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.

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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.

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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

A November to remember, and a childhood lost

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and life in 1974, Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback.

'Wheels on the Bus' by Ken Bilderback

‘Wheels on the Bus’ by Ken Bilderback

This particular story happened a few days after Halloween, 1968. I had gone to the lunchroom at school and waited for my friend David to join me to exchange leftover Halloween candy. David was my best friend in those days, a quiet but happy kid with a complexion even pastier than mine. In fact I remember his skin as white more than flesh-colored. David came from a dirt-poor family, although he lived in a nicer house than I did. David and I had things in common, like never wanting to go home, and never wanting to talk much about his personal life. Instead we talked about cars and about the little Revell models we were building. I liked muscle cars, while David was partial to things like the Munsters mobile and Batmobile.

David didn’t join me at lunch that day, which surprised me because we had talked about it just an hour or so before. I figured he had gone home sick, which wouldn’t be surprising because he was sick a lot, often throwing up. When I got home a few hours later I plopped myself on the davenport to watch “Where the Action Is” or “It’s Happening” or one of the rock ‘n’ roll shows I could watch only when my father wasn’t home. On this particular Tuesday afternoon, my mother came from the kitchen with a worried look on her face. Someone from the school had called because they knew David and I were friends. David’s mother, it seems, had picked him up at lunch time, along with his little brother and sister. A couple hours later, one of David’s neighbors saw exhaust seeping from the garage of David’s house and investigated. Soon after police found David, his mother and his four siblings in the back of the family’s station wagon in the garage, all dressed in their pajamas, and all dead.

I imagine I cried a little, but mostly I was stunned. None of this made sense to my 12-year-old mind. My main question was not “why?” but rather “why were they in their pajamas?” Looking back, I think that was about as deep as I wanted to get to solving that mystery. I stayed on the davenport all evening that night instead of retreating to the basement because Walter Cronkite was on the old black and white Columbia television, reading the results of Richard Nixon’s victory over Hubert Humphrey in that day’s presidential election. “There’s news besides the election,” Cronkite said at one point, or words to that affect. “We have word from Detroit that a mother and her five children were found dead in the back of their car, all dressed in their pajamas, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.” I sat on the davenport, hands tightly gripping the frayed fabric upholstery. I learned later that David’s parents had both lost their jobs months earlier and were getting a divorce. I never did learn why they were wearing pajamas at noon.

Watching the world end from my Davenport

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and life in 1974, Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback.

As I looked at my map for the long ride to Michigan, I decided I wanted to stop in Davenport. Not in the same way I had wanted to see San Antonio or Santa Fe or San Francisco, but nonetheless I wanted to see Davenport.

'Wheels on the Bus' by Ken Bilderback

‘Wheels on the Bus’ by Ken Bilderback

Back in Michigan my friends all had sofas or couches in their living rooms. We had a davenport. That was, as far as I knew, the correct term for such a piece of furniture and it would make me mad as a child when people called it something else or didn’t know what I meant by the term. One day I was behind the davenport playing hide and seek or something and saw a tag on the back that said our davenport had been manufactured in Davenport, Iowa. When I informed my mother of this most-amazing fact she explained that it was called a davenport precisely because so many were made in Davenport.

The davenport in my parents’ house was a musty old beast, a relic of the past. It was overstuffed with thread-bare fabric upholstery. The davenport was in front of the picture window in the living room. When it snowed I would sit on my knees facing outward, petting Bandit and watching the icicles slowly drip from the eaves. On holidays I would assume the same pose, eagerly awaiting my grandparents’ arrival.

From my perch on the davenport I watched the old vacuum-tube black and white TV as images of Tigers games flickered and as Walter Cronkite delivered the news of JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, then Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. I watched the grainy footage of soldiers jumping into rice paddies from helicopters, and of helicopters airlifting bloody comrades out of those same rice paddies, cringing in pain. I watched as police beat people in the streets of the South, apparently for being black and wanting equality, and of police beating people in the streets of Chicago or killing college students in Ohio, apparently for having long hair and wanting a better society.

Sometimes Walter Cronkite’s reports hit closer to home, as during the riots on the streets of Detroit, just a few miles away. There were times when frightened neighbors would call to say that rioting blacks were near our neighborhood, and I would take my position on the musty davenport to watch for the hordes to descend upon us. The hordes never made it to within many miles of our street, but I watched anyway. The occasional column of black smoke from torched buildings miles away made the threat seem imminent enough. Sitting on the davenport watching Walter Cronkite, the world looked like a very scary place, but still I wanted desperately to explore it. After all, he also showed film of hippies dancing joyously in the fields of Woodstock and in the streets of San Francisco.

It’s snowing in Michigan. Again.

The Michigan of my memory was a dingy place. I remember the black, crusty snow along the curbs in late winter. I remember walking home from junior high school in dank weather, terrified of the beatings I might face from the neighborhood bullies. The beatings in reality didn’t happen all that often, but 40 years later I still have physical and emotional scars from those that did.

'Wheels on the Bus' by Ken Bilderback

‘Wheels on the Bus’ by Ken Bilderback

I remember finding safety in the cold, musty basement of my parents’ house, huddled with my cat, Bandit, and surrounded by piles of books, magazines and newspapers “collected” over the years by my hoarder mother. I remember huddling down there painfully aware that my paranoid schizophrenic father might erupt again at any moment. When he did erupt he would lock himself in his bedroom and curse and stomp his feet and his tirade would resonate through the heating vents suspended from the ceiling of the basement as I buried myself in a National Geographic, dreaming of far off cities.

My first memory of my father, in fact my first memory of anything, happened when I was a toddler. When I was young, my father would leave on long, unexplained trips. I know now he was looking for jobs and someplace to start over, but back then I didn’t know what he was searching for. I just knew he was gone, and that was good enough for me. So my life’s first memory is my mother telling me he was coming home that night from one of those trips. I screamed in terror. That’s my first memory of my life.

My safe little corner of the basement was dominated by my electric train set, mounted on a table with an ever-changing cityscape, often modeled on a picture from those National Geographics. I built the towns with discarded 2×4 blocks I scrounged from construction sites in our area of suburban Detroit, which was growing like wildfire in the 1960s, fueled by lower-middle-class whites fleeing the city. One 2×4 block was good enough for a gas station, but it might take two for the fire station, three for city hall and four or five for the hospital and school. One little wooden block was special and was a centerpiece of any scene. I had carefully drawn windows and doors on this block, along with a crude drawing of a man smiling and waving by the front door, standing under the sign identifying the business as “Kenny’s Builders.” Kenny was the general contractor for all the buildings in town, which, I remember now, included only commercial buildings and never any homes. Despite all his imagination, apparently Kenny didn’t know how to build a home. When my father would hurl coffee mugs at my beloved Bandit or sit in his bedroom cursing at the misery of knowing in his heart that I was not his son, I would imagine the train pulling out of my safe little imaginary town, headed to an even safer imaginary city that existed only in my mind.

But the Michigan of my memory also was the launching pad for what has been a happy life. Without the hours spent huddled in the safety of that unhealthy basement building imaginary towns and reading books and magazines about faraway places, I might never have overcome my fears. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t overcome my fears; I just decided my fear of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown.