Monday, November 15, 2010

Roaming in the High Desert #2

To continue where I left off on my last post...after our tailgate lunch, we headed west across the high desert. Bethel's grandparents, Joe & Ruth Williams had been early desert ranchers and pioneers. Five years after their marriage in 1891, they bought the property for their Rock Island Ranch, south of Riley. This was one place I had never been to visit, and we decided that it was a good day to try and find it. It is not an easy place to get to. For one thing, there is a lot of surface water out in this part of the high desert, which I found very interesting. Another factor is that this land belongs to the Wildlife Bird Refuge, and no one is allowed in when the birds are nesting and then nurturing young. It seemed like a good day in October to go exploring and try to find the spot. My mother and father-in-law had not been there in many years, but remembered some of the landmarks in the vicinity. We did a lot of driving back and forth and around bodies of water, before finding the area that looked most promising. The photo below shows Iron Mountain in the distance, with a newly mowed wild hay field to the left of our rutted road.

The insurance man decided that this was as close as we could get, to the place we wanted to go by road, so he turned left and we headed out across this hay field.

After a lot of bumping, we got as close as we could, and parked the truck. We thought we needed to climb the ridge at the right and then hike across the field for a ways. I was gun-ho, and the insurance man was pleasantly putting up with me. Dad decided to take a nap while we were gone, and Mom thought she would stay with him.
Mom remembered that there was ridge behind the original house, and on the ridge had been a pile of man-placed stones. We thought we could see that on this ridge, so headed out for it. After we had gone a ways across the field I looked back and saw that Mom was trekking along behind us. She had decided to come look too.


This is Joe and Ruth Williams, at their marriage on May 9, 1891, in Burns.


This is the Rock Island Ranch as it looked at the turn of the century. Joe and Ruth bought the property in 1896, and lived there four years. (If you click on the photo you can see the details much better). There is a long wooden boardwalk running from the house out to the fence, and the family is standing on it. This must have been necessary as the entire valley could fill with water in the spring. The ranch served as a way station for anyone crossing the desert. Joe never charged them for food, a night in the barn or feed for their horses. The ranch adjoined the large Double O Ranch, and Joe contracted out to the Double O each summer to harvest their wild hay. He also had wild hay on his own ranch. He ran a hay crew of about 30, and contracted with many other ranches in this area. Joe also had a herd of cattle, wild horses and 5 or 6 hogs each year. One thing Joe always did was make butter and cream. His daughter Louise remembered: "He would milk the cows, then make butter from the cream and put it in firkins. A firkin was a wooden container made of strips of wood about 3/4" thick, then bound together with iron hoops. He made the firkins himself. One firkin held a number of pounds of butter, that were not made all at once. One batch of butter was put in then tamped down solid and covered with brine. At the next churning time the brine was poured off, more butter added, then it was covered with more brine and so on, until it was full. The brine was made of water and salt, strong enough to float an egg. The butter would keep for a long time in that manner. After several firkins were filled, he would take his butter and cream to towns like Prineville, Riley, Burns or even Baker City, where he found a ready market with hotels, stores or individuals." One reason I put all that in (besides it being interesting) is that the only building left on the property is the milk house that Joe built. Nature has done it's work over the last 100 years in obliterating all traces of man's dwelling there, except for this milk house. Joe decided to build a milk house to keep his dairy products cool, and used hand-shaped sandstone blocks. He formed each one, this put them together with mortar layered between, and made his walls three feet thick.

This is how the milk house looks today. The very sturdy front wall is the only thing left standing.


This is the backside, and the wood that's visible is the collapsed roof.



The insurance man decided to climb the ridge behind the milk house and take a look at the pile of rocks. It's been there a long time, as his Grandma Louise remembered it from her childhood. The rust color of the stones is from the lichen. This afforded a great view of the ranch as Joe and Ruth would have seen it, as well as the milk house.

I decided to take a close-up shot of the milk house wall, to show the stones and mortar and the careful building that Joe did. All that work, and they were only there for four years!

Many people have inscribed their initials into the soft sandstone over the years. This is the oldest one: W.P. Dwyer from N.Y. in 1905, five years after Joe and Ruth left.

The insurance man, as Joe's great-grandson, added his initials on this October day in 2010. And the legacy of this man's achievements in a harsh environment is honored.

1 comment:

Laffing Dawg said...

Gosh, this is sooooo interesting. I have never explored this region. I can only imagine all of the stories along the way.
Wonderful journey,
Kathy