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Oregon Trails: New Odessa

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GLENDALE, Ore. — There are lots of small towns and settlements that sprouted up around our area and have long vanished from sight and memory, but none may have been more unlikely than a Jewish communal settlement that sprang to life in the Glendale-area in the mid-1880′s.

This century old farmhouse near Glendale sits at one end of what was once a Jewish communal settlement that sprang up in the 1880s in southern Douglas County. Known as “New Odesssa”, it was apparently designed to give recent Russian Jewish refugees a chance to learn farm living and provide a safe place far from the turmoil of their homeland in Russia.

“New Odessa was launched, along with several other communes throughout, I think there was 3 in Oregon, and there was one in Colorado, one back in Kansas. They were Russian Jewish people who were trying to escape being slaughtered,” explained Glendale historian Lynne Diltz.

The mass exodus of Russian Jews stemmed from the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, and the crackdown on Jews by his son Alexander III. Many of the immigrants were from the educated classes and were sent out to farms to get back to agricultural roots. Some say even to erase the stereotypes of Jews being financial tycoons.

The settlement near Glendale, “New Odessa”, was of a group called the “Am Olam”, or “the Eternal People”, and came about through contacts with Henry Villard, who was building the Oregon and California railroad through the area at the time.

“There was 760 acres, and it encompassed the whole strip across the valley here, clear up to the top of the divide between the Glendale side and the Wolf Creek side,” said Diltz.

In addition to raising their own food, they cut timber for railroad ties, locomotive fuel, and bridge and trestle timbers.

“The people here had to depend for cash money on selling timber in the form of wood and railroad ties to the railroad, and the Chinese people undercut them, sold more than they did, and this is how the lost out because they couldn’t pay the mortgage on it,” said Diltz.

Four people promised to put up the $4,800 for the property in 1883, two thousand dollars down. Men and women shared the chores of farming and housekeeping. Most were single men, but there were a few couples who lived in small cabins, but divisions soon developed, perhaps over differences in Jewish belief.

“There was too many branches of the Jewish religion and they quarreled constantly, and therefore they didn’t stay united,” explained Diltz.

125 years ago the land for the New Odessa Settlement stretched on both sides of the valley, from up near the top of the mountains towards Wolf creek over to the other side. And all the way to what is now the Glendale city limits, but it didn’t last long. Only about 5 years, and Lynne Diltz has some theories as to why that failed.

“There was plenty of money there, but when it came time to foreclose for lack of payment, the four men who owned the place were gone! And so was all the money.”

She sees it as a case of embezzlement. Diltz says by 1888, New Odessa was no more, and those who hoped to make it a Zion in southern Oregon had gone.

“What exactly happened to the Russian-Jewish community of New Odessa will never be known. There definitely was a community where human beings lived and worked but their stories will remain forever sealed in the one thing that remains constant, the land itself. All the rest seems in keeping with a ‘ghost community,’” explained Diltz.

Some 25 years later there are reports of another Jewish farming commune being established in northern Lake County near fort rock. A Portland paper called the “Portland Jewish Tribune” reported 15 families there in 1913 with plans of putting 3,000 acres under cultivation. However, the Jewish Historical Society in Portland has not been able to find much other information on this project.