Chapter 19: The New Homestead and the Forge
Chapter 19: The New Homestead and The Forge:
May of 1852. We had been in Oregon now for a year and a half, and on our claim for just over a year. We were settled in now, starting the new claim, and preparing to receive more family in the fall. The valley called Willamette was still full of open spaces and plenty of land, but there were differences as Nathan and I rode up the valley to Oregon City. Marysville had grown into an active town, now called Corvallis, and a lot of claims surrounded it. Independence had grown too, and northwest of there, Salem was much bigger, and was challenging Oregon City to be the new capital of the territory.
But there still were not any fully functional blacksmith forges south of Oregon City or Champoeg, Pa would have the first. The Willamette Valley was a triangle, about forty miles across at the top and coming to a point below Eugene Skinner’s townsite 120 miles to the south. Surrounding it to the west, east and south were mountains, the Cascades to the east, the Coast Mountains, much shorter, but very rugged and thickly wooded to the west, and the a bunch of smaller unnamed mountain ranges to the south, with valleys between each one. Running down a little west of the center of this valley was the Willamette River, with smaller rivers running into it from the mountains in the east and the west. A little ways north of Eugene Skinner’s townsite, the largest of these side rivers, called the McKenzie River, came from the east, and a little ways south of Skinner’s site, the Willamette split into a west and east forks and entered the mountains to the south of the valley. The valley was mostly clear of thick woods because the Kalapooya Indians for generations had burned the woods so that their camas and berries and other food sources would grow and to make fall hunting easier. We had seen this in our winter in Champoeg, but it was a practice all throughout the valley. In the foothills to either side, the woods grew up thick with firs, but in the middle of the valley and many of the smaller offshoot valleys, the land was open grassland with a few oak and other hardwood trees. Settlers were filling up these offshoot valleys, seeing them as natural corrals for stock, and choosing their claims for the most part on the edges of the Willamette Valley where higher ground and timber could be claimed as well as clear crop land.
While the riverside of the Willamette was still very open all the way to Oregon City except for a few town sites, we wondered if levees would eventually tame this river like they did in the Mississippi River Valley.
When we arrived in Oregon City, the town was bustling and active. It was a little bigger than it had been two years before when I first saw it, but the biggest difference was all the traffic. There were well established roads leading to the northwest to a new town called Milwaukie and the new town of Portland across the ferry, and a good road now leading south to Salem. Steamboat traffic above and below the falls was more active, and there appeared to be more mills along the river. We stopped in the surveyor’s office and made our claims.
While we were there, Nathan asked about opening a surveyor’s office down in Eugene’s City. The man in the office saw the need for it, but he couldn’t make the decision without approval from the Federal Government, so he wrote a letter back east, included in his letter a recommendation for Nathan as surveyor, and said hopefully, we’d hear back this fall or maybe next spring.
Our next stop was McLoughlin’s Store. He had the anvil, but he insisted we stay to dinner and leave the next morning. I said we could stay for dinner, but would need to leave that evening to get back for harvest and building.
At the dinner, who did I see but Lucinda and her son John, the young mother and child we had helped in Iowa two years before. I introduced her to Nathan and asked her, “How long have you been in Oregon?”
“Just since last fall,” she answered, St. Joseph’s was a rough town and we decided to head out the next spring with a wagon train to Oregon. John’s parents came down from Illinois, and we traveled with them, but they both died on the trail, so when I got here, little John and I were alone again. Dr. McLoughlin and his wife were gracious enough to take us in while we figure out what to do next.”
“You have been welcome, Lucinda.” said Dr. McLoughlin, “it has been good to have you here.”
“I am working down at the hotel cleaning rooms and cooking,” Lucinda added, “I hope to get my own place soon, I don’t like to impose on the McLoughlin’s much longer. Please tell me how your family is.”
Dr. McLoughlin was about to protest that she wasn’t imposing at all, but he held his tongue and let me speak. I told her about our arrival, splitting up in The Dalles, arriving in Oregon City, wintering in Champoeg, and our first year down in the upper valley. I told her about our claim, and Nancy’s marriage and baby Thomas, and Ma’s new baby Thomas. I told her about the flood and the new claim, the lot in town for a forge, the new claim Nathan and Nancy had just made. I told her our grandparents and Ma’s brother would be out in the fall we hoped, and I talked for almost forty minutes without a pause. Lucinda sat rapt, her attention all on my story, and Dr. and Mrs. McLoughlin kept exchanging glances I wasn’t sure I fully understood what they were smiling about.
Finally, Nathan said we needed to head out of town if we were going to get back in enough time to help with the building and planting. We thanked McLoughlin, said goodbye to his wife and Lucinda, and made our way to the door.
“Make sure to stop in when you come up for your grandparents in the Fall.” Dr. McLoughlin said as he shook hands with us at the door, “and let us know how everything goes this summer.”
“Will do, sir”, I said as we mounted our horses.
We went down to McLoughlin’s store and got the anvil. We realized it was far too heavy to carry on the back of a horse, and we didn’t have a wagon. Nathan suggested making a travois, and we bought some canvas. I went down to the river bank, and found two sturdy saplings of ash and cut them, removing the branches and the thin weak tips. Nathan and I sewed the canvas so that it made loops for the sapling trunks, and we attached the top end of the trunks to either end of the saddle.
Once we had everything in place, we loaded on the anvil, and began to slowly make our way down river. On the road, it was not too hard pulling the travois behind the horse. But south of Salem, where we had to travel cross country, it was a different matter.
We spent our first night in Salem, then took up the more challenging part of the trip the next morning. In some places, where the winter floods had left residue of rocks and tree branches behind, the bumpy surface caused problems for dragging the heavy travois behind. It could catch on rocks or branches, or worse, on hidden roots and jerk the horse around when it did. Soon, my horse was jumpy and nervous from all the yanking on him from the load he carried. We traded horses, but ended up with mine pulling the travois most of the way because Nathan’s horse was even more nervous and jumpy. Then in some places, where the soil was still wet and muddy from the spring, the bottom of the travois would dig into the mud with its heavy load forcing it downward. We had to untangle or dig up the travois several times, slowing us down considerably. A few times, we hooked both horses to the travois and led them, but this only was worth the added stress of the two horses trying to work together when we were making our way uphills.
If we went to higher ground away from the river, the up and down nature of the rolling hills created their own problems. When we were going up, the extra weight caused the horse to really struggle and strain, and we had to stop a number of times on even small hills so he could rest. Then when going downhill, the weight of the anvil would push against the horse, irritating him, and causing him to struggle with footing.
In the end it took four days of travel between Salem and Eugene’s City, when with horses it should have been just one or two. When we got to Eugene City, the concentrated weight of the anvil made the ferry harder to handle, but the ferrymen were experienced and made it across.
When we got to the building site, Pa and James and Warren were working on building the forge. A man named Wilkins had started a saw mill, and Pa had got hewn logs to frame and build the outside of the forge since we had lost the lumber when the original townsite became a mud hole. On one side, he had cut out a huge hole for the stone fire. A forge had to be much hotter than a home fire, so he was making the forge and chimney entirely of stone. He had cut a door in the front on the opposite side, and already hung up pegs and built work benches on either side of the forge pit.
Warren and James were gathering large stones from the riverbed and making a pile that Pa used to select ones for the forge. Pa dug a shallow basin in the floor of the smithy, then ringed it with rocks and covered the base with a rock floor too. He then built it up, stone by stone, choosing stones that fit together and adhering them with a mud daub.
The bellows, large and made of leather stretched over a wooden frame, were set up to blow air directly onto the coals to fire them, and had to be supported in place and accessible for whomever was pumping them. It was important to get all the details right to get the fire as hot as possible and to allow the smoke to get out of the smithy so we could breathe while we worked.
Pa told us the wheat was planted. He was going to finish here, our job was to get the buckboard and wagon and take hewn logs to the building site for the new cabin. Pa did not want Ma or the baby spending a winter in the rough little cabin we had built to stake a claim. We spent a night at the old homestead with Ma, John, and the little boys, where they tended the garden and the wheat crop. Nancy and her baby had gone over to Nathan’s claim to do indoor work on the cabin there.
Ma was excited to hear that Lucinda was in Oregon and looked forward to seeing her when we went up to Oregon City in the fall to meet her parents and her brother’s family. In the morning, Nathan and I picked up the buckboard and wagon, checked in on Nancy and the baby, then went to work on the new house on the new claim.
It was slower hauling hewn logs and lumber from the mill to the home site and building it up this way. We were making this house to last, though, wood floors, holes for windows, two doors, one in front and one in back, a good sized sleeping loft and a lean to pantry to store food and goods safely. We took weeks to get everything built snugly and together.
Pa and James came up several times from the forge to help with jobs that took more than two men. By the end of June, Pa, James, and Warren had completed the smithy, and orders were coming in. Pa took James with him to run the bellows and help out. We had finished the biggest work on the new house while Pa was there. Now, Warren joined us and we were making our roof shakes of cedar in this house, which we knew would last longer. Pa wanted us to go to the old homestead and help Ma tend the garden and pack up, moving would be a project for the whole rest of the summer.
By August, almost all of our belongings were moved to the new home, Ma and the younger boys were at the new house with our cattle, who were not bothered by Indians this year, James and Pa were at the forge, which was close enough to home that they could ride the four miles home and sleep at the new homestead at night, but John and I stayed in the old cabin so we could tend the garden and watch the wheat. Ma and the younger boys had the milk cows and oxen as well, and two of the horses and the wagon at the new place, Nathan, who had gone back to his claim after the house was built, had the buckboard and one horse, and the chickens for him and Nancy and their baby Thomas, and we had one horse for John and I up at the old homestead.
About once a week, Pa, and sometimes James would ride out to the old place from the forge to see us. He said a lot of the orders in town were people wanting scythes, plows, and harrows so they could better prepare and plant their soil with crops. It was a busy and hard summer, but as we approached harvest time, we had great hope that we were destined for great things.
In late August, it was time to harvest the wheat. Pa closed the forge for harvest and he and James came out to help us harvest. Pa and I would use the scythes, swinging them to cut the wheat, while James and John would follow behind, bundling the wheat up. At the end of the day, all four of us would gather the bundles into shocks to allow the grain to dry. After it was dry, we would load it in the wagon and take it into the barn on the new homestead where we would use the flail to thresh the wheat.
Threshing is where we separated the straw from the heads, then separated the wheat grain from the chaff. We took the straw by the wagonload to be stored at the barn on the new homestead, using the straw for bedding for the horses and milk cows, storing it in a dry corner stall built into the barn. We then bagged up the grain to take to sell.
All total, we had planted about 50 acres of wheat. It took us about 2 weeks to cut it and another week to thresh it when it was ready. We sold the wheat in Eugene City, the new town Eugene Skinner had founded a mile east of the mudhole of the abandoned town site, that Mrs. Skinner named after her husband. Eugene City was finally up and running, and with the bustling activity in the town, there was a ready market for our wheat. There was a grist mill to grind flour for families from their grain, and the excess was sold to steam ship traders who bought it in Eugene City or Marysville or Independence and sold it for profit in Oregon City or Portland, where it was ground into flour. Some of it was also shipped by ocean to the miners in California from Oregon City or Portland.
Our wheat crop, both fed us, and provided the money or goods we needed to improve our claim. After the harvest of the wheat, James and Pa went back to the forge to catch up on all the back orders of tools and equipment in Eugene City, Ma had planted the garden with potatoes, onions, carrots, lettuce, beans, corn, peas, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Some of these seeds she still had that she had brought with her from Iowa, and others, she had bought in Champoeg while we were seeking a claim.
Last spring, we had come up to get her and the kids too late, and we were only able to plant some of the garden, mostly root plants like onions, turnips and carrots. As a consequence, our meals that first winter were pretty basic, biscuits, beef, eggs, milk, potatoes, onions, and carrots, and edible plant material we could gather. We had learned from the Kalapooya that Camas Roots could be harvested and cooked like potatoes, and we did that, but our meals were still very simple and repetitive.
This year, with the bigger variety of vegetables, we would have a lot more flavor in our winter diet. Ma and the young boys, Warren, Allen and Baby Thomas, came up to help me and John harvest the garden because Ma wanted the garden harvested her way. Nancy and her baby Thomas came over too, because Nancy had not got to her own homestead early enough to plant a garden there, so she would be harvesting a share from our garden. For a few weeks, we had to hope the cattle could take care of themselves, while Pa, Nathan, or James would run up every evening to check things out and milk the cows.
Harvesting the garden was slow, tedious work, but worth the effort. As we picked, Ma would set aside the vegetables to be used as seed the next year, and preserve the others. Drying was the method to preserve beans, peas, onions, carrots and some others. This involved stringing them, laying them out under cheesecloth in the sun, then hanging them in the pantry or lean to. Cucumbers and tomatoes were pickled. This required a brine and barrels for pickling them. A cooper in Eugene City had begin making barrels this summer, and we were among his many customers. Squash and potatoes would be stored in sacks, kept cool so they would be less likely to sprout in the winter. We also picked and stored some of the greens of these vegetables. Not all of the greens were edible, but any that were, Ma knew how to preserve.
By the time we had finished with the vegetables, taken them back to the new home, and stored them, and added to them picking berries and nuts from the bushes and trees around the new claim, it was late September, time to make the trip up to get our grandparents and uncle George and his family.