Terror on two wheels

The following in an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2015 by Ken and Kris Bilderback. All rights reserved.

The Times favored that new-fangled wheeled conveyance, the bicycle. On July 6, 1899, the paper noted that a dirt path from Forest Grove to Hillsboro “would be pretty good if it were not so bumpy in spots.” The path, it seems, turned to mud in the winter, then hardened into a rollercoaster ride under the summer sun. The paper noted another obstacle for cyclists: “The cow that roams the lanes is no respector of paths.”

walkingcoversmallStill, the Times saw bicycles as the future of transportation, and after a bright day in February 1900 brought out the town’s cyclists, the paper’s editors started a campaign. Many townspeople considered bicycles to be dangerous, and ordinances had been passed to keep them off the sidewalks. But this beautiful day illustrated the problem with the ordinance; although the sun was shining, it still was February, which meant that most of the streets were muddy morasses, rendering bike riding nearly impossible except on the sidewalks.

Some townsfolk wanted bicycles banned altogether, but where others saw only problems, the Times saw opportunity. An editorial suggested creating bicycle paths into and out of town so people wouldn’t have to walk to Forest Grove. The first paths, the editors suggested, should go north a couple of miles into the bustling community of Greenville and to the Catholic Church in Verboort, but others could extend to other towns.

“There are some difficulties in the way of keeping these paths up, of course” the Times acknowledged, “but none serious.” The paper urged community leaders to go to the county Courthouse to demand action, but Forest Grove didn’t get its fancy bike paths for about a century, when a resurgence in interest made bicycling more popular than ever.

Ernie Harwell’s sunny voice drowned out riots and assassinations

The following is an excerpt from an autobiographical novel, Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974, Copyright Ken Bilderback 2010.

Lakeland was the first city I really wanted to see, because it was the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers. Actually it was much more than that, thanks to the calm, soothing voice of Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell. Listening to Harwell on my little plastic transistor radio in Detroit, his voice always created vivid images in my young mind.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

Wherever he was broadcasting from sounded like Heaven on Earth. He would talk about the clouds and the breeze and the happy families and dads catching foul balls in the stands for their adoring sons. Harwell was the calm voice of reason during the riots and assassinations of the late 1960s. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Tigers had a couple of young black players named Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore who had been discovered in reform schools or prisons. Today, Brown and LeFlore would be criticized endlessly on talk radio, but to Harwell they were just good human beings, like everyone else who crossed his path. My father never saw anything but the bad in people. Harwell was his happy antithesis, and I hung on his every word.

Ernie Harwell’s voice was most magical in the early Spring. While back in Detroit we still were sloshing through the black crusty snow of late winter, Harwell was in Lakeland for Spring training. Late winter for me meant huddling in the basement away from school bullies and my father. Harwell’s voice, beamed to my little transistor radio from Lakeland, always was the first harbinger of better days ahead. Lakeland sounded magical. Sometimes still shoveling snow, I would listen as the warm breezes through the palm trees cooled the families sitting in the stands enjoying Tiger squads that were destined to have great seasons in warm, happy summers at Tiger Stadium. Lakeland sounded more magical than anyplace Harwell broadcast from, except perhaps the golden cities of California. When he was broadcasting from the Golden State I couldn’t listen to the whole game because of the time difference, but I was amazed to think that as I huddled under the covers of my bed with Bandit, the sun was shining brightly on California.

Wailing in the woods, Cherry Grove edition

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon, Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback.

People doubted the Bigfoot rumors from the start, but over time as evidence mounted, more and more people became concerned there really might be a monster in their midst. A story in the Forest Grove News-Times recounts an eerie, fog-shrouded night in March 1964. “Unnervingly,” the News-Times recounts, “came a hideous scream that knifed the heavy night air. It could have been a prank or even just a dream, residents told themselves, and went back to sleep.”

Creek With No NameThe next night was equally shrouded, equally eerie and equally shrill as once again the screams startled residents from their slumber. After four or five nights of this, Cherry Grove residents demanded action from the sheriff’s office, either out of fear or annoyance. But without a body, without a missing person, without a known victim of any kind, deputies told the sleepless citizenry there was nothing they could do.

Then, about a week into the drama, the situation took a new turn. A group of teenagers out investigating the screams came across gigantic footprints in the March mud. The prints measured 18 inches by eight inches, and the stride of the monster placed the prints a full eight feet apart. The tracks suggested the monster had walked out of a field and into the woods … and right through a sturdy wooden cattle fence, now reduced to a pile of splinters in the dewy grass. Continue reading

Is this a monument to government overreach or salvation?

Perhaps the two most-striking images from the Great Depression are soup lines of unemployed workers in the big cities and caravans of “Okies” fleeing the Midwest Dust Bowl. Few people can conjure images of places such as Harney County, Oregon. The visitor center at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few that remains, and it is testament to both struggles.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Since the days of the earliest pioneers, Harney County has been subjected to a series of economic busts, with the federal government coming to its rescue each time. The first bust came during the days of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and ‘50s. Settlers gobbled up the fertile farmlands of the Willamette and Tualatin valleys, but few wanted the mountains and high-desert sagelands that cover most of what now is the state of Oregon.

The area around what today is the Malheur refuge was a bit of an exception to that because of its lakes and abundant natural springs. The federal government set up Fort Harney to protect the few intrepid souls who took Donation Land Claims. Some hoped to tap the springs for irrigation, while others took “reclamation” claims to drain the lakes. No one found much success. Continue reading

That time armed men seized an Oregon county and its federal land at gunpoint

This is an excerpt from Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback and Kris Bilderback.

Few things rile cattle ranchers quite like cattle rustlers. Some folks in the Wild West considered rustling to be a crime on par with murder, and more than a few rustlers found themselves hanging from a tree without benefit of a trial. If there was anything that riled ranchers even more than poaching, it was disputes over grazing land. The land was free to most of the pioneers, given to them as gifts from the federal government under the Donation Land Claim and Homestead acts. Regardless of how they acquired their land, however, some pioneers were willing to fight to the death to protect their claims.

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The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

With that in mind, townspeople thought that they knew who killed pioneer A.H. Crooks and his son-in-law on March 15, 1882, near Prineville. Suspicion immediately focused on Lucius Langdon, who owned a ranch next to Crooks, because the two had been feuding for years over a 40-acre parcel of grazing land. The folks of Prineville had a long history of taking the law into their own hands, according to historian Jim Yuskavitch in Outlaw Tales of Oregon. In the mid-1800s, the sheriff was 100 miles north of Prineville, in the county seat of The Dalles, which was a journey of several days on horseback. Perhaps swayed by the adage that justice delayed is justice denied, the ranchers were not keen on waiting that long for the law to make an appearance. The Crooks murder was a case in point, as rancher Bud Thompson quickly organized a “vigilance committee” to capture Langdon. Langdon eluded the wrath of Thompson and his gang, which allowed time for cooler heads to gather in Prineville. Rancher Jim Blakely notified the nearest deputy sheriff of the murder, then formed a second posse to find and capture Langdon before Thompson’s gang could lynch him. When Langdon heard that the trustworthy Blakely was looking for him, he surrendered peacefully and as promised, Blakely delivered him safely to the deputy sheriff. Langdon’s ranch hand accompanied his boss to help insure his safety until he was delivered to The Dalles for trial. With no jail in town, the trio retired for the evening at a small hotel. Continue reading

When the federal handouts end, some lost children go bad

This an excerpt of Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback.

William Barrett was lucky. He had shared in another man’s land claim when he married Eliza Purdin. But not every land baron was so magnanimous. As the children of the early settlers matured, some were sent off to make their own way in the world, just as their parents had. By now, however, there was no free land left to be claimed, and the people with money, the landowners, still didn’t need to hire many helpers. Agriculture remained small-scale. There was not yet much demand for commercial lumber, and the few mills and factories were family operations. Accustomed to a life free from want, some of these castaways turned to crime to continue to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed.

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

The combined Barrett-Purdin family looked as though it would avoid such a fate. Even the offspring who didn’t inherit land built lives of their own, such as Eliza’s cousin, Charles Purdin, who became a decorated Spanish-American War hero and successful Portland businessman. Unfortunately, in 1921, Charles would make the Purdin name famous in a spectacular murder trial, but for most of his life he was an upright citizen. One of William and Eliza Barrett’s boys, also named William, would outshine even Charles Purdin. This Bill Barrett did not want to be either a farmer or carpenter. He opted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by studying law. He made his way through the Tualatin Academy and then Pacific University in nearby Forest Grove. When he graduated, he apprenticed under Thomas Tongue, a Congressman and one of Oregon’s foremost attorneys, and then a famous judge. Sadly, the name Bill Barrett would become internationally famous for a very different reason. Continue reading

Oregon’s long history of grazing land and violence

The following is an excerpt from Law and Order at the end of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback:

Disputes over acreage and animals continued to simmer just beneath the surface, and at the turn of the century a new wave of killing shook Prineville. The murders often involved disputes that might seem trivial now, but which were deadly serious in 1900. For example, when a Greek immigrant named Leonidas Douris introduced a huge flock of sheep to the valley, cattle ranchers were furious over the competition for grazing on federal rangeland.

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The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

Douris was a man with big dreams who parlayed his meager earnings as a farmhand into a small fortune as a rancher. Douris also was a man of small stature, described as extremely short with a huge head and long arms. Douris parlayed his meager stature into celebrity, adopting the moniker “Shorty Davis,” the only name most people in Central Oregon knew him by. Shorty enjoyed his celebrity status, but also endured threats and vandalism from ranchers who resented his use of federal grazing land in addition to his own 800 acres. One day in 1900, Shorty disappeared off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again. His friends immediately suspected murder, but years passed with no sign of Shorty, dead or alive.

Then in 1909, a Spring flood washed bones down a creekbed into town. The bones were believed to belong to Shorty Davis, but in 1909, authorities in Prineville could not say with certainty that they even were human. Still, the authorities had a man named Charles Colby in their sights, because he had been one of the people who had threatened Shorty. They used this opportunity to arrest Colby and take their case against him to a grand jury, which refused to indict him. Although Colby was a free man in the eyes of the law, he was a marked man in the eyes of Shorty Davis’ many friends, and he high-tailed it out of Prineville and headed to California. The disappearance of the popular Shorty Davis remains, at least officially, one of the most celebrated mysteries in Oregon judicial history.

An unholy alliance: Economic upheaval and bigotry

The following is an excerpt from Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback.

Oregon had moved beyond lynch mobs by the early 1900s, but with a population that remained overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, racial animosity was far from dead, and a combination of factors soon brought racial animus back to rural Oregon.

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

While the neighboring states of Washington and California began to industrialize, Oregon remained stubbornly agrarian. Slowly, Portland was beginning to become more diverse as skilled longshoremen and laborers migrated from the big cities of the East Coast. Unlike the pioneer families, many of those workers were of Italian or Eastern European descent, and many were Catholic.

In addition, a new wave of immigrants from Asia, this time from Japan, established communities in farming towns. World War I and the Russian Revolution shattered the sense of sheltered detachment that most Oregonians felt from strife in faraway lands. The Ku Klux Klan, which had flourished in the American South after the Civil War, suddenly found fertile new ground in the farmlands of Oregon. Blacks were a target, but with so few blacks in the state, the Klan focused on the larger populations of Catholic and Japanese workers.

Throughout the 1920s, the Klan infiltrated all layers of Oregon society. The mayor and police chief of Portland proudly joined the county sheriff to pose with hooded Klansmen at City Hall. The Klan heavily influenced both major political parties in Oregon and even managed to help one of its leaders, the aptly named K.K. Kubli, win the Republican nomination for the United States Senate.

Wide-eyed and still blind to bigotry

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus, Copyright 2010 by Ken Bilderback.

In the early 1970s, bus travel was waning as a mode of middle-class travel. It was no surprise then that when I got to the Detroit station and looked around the crowded waiting room most of the faces were black and ran the gamut from obviously dirt poor to only relatively affluent. The white faces, by contrast, seemed to fall pretty neatly into two groups: Young college-age travelers and older, sad-looking poor people. Many of the black faces looked happy to be going to wherever it was they were going, as did some of the college-aged white faces. I don’t think any of the other faces were quite as wide-eyed as mine was, however, as I eagerly waited for the bus that would take me down Interstate 75 to Florida.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

There must have been something else showing in my eyes that day, too, because I was startled when a couple and their young daughter approached me. “Are you going all the way to Cincinnati?” one of the parents asked. When I said I was the father drifted off and the mother asked me if I would watch over their daughter, who looked to be about 10 or 12 and who was traveling alone to visit her grandmother in Ohio. The family was dark-skinned, although probably not as dark as I thought they were at the time. In the subsequent 40 years I’ve learned to appreciate the many subtle tones of skin color more than I did then. Back then they were black. All that set this family apart from the other black faces were the matching head scarves worn by the mother and daughter. So why, I wondered, did they approach me instead of one of the many black people in the room? Why would they approach me, the one person at the station who was almost as frightened as their little daughter? Continue reading

A different view from 1960

The Joseph Gaston House is one of the most spectacular homes in Portland’s West Hills. It’s a beautiful house to look at, but it’s hard to stay focused on the architecture without being distracted by the view from the house. Downtown Portland. A view up the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Rainier to the north, Mount Hood to the west, and St. Helens and Adams in between. I love the house for intrinsic beauty and for its breathtaking view.

Joseph Gaston House in Portland

Joseph Gaston’s house at 1960 16th Street, from a 2015 real-estate brochure, offering the property at $4 million.

I love the house also because it was built by Joseph Gaston, founder of the town I call home and about which I have written two history books, with at least two more in the works. I admire Joseph Gaston for his vehement opposition to slavery, for his sometimes courageous career as a journalist, and for his sometimes fierce fight against government corruption.

You might notice that I modified the last two traits, because Joseph Gaston was deeply flawed man as well. His tremendous intellect, empathy, and compassion were balanced by bouts of avarice, bitterness, and pious self-aggrandizement in the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s my view of Joseph Gaston and of his house. Here’s another, this one from Neil Nakadate in his book, Looking After Minidoka: Continue reading