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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



I have referred to the construction of the Mt. Fanny Mill in the Cove during the summer and winter of 1866, with S. G. French and Henry & Hailey as owners. Mr. French, a wealthy member of an old New Jersey family, came West in 1862 because of failing health. Drifting to the Cove, the picturesqueness of the locality at once appealed to him and he settled there, acquiring a large body of highly fertile land. He at once stocked it with horses and cattle and until his death, twenty years later, was one of the wealthiest men in Union County and one of the most valuable as a contributing factor to its material progress. A devout Episcopalian, he built and endowed a church at the Cove, furnished a rectory, secured a minister from the East and established a school. His health continued to fail by degrees, however, and he passed away in the ‘80s bearing the respect and esteem of all the people in the Grand Ronde valley.

As his partners in the building of the Mt. Fanny Mills he associated himself with two men from Missouri, brothers-in-law to each other – Dave Henry and “Old Man Hailey.” They were very illiterate men, but had a small fortune which they had amassed by the practice of the greatest frugality (frugality is a very charitable word to use in this connection as to their habits). They had been slaveholders in Missouri and had brought with them to Oregon two or three negro women who were their housekeepers.

As an instance as to how they probably made their fortune, it may be noted that in the summer of 1869 Mr. Henry wanted a milk-house built near his house on the bank of Mill Creek, where the road crossed it leading to the mill. He asked me one day if I would like to undertake the job, explaining the size and plan he desired, and I told him I could accommodate him. I made out the bill of lumber and told him the number of pounds of nails it would probably require.

“But,” said he, “can’t you make a house like that without nails ?”

“Not very well,” I replied.”How could I build it without nails ?”

“Take a brace and bit and use pins to hold it together – wooden pins,” he said. “I have built many a hog-pen in Missouri with pins. There is no use of wasting money on these jerkwater storekeepers who charge sixteen cents a pound for nails when pins will do as well.”

“But,” I remonstrated, “it will take me twice or three times as long to make it with pins as with nails, and it will cost more than to pay even sixteen cents a pound for nails.”

“Can’t you bore holes and make pins?” he inquired with increased brusqueness.

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, I’ll get the lumber here tomorrow and you come next day and go to work. You will at least earn your money, and these jerkwater counter-jumpers only get deeper into your pocket all the time.”

Accordingly, I made his milk-house without a nail, and while it never shone very conspicuously as an architectural attraction, it stood there for many years – gradually showing its independence of the laws of symmetry. But the pins held the contrary walls together long after the plain evidences of their disagreement were visible at a distance of a half-mile.

A few years afterward Henry & Hailey sold out all their holdings in the Grand Ronde valley and moved away, nobody ever seemed to know where. Mr. French bought their half-interest in the mill, as it was evident there was no congeniality between himself and his partners.

The beautiful peak on the summit of the mountain range east of the Cove is called “Mt. Fanny” in honor of Mrs. Fanny McDaniels, one of the first women to settle in the Cove in 1862 – and the first white woman to reach its summit, which she did in June, 1863.

Like most other early settlements on the Pacific Coast, the Cove had for its pioneers an unusually active and public-spirited set of men. Among them I desire to mention M. B. Rees, Fred Shoemaker, L. R. Bloom, A. C. Smith, Fred Mitchell, James Cochran, James Hendershott, F. W. Duncan, Thomas Babington, Samuel D. Cowles, E. P. McDaniels, Otho Eckersley, John Phy, Dunham Wright, Ed Payne, and a score of others deserving of notice, constituting a working force seldom equaled in any community new or old. All these men were there and actively engaged in business when I went, and though I was but a boy fifteen years of age, they welcomed me, each in his way, with cordiality. To many of them I shall always owe a debt of gratitude for the help and encouragement they extended. As in most new communities, there were debating schools, spelling schools, singing schools, writing schools, dancing schools, entertainments and other social attractions that often, in the winter, occupied every night in the week.

Those were the years when the Idaho mines, Rocky Bar, Owyhee, Bannock, Silver City, Mormon Basin and many others, were in their prime as producers, and men who spent their summers there would come to Grand Ronde valley for the winter. Many of these were young men who had an abundance of money with which to gratify their inclination for social pleasures, and from the time of their arrival, usually in November, until the snows were sufficiently melted for mining in the spring, generally the first of April, “things were doing” in a social way in the Cove. If there had been ten nights in the week, all would have been used in “passing the time away.” Money was no object. Preachers, “fiddlers,” dancing teachers, etc., received for their pay practically as much as they asked. There was more snow in those days than now, it seems, and sleigh-riding was one of the favorite pleasures. I remember one winter when there were six weeks of sleigh-riding, without a semblance of a thaw, and as there were no regular “cutters,” the ingenuity of men and boys was taxed to the utmost in the construction of sleighs, sleds, “bobs” and other freaks that would slide over the snow and hold up from one to twenty-five people.

Of course it was not always smooth sleighing. They were frequently breaking down on account of the rough condition of the roads, and the horses used were practically all “cayuses” secured from the Indians, or their progeny of the first generation – in either of which cases the spirit of the Evil One was always in control. They were noted for their habit of running away without provocation, or suddenly taking a notion to “go across lots” with the utmost indifference to the wishes of those whom they were supposed to be serving.

I remember that in the spring of 1867, when the “boys” had departed for the mines after a most strenuous winter of good sleighing, for five miles square in the Cove the fence corners, ridges, gulches, cross-roads and byways were so strewn with wrecked sleighs (and their namesakes) that several families got together their next winter’s firewood by gathering up the debris. It looked as though an Iowa cyclone had been taking liberties with a million-dollar lumber yard.

In the fall of 1867, the older residents and permanent settlers of the Cove organized a debating society which tackled without the slightest hesitation the discussion of many of the great questions then engrossing the attention of the country, and it is not straining the fact very much-not more, indeed, than facts are accustomed to being strained – to say that several of the speakers had as clear a view of what was best to be done, and expressed themselves quite as well, as many members of Congress – and that is not conferring upon them any special encomium either.

Of these men M. B. Rees was perhaps the best informed. He was especially well read in political and religious matters and was a good speaker. His one prominent characteristic was his fondness for disputing and his impatience of opposition. Having formed his conclusion as to a subject, he thought that every other man who had access to the same source of information should know enough to arrive at the same decision. And this, after all, does not differ very much from the position of most of us, after we have been dissected intellectually by competent authorities.

Rees was very critical as to the proper use and pronunciation of words, and never hesitated to pounce upon an offender at the time the crime was committed. I found this a great help to me, as it was to others, though many took offense at his tendency without realizing its actual benefit. He and I were seldom in conversation five minutes without having recourse to the dictionary, and the encounter generally served to steer us permanently from the question originally under consideration. When, after ten years, I returned to the Willamette valley I wrote Rees a letter, and as a postscript inquired how he and the dictionary were getting along since I had come away. In his reply, after writing of other matters, he said:

“As to the dictionary, after wrestling with it for fifteen years and always yielding to its arbitrary notions, I have decided that since nine times out of ten the d––– thing differs from me, I will have nothing more to do with it.”

M. B. Rees is still living on his fine farm in the Cove, which has been his home for nearly fifty years, and is enjoying life at the age of eighty as a sage and philosopher should.

Another leading citizen of the Cove in the early ‘60s was A. C. Smith, a man of very positive character, a leading Democrat, who was usually pitted against Rees in all public meetings where any sort of discussion was in order, though they were always intimate personal friends. Smith owned one of the best hay farms in the Grand Ronde valley, there being one body of two hundred acres of natural hay that yielded four hundred tons every year without any labor whatever, aside from cutting and stacking. This land overflowed every winter and spring, remaining quite soft until not long before the cutting season. One day in May, 1869, a cayuse pony, worth ten dollars, having found a weak place in the fence surrounding this magnificent meadow, was seen wending its way here and there, each track leaving a hole a foot deep and playing havoc with the smoothness of its surface. Seeing the condition of things, and knowing that any effort to chase the intruder out by pursuing him with a horse (and any other method was out of the question) would only make matters worse, Smith took his Winchester rifle, rested it across the fence and began “pumping” at the offender some four hundred yards distant, with the result that the fourth shot laid him low. Smith explained that he saw no reason for destroying fifty dollars’ worth of hay in order to get a ten-dollar cayuse out of his meadow!

Long years ago, he sold his Cove farm and for thirty years has lived in Wallowa County, where he has combined farming with the practice of the law, his admission to the bar having taken place some years after his residence in the Cove.

In the days to which I have been referring, there was no lawyer either in the Cove or in Union, ten miles away. As there were many local difficulties which could not be settled without some recourse to outside parties, the justice of the peace had much to do and Smith and I were often called upon to present the case to the court from the respective viewpoints of the plaintiff and defendant. This situation, agreeable to us, continued until one day in the spring of 1875 it was announced that a young lawyer had located in Union. The very next case which came before the Cove justice of the peace, one of the parties employed this newcomer, and as the other was afraid to trust his side of the difficulty to either Smith or myself, as against the real thing in the law, he brought a lawyer from La Grande and the Cove barristers were henceforth out of business.

The new Union attorney was Robert Eakin, of Eugene, who not only won his first case, but afterward was Circuit Judge of that district for many years and is now Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. I have always thought it quite an honor to have laid the foundation for such a successful career as Judge Eakin’s has since proved.

A. C. Smith was a pioneer in the Wallowa valley and built the first bridge across the Wallowa River in about r874, when there were but few settlers in that magnificent section. In the early days in the Cove he was very friendly to the Indians and I have frequently seen several hundred camped near his farm while on their way from Umatilla to Snake and Wallowa rivers on their annual hunting and camping expeditions. He could talk their tongue, no matter what the tribe, and as he usually wore moccasins and white canvas trousers, his unique appearance appealed to the red men and he could make almost any sort of a potlatch bargain with them, to the satisfaction, if not profit, of both parties concerned.

Of the men who were important factors in the Cove life forty-five years ago all have passed into the land of shadows except M. B. Rees, Randall Robinson, Otho Eckersley, E. P. McDaniels and one or two others. That beautiful little locality, about a township in area, nestling upon the foothills which slope toward La Grande and the Grand Ronde valley proper, has changed, not only in the personnel of its people but in its business life. It was formerly devoted exclusively to the production of wheat, barley, hay and stock, but in later years intensified farming has been adopted, and the farms of two hundred acres have been, with a few exceptions, divided into small orchards and gardens. Cherries and apples are made a specialty and are grown to a marvelous state of perfection.

A thousand recollections, mostly very pleasant, cluster around the place for me, and the mention of its name never fails to produce a reverie that recalls the experiences attending the transition of boyhood into manhood – the “heyday of youth” into the more serious aspects of life, with its growing responsibilities – and the people, scattered everywhere, who were my associates in the days of “auld lang syne.”


Next Chapter - Comments on the presidential election (Hayes versus Tilden) of 1876; Geer loses his first bid to join the Oregon Legislature but decides to return to the Willamette Valley.


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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