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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



In the spring of 1861, my father sold his place in Silverton to Ai Coolidge, who owned it and made it his home until his death, less than one year ago; it is still owned by his daughter. This was a great event in my life, at the time, one full of joyful anticipations but tinged, withal, with a pang of sorrow — a small sorrow it must have been, but I was a small boy, and it was as difficult to bear as if it had been a larger disappointment to be borne by a full-grown man.

This change of residence cruelly severed the ties I had formed with the children of Silverton, among whom was a pretty little miss of eleven summers, with rosy cheeks, curly brown hair and killing eyes. This little creature had completely won my heart, and in the midst of it all I was about to be ruthlessly transplanted to what seemed to me a land of exile! It was at the very time of the firing on Fort Sumter and the different States were not only “dissevered, discordant and belligerent,” but the land was being “drenched in fraternal blood.” I can remember how men were troubled and excited, but I could not understand that there was any cause for sorrow, when, so far as I knew, none of them had recently been separated, as I was about to be, from the only object on earth that could give any interest to life.

We were to start about ten o’clock, and as it was not far to the schoolhouse, I stole away, picked one of the prettiest wild rosebuds that I could find, and intercepted the little beauty — who shyly confessed herself a little disturbed at the turn of affairs — and with immeasurable sorrow, tempted by my joy in meeting her, gave her the rosebud and tearfully hurried away. I had just reached the tender age of ten years, and had no doubt I was undergoing extreme anguish; but so great were my recuperative powers that within three weeks my bereavement was forgotten and I was again basking in sunshine and roses. The last I heard of my youthful charmer she was living on a sheep ranch in Idaho, the mother of eleven children, and was doing as well, perhaps better, than if my father had remained in Silverton.

In 1854, W. K. Smith, a druggist and today a well-known capitalist of Portland, had the only store in his line of business in Salem. He had then been there one year and was making so much money that an opposition company was formed, of which the late General C. A. Reed was the leading member. They erected a two-story frame building on the east side of Commercial Street and at the north end of the bridge which crosses South Mill Creek, or “Battle Creek.” Within one year, however, the new firm sold its stock to W. K. Smith, building and all. Smith’s store had been located one block west of this point, where, indeed, all the first buildings erected in that part of Salem were located. As the town grew toward Commercial Street, he concluded to move his storeroom around on a lot he owned immediately opposite where the Willamette (now the Marion) Hotel has been for the last thirty-five years. By the time he had reached the west side of Commercial Street, however, the men in charge had broken every available rope in Marion County. Smith made a trip to Portland after a chain, but not finding one sufficiently strong, he bought the lot on which he had met defeat and rested from his labors permanently. He was selling goods en route, however, and after buying out the opposition, transferred the stock to his own store.

This two–story house which was built for Reed is standing today, and is still occupied, being among the oldest in Salem. It was into this house — the upper story — that we moved upon reaching Salem, the first floor being occupied by B. M. DuRelle, owner of the steam sawmill in Salem, which was entirely washed away in the following December. The first night in Salem, I staid with my Grandfather Eoff in the old Bennett House, as he was a member of the jury and was spending the week there.

Although I had been born near Salem and had reached the age of ten years, I had never been there; the trip to Portland had been such a concession to my ambition that I had not had the courage to mention my longings to see the State capital. But here we were, and to remain permanently. My heart was satisfied, and the boundless opportunities for sightseeing occupied all my waking hours, which at this time were about eighteen out of the twenty-four. The next Sunday, my sister and I were sent to the Methodist Sunday school. My mother was a member of the Christian Church, but the Methodists had the largest school and it was convenient. I had never before been to Sunday school, since Silverton had not yet reached the stage of development which demanded such an institution.

I well remember that David Rutledge was the Methodist pastor at that time and Thomas H. Crawford, yet living and until recently the secretary of the Board of Regents for the Oregon Agricultural College, was the superintendent. The latter led in the singing, which I thought was as near perfection as could be expected this side of the New Jerusalem, of which I had heard some accounts more or less satisfactory even then. There was a sort of drill in the singing of the principal song, and though it is exactly fifty years this month since that practice, so impressed was I with the splendor of the surroundings and the novelty of the delightful experience, that I have never forgotten the words of the first verse, which were:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

It was great. We went home, after becoming members of the children’s class, with a lesson of ten verses, which we were to commit to memory for recital on the next Sunday. Before night of that same day, we had them all down “pat,” and recited them at home at least twenty-five times every day during the ensuing week. The first of these verses was: “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me.” The lesson was somewhere in St. John, I remember, but have forgetten the chapter. (It would, perhaps, be a good exercise for the reader to look it up.)

That summer, as already observed, I attended the Central School and my father built a home on Commercial Street nearly opposite where the Willamette Hotel now stands. In the fall, he bought the apples, on the trees, in the orchard belonging to George H. Jones, one of the pioneer settlers in Salem, and, by the way, it was one of the first orchards planted in the State. Associated with him in this enterprise was Samuell Headrick., soon afterward elected sheriff of Marion County, and a son of a well-known pioneer family on Howell’s prairie. They gathered the apples, packed them and shipped them to the San Francisco market. They made some money out of the undertaking, but my clearest impression of it all was that perhaps no more disagreeable work can be devised than gathering apples on such wet, foggy mornings in November as are sometimes known in the Willamette valley — especially if you are a ten-year-old boy, compelled to engage in it, and with other “stunts” in view, as I had, offering a far more attractive outlook.

Some time in the early spring of 1862, my father went to the mines in British Columbia, drifting from there into eastern Oregon and Idaho, and my mother, with my brother and sister, went to California to live. She and my father never saw each other afterward, though they both lived to be seventy-five years of age. It is not a subject to be discussed here, save as it is necessary to refer to it in explanation of the conditions by which I was often confronted. It is sufficient to say that one was no more to blame than the other and that there was nothing which could not have been removed by the exercise of a little diplomacy — but they were far apart, and no serious attempt at reconciliation was made. It was a great misfortune for them both and it fell heavily on me, as I was but eleven years of age at the time and, with neither home nor parents within a thousand miles, was thrown entirely on my own resources.

I lived with my Grandfather Eoff on his farm, seven miles east of Salem, from the spring of 1862 until September of the following year, when my father returned to the Willamette valley and made arrangements, as I have already said, for me to enter the Willamette University. I had then not seen him for more than eighteen months, nor had I seen my mother for a year. Indeed, I did not see her again until the summer of 1885, twenty-three years later, when she made a visit to my home in the Waldo Hills, though we maintained a correspondence during all that time.

Like a great majority of miners, my father had not succeeded very well and consequently could not afford to pay for my board; as a result I was to do “chores” and render assistance in various ways to offset my “keep.” By dint of much maneuvering I managed to remain in school until the spring of 1865, eighteen months, when I was compelled to abandon further efforts in that direction and to go to work for a living — at fourteen years of age.

I began my school experience in September, 1863, by boarding at the home of Sam Headrick, just mentioned, a very close friend of my father. It was a very agreeable place to stay, but he made a change in his housekeeping affairs in the spring of 1864, having been elected sheriff of Marion County, and I was thrown upon my own resources. By the assistance of Daniel Jones, another Silverton friend, I found a place in a restaurant conducted on Commercial Street by a man named Chase. Mr. Jones, who had a tailor shop, allowed me to sleep on and under two pairs of blankets under the counter of his shop, but I had no sooner become settled in my new position — and my blankets — than Chase failed in business and his establishment was closed.

Upon this sudden change in affairs, I thought I had reached the end of my rope in my effort to continue in school, and was seriously considering the necessity of returning to the country and working for my grandfather when “Walt” Smith, a merchant who had a few years before worked for my uncle Ralph Geer on his farm in the Hills, offered me a place in his home until I could find another. By this time, I was attending school in Professor L. J. Powell’s department, and to him I told my troubles, adding that I feared I would have to abandon altogether my struggle for an education. To this he seriously objected, saying that I could come to his home and work for my board until I could secure a permanent place. This I did, remaining until the middle of the winter of 1864, when his wife became ill and I was compelled to move again.

Luckily, at this point Mr. Jones, to whom I went with all my disappointments, said he felt certain he could find me a good home with George Beale, who kept a saloon on the corner where the Willamette Hotel now stands, as he had heard him say he wished he could get a boy to do the chores around the house, being away much of the time.

This proved an ideal place to live. There was little to do and there were no children. But, alack and alas! I had been there but a couple of months when he was arrested on a charge of murder, found guilty, and paid the penalty on the gallows.

Balked again in my pursuit of knowledge, I decided I would call it a bad job all around and go to work. And why not? The fates seemed against me at every turn. Every time I found a place to stay, the man of the house either failed in business, changed his vocation, moved away or was hanged; so I hied myself to the country, rolled up my sleeves and worked a full year for my board and clothes at the home of my cousin Cal Geer in the Waldo Hills. At the end of the year, I agreed to work four months for another cousin, L. B. Geer, for a four-year-old mare valued at one hundred dollars.

When this contract was fulfilled in the fall of 1866, my father had concluded to get married again and to locate in the Cove, a most attractive place on the east side of the Grand Ronde valley, which was then beginning to be settled. Having decided to enter the nursery business, he wrote to me of his plans, matrimonial and otherwise, and requested me to make arrangements to live with him. He wanted me to secure a large quantity of apple and pear seeds, as well as roots for grafting. After having employed a month at this task, just before Christmas, 1866, I bade farewell to boyhood scenes and friends and, with an enormous trunk full of fruit seeds and roots, left for my new home in a new country in eastern Oregon.

It will be well to devote a page or two to that trip from Salem to Grand Ronde Valley in 1866 as affording a lesson to those who are too prone to conclude that “the old times” are the best times, and that the condition of mankind is now less conducive to comfort than formerly. Let us see how it is by contrast.

I left Salem one morning before daylight on a steamboat for Portland, and it required all day and until after dark to reach that city. The only other way to make the journey was by stage, which required fully as much time and cost more. The next morning I started for The Dalles by boat and did not reach that place until dark. The third day, long before daylight, I boarded a portage railroad that ran to Celilo, some fifteen miles up the river, at which place we arrived while it was yet dark. Here we boarded a waiting steamboat and traveled all day to reach the Umatilla Landing and there we remained all night. The fourth day, starting long before it was light, we reached by stage what was called the Twelve Mile House before breakfast. It was bitterly cold and, by the time we reached the station, my feet were nearly frozen.. My good Aunt Mary Geer had given me several extra pairs of new socks which she herself had knit, insisting that when I began my stage journey in “that dreadfully cold country,” I should put on two pairs of them. This I did that morning at the Landing, and it was all I could do to pull my boots on over them. Of course, the result of this was that the cold was doubled in its effect and, by the time, we had traveled half the distance to the station I was in danger of having frozen feet. The driver declared it impossible to take off my boots in that sort of a storm, so I endured my misery until we arrived at the inn. Here, it was not long until I had stripped my feet to one pair of socks, and my first lesson in dressing for cold weather was learned.

We crossed the Umatilla River where the city of Pendleton now stands, but there was nothing there then but a stage station and a toll-bridge. At sundown, we reached Warm Springs, since known as Bingham Springs (I believe it is the same place). The next morning, we passed over the Blue Mountains, through Summerville, and soon after noon reached Hendershott’s Point, my destination, December 23.

As will be seen, this trip occupied nearly five days and parts of two nights and was attended with much discomfort, besides costing fully three times as much as the fare now charged in a luxurious Pullman coach. One can leave Salem, in these “degenerate” days, in the afternoon and arrive at La Grande within twelve hours from Portland!

“Do the world move?” It do — and in the right direction. Though at times, it is conceded, the progress is somewhat slow, it is getting there all the time!


Next Chapter - The Civil War sparked many disagreements among the boys of Salem as they formed their own militia, armed with wooden muskets.


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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