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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



No doubt most men, in looking back over their varied experiences, can select a few events which appear to mark distinctly the dividing line between what might properly be called epochs in their lives. Some unforeseen happening will often serve to change the entire trend of one’s life and its purposes – if it had any.

This I can truly say of my removal from eastern Oregon to my old home in the Willamette valley in 1877. My mother’s uncle and his wife being well advanced in years and childless, had made me an offer, in land, to come and live near them during the remainder of their lives and look after them in their declining years. This, together with my attachment to the Willamette valley, caused me to accept the proposition and, in a sense, to begin a new life along different lines and amid strange surroundings.

We made the trip from the Grand Ronde valley to Waldo Hills overland, with the exception of the distance between The Dalles and Portland, which was covered by a Columbia River steamer. I was just past twenty-six years of age, had a family of a wife and four children, and was bound for a land which none of them had ever seen and where my own success was yet to be determined. I am free to confess that I was filled with a mixed feeling of concern, regret, hope, courage and a goodly supply of optimism. The second day from “civilization” we were compelled to remain four days in the heart of the Blue Mountains on account of a most severe rain-storm and the illness of my wife, being obliged to send to La Grande for medicine by the stage-drivers who passed twice a day. The sixth day we reached Pendleton and camped in the suburbs of that little city. The next morning I discovered that three of my four horses were missing. They had slipped their hobbles in some way and had of course taken the back track for the Grand Ronde valley. My wife had been very sick all the previous night and the baby, four months old, had cried unceasingly from dark until two o’clock in the morning, which necessitated my holding him, walking the floor of the tent and occasionally endeavoring to lull him to sleep by rocking him in a low four-posted, rawhide-bottom chair. Between acts, or rather during acts, I administered as best I could to the wants of his suffering mother. A little while before daylight, everything else having failed to quiet the child, she suggested that maybe he was thirsty. During the six preceding hours I had given him every kind of medicine the two druggists in the town had ever heard of as being good for infantile complaints, but without results – at least desirable results. The thought was absolutely new to me, but acting upon the suggestion I procured a tin-cup of water and offered it to the little fellow. Upon his first sight of it he made such a frantic grab for its contents that it was worth a small fortune to see him. He drank it all and wanted more; but this was withheld. Within less than five minutes he was in a deep sleep which lasted for full four hours.

Some men are so blasted stupid, anyway – ever notice it?

The next morning my wife was very ill and could eat nothing we had in our stores; she only wanted some potatoes. So I went down on Main Street and asked the proprietor of the only grocery store if he had any. He replied that he had not. I at once pointed out to him a sack standing in front of the store, but he said they were not for sale. After I had explained the situation to him, however, he gave me permission to take all the potatoes I wanted – even the entire sack. I took a dozen and offered him the price of them, but he replied that he had none for sale! His name was Lot Livermore, and he is one of the best-known pioneers of Umatilla County today. He has altogether served twenty years as postmaster of Pendleton and is as “white” a man as lives in the State of Oregon.

After breakfast I saddled the only horse which had not played “hookey,” engaged a woman who lived close by to attend to the wants of the family, and started for the Grand Ronde valley, not expecting to find the truant horses before reaching their old home, ninety miles away. But good luck was mine, for before traveling ten miles I met some of my old neighbors on their way to the “Landing” for freight’. They had seen my horses, knew them, guessed the situation and were leading them behind their wagons. It was a most cheering sight when I recognized my three runaways reluctantly retracing their steps, for it was the only really encouraging incident that had happened since the beginning of the trip. The remainder of this journey was without special interest. The route, much of the way, was along the identical road made by the immigrants who created the “Oregon Trail” in the early ’40s and some of the camping places were the same as those used by my parents just thirty years before. To this day many sections of the Oregon trail through eastern Oregon are used by the people, and the light soil, blown by the winds of seventy years, has drifted away, leaving two parallel trenches with a ridge between so high that the axles of the wagons often drag on its surface. Indeed, in some places, as you descend the hillsides into the gulches, the alkali soil has been blown out of the old road until it is only usable by horsemen, whose heads are often below the surface of the surrounding country.

In 1877, the boundless advantages of the bunch grass range of eastern Oregon were just beginning to be appreciated and the first large herds of cattle and sheep were commencing to make their mark on the almost unlimited stretches of this succulent grass. I remember that in traveling from Pendleton to Heppner, a distance of some sixty miles, we drove through extensive sections of grass which stood two feet high, and not a head of stock had molested it since it began its growth in the early spring. As we approached the streams, however, which are some ten miles apart, there were evidences of stock here and there; the grass began to be shorter, and as we neared the creeks there was literally none at all. The fact was that my horses were compelled to do without grass as we passed through this part of the magnificent eastern Oregon range, except as we made some dry camps at the noon hour.

Since then the immense herds of cattle, horses and sheep which have made large fortunes for thousands of men have practically exterminated the bunch grass, which for succulent qualities and its great vitality on dry uplands has not been equaled by any other kind of forage plant, native or imported. Indeed, there are many people who believe the transformation of these boundless ranges into farm lands devoted to the production of grain has been an industrial mistake, since much of it is, of necessity, subject to dry seasons and the output often unsatisfactory in consequence. When given a rest from pasturage for two years the bunch grass will reappear, strange as it may seem. Traveling in eastern Oregon, one frequently sees a fence running over a high mountain, on one side of which the grass, newly grown – or, it may be, drying up in the early fall – shows plainly for twenty miles away, while on the opposite side of the fence, where the land has been closely pastured, the hills are perfectly bare and as brown as a city street.

Many an eastern Oregon grain-raiser of today often sits on the front porch of his home and sighs for the halcyon days of King Bunch Grass. Much of that country, however, is splendidly adapted to the production of grain of all kinds, and without doubt the section in Umatilla County, consisting of twenty miles square with Athena as a probable center, has a record as the best wheat producing land in the world.

Incidentally, though a digression, it will be interesting to describe briefly the process of harvesting wheat in this section. While living in Pendleton, during the threshing season in I907, George Perringer, one of the “wheat kings” of Umatilla County, invited me one day to accompany him to his farm, twenty miles away – in his automobile. Many of the big farmers of Umatilla County live in Pendleton and occupy some of the finest homes there.

Perringer had about three thousand acres of wheat that year and there were three “combined harvesters” working at once. Two of them had thirty horses each furnishing the motive power, while the third was drawn by a steam engine of one hundred and ten horse-power. To this we drove in our machine and I was invited to ride once around a five-hundred-acre field which it was transforming from standing grain that averaged fifty bushels to the acre into the sacked product.

A “combined harvester” is, as its name implies, a huge header with a threshing machine attachment. The “elevator” dumps the wheat directly into the cylinder of the thresher, and a platform carries three men. One of these is the sacker; the other two sew the sacks and pile them on a broad plank which, when it receives a sufficient weight – about thirty bushels – automatically uptilts, slides the sacks off in a pile, and adjusts itself immediately to receive the next sack.

The sickle of this machine was twenty-four feet long and the amount of headed wheat it gathered in and dumped into the cylinder was almost appalling – so voracious and monster-like did the process appear. The man who handled the sacked wheat had a job that kept him “on the jump,” while the two men who were sewing sacks had not an idle moment.

The drive-wheels of the engine were eight feet in height, with a tire twenty-four inches in width. Necessarily, there is more waste in harvesting with this method than with the ordinary binders, but where the business is pursued on such a gigantic scale as in Umatilla County and other sections of eastern Oregon it would be impossible to gather in the crops without the combined harvester.

Perringer sold a part of his crop the following fall to Balfour, Guthrie & Co., of Portland, and received his pay in one check for $72,000, a facsimile of which was printed in the Portland papers – and there are several other Umatilla farmers who are in Perringer’s class. In that year, the yield of wheat in that county was estimated at six millions of bushels.


Next Chapter - Geer returns to farming in the Waldo Hills in 1877; notes on the changing communications with rural railroads, a local post office, and the telephone.


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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