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Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 19609

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The land-office; its object and functionaries-?How to find your land-?Section 33-?The great conflagration-?The survivors of the fire-?The burnt timber and the brush-?The clearing-party-?Chopping by beginners-?Cooking, amateur and professional-?The wild-cat-?Deer and hunting-?Piling brush-?Dear and cheap clearing-?The skillful axeman-?Clearing by Chinamen-?Dragging out stumps-?What profits the farmer may expect on a valley farm-?On a foot-hills farm.

By the time we had been here about a month and had settled down a little, we set about clearing a tract of wild land called section 33, situated nearly twenty miles away. You will ask, What does section 33 mean? Oregon is divided into several districts. For the Willamette Valley the land-office is at Oregon City, one of the most ancient towns in the State, having a history of forty years, dating from the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company. The chief officer is called the "register." He is supplied with maps of the surveys from the central office at Washington. Each map is of one township, consisting of a square block of thirty-six sections of a square mile or six hundred and forty acres each. Each township is numbered with reference to a baseline and a meridian, fixed by the original survey of the State, thus giving a position of latitude and longitude. From the land-office duplicates of the maps for each county are furnished to the county-seat and are deposited in the county clerk's office for general inspection. Each year a certain sum is set aside for new surveys, and contracts are given by the Surveyor-General of the State to local surveyors for the work.

The corners of each square-mile section are denoted by posts or large stones, and the neighboring trees are blazed or marked so as to direct attention to the corner post or stone.

Thus for years after the surveying-party have passed through wild land, there is but little difficulty in finding the corner-posts, and thence by compass ascertaining the boundary-lines of any section or fraction of a section in question. Surveys being officially made, boundary disputes are avoided, or easily solved and set at rest by reference to the county surveyor, who for a few dollars' fee comes out and "runs the lines" afresh of any particular plot.

Section 33, then, is the section thus numbered in township 10, south of range 7, west of the Willamette meridian. It lay just on the edge of the burned woods country.

THE GREAT CONFLAGRATION.Although forest-fires in Oregon are still of yearly occurrence, since settlement by the white men the range of the devastation has been by degrees narrowed and confined. Formerly the Indians started fires every year to burn the withered grass in the valleys and on the hillsides, and thence fire spread into the woods and ravaged many miles of timber. The "great fire" is said to have occurred about forty years ago, when many Indians perished in the flames, and others had to take refuge in the streams and rivers, till the destroying element had passed them in its resistless fury.

Standing on the top of one of these Coast Mountains, the eye ranges for many miles over hill and dale, dotted everywhere with the huge black trunks, the relics of the great conflagration. Many standing yet, some towering high into the sky, testify of their former gracefulness by the symmetrical tapering of the tall trunk, and the regular positions of the broken limbs and branches. But Nature is busily at work repairing damages; each winter's rains penetrate more deeply into the fabric of the trunk; each winter's gales loosen yet more the roots in which the living sap was long ago destroyed; each spring the wind brings down additions to the graveyard of trees, rotting away into mold; while a few young successors to the former race of firs are showing themselves clothed in living green, and a dense growth of copse-wood, hazel, cherry, vine-maple, arrow-wood, and crab-apple is crowding the hollows of the ca?ons on the hill-sides.

The brake-fern covers the hills, attaining a growth of five, six, or eight feet, and sheltering an undergrowth of wild-pea and native grass. Section 33 lies between the burned timber and the living forest, but its chief value is in the valley of some three hundred acres of alluvial land forming its center, through which winds here and there the Mary River, at this distance from its mouth scarcely more than a clear and rapid brook.

Eight of us started on the clearing-party with two light wagons, and a good supply of food, blankets, and axes and saws. A squatter had settled on one corner and built himself a hut and a little barn, and had got four or five acres of land cleared and plowed. But he had abandoned his improvements and gone some ten miles off, to clear another homestead among the thick woods.

The first night we camped out in a grassy corner by the wood-side, while the horses were tethered near.

CHOPPING BY BEGINNERS.The next day we began. Two or three of us had some little knowledge of the virtue of an axe, but the rest were new to the art. It was amusing to watch their eager efforts to hit straight and firm. One or two of our Oregonian neighbors came and looked on with rather scoffing faces, but advised us how to lay the brush we cut in windrows, with a view to the future burning.

We cut young firs, up to a foot thick, cherry poles from fifteen to thirty feet high, vine-maple as thick as the cherry but only half as tall, and here and there a tough piece of crab-apple. The brush was so thick that what was cut could only fall one way, so that the patch each man had cut by dinner-time was ridiculously small. Of course, the whole valley was not brush-covered-very far from it; there were great open spaces of clear grass, with here and there a tuft of blue lupin and rose-bushes. The firs once cut off were done with, and the stump would rot out of the ground in a year or two. The cherry-brush was no bad enemy, either; the young shoots would sprout from the root next year, but sheep would bite them off and kill the cherry out in a couple of seasons. But by all accounts the vine-maple was as tough in life as in texture, and that it was tough in texture our poor arms testified when night came.

For a few days we tried to be our own cooks, one of the party in turn being detailed for the purpose; but much good victuals was spoiled. So I sent into town for a Chinaman cook. That too much Chinaman is bad, I am prepared to support my neighbors in believing; but enough Chinaman to have one at call whenever you think fit to send for him is a comfort indeed. So Jem, as he called himself, came out to us. He wore a smile all day long on his broad face; and he was caught reading earnestly in a poetry-book he must have found left out of one of our bags; so I conclude he was a learned Chinaman. But he had strange fancies for his own eating. He cooked a wild-cat that was shot, and we laughed; but he proceeded next to skin and eat a skunk that had fallen a victim to its curiosity to see how white men lived, and had trespassed inside the hut; and that was too much. We tasted, or thought we tasted, skunk in the bread for a day or two, so we sent Jem back.

Turn out at five, breakfast over by soon after six, work till noon; then from one till six; then supper, and camp-fire, and pipes and talk till nine, and then to bed. Such was our regular life, certainly a healthy and not an unpleasant one.

DEER AND HUNTING.We had an excitement one night. The hut stood at the corner of the clearing, with a couple of good-sized firs in front of the door. A wood-covered hill came close to it on the right and rear. We were going to bed, when there was a howl outside, followed by a chorus from our three hounds. Out rushed a couple of us into the starlight with rifles in hand. The dogs had sent whatever creature it was up into one of the fir-trees and bayed fiercely round. Nothing could be seen among the thick branches. One of the party, an enthusiast, though a novice in woodland sport, got right close to the tree-trunk and managed to make out a form against the sky some twenty feet above his head. At once he fired, and down came the creature almost on his head; fortunately for him, the hounds attacked it at once, and a royal fight and scrimmage went on in the dark. Presently the intruder fought its way through the dogs to the rail-fence, but mounting it showed for an instant against the sky, and a second rifle-shot brought it down. Dragged to the light, some called it a catamount, but others more correctly a wild-cat (Lynx fasciatus). A right handsome beast it was, with short tail, and tufted ears, and spotted skin. It was and remains the only one that has been seen. It was attracted, no doubt, by some mutton we had hung up in the fir to be out of the way of the dogs. Fortunate, indeed, was our friend to escape its claws and teeth, as it has the reputation of being the fiercest and hardest to kill of all the cats found in Oregon.

The woods in front of the hut across the valley were a sure find for deer, and we could kill one almost any day by planting a gun or two at points in the valley which the deer would make for, and then turning the hounds into the woods above. It is a poor kind of hunting at the best, this hiding behind a bush and watching, it may be for hours, for the deer. You hear the cry of the hound far away, gradually growing nearer, and presently the deer breaks cover, and either swims or runs and wades down the river toward your stand; occupied solely with the trailing hound, and ignorant of the ambushed danger in front, the shot is generally a sure and easy one at a few paces' distance, often within buck-shot range from an ordinary gun.

THE SKILLFUL AXEMAN.Before the summer had passed,

enough brush had been cut to clear some fifty acres of the valley, and we left the cut stuff piled in long rows to dry till next summer, that the burning might be a complete one when we did put fire to it. The fires would need tending for a day or two, and feeding with the butt-ends of the long poles, to finish the work; grass-seed sown on the ashes with the first autumn rains would speedily make excellent pasture in that deep and fertile soil. The fencing of the cleared acreage, and the plowing up and sowing with oats and wheat of some eight or ten acres of land from which the roots and stumps had been carefully grubbed out, would complete a "ranch," according to the Oregon fashion, and section 33 would lose that name and assume that of its first owner. The transformation from wild land to tame would be complete, and my work in connection with it would be done. So much for one way, and that the simplest, of making a home in Oregon. Longer experience taught us cheaper methods. For the large clearing-party with its attendant expense and need of oversight may be substituted clearing by contract; when some one or two of the poorer and more industrious homesteaders will contract to cut and clear at so much the acre or the piece, boarding themselves, and taking their own time and methods of doing the work. Some of the Indians are masters of the axe, and will both make a clearing bargain and stick to it, provided you are careful to keep always a good percentage of their pay in hand till the work is finished: fail to do this, and some rainy day you will find no ringing of the axe amid the trees, and their rough camp will be deserted, its inhabitants gone for good. I like to watch a skillful axeman. Set him to one of the big black trunks, six feet through. Watch how he strolls round it, axe on shoulder, determining which way it shall fall. He fetches or cuts out a plank, six or eight inches wide, and four feet long, and you wonder what he will do with it. A few quick blows of his keen weapon, and a deep notch is cut into the tree four feet from the ground; the plank is driven into it, and he climbs lightly on it. Standing there, another notch is cut four feet still higher from the ground, and a second plank inserted. Then watch him. Standing there on the elastic plank, which seems to give more life and vigor to his blows, it springs to the swing of the axe and the chips fly fast. As you look, he seems to be inspired with eager hurry, and the chips fly in a constant shower. Soon a deep, wedge-like cut is seen eating its way into the heart of the trunk. In an hour or so he has finished on that side, and leaves it. Taking the opposite side of the tree, he is at it again, and a big wound speedily appears. Long before the heart is reached, a loud cracking and rending is heard. The axeman redoubles his efforts. The tree shakes and quivers through all its mass, and then the top moves, slowly at first, then faster, and down it comes, with a crash that wakes the echoes in the hills for miles and shakes the ground. Then send him into the thick brush, where the stems are so crowded that they have shot high up into the sky. Two cuts on one side, and one on the other, an inch or two from the earth, and he drops his axe, and leans all his weight against the stem. It cracks and snaps; he shakes it, and gently it sways, bending its elastic top till it touches the ground before the stem has left its hold on Mother Earth. Before it has had time to fall its neighbor is attacked, and a broad strip of sunlight is soon let into the wood. Hard work? Of course it is: a day's chopping will earn you sore wrists and aching arms, but a fine appetite and the soundest of sleep. Unless a new-comer has had experience in the art and practice of wood-cutting, he will find it too slow work to undertake with his own hands the clearing of wild land to make his homestead. Let him buy a place where some of the rough early work has been already done, and there are plenty to be had, and by all means let him by degrees, and as time serves, enlarge his clearing and extend his fields. Or, let him contract for the clearing at so much the acre. Some of the very best wheat-land in this valley is covered with oak-grubs which have sprung up within the last twenty years to a height of from ten to twenty feet. Chinamen are generally used to clear this land, being engaged at the rate of from eighty to ninety cents a day; that is, from three shillings fourpence to three shillings tenpence English. They want looking after closely to get full value from their work. They come in gangs of any size wanted, and have to be provided with a rough hut to sleep in; they furnish their own food and cooking. The oak-wood is not only cut, but the roots are grubbed out, and the land left ready for the plow. The wood is cut into four-feet lengths and stacked ready for carting away. It is worth almost anywhere in the valley not less than three dollars a cord; that is, a pile eight feet long, four feet wide, and four feet high. Thus the farmer who has a little capital and so can afford the first outlay, need not hesitate to clear this oak-grub land, as the value of the cord-wood and the first year's crop should more than defray the expense of the grubbing.

In England it is usual to bring into farming course gradually woodland that has been cleared, sowing oats first. Here, on the contrary, the farmer may expect a good wheat crop from his cleared woodland the first year.

Yet another method of clearing is very effective and economical, especially at a distance from the haunts of Chinamen. A strong wooden windlass is made and fitted with a long lever for one horse. The windlass is anchored down near the oak-grub or cherry-brush to be got rid of. A strong iron chain is caught round the bush and attached to the windlass. The horse marches round and round, and winds up the windlass-rope; the roots soon crack and tear. The farmer stands by, axe in hand, and one or two strokes sever the toughest roots, and the bush is torn up by main force, root and branch. One man and a horse can thus do the work of six men, and do it effectually too.

PROFITS ON A VALLEY FARM. Before we turn to other subjects let me give some idea of what a newly arrived farmer may expect to get, if he settles on a valley farm.

Suppose the farm to consist of 400 acres, of which 150 acres are plowed land, the remainder being rough pasture, and 30 acres brush. Of the 150 acres, 90 acres would be in wheat and 60 in oats and timothy-grass. The wheat-land would produce 26 bushels to the acre, or 2,340 bushels in all. The value may be taken to be 90 cents the bushel, on an average of years, or $2,106 in all. The farmer would have a flock of 250 sheep, the produce from which in wool and lambs would not be less than $300 a year. He would breed and sell two colts a year, yielding him certainly $125, probably half as much more. He would have ten tons of timothy-hay to sell, producing $75. He should fat not less than a dozen hogs, worth $10 each, or $120. We will say nothing of milk, butter, eggs, fruit, and garden produce; but, from the sources of profit we have enumerated, you will find the return to be $2,726.

The necessary expenses would be the wages of one hired hand, say $300 a year; harvesting, $150, and other expenses, such as repairs to implements, horse-shoeing, and wheat-bags for the grain, $276, leaving a net return of $2,000. Supposing that the cost of the farm was $25 an acre, or $10,000 in all, I think the return is a pretty good one on such a figure, even if another $1,000 or $1,500 has to be added for implements, farm-horses, and sheep, to start with.

The figures I have given are from the actual working of a thoroughly reliable man, but relate to a year slightly above the general average of profit. You will see a large possibility of improvement in bringing more of the unbroken land into cultivation, either in grain or in tame grasses, and better sheep and cattle feed. So much for a valley farm at present prices. Naturally, the figures will alter as time goes on, as I do not imagine that the present prices of land will continue stationary, in the face of new railroads, improved communications, and growing population.

Let us look at the opportunities of an emigrant with less capital and greater willingness to dispense with some of the valley advantages.

PROFITS ON A FOOT-HILLS FARM.His 400 acres would probably give him only 50 acres of farming, cleared land; but adjoining, or at any rate near by, he would find land belonging still to the Government, or untilled and unfenced, for his cattle to range over. He would have, say, 20 acres of wheat, giving him 500 bushels, and 30 acres of oats and timothy-hay, yielding 600 bushels of oats, of which 200 would be for sale, and the rest for use and seed, and 30 tons of hay. He would have, say, 40 cattle, of which 15 would come into market each year. The average value of these would be $18, or $270 in all. Add 20 hogs at $10, or $200 in all. He must also raise and sell three colts a year, giving him $150. Looking to smaller items of profit, the farmer's wife should have ten pounds of butter a week to sell, at any rate, through the summer months, which at 20 cents a pound would give her $2 a week for 25 weeks, or $50 in all. Eggs should yield also not less than $40 in the year. This all totals to $1,240, against an original outlay of $10 an acre, or $4,000 in all for the farm, and $1,500 for implements and stock.

If the farmer is a sportsman, he may add a good many deer in the course of the year to the family larder, and also pheasants and partridges and quail, from August to November. I use the local names, the ruffed grouse and the common grouse being in question.

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