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Oregon Trails: Stearns’ Journey

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MEDFORD, Ore. — When Orson Avery Stearns came to Southern Oregon in 1853, it was by wagon train from Illinois, and took half a year. His family settled near Ashland in the Rogue Valley, but he settled in the Klamath Basin and became the area’s first rancher and farmer.

In September 1913, he loaded up in a car like this owned by a Mr. Elliott to retrace that trip 60 years earlier. In this handwritten journal he described his trip that began in Klamath Falls, went to Lakeview, and several eastern Oregon communities and on through Idaho.

At the Oregon border he describes camping in the sagebrush, then passing through vale, which he calls, “a rather lively half-baked town of near 1000 people.” on Sunday, September 28th, they came to Caldwell, Idaho, which impressed him with the trees planted as windbreaks and the “many fine orchards, alfalfa and grain fields.”

Despite the favorable farmland impressions he had this warning: “One very prominent plant growing here in abundance the Klamath Country does not need nor desire, but will soon have, unless strict quarantine is maintained against Idaho-grown Alfalfa and other seeds; that is the Russian thistle!”

You might recognize it as tumbleweed.

Stearns seems impressed with Caldwell, and adds that, “a bath and shave Sunday evening with a change of underwear was a welcome feature of our stay.”

The next day, soon after hitting the road east, Stearns lost his suitcase with all his clothes, checks, cash and other valuables. After putting up flyers and an ad in the local paper offering a five dollar reward, the next day he found a farmer who spotted the luggage beside the road.
With his belongings safely returned, Stearns and Mr. Elliott motored on to Jerome, Idaho, where he was impressed with the community’s new irrigation system. Car trouble kept them there overnight, and after repairs were made they chugged on to twin falls, which he described as, “one of the prettiest towns yet seen.”

On October second they arrived at burley. Nearby a steep hill forced the two to find another road to Pocatello, where he observed the, “roads here are good, as there seems to have been rain in spots, but after some eight or ten miles…we came into more dusty roads, and two cowboys persisted in running their horses just fast and far enough ahead to give us a continual dust bath.”

Then on Saturday, October 4th, they came to the Old Wagon Road Stearns had travelled with his family in 1853. It was at soda springs where he observed the people, “seem to be a rather mixed lot, of a low order of intelligence and not very neat, clean nor orderly in their habits.”

Shortly after they crossed into Wyoming and Cokeville and coal country. Here they ran into snow and ran out of gas. Passing through Kemmerer they were impressed by the number of mining camps, and that, “this city seems to be a very thirsty place as there are 16 saloons here and the nearby camps are also well supplied.”

It wasn’t until they arrived in Rock Springs that they hit their first paved road, and a lot more saloons. And near here they came to south pass which still has remnants of wagon tracks. Stearns recorded, “one scarcely realized that he is crossing a high range of mountains in coming this route, so different from the one we followed in coming to Oregon in 1853.”

Crossing into Nebraska, the country flattened out and shortly before Omaha, a wood-spoked front wheel on the Cadillac broke. Stearns went ahead to the dealer in Omaha, and sent the parts back up the line by rail, while continuing on to Missouri, and friends he had not seen in half a century.

It’s likely Stearns returned home by rail. In 1918 he moved to Ashland, where he died in 1926 at the age of 83. He is buried, along with his second wife, in this mausoleum at Mt. View Cemetery. The rest of his family is buried in a family cemetery on the old homestead property near talent.

There‚Äôs no doubt about it, there’s quite a contrast between travelling by covered wagon in 1853, and then retracing the Oregon Trails by auto 60 years later. Quite a difference between oxen and 36 horses under the hood.