Account of Life in Sams Valley and Early Life
By Linsy Sisemore
Fort Klamath, Mar. 30, 1940
I have been for the last couple of years making notes of things I remember of our valley life and events as I remember them. It [is] a long trail to try [to] hark back over.
Naturally, this will be a record of events as they come to my mind. After starting this rambling record I began seriously [to] think at 70 we are prone to exaggerate on events, not intentionally, of course, but it seems we just do. One does not notice it in himself, of course, as he does in others whom he has known since boyhood, so I shall not overdraw on things but record them as I know they were.
My parents, John Sisemore and Mary Sisemore (formerly Mrs. Enoch Pelton), whose maiden name was Mary Roe, each crossed the plains by ox teams, Mother in 1852. Father's date I do not know definitely; from what he told of his life in the West I conclude it was about the same date.
Father was born in Kentucky, Mother in Missouri. Father came the southern route into California [i.e., the Applegate Trail]; Mother by the northern down the Columbia River [the Oregon Trail]. I know but little of Father's life up to 1858 when he came to Oregon. Father was born 1835, Mother 1837. Father died 1910, Mother 1902.
Father was an orphan at 12 years and spent some of [his] early life on a horse ranch, became a jockey and rode until he became too heavy. He was, at maturity, 6'4" and weighed around 220 pounds, dark complected. He never attended school a day but had a good mind and was very apt in figures mentally. In fact, he had a lot of common sense and was very gentility [sic]. He enjoyed, most of any sport, horse racing. He too was a poker player--as were most of the California miners, where he spent several years. When he came to Oregon he soon joined Pelton, Mother's first husband, who died early in the '60s, in land and livestock business. They located in Sams Valley, a part of Jackson County [Oregon]. The valley in which they located was named for Captain Sam, captain of the Rogue Indians, a tribe now extinct.
I do not know when the Roeses came to southern Oregon. I have heard Mother speak of having worked for the Ish family, who had a large ranch near Jacksonville. By her marriage to Pelton she had 3 sons, Horace, James and John. John was the youngest and was 9 years older than me. The partnership continued on, Sisemore & Pelton, until 1885.
The emigrants spoke of the year 1852 as the year the cholera was bad. My grandmother and one of her daughters were buried at the roadside near The Dalles, Mother never knew just where. They were out of food when they reached the Columbia. Relief came from Oregon City, but charged $1.00 per pound for flour, and many of them gave their last dollar for food. They went by raft down to the mouth of the Willamette River, truly pioneering the West.
My first recollection [is] to 1875, when Father had a new home built. It was a large 2-story, 9-room place which burned down in 1882. It was a long job building it, as the lumber had to be hand dressed. That was the first frame house I can remember being in. Our old home was a 1½-story hewn log [house of] 4 rooms. I remember very well our first year in the new home; we were visited by D. S. K. Buick, who was a Grange organizer. He gave [me] my first lead pencil and cautioned me not to mark on the new house. I don't remember of ever having had any money up to that time.
About ¼ mile from the new house was a school house where I attended my first school. The teacher was a tall, slender Irishman with a long, red beard. His name was Brogan, and was I scared of him. Our first task was to learn to say the alphabet forward and backward. As I remember now I had them about learned when our 3 months was finished. That was all the school we had in a year except when we happened to have enough money for a spring term, which was not often. There were no grades in school at that time; one teacher would have as many as 60 pupils ranging from the first to the fifth reader. You can imagine the work a teacher had to do. Some of the older pupils had as high as 5 studies. The teacher's wage as long as I attended school was $33⅓ per month. Many of our teachers were young girls whose education would about compare to an 8th grade pupil of today. The teacher boarded with the pupils; [the] time with a family depended on the number of pupils in the family.
On the ranches Pelton and Father had acquired there were some orchards; new settlers would buy apples. I remember seeing Father sell two wagon boxes full; one wagonload he sold for $1.50, as they were picked from the tree; the other load he sold for 50 cents, as those were picked off of the ground. This illustrates the market condition with us at that time. It was all local, and no one had any money to speak of.
Wheat was hauled to the mill and ground; [the] miller kept part of the flour as his pay. We would then dust out the wheat sacks, fill them with flour, haul it home, [and] later trade it to the merchants for what we had to buy, or sell it along with bacon and lard to miners. One of our best markets was Kerby, now a small village out from Grants Pass.
In 1871 Father bought "the salt works." There was a small salton spring about 20 miles from Jacksonville. [Martin Peterson mentions salt works of the era "at the head of the west branch of Evans Creek."] The water was run down from the hillside into 60-gallon iron kettles, which were on a crude rock furnace. When the kettles were full a fire was lit in the furnace. The water evaporated, leaving the salt, which was sold. I have wished since [that] I had asked how much salt he got from 60 gallons of water.
I forgot to mention our school teachers received $100 for three months, $33⅓ per month.
When I was a boy the feeling was pretty strong between Northern and Southern people. My people, being Southerners, were a little leery of a "Yank," and as I remember then the Northerners were a little better traders than Southerners.
Harvest was a big job. Most of the ranches had a reaper, a machine which cut very much like a mower except it had a reel which struck the grain as it came in contact with the sickle, causing it to fall on a flat form, where it was carried a few feet. The platform was divided, leaving the grain in a bunch. That was followed by men who took a "whisp," a handful of the grain, and bound the bunch, stood it on end and rushed on to the next clump. Threshing was done by horsepower; 8 or 12 spans of horses were hitched to [a] long sweep and went around and around, turning a big cog wheel, which turned a small pinion on the end of the "tumbling rod," which operated the separator. All the men boarded at the farm home. It took a pretty good-sized crop to feed the men and horses.
In 1869 Father took a drove of hogs and a pack train from Jackson County to the mines in Idaho, that being the year I was born. I only remember his telling me of it. I do not know what the distance was, nor how long he was on the road. It was probably 500 miles, and at the rate a hog travels it sure was no small job, then to ride a mule on the return trip. It must have been a six-months' trip.
One of the conveniences we had that you will never know was a fly trap. Easily made and very effective. Two 12" boards 4 ft. long hanging from the kitchen ceiling about 1 inch apart, the inner sides smeared with sorghum syrup. In passing one would slap the boards together. You would be surprised now how many you would kill. To make it more effective one of us children would stand by the table while the threshing crew, usually 12 or 14 men, were eating with a stick four or [five] feet long, over which had been folded old newspaper, then slit into strips 6 or 8 inches long. As we would wave that over the table it would keep the flies off of the food and drive them to the trap.
One of the interesting sights of my young life was the first coal oil lamp to come into Sams Valley. Mr. Ganiard, a "Yankee," got one, and while it was interesting to me we were surprised to think one would install in his house a thing so dangerous. It sure was an improvement over our "slut" lamp, a saucer of lard with a cotton string braided tightly in the lard and one end of the string over the edge for a wick.
As there were no grades in school and so many classes, if one had to stay out of school on account of sickness or to help with the ranch work and lost too much time he would at [the] beginning of [the] next term start in at the first of his reader with the new pupils in that reader. I think I must have climbed the second reader ladder a number of times before I got to the top and got into the third.
The Chinamen, of whom there were a great many mining along the streams, afforded quite a market for pork, chickens, flour etc. They worked in camps of various sizes, sometimes as many as 40 or 50 in a camp. They [were] as I remember them very dependable & generous.
One of the important events of the years was camp meeting, and as my parents were Methodist, we of course missed but few. People would come by wagon for miles around with the wagon loaded with a camp outfit and children, and as people had hunting hounds there was naturally a good number of dogs in camp. The camp was usually on a stream where they could immerse the converts. We boys who could successfully sneak away from steeping [sic] through a sermon would very ceremoniously convert and baptize dogs.
Our home was 20 miles from Jacksonville, the county seat of the county. One of the eventful trips of my life was helping Father drive a bunch of fat cattle to Jacksonville. The sheriff had a large ranch near town, and Father paid his taxes with cattle. While in town among other things he bought a broom, and as it was a new one I felt very proud riding home 20 miles with a new broom on my shoulder. The strange part to you no doubt is how we elderly people remember the little events. The main reason is I think is that events such as I speak of were to us as great an event to us as a new type of automobile or as a new war breaking out in Europe is to you.
The first industrial plant I ever saw was "Daddy" Hannah's pottery plant. It was an open shed under which was a corter [sic] hopper, round about, as I remember it 6 ft. in diameter and 4 ft. high. In the center was a post; [set] in the post was a sweep--or pole--one end extending over to about ½ the space from [the] post to [the] side of [the] tank, the other end extending over to a few feet past the side of the tank. I say tank; it was a wooden vat made of puncheons. A puncheon is a thick plant split out of a log. On the short end of the sweep was a chain; attached to the chain was a heavy rock--on the other end he would hitch a mule. Near our home, which was 12 or 14 miles from Hannah's, there was a clay bank--on Sams Creek. The old man would come down and dig out a wagon box of clay, haul it home, shove a part of it into the hopper. He was then ready to start operation. He would dampen the clay, hitch Ajax, the old mule, to the long end of the sweep, turn on the power, not by throwing an electric switch but by throwing a rock at Ajax, and the plant was in operation. Around and around the mule would go, dragging the rock in the dampened clay, thus kneading it. After thoroughly stirring it he would take out a chunk of the size depending on [the] size of the vessel he wanted to make, place it on a short board which whirled round. As he trod with [his] foot to turn it, he would with his hand shape it into vessels for household use. It was surprising to see the number of different things he shaped out. Flower vases, water pitchers, milk pans--as we called them--as we had no milk separators [we] would have to set the milk for the cream to rise. He would shape a lid for the vessel that sat under the beds [chamber pots].
As soon as the clay dried and hardened he placed the vessels in [a] crude stone oven and baked them to a dark brown color. It depended on the size as to cost, but as I remember the average price was 25 cents each.
We felt we were advancing when we got our first plow with [a] riding attachment. 2½ acres per day was a good day's plowing with a walking plow. 3 horses were used on a 14" plow, 2 on a 12" plow. We put on no tap dance in the evening after plowing 2½ acres. While resting my team one day I figured out on my boot top [that] a man to plow 2½ acres would have to walk 17½ miles. Still we had some time to do 17½ miles. We fed brush [to] the horses and harnessed them before breakfast by lantern light. Our regular time of rising in the morning was 5 o'clock.
After breakfast, as one of the ranches was a mile and a half from the house, [omission] reach the field [a] little after sunrise. We carried our lunch and grain for the horses. We usually left the field at sunset. Boy, did [we] have a lot of disappointments in the spring. A spring shower would come up, and it seemed to me the shower usually started when I was at the wrong end of the field; by the time I got to the turning place the rain would stop and I would have to continue on. With horse-drawn implements one would cover about 2 acres to the foot cut of the machine [in a day], 20 acres with a 10-ft. harrow, mower, header etc. Harrowing was usually the boy's job, as he had no handling of the heavy implement; all he had to do was cover 20 acres at [the] rate of [the] 10-ft. width of the harrow. Of course the fresh-plowed ground did not hurt his bare feet. Nor did the soft, loose ground add any to the ease with which he could walk.
After we came in [we] stabled and fed hay to the horses, went to the house, had supper, then got our lanterns and back to the barn. Fed grain, curried the sweat off the horses, bedded them with straw.
We were then ready for bed. Our beds were mostly straw ticks filled [with] oat straw, as it was the softest straw we had. Each year after harvest the ticks were filled with fresh straw.
The first wagon I remember of was a linchpin, deriving its name from the pin which held the wheels on the spindles. They were wooden axles with metal spindles; an iron pin 4 or 5 in. long, about ½" thick and 1", wide placed through the outer end kept the wheel on. As lard was plentiful and cheap it was used to grease wagons a lot. Mixing lard and flour gave body to the grease and it would stay on longer.
We milled our wheat at Eagle Point; [we] would cross Rogue River on [our] way to [the] mill at Bybee's ferry; on [our] way back [we] would ford with no load. At times during running season of salmon the fish would be so thick in the riffles where the ford was it [was] difficult to get horses to cross [apparently due to their skittishness].
Crosscut saws were very rare. [We] would chop down large oak trees and chop the limbs off for wood, leaving the body.
When the first round or wire nails came on the market, some thought they would not be popular. People would waste time straightening bent nails. With the kind
we had, square and [what] were called cut nails, [they were] made out of rather soft cast iron and would not stand straightening if bent.
My first ambition was to be an overland stage driver. They were always well dressed, white shirt and, I suppose, a white celluloid collar, which was most common. The stages had 4 or 6 horses owing to locality; some roads were much worse than others. The distance between changes of horses was around 12 miles, as that is about as far as a horse can stand to go where [he] is going every day.
The driver would arrive at a station, pass the lines to the man in charge, who would unhitch the horses, turn them in the lot and bring out a fresh team already harnessed. The driver drove the same road each day up and back at night. They had lanterns about 8 inches square on each side of the stage, using very large candles. Most of the roads were not graded up nor graveled, and at times the mud would [be] knee deep to a horse.
My first trip to Portland was the winter of 1884. 3 of us swell guys visited the Mechanic's Exposition [October 9-25, 1884. This would have been the first time rail transportation to Portland was available.]. We started with $20.00 each; our round trip ticket was $6. We stayed a week, and I got home with $1.00, arrived at Gold Hill one night and walked 6 miles home that night. We sure had seen a lot of the world. Every runner for a hotel that showed us any favor we moved to his hotel. It was no trouble to move, since we had no baggage and not much room rent to pay. We 3 slept in one bed.
Every rancher was his own veterinarian. If a cow was sick she either had the holler horn or had lost her cud; the thing to do was to make her one. Rolling up some bacon rind in a salted dishrag made a fine one, poke it down her throat. The theory was she had to swallow one to force another one up.
If she had holler horn the remedy was to slit the skin of her tail just above the bush and put salt and pepper in the slit and wrap a cloth around it. Naturally she, if not too sick, would get up and move right off. If she died the conclusion was she was not treated soon enough; if she got well, "I knew it would cure her."
Sheep manure tea was a very good remedy for youngsters with measles.
The first bridge on Rogue River in Jackson County was where the railroad bridge is at Gold Hill [I'm pretty sure there was one at Rock Point earlier]; it was a toll bridge, 25 cts. for a single crossing or $7.00 a year for Sams Valley ranchers.
After hog butchering in the fall came soap making. All of the hardwood ashes were saved and placed in an ash hopper built very much like a feed rack except not large, and the slats were shakes placed tight together so when water was poured on the ashes it would soak through and follow the shakes into a trough and empty into a vessel. After soaking through the ashes it would come out strong lye, about the color of good coffee. It would then be emptied into an iron kettle and bacon rind, trimmings and any other fat, tallow or lard [added] and boiled and stirred often. The lye would "eat" the fat until it would become, when cooled, soap. It was quite an accomplishment to make the soap white and solid.
When I hear a radio I sometimes think of when we first heard of the wave theory of sound. Rev. J. R. N. Bell, for whom the Bell athletic field at Corvallis was named, told us of a Dr. Hall, a scientist and writer in New York. It seems to me it was about 1880. Although young, it impressed me, and I afterwards read just a little of his writing. One small magazine I remember [was] called The Microcosm. It seems strange one at my age can remember things, events, places, names etc. better than we can of happenings of yesterday.
Southern Oregon Historical Society 1999.100.1, M45C, Box 7
Last revised August 27, 2015