experiences there in former times while Barnes, of Wallowa, was explaining the great importance of his local road appropriation bill, or Glenn Holman was calling the roll and in thundering tones repeating the name of some sleeping member for the third time.

In later years, Salem’s population grew so rapidly that it was necessary to build modern and commodious school buildings. When it had provided four such in widely separated parts of the city the demand for a high school had arisen, and as there appeared no site so suitable for this purpose as that on which rested the old Central, it was selected.

But, notwithstanding the provision of the larger buildings, there was a continued need for the old standby, and it was occupied for school purposes during every school day for fully fifty years – until it was moved away in 1905.

Oh, the dear old school days! Who does not in after life, when he has a few moments respite from the multifarious cares which attend the adult man, confronted by the necessity of living, drift back to the time when he had for his playmates John and Fred, and Charles and Tom and Miles, when all responsibilities were resting upon older shoulders and every prospect was pleasing! At this moment, when I am recalling more vividly than for many years before the days when schoolbooks were regarded by us as a necessary evil and town-ball or “three-cornered cat” the ideal of earthly happiness, I bring to mind that first morning in May, 1861, when, a brand newcomer in Salem, my mother went with me to the Central School and introduced me to “Teacher.” It was in the middle of the spring term and the other children were acquainted with one another. Consequently I was eyed, and regarded, and measured and sentenced by my little fellows – not to a very hard experience, for we soon became good friends, and my new home, Salem, proved to be a veritable earthly paradise to me. We had moved there only a few days before, from Silverton, a village ten miles distant, and I had never seen Salem, though to do so had been my greatest desire. I was just ten years old and the opportunities to enlarge the range of my vision seemed boundless. Everything was new, and things were doing, for the town contained more than a thousand people.

There was the Willamette Woolen Mills in North Salem, the first manufacturing establishment of its kind in the entire Northwest, and thither I went when it was possible to get the privilege. There I soon became acquainted with Mr. Butts, a good old soul, who had charge of a spinning machine, which he sometimes made me believe I was running by ostensibly putting me in charge, though he was right at his post to see that nothing went wrong. But it served to arouse my ambition, and in a short time I begged my parents to allow me to quit school and get work in the woolen mills. With that inborn shortsightedness and narrow stubbornness with which the average parent is endowed, however, my father and mother failed to see the advantages of the proposition – plain to me as day – and I was compelled to pursue my studies.

And, then, there was Nicklin’s sawmill, located where Mill Creek emptied into the Willamette River – and where it still empties into the river, by the way – where great logs were being devoured by a fierce “up and down” saw. It was the first sawmill of any kind I had ever seen, and, if possible, its attractions were superior to those of the woolen mill – I suppose, as I regard the circumstance after the lapse of fifty years, because the saw mill was destroying things right and left, while the factory was perfectly tame in its results; I used to stand for an hour at a time and admire the head sawyer as, by the manipulation of a lever, he would reverse the direction traveled by the carriage, and by the rapid turn of a couple of wheels shove the log over and again start the carriage on its furious charge. I am sure that saw, as I remember it now, would eat its way through a log sixteen feet long in five minutes, and I was there and then convinced that the miracles I had been recently reading about for the first time in my Sunday-school class were not at all improbable! My school-books again became bare of interest and I saw nothing in the future so attractive as the position of head sawyer in a big sawmill, but I hesitated to bring the subject to the attention of my obdurate parents, and finally decided not to do it.

These two spurts of youthful ambition, thwarted in their initial appearance, occurred within the first month of my attendance at the Central School and the resultant. disappointment would perhaps have made a mental wreck of me, possibly have driven me to drink, had it not been that one day one of the prettiest little girls that ever wore a sunbonnet, arrayed in a pink calico dress – the pinkness has never been equaled by her sisters who have followed her – gave me at recess a bunch of snapdragons. The gift was accompanied by some sort of little expression, not verbal, to attempt to describe which would be an utter waste of time, but which nevertheless served to make me conscious of the grease and unpleasant odor which are always found in a wooden mill, and to emphasize the danger to life and limb which is unavoidably connected with the sawmill business. Incidentally, I have for fifty years been a great and confessed lover of snapdragons so much so that they always adorn my flower garden in lavish profusion, though the reason for my preference has never been explained in detail to the leading member of my domestic household.

But from that time forward the interest I took in the school was unquestioned in its genuineness. Not for any consideration would I miss a day in my attendance, and when soon afterward I was taken down with the measles, my mother said she never in all her born days saw a boy so attached to his books: I surely did reduce the days of absence from school to the minimum, so anxious was I to keep my place in my classes!

Bearing this little episode in mind, I am persuaded that the claim of Christian Science that one can dominate a disease by letting one’s thoughts have full sway in the right direction is not necessarily absurd, after all, – and that snapdragons have curative properties which should not be overlooked by the medical fraternity.


Next Chapter - Notes from Geer's years at Wilamette University where he was taught by Professor Grubbs, Professor L.J. Powell and others. Includes reminiscences of the great flood of 1861 as well as the murder trial of George Beale.


If you are interested in finding this book, Fifty Years in Oregon, it can often be located at Powell's Books in Portland which is one of the largest used book stores in the United States or, through the Alibris service which catalogs used books from stores across the country. For more information on the Geer Family, visit the Geer Family website. Other resources and references include:


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