Oregon Trails: Bly

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BLY, Ore. — This year marks the 140th anniversary of the first settlement of one of Klamath County’s first towns. And 4th of July weekend, residents of Bly will kick up their heels in celebration

It might be hard to tell today, but this was once quite a bustling town. Today, Bly is about half of it’s biggest population, with many vacant buildings and many buildings not even here anymore. But it’s also one of the oldest towns in Southern Oregon. By most accounts, Bly is 140 years old this year!

“A postmistress named it that, and it was short by “Blydelle” and Bly is an Indian word meaning heaven,” Leda Hunter explains.

The book Oregon Geographic Names says Bly also means a high place, or a place upriver. The first post office was established here in 1873 by John Gearhart, for whom a mountain nearby is named. That was called Sprague River. In 1883 it was changed to Bly.

“My grandmother said that her dad would take a wagon to Jacksonville and get supplies and they had a house where they kept their supplies,” says longtime Bly resident LeeAnne Chase. “She said it was like going in a store, to go in that house to get something.”

Jacksonville was the county seat at that time. Bly grew slowly. Mostly ranching, until the late 30’s when logging railroads reached eastern Klamath County and timber became king.

“Bly was very heavily populated and had lots of businesses there,” Sharon Wessel says. “A hotel, several bars, restaurants. They had a telephone company, a barbershop, post offices. I think they even had a bakery at one time.”

When Weyerhauser moved in, things changed big time. A huge mill and extensive logging operation employed hundreds of people. It also meant a big presence for the forest service. This is their ranger station, much of which was built by CCC crews in the 30’s.

“When I was a kid, if someone didn’t have a job, they didn’t want one,” Dean Lawrence sasy. “That’s not that way now!”

“We used to catch the school bus and when we got on the school bus in Ivory Pine, it had already been up to Camp 6,” Sharon adds. “We had standing room only to go to school in Bly!”

Then, in the 70’s the high school was closed and students were sent first to Lakeview, and later to Bonanza, where they go now.

“There were 10 when I graduated, 5 girls and 5 boys, and I was the next to last class that graduated,” LeeAnne says.

Dean adds, “There were some families who decided they didn’t want their kids to go to Lakeview, so they opted for Bonanza; of course the bus ran to Lakeview, so if you didn’t have some kind of transportation, that’s where you went.”

Now it’s just a small elementary school. Even the high school gym is empty and for sale.

“I think there’s 16 kids; it’s a web-based school now and it’s mostly computer,” says another lifetime Bly Resident Leda Hunter. “There’s one teacher for the first through sixth and then they have a kindergarten teacher and anybody over the 6th grade then has to bus to Bonanza to school.

In the 80’s the mill shut down and is now nothing more than a huge empty lot with a few concrete foundations left.

“It got down to the end there when we shut when Weyerhauser shut down then the only thing left was the ranchers and the, forest service,” Don says.

“Our population just went down,” LeeAnne says. “There was like three bars going at that time and three churches, and it went down to like one bar, maybe, and now there’s none! But, there’s still three churches.”

The Old Star Movie Theatre has not shown a film in years, but was a place where memories were made for many kids and families.

“We went every Saturday night,” Leda says. “Cost a quarter to go and sometimes we’d pick up pop or beer bottles so we’d have 25 cents to go to the movies!”

One of the biggest events to first hit Bly came near the end of world war two, when a Japanese fire bomb was discovered by a Sunday school class on a picnic near Gearhart Mountain, and exploded. Killed were five kids and the minister’s wife. Cora Conner was just 16 then, and was a weekend telephone operator but she was sworn by military officials to say nothing, and that was especially hard on her.

“By about two or three hours, the townspeople started gathering out in front of the phone office and it was a very uncomfortable,” Cora says. “They yelled things at me and threatened and what not and I couldn’t tell my mother what happened!”

Today a monument marks the site. Not much marks where the high school stood, or where the Weyerhauser plant was. The old railroad line to town is a biking and hiking trail. The baseball field built by Jack Lansdowne and other volunteers is now a pasture.

“We’ve lost so many people, the town’s gettin’ small, and then Weyerhauser pulled out and what have you, they was gonna be here forever,” Jack Landsdowne comments. “I think most of us knew better than that.”

Up until a few years ago the red ball stage also stopped here. It never carried too many people, but it did provide package delivery for local residents and businesses between Klamath Falls and Lakeview. That connection is gone now too.

“I think the biggest change probably like I say, is the sense of community,” Dean says. “It’s not like it used to be. Bly’s kinda become a retirement village, I mean it’s a retirement town.”

A few years ago, when ODOT repaved the highway through town, they added a sidewalk that wasn’t there before. Those who have stayed and made Bly their home, say even with the things that are no longer here or vacant buildings, this is still a good place to live.

“We’re close to good hunting, close to fishing, close to our neighbors, good place,” Don says. “We don’t have hurricanes or typhoons.”

“Because it’s home and because there’s no hustle and bustle and I like the solitude, and we are, country people,” LeeAnne adds. “We are in the country every single day, we’re in the woods, we like the forest.”

And now water is the big concern. With water issues in the Basin, the city’s well and primary water source could be in jeopardy.

“The Bly community here got a letter on their well that feeds all of Bly, I mean the town water supply,” Jeff explains. “They got a letter that said this time that that water does not belong to them to use and where that does from there, we don’t know, but it’ll be one thing if it goes right here to these irrigators. It’s gonna go to the wells, it’s gonna go to the lower Basin, it’s gonna go to every state from here on out if something happens right here so we’re trying to get organized to stand together.”

He fears that if water rights are taken away, there won’t be much to keep people here anymore, “They take the water away from the farmers and ranchers they’ll have to sell their herds, economic impact will trickle right down to everybody in the entire community.”

Like many town in South Central Oregon, Bly has seen better days. The loss of the big Weyerhauser Mill. The loss of the high school and most of the elementary school has really dealt a blow to the pride of this community, but some 500 people still call this place home and if you like peace and quiet maybe this is the place to be.

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  1. angi carter says:

    i love this history Ron i believe in keeping our roots strong for many more yrs to come,as i watched the 9/11 i made the desion to make my kids and grand kids a scrap book of world events,,,,i wish i had a copy of all the things u have showed us as far back as possible it amazes me i think it wld for my generations,,,,i seen a thing u had while bck about snow being to car doors and stuff was so amazed looking at life in oregon then verses now thanks for what u do

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