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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.

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.

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

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.

Book cover

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.

Gaston Schools history, Part III: The little district that could

The Gaston Public School District doesn’t seem to have an official birthday, although the elementary and high school districts merged officially on May 31, 1968, offering a potential date.

The district’s obituary has been written several times (click here for earlier history), always prematurely. About all that is certain is that Gaston always has been, and continues to be, the little district that finds a way to survive.

In our last installment, Gaston had survived several votes that could have merged the district into Forest Grove; in fact some of the votes actually enlarged the Gaston district. But as the 1970s began, the Gaston school budget crisis persisted. Continue reading

That time a President died in Oregon … the tale of a psychic ghost

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

Creek With No NameLouis Rader was the subject of many stories in The Oregonian after his arrest, but the basis of his story is revealed in the cascading headlines on the very first article, which appeared on the doorsteps of Portlanders on the morning of June 27, 1923. The story involved a planned visit to Portland by President Warren G. Harding, and the main headline blared: “Farmer Threatens Life of President.” The first subhead elaborated on the evidence against him: “Rancher of Gaston Arrested for Writing Letter.”

On the surface, a letter threatening the life of a President about to visit the area sounds pretty damning. Upon closer inspection, however, the letter seems more a statement of confusion than confession. The letter was written to the Portland Chamber of Commerce and contains this threat, or possible threat: “Now friends this nice morning I have a hunch here it is President Harding will be called this month on a Fryday to a high court where he will give account to the above mention.” Continue reading

The story of a fish, and a murder

Our saga of Howard Tong begins after he caught a fish at the Oregon Coast in 1939. It ends in murder in 1972. Along the way, it includes a tangled web of tragedy, lawsuits, mystery, and insanity.

Actually, let’s back up a few years and begin our story in 1931 at Oregon State University, where fraternity boy Howard Tong proposed to his college sweetheart, Gwendolyn Morgan. Within a year, they welcomed a daughter, Carolyn, joined a year later by another baby, Delores.

Howard and Gwen Tong, 1939.

Howard and Gwen Tong, 1939.

Howard’s teaching career blossomed despite the Great Depression, and by 1938 he was principal of the high school in Gaston, but life was not all rosy in the Tong house on Second Street, near the school. Public school teachers didn’t make much in small-town Oregon. With a salary of a little more than $1,000 a year, and with only about $500 in assets, the young family was burdened with $3,300 of debt, and filed for bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy would prove to be the least of the Tongs’ problems in 1938, however, as 5-year-old Delores died.

Howard got back on his feet quickly however, and in 1940 found a better-paying job elsewhere. Then, as World War II raged, Carolyn got a baby brother, John. Things once again looked bright for the Tongs, but then once again tragedy struck, as John died at just 8 months old. Continue reading

The night the lights went out: A Halloween Tale

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback

In October 1941, the town buzzed in anticipation of the opening celebration for the Wilson River Highway, but the celebration had to be delayed because although rainfall in the Fall of 1941 was below normal, the dirt portion of the highway had turned to foot-deep mud. Rescheduling the opening, however, soon took a backseat to more urgent matters in preparation for possible war. On Halloween night, the Army was planning a mock air raid on Washington County to test preparedness, just in case the Japanese tried a sneak air raid over the area. More than 100 fighters, bombers, and military surveillance planes would fly over the county, prepared to drop flare “bombs” over any city in which even a single light stayed on. Batteries of anti-aircraft artillery would blast blanks into the night sky to add to the realism. Continue reading