In preparing for the 150th anniversary of Oregon’s land grant university, we found ourselves wondering: where’s the land that was granted?
Like many people, we’d assumed that the land that was granted was the land that was built upon, there at the edge of the town of Corvallis. We were wrong.
The land that Abraham Lincoln’s government granted to the brand-new state of Oregon for their land grant institution was somewhere in what would later become Lake and Klamath counties. The granted land was intended to be sold and the money used to build the college in Corvallis.
What happened to that land, and where exactly is it? We hit the road to find out.
Leaving OSU and heading south and east, over the Cascades and into Oregon’s high desert, we first arrived at Fort Rock, a volcanic amphitheater where archeologists discovered the world’s oldest shoes: 70 pairs of woven sagebrush-bark sandals more than 10,000 years old. This was a time when ice-age glaciers were retreating from the Northwest’s interior. This region was home to native Americans who may very well have been the ancestors of more modern Klamath, Modoc, Paiute, and Warm Springs tribes of Central Oregon.
Continuing another half hour south-east along a sleepy country road, we passed endless sagebrush punctuated by occasional alfalfa fields and circles of pivot irrigation. Eventually, we arrived in the tiny town of Christmas Valley, an interesting place with a long and storied past.
For much of the past 150-odd years, this area was what many would consider the classic “old West,” populated mostly by tough-as-nails buckaroos, as well as (for a time, anyway) adventurous homesteaders from the East, who rode wagons to this new land hoping to eke out a life for themselves and their families. Based upon stories and photos, it would appear that many of these homesteads failed. While beautiful, Oregon’s arid high desert can be a very unforgiving place, with temperature extremes and scarce water resources taking their toll on most except for the very hardy.
This is big, open country, with room for free-range cattle to share with the desert’s wild creatures; deer, antelope, mustangs, quail, coyotes, bobcats, and jackrabbits all call this area home.
Named after pioneer stockman Peter Christman, the town of Christmas Valley itself didn’t really come into being until 1961, when a California real-estate developer by the name of M. Penn Phillips sought to develop the town as a Christmas-themed planned community. Envisioned as an Oregon version of Palm Springs, Christmas Valley soon had an airport, a golf course, and a lodge with an artificial lake. Phillips wined and dined out-of-towners, pitching Christmas Valley as a great investment opportunity. All the parcels were sold, some sight unseen. However, the same conditions that challenged the homesteaders dashed Phillips’ plans. With no sewer system and an unreliable water supply, much of Christmas Valley was a bust. To this day, many of those original lots along Jingle Bell Lane and Mistletoe Road remain covered in sagebrush and juniper.
What’s left is a small town with a lot of unique character. While there, Stephen and I had the honor of sitting down in a small diner with retired cowboy and long-time Christmas Valley resident, Dave Womack. I had met Dave about ten years ago, as we huddled around another diner’s wood stove in the dark early-morning hours with an outside temperature of minus twenty. Womack knows a lot of the Christmas Valley lore, and it was fun to hear again his tales about the barefoot hermit wrapped in burlap; the fully-stocked abandoned school bus parked and hidden a few miles off the road; and my favorite — the alien-suspected cattle mutilation.
Dave’s stories could have kept us enthralled for hours, but Stephen and I were still in search of the land grant land. Our next stop was the home of a delightful gentleman named Harold Miles. Harold’s ancestors were among the few hardy settlers who came here to graze cattle in the region’s bottomlands in the 1860s, around the time that Oregon’s Agricultural College was just getting started. Harold has spent most of his life here. Just this year, he passed the management of the Miles Ranch to his grandson, Daniel, a 2013 graduate of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Harold told us how ranchers first arrived in the region seeking cheap land. The large ZX Ranch in Paisley, for example, was established in the 1880s by a prospector. He eventually sold the marshy land, which was subsequently drained and channeled into an extensive irrigation network that made large-scale hay production possible. Cattle ranching, in turn, expanded throughout the early 20th century.
Life had been hard. Harold told us that his grandfather, as a child in 1894, had survived a Christmas Eve fire in the Christman Bros. Store in Silver Lake, saved by his mother who threw him out a second-story window and into a wagon below. Harold suggested that we visit the Silver Lake Cemetery on our way south and see the monument that honors the 43 victims of that long-ago fire.
From the Silver Lake Cemetery, Stephen and I continued on to Lakeview where we met with county assessor, Dave Knowles. With Dave’s encyclopedic knowledge of the region, we were able to locate original sales documents of the properties granted to the agricultural college. And, to our delight, he helped us cross-reference the documents with township maps.
The land that originally funded Oregon State University is in more than a dozen parcels. Most are clustered in this hay and cattle country; some are in the tall timberland of Douglas and Josephine counties. We left Knowles’ office with photocopies of a few hand-written bill-of-sales. The cursive handwriting is difficult to read, and the transaction language is old-school, but the document clearly records the payment of $223.75 by George W. Avery “for the sale of School Lands” in June 1877.
State of Oregon to George W. Avery
In consideration of two hundred and twenty three 75/100 Currency – Dollars paid to the Board of Commissioners for the sale of School Lands, the State of Oregon doth grant, bargain, sell and convey unto George W. Avery, his Heirs and Assigns the following described premises to wit; Lots Nos. One (1) and two (2) of Section twenty four (24) Township thirty four (34) South 19 East Willamette Merridian containing 89.50 acres of Agriculture College land and situate in Lake County State of Oregon. To have and to hold the said premises with their appurtenances, unto the said George W. Avery his heirs and Assigns forever; and that the State will warrant and defend the same from all lawful claims whatsoever. Witness the Seal of the State affixed This 15th day of June 1877.
S.F. Chadwick, Governor.
S.F. Chadwick, Secretary.
A.H. Brown, Treasurer.
We followed the maps that Dave Knowles had provided. Several miles southeast of Paisley, we found part of the original land grant: wide open country, now green with irrigated hayfields and pastures. Somewhere out there was a parcel of land, the only thing our civil-war-torn nation had to offer as seed money to grow Oregon’s land grant university. The rest is history.