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Oregon Trails: Retracing History

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MEDFORD, Ore. — It’s been 160 years this year since the first wave of settlers began rolling into Southern Oregon in their covered wagons. Along with those pioneers was a 10-year-old boy from Illinois who went on to become a prominent figure in both the Rogue Valley and Klamath Basin.

In this Oregon Trails, we take a look at the life of Orson Avery Stearns, and the time he traded in his covered wagon for a horseless carriage, and retraced his Oregon Trail experience sixty years later.

When the first settlers arrived in the Rogue Valley, on the heels of the gold rush, many came by way of the recently opened Applegate Trail. Among those was the Stearns family of Illinois, including 10-year-old Orson Avery Stearns.

In 1853 after six months of travel by wagon and ox team, they settled in the Phoenix-Talent area. When Indian troubles broke out in the Klamath Basin some ten years later, Orson joined the army and became part of the garrison at Fort Klamath. While there, he helped build the wagon road between Ft. Klamath and the Rogue Valley.

“The record indicates that he was the first white man to crawl down the caldera wall and make it down to the lake,” said Todd Kepple at the Klamath County Museum.

When he got out of the army, he was paid in Klamath Basin land, and became the area’s first rancher and farmer, with a homestead some 7 or 8 miles west of the future town of Klamath Falls. He was also the first elected justice of the peace and spent a term in the Oregon legislature.

But a hundred years ago, in 1913, when he was already 70 years old, he teamed up with a “J.K. Elliott”, who had a new four cylinder Cadillac automobile, and the two travelled back over the Oregon Trail he had covered as a ten-year-old boy, sixty years before. This story in the Klamath Falls Evening Herald announced the planned trip. As he made the trip he kept this notebook journal:

“It was on a Wednesday morning the 24th day of September 1913, that Elliot and myself, in Mr. E’s Cadillac Motor Car, left Klamath Falls. Our rear seat and the entire car back of the front seat in which we both rode, was filled with grips, extra clothing of Mr. E. [that's what he called J.K. Elliott] quilts, blankets, extra tubs for tires, our gub box, and cooking outfit…”

“That trip that he made back to the Mid-West is something that has been fascinating to us. And reading his account is just really a lot of fun,” said Todd Kepple.

So they left, heading past Diary and reaching Lakeview by four in the afternoon. He noted that they had their first blowout, and he lost a new fountain pen he bought just to chronicle the trip. They gassed-up in Lakeview and continued on, since it was still daylight, heading out into country he had crossed years before as a soldier. Here they decided to head north to Burns, by way of Plush.

He said, “This country looks very familiar to me and it would be an easy matter to locate all my old camp grounds.”

But tire trouble was a constant worry and a cause for many delays.

“Everybody had tire problems,” said 1912 Cadillac owner, Dale Kemmerer. “The tires in those days, if you got a season out of them you were doing good.”

On Friday the 26th, they reached Burns. Stearns observed that, “Burns is a city of several thousand people, it’s is a bustling frontier town with plenty of room for improvement both in material things and morals. The abundance of saloons accounts in part for the lack of prosperity in surrounding homes, as well as the untidy appearance of its streets and dwellings.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement, and perhaps a reflection of his anti-alcohol views that shows up in several other comments along the way.

Late in the afternoon they passed Harney City of which he said, “there are nearly a dozen houses so called in this scare crow of a city but most of them seem ready to fall down.” That night, they camped along the road, and the next day passed through the small ranching town of Drewsey.

With his droll sense of humor, Stearns noted that, “the place, it’s surrounding and inhabitants suggest the possibility that the name was originally intended to be ‘Drowsey’”.

By Sunday, September 28th, they passed through Vale and on into Idaho. Here, his assessment of the towns through which they passed seemed to improve. Next week, the Oregon Trails will continue the story of Orson Avery Stearns, his trip down memory lane, and the legacy he left behind.

NewsWatch12 wants to offer a special “Thank You” to Dale Kemmerer of Medford who took Ron out in his 1912 Cadillac to get a feel for what that trip might have been like a hundred years ago. Dale’s car is likely very similar to the one Orson Avery Stearns used to make his trip.