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   Chapter 10 No.10

Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 14937

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The trail to the Siletz Reserve-?Rock Creek-?Isolation-?Getting a road-?The surveying-party-?Entrance at last-?Road-making-?Hut-building in the wilds-?What will he do with it?-?Choice of homestead-?Fencing wild land-?Its method and cost-?Splitting cedar boards and shingles-? House-building-?The China boy and the mules-?Picnicking in earnest -?Log-burning-?Berrying-parties-?Salting cattle-?An active cow-?A year's work-?Mesquit-grass on the hills.

When I traveled through Oregon in 1877, we visited the Siletz Indian reservation. To get there from the district called King's Valley, where we were, we had to take the mountain-trail first cut out by General Sheridan, when, as a young lieutenant, twenty years ago, he was stationed on this coast. The trail went up one mountain and down another, and crossed this river and that creek, till, at the foot of one long descent from a lofty ridge, which we thought then, and which I know now is, the water-shed between two great divisions of this county, we entered a valley entirely shut in. At the southeastern end, where we entered it, it was a narrow gorge, down which a quick stream hurried, with many a twist and turn, and over many a rocky ledge. The hill-sides above were thick with fern and berry-bearing bushes, and the black trunks of the burned timber stood as records of the great fire; but the stream ran through a leafy wilderness, where maple, alder, and cherry shut in the trail, and the maiden-hair and blechnum ferns grew thickly along the banks. The valley widened out as we advanced, and we found it in shape almost like an outspread hand, the palm representing the central level bottom, and the fingers the narrow valleys and ca?ons between the encompassing hills. The trail led us by turns along the bottom and the lower steps of the hill-sides. We camped to dine, and explored some distance up the side-valleys, coming on old Indian camping-places, with the bones of deer and beaver scattered round.

The isolation of the place, hidden away there among the hills, the fresh abundance of the vegetation, the mellowness of the thick, fat soil shown where we crossed again and again the creek dividing the valley down its entire length, all charmed me; the steep yet rounded outlines of the hills often recurred to me when I was very far away. When I came back to Oregon, in 1879, I took the first chance I had of going over this old ground.

The question was, if it were possible to run in a road out of the main Yaquina road, which I knew lay but some five or six miles off.

So I sent out a surveying-party to ascertain, and a rough time they had. It rained almost incessantly; the brush was thick; they lost their way; it got dark, and they went wandering on till they struck a trail which led them to a river. "Now we're all right," said the leader; "this is the Yaquina; the road is on the other side of the creek." So they struck into the rushing water, then running in flood, and waded across waist-deep. But no road on the other side; only a dark trail leading into thick brush. Presently it was pitch-dark, and the surveyor confessed he did not know where he was; that this was certainly not the Yaquina, and apparently there was no road. The rain still fell heavily, and saturated them and their packs. Then one of the horses, which they were leading along, slipped from the bank into the flooded stream, and nearly dragged his owner after him. At last they determined to camp. Not a dry spot and no dry wood could they find. So they lay down under the shelter of the biggest log, and ate a supper of raw bacon and an odd lump of stale crust. Not even a match would light, and they staid out the weary hours of darkness as best they could, wishing for dawn.

With the earliest light they were on foot once more, and, after wandering a little farther, the leader identified the Rock Creek Valley, and pointed out the Siletz trail. They had found a route, but certainly not the route I wanted.

Next I went out myself and questioned the settlers down the road as to the trails across. At last we struck on what looked from a distance the lowest gap in the encircling mountains, and made up our minds to keep on trying for a road through that till we got it, or were satisfied it was impossible. Perseverance answered, and we struck a trail up the course of the Yaquina River nearly to its source, and then through some thick wood to the foot of the mountain, on the other side of which was the Rock Creek Valley; then up the mountain to the low gap, and thence the way was plain down into Rock Creek.

ROAD-MAKING.Road-making in Oregon is like road-making elsewhere. We had a party of twelve or fourteen men at work, and had to build three huts at intervals before the road got through. The huts only took a few hours to construct. Cut down a dozen cherry poles, straight and long; saw off a cedar log and split it up again and again, till you get planks out of it four feet long and about an inch or so thick. Drive your cherry poles into dug holes, and set up the frame of your hut; build a recess five feet wide and two feet deep at one end for a chimney; board the whole in, and double the boarding on the roof; line the inside of the chimney with damp earth for about two feet up, and then carry that up above the roof of your house also by boards; hang a door on a couple of wooden hinges made by choosing strong forked pieces of crab-apple which will not split; beat down the floor level and hard, and, if you are very luxurious, set up standing bed-places, or bunks, of cherry-pole legs and cedar boards for the beds, and your habitation is complete-as soon, that is, as you have brought in a huge back-log and set a great fire blazing. Cut off a few chunks of wood level for chairs, and fix two or three boards against the walls for shelves, and you have no idea of the comfort you can get out of your house.

We dug, and graded, and moved logs, and built bridges, and laid corduroy crossings over wet places, and in about three months the way into Rock Creek was clear. I confess to a little pride when the first wagon went safely in, and down into the level bottom below. The next question was the hard one, What will he do with it? The wilderness was before us; how were we to civilize it? Gazing down into the valley, with here a ferny slope, there a copse filling acres of bottom, then a deep ca?on with green trees, there a beaver-dam flooding the best piece of land at every high water, and everywhere the great black trunks, standing or lying prostrate, in some places heaped together in the wildest confusion-it was a case that called for the "stout heart to the stiff brae."

The first thing was to settle the place for a homestead, supplied with water, but out of the reach of flood. And a rising ground, some hundred yards from the river, along one side of which ran a clear little stream at right angles to the creek, supplying a chain of three beaver-ponds, overhung with trees and shrubs, was chosen.

FENCING WILD LAND.The next thing was to find out the most open spaces, free from logs and brush, and which could be plowed for oats and hay. Three such were soon set apart, lying far distant from each other, and therefore giving three distinct centers from which clearing should spread. Then the plow was set to work to tear up the ferny ground, and what few logs there were had to be cut in pieces and split for burning. Next came the fencing.

It takes five thousand rails, ten feet long and five or six inches thick, to make a mile of snake-fence. A man can split from one to two hundred rails a day, according to the soundness and straightness of grain of the timber; and good hands will contract to saw the logs, split the rails, and keep themselves the while, for about a dollar and a quarter the hundred rails. The difficulty was, that not one in forty of the fallen logs was sound, and the rail-splitters had to wander all up and down the valley and far up the hill-sides to get the right material. However, eleven thousand rails were provided and gradually hauled to their places, and the fields and the intervening spaces of wild lands all fenced in.

Meanwhile, as we were too far from a mill to haul lumber to any advantage, we had to rely on the cedar, which splits more evenly and easily than the fir; and some five thousand boards, six inches wide and from four to six feet long, were got ready; while the timbers for the house and barn were split from straight-grained, tough fir. Then came the shingles, and a contract at two and a half dollars a thousand set two excellent workmen going, and first fifty thousand and then twenty thousand more were made on the spot. Then the house-building and barn-raising went on merrily, though with constant grumbling at the expense of time in preparing the rough materials, instead of having ready-sawed lumber from the mill. We sent to the saw- and planing-mill, fifteen miles away, for doors and windows, and one wagon brought in all that were needed for a nine-roomed house, at a cost of just eighty dollars; the doors and door-frames ready, and the windows duly glazed. At last the house was barely habitable, and we moved in in patriarchal procession.

We treated ourselves to one China boy to cook and wash. For his benefit a cooking-stove was sent out, and set up in a handy kitchen, close to but detached from the house. These China boys are well off for sense. The wagon was heavily laden with stores, and the mules were struggling up a muddy hill. "Get out, John, and walk," said the Scotch driver, and John had to obey. Long before the top was reached, John got in again at the rear, and scrambled back into his place. "Get out, John, I tell you!" "Never mind, Kenzie; horsee no see me get in; they know no better."

But a good deal of the cooking went on over a bright fire of logs down on the ground in front of the house, where the tripod of sticks stood, with the black kettle depending. For the children it was a continuous picnic; two or three times a day they were bathing in the river; and whenever they were not tending the fires, which were burning up the logs and brushwood all the time, they were off, fishing down the creek.

There was abundant employment for every hour of the day, and a comfortable assurance that the work once done was done for good; that is, that each patch of ground cleared and sown was so much actual visible gain.

LOG-BURNING.At night the scene was most picturesque-bright stars overhead, and great fires going in twenty places, lighting up the whole valley with a crimson radiance. Some of the huge trunks, fifty or sixty feet high, were lighted by boring two auger-holes so as to meet a couple of feet deep inside the tree; the fire would lay hold of the entire mass, and cataracts of sparks burst out in unexpected places high up the stem, pouring out in a fiery torrent at the top. And then, when the tree had been burning for a day or more, it would fall with a heavy crash, and a great spout of fire would start forth.

And then there were the berrying-parties. All the women and children would start for the hills, and come back, their baskets laden with ripe blackberries, and the crimson thimble-berries, and yellow salmon-berries, and scarlet huckleberries, and later on with the black, sweet sal-lals. And they filled their nut-bags and pockets with the wild hazels.

If it rained too hard, and it did once or twice, the pocket-knives were all in use, and candlesticks, and salt-cellars, and other trifles, were cut out of the ever-useful cherry and crab-apple.

And the cattle had to be salted. This went on near the house, and in the great corral, to get them to recognize their headquarters, a most necessary knowledge for them before the winter set in. They were quick to learn, and, after a time or two, a short excursion down the valley, with a pocketful of salt, and the long-drawn cry of "Suck, su-uck, su-u-uck," would bring a speedy gathering from distant hills and tall patches of valley-fern, and a long procession would follow the caller back to the corral.

These cattle, most of them mountain-bred, do tricks that would make a valley-cow's hair stand on end. We got one fine young heifer into the narrow branding-corral, to milk her. This was shut off from the large corral by a fallen log five feet thick, which looked high enough to keep the idea of scaling it out of any cow's mind. But I saw her make a standing high jump on to the top of the log, and over, as neatly as the best-trained hunter could possibly have done it, even if his rider had the hardihood to put him at it.

Even while getting their own livelihood on the wild feed on the mountain-sides, where you and I could see nothing but fern and thimble-berry bushes, the cows grew fat and yielded abundance of milk, and that very rich. And even through the rainy months of winter the cattle have kept themselves fat and flourishing.

MESQUIT-GRASS ON THE HILLS.The work has now been going on nearly eleven months, and this is the position to-day: The road is made. The house is built, but not quite finished inside. The big barn is finished, with stable attached. The orchard is cleared, plowed, planted with trees, which have now nearly a year's growth, and is in part seeded down into permanent pasture; as to the other part, it is in potatoes and onions. Two fields-one of four, the other of eight acres-are cleared and plowed, and will be in oats this spring. Another field, across the river, is cleared, but not yet plowed. The garden round the house is prepared. Another field, near the house, of about three acres, is cleared, plowed, and now being sowed down in clover. Another clearing, of about two acres, on old beaver-dam land by the river, is planted in cabbages in part, and the rest will be in carrots and beets. About two hundred acres are fenced in for sheep, and about ninety head are on it, helping out the brush-cutting by eating the shoots. About fifteen hundred acres of hill-land were burned and sowed down in mesquit-grass, which is now, at one year old, about three inches high. Some forty head of cattle, chiefly cows and calves, and a few two-year-olds, are in the valley and all doing well; the steers were sold fat to the butcher in December last. The building work has been done by one carpenter and an assistant, and he has had occasional help in preparing boards. The doors and windows came from the mill; and the timbers and boards were got out of the rough logs by separate contract. The outside work has been done by three men, and an occasional fourth. The place will support itself this year, if all goes well, and next year should yield a fair profit. No doubt a more experienced deviser, and more constant supervision, might have shown a speedier profit. But I have given these details by way of example in bringing wild land in, and making a "ranch" of it.

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