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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


Chapter XXXV

The Union County pioneers in these latter years have their annual meetings, at which they take the same pleasure in recounting their early experiences and hardships as do those of western Oregon who crossed the Great Plains in the 1840s. And, indeed, they should, for their privations, in a sense, were similar to those of their predecessors two decades before. In 1860, Union County was as near being in a “state of nature” as Marion County was twenty years before. It is true hat it was possible to obtain the necessaries of life in those days, if one had the means, but the majority of the people were very poor; coming generally from the Mississippi Valley, they arrived with little money and lad a full year to struggle before any returns could be expected.

I remember that for several years sugar and nails were selling for sixteen cents a pound — six pounds for a dollar being the fixed price. The result was, of course, that sugar was used very sparingly. The only fruits growing wild were gooseberries and elderberries. The exorbitant price of sugar made the cooking of gooseberries almost an impossibility, except to such scions of the rich as had drifted into the country, but elderberries were in great demand, especially during harvest time.

Let not the epicure elevate his nose at the mention of an elderberry pie, for I well remember that at those harvest dinners, where the men had appetites like a circular saw, the struggle for a piece of pie was worth seeing. The demand was greater than it was always possible to supply from the scattering bushes to be found, and there was no other pie to be had. Besides. a pie made from elderberries, liberally seasoned with spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, cream, butter, lemon, orange peel, cloves and sweet cider, well cooked and not too many berries used, makes a very good substitute for a better one, the only drawback being the number of seeds (unless one uses the berries sparingly) and the circumstance that they have a very insipid taste anyway.

In the mountains, however, huckleberries grew to perfection in many sections and parties were frequently formed for the purpose of making raids on this delicious fruit, joining the pleasure of an outing with the more practical result of securing food for the winter larder.

For two years after my marriage, in 1870, I bought what coal-oil I used of the local merchant and always carried it home in a quart bottle, the same bottle each time, and paid thirty-seven and one-half cents for it. This was at the rate of seven dollars and fifty cents for a five-gallon can! The fact was that coal-oil was so very expensive that we always did our reading by the light of pine knots, which were saved up for that purpose. In the winter of 1869-70, I read all of Josephus’ works and the whole of the Old Testament by this sort of light, and, not expecting anything better, was quite content.

When company came to spend the evening, a requisition was made on the coal-oil bottle and the additional illumination of the house seemed like a bonfire. However, I can well remember that when we lived in Silverton we made all our candles from tallow, “run” in a set of molds which turned out a dozen at a time. I recall, also, the first sperm candles I ever saw. My father, on his return from one of those wonderful trips to Salem — it always seemed to me that he had been to and returned from fairyland — brought with him a box containing six dozen sperm candles. These were used only when we had company, and if one of them was employed to light the room during the progress of the evening meal, the novelty of the situation was sufficient to take away the appetite of my sister and myself, so content were we in admiring the magnificent spectacle. Indeed, if we had used sperm candles regularly, we would have been talked about by the whole neighborhood as scandalously extravagant and intolerably “stuck up!”

Conditions were so primitive in Union County for several years after I went there that very few men could afford to own a good wagon. A man came from Iowa in 1872, bringing with him a new Studebaker wagon, which excited the envy and admiration of every one. Practically all the wood used in the Cove for the first ten years after its settlement was hauled from the adjacent mountains by the use of the two hind wheels of a wagon. At that time dead pine trees were to be found standing in the woods everywhere and they made the very best of fuel. A man would take his two wheels, with a false tongue attached, go into the mountains when the snow was a foot deep, or any other sufficient depth, and by “skidding” one end of a log two feet through and sixty feet long on to the axle, easily pull it to his farm, no matter how far away it was, since the Grand Ronde valley is shaped like a basin and every farm in it is lower than the nearest timber line. In those days a man could easily secure enough wood of the best quality, by making a few trips to the mountains, a few miles distant, to answer all purposes for a year.

There were many farmers who did all their “teaming” on the two-wheeled affair I have described. I myself had been married several years and was the proud father of two children before I invested in a wagon of any kind. I had an opportunity to trade a horse for a wagon with four wheels (!). It had been driven across the plains the year before from Missouri, and had seen hard service there since the days of Tom Benton. The wheels were “dished,” each after a plan of its own, and the tracks they left in the road so little resembled parallel lines that an attempt to follow them for a mile would produce an incurable case of cross-eyes. Nevertheless, the wheels would revolve and couldn’t get off the axles, so the relic proved a mighty good servant and I was extremely proud of it, although I remember that when I took my family to church the next Sunday after the memorable purchase I was ashamed to face the crowd which always remains outdoors at a country church until the singing commences, in order that nothing may escape its observation. I knew my step upwards in the line of material progress would cause general comment, and from that I modestly shrank. I had made a “buckboard” out of two planks, each a foot wide and upon these my wife and I sat with our feet dangling in the air, with our backs to each other — she holding the two babies and I driving the team. It was a distinct triumph over the distressing poverty which had until hen hampered me, and after I had once faced my neighbors, I found it easier to appear in company with a vehicle having four wheels in evidence.

The first summer I was in the Cove, I867, my father “hired me out” to a Mr. McLaughlin, who owned a sawmill on Mill Creek, two miles away. We had moved on a piece of land consisting of forty acres, perfectly new, and had obtained the lumber for a very cheap house from Mr. McLaughlin, agreeing to pay for the greater part of it as we could. It was partly to discharge this obligation that I became his helper for a couple of months. It was the only sawmill within a distance of ten miles and the only one of its kind on the Pacific Coast — I should hope. It was driven by an “overshot” wheel twenty-four feet in diameter and thirty inches in width, which required three minutes to make one revolution, and the machinery was so geared up that every time the wheel revolved once the sashsaw would be raised and lowered at least ten times. The cog gearing was made of fir blocks and would wear out after one week’s service, necessitating the replacing of one every hour or two, while the only belt was the one reaching to the drum to which the sash was attached. This belt, made of cow skins, with the hair still on one side, would stretch to such an extent that when we were not making a new block for a cog we were taking up the slack. We made a new one one day which measured forty feet. The first afternoon we used it we cut out a surplus foot four times, and by the time it was worn out — it lasted a week — we had fifty feet of surplus hide and still forty feet of belt. There was no waste material about the mill anywhere!

My special task in this work was to “offbear” the mill’s output, to do which, however, was not difficult. The logs were delivered on a hillside just above the mill by a team of oxen, and we could easily saw one every half-day. When we wanted a new log, we cleared the mill of all obstructions and removed the “chunk” which retained the “boom” on the hillside. This done, the log would surrender to the law of gravitation and with great velocity roll into the mill, usually taking its place on the carriage without assistance. In fact, the speed made by the logs in this operation was the only rapid motion ever seen about the mill, and was an event to which we looked forward twice a day with great interest.

But the one feature about that mill which I enjoyed to the full was the progress of the carriage, as it pushed the log into that saw. It was a constant struggle as to which would surrender. Sometimes the saw would give up, and as the carriage endeavored to proceed against the dead saw, the mill would shake and tremble for a moment and all motion would cease, while the water would pour over the stationary wheel until the extra force would cause the belt to slip, when the wheel would turn half over, empty out its buckets and again come to a standstill. Sometimes a cog in the carriage gearing would break while the saw was savagely eating its way through a pine knot and, having no resistance, the remaining machinery would virtually run away with itself until the excited “foreman” succeeded in shutting off the water. Oh, there were times when things were exciting in that old mill!

But when everything was running smoothly it was great fun. Having set the log and started the works going, there was a good long rest in store until the saw reached the further end. There was nothing unseemly about the gait of the carriage. It was deliberate a part of the time. With the screws turned, the “dogs” firmly driven in and the water turned on, as soon as the big wheel became filled, the picnic began. Mr. McLaughlin was a devoted reader of the Weekly Oregonian, and after he had satisfied himself that the belt was not going to slip on that trip, he would settle himself on the log and begin reading one of Mr. Scott’s editorials, for which he had great admiration. Sitting on a gunny sack filled with straw, which he used as a cushion, his happiest moments I am sure were those which found him deeply buried in the columns of the Oregonian, the music of the saw, mingling with the splash of the pouring water, indicating to his subconscious mind that all was well, that the gait he was traveling was not transcending the speed limit, and that sometime before dinner there would be another contribution to the world’s lumber supply.

Of course, in a mill of this character, it was utterly impossible to saw lumber accurately. Nearly all planks which were intended to be an inch thick were two inches at one end and a half inch at the other — often a mere feather in the middle. For this reason the house we built was a foot wider at one end than at the other and was narrower in the middle than at either, and for the same reason we had great difficulty in making a roof that would force the water to run from its comb to the eaves.

One day a cottonwood log was brought in from the woods and Mr. McLaughlin concluded that, as it was soft material, it would be a good thing to saw it up into thin stuff, a half-inch thick, to be used probably for making boxes of some sort. This was done, or rather, attempted. On account of the uncertain “cut” of the saw, it usually used up an inch of material as it went hammering its way through a log, and to get a half-inch board from this process was not only a fearful waste of raw material, but the precise result to be obtained was a matter for the wildest conjecture. However, we sawed up that cottonwood log, three feet in diameter, got seven thin boards — and a wagonload of sawdust. I stacked them out in the sun in a loose pile to season, and within three days they had warped themselves out of the lumber yard and were found in a neighbor’s corral, a mile down the creek!

In 1870, Mr. McLaughlin sold his mill and moved to the Willamette valley, settling on the Abiqua, near Silverton, where he died soon afterward. Two years ago, when on a visit to the Cove, I sauntered across to the old mill site, but there’s no sign anywhere that there was ever a mill there — that the hum and buzz of a great manufacturing establishment ever disturbed the local quiet by its sporadic efforts to supply the local market with local produce. All was changed and there was in the place of the old mill a pretty garden in front of a cozy cottage, with two children playing where the logs used to rumble down the hillside.

And while I sat on an old pine stump which had been bereft of its top, doubtless in answer to the demands of McLaughlin’s mill, and indulged in a half-hour’s reverie of my own, I remembered that I was some forty years older than I had been “once upon a time.”


Next Chapter - Early Oregon politics with the vote to transfer the Union County panhandle to Baker County.


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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