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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



Perhaps in no county in Oregon has there been more bitterness injected into political contests or more lasting enmities caused by their outcome than in Union. And the origin of most of them lay in the county-seat contest, which began in 1872. In the session of the Legislature two years before, Hon. James Hendershott, then State Senator, secured the passage of a law providing for a vote on the re-location of the county-seat. It was the beginning of a contest longer drawn out and provoking more animosity than any other in the history of Oregon.

Upon the creation of Union County in 1864 by setting off the northern part of Baker, the county seat was located at La Grande, which is on the extreme western edge of the Grand Ronde valley, and therefore far from the center of population. But it was the largest town in the valley, was on the line of the stage coaches from Umatilla Landing to the Idaho mines, and was for that reason selected. But within a few years the town of Union, on the opposite side of the valley, which was also on the stage line and centrally located in a magnificent agricultural section, becoming ambitious, began clamoring for a vote on the re-location of the county seat. The unrest and aspirations of Union became contagious and the outcome of the agitation was the enactment of the enabling law referred to, which provided that at the Presidential election in November of that year a vote should be taken on the proposition, and that five towns, La Grande, Union, Cove, Island City and Summerville, should be candidates for the coming honor. If no one of these secured a majority of all the votes cast, a subsequent election should be held at which the two highest contestants should have a final tryout.

The outcome of the election gave La Grande the highest vote, but it was less than a majority. An interesting question here arose, however, as to which aspirant should be the second contestant. In the earlier days Cove was officially designated “Forest Cove,” but its name had been changed by the Post-Office Department to “Cove” in order to prevent the frequent miscarriage of letters in the mails resulting from the similarity of the names “Forest Cove” and “Forest Grove,”

But the change had not become familiar to some of the early settlers when the county-seat vote was taken, and in the returns there were six votes for “Forest Cove.” It happened that the vote between the Cove and Union was so close that the counting of these six votes for Cove would put that town in the second place; but if they were counted separately, it would give Union the privilege of contesting with La Grande. Naturally, it gave rise to much feeling, for it was soon discovered that all the Wilkinson family in High Valley, old settlers and numbering six voters, had inadvertently voted for “Forest” Cove. In the wrangle which at once arose between Union and Cove, the former, of course, insisted upon its rights according to a strict construction of the returns, but Cove proposed to contend for those six Votes, which were admittedly intended for itself though technically cast for another locality.

A meeting was held by the citizens of Cove to consider what was best to do and I was chosen to take up the legal phase of the matter with Hon. James H. Lasater, of Walla Walla, all the lawyers of Union County at that time residing in La Grande. I had attended school under Mr. Lasater in Silverton when but nine years old, and had known him later quite intimately. He counseled acquiescence in the returns as shown on their face, stating that the outcome of the suit would be uncertain, and that it would certainly be expensive, so the matter was dropped and the second election gave the decision to Union. Had those six votes for “Forest” Cove been counted for Cove, it would have put that place in the contest against La Grande, and it would without doubt have been chosen the county-seat. This would have surely affected materially the political history of Union County, as well as the public careers of many of its prominent citizens, for in the forty years following men have been voted up and voted down and voted out with a beautiful disregard for fitness or political affiliation – the all-important question being as to their stand on the fight between Union and La Grande. For thirty-five years it raged with relentless fury, and after the first steps were taken ‘way back in the early days, boys were born, grew to manhood, became candidates for office and were slaughtered, whether Republicans or Democrats, sickened, died and passed to their reward – but the old fight kept up with unabated interest and with frequent stiletto thrusts, followed by telling results.

Southeast of the town of Union is what has long been known as the “Panhandle,” a narrow strip of country which runs out into the Cornucopia Mountains, forty miles away, and which geographically belongs to Baker County, but its attachment to Union County upon its creation had given to Union its political strength, or, rather, its balance of power in the struggle for the retention of the county-seat. For years, efforts were made to have it joined to Baker County, as most of the people, when obliged to go to Union on business of any kind, went to Baker City, left their teams there and went to Union by train. It was held that, since a trip to Union necessitated going through Baker, they might as well belong to that county and save this extra travel.

But the change was always stubbornly resisted by Union, for obvious reasons. At the legislative session of 1901, however, a bill for that purpose was passed after a most bitter contest. It was fathered by Senator William Smith, of Baker, and the opposition was led by Senator Wade, of Union. It had passed the House without being seriously contested, it being the intention of the Union people to center their efforts upon killing the measure in the Senate. On the morning of the day upon which it had been made a special order, Senator Smith came into my office and said he had heard that I intended to do what I could to defeat the “Panhandle” bill in the Senate. I assured him that such report was entirely unfounded, that I intended to keep my hands off the contest, it being a local measure, and that the winning side might rest assured that no executive veto would interfere with the result of the final vote. Senator Smith went away saying that that was all he asked.

Within an hour Senator Wade entered my office in a somewhat excited state of mind and said the report had reached him that I intended to assist the Baker County people in their effort to wrest the “Panhandle” from his county, upon which I gave him the same assurance I had extended to Senator Smith – which was perfectly satisfactory to him.

After a debate which consumed much of the forenoon, the vote was taken and Baker County won the “Panhandle.” Personally, I regretted the result, since I had been so closely connected with the people of Union in my boyhood days, but it was not a case where there would be any justification for interference and I permitted the law to stand.

A strong effort was made, however, by the people of Union to induce me to veto the measure, and they secured a large petition – signed, it was said, by many citizens of the Panhandle – but as my stand had been taken and assurance given to the contrary, it was impossible to comply with their request.

Six years after this episode, I was a candidate before the people under the direct primary law for the Republican nomination for Governor, and came within some two hundred and fifty votes of winning it. A more complete scanning of the vote cast after the different counties were heard from by precincts disclosed the interesting, as well as significant, fact that of the two precincts in the town of Union, the Republicans had cast about one hundred and fifty votes, and but three of them had been given to me! Always before, when candidate, I had received practically the unanimous support of the Union Republicans, which, if accorded me on the occasion referred to, would have given me the nomination for Governor.

Immediately after the passage of the “Panhandle” bill, a vote was taken upon the re-location of the county-seat in Union County, and La Grande won it from Union by quite a decided majority. So far as I can see, that solar plexus I received at the hands of Union was the last exhibition of the bitterness which had been raging in that county for thirty-five years as to the location of the county-seat.

Union is a beautiful little city, in the midst of one of the best agricultural sections in the West, has a splendid water power, vast timber resources, a fine lot of people of the substantial pioneer stock and is progressing rapidly in its development – even without the county capital, and the rest from an eternal wrangle which it is enjoying hath its compensations which are not to be despised.

But a county-seat contest is surely noted for its vitality. It has a faculty of staying “put.” It usually has nine lives, and one never knows when it is loaded.


Next Chapter - Political campaigns of Union County in the early 1870s were lively with the likes of James Hendershott, Sam Hannah and others.


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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