Incidents in Pioneer Days in Baker County, Oregon
People who come to the Pacific States in palace cars, making the trip in four or five days, can have but a faint conception of the toils and hardships endured by those who crossed the plains with teams before the advent of railroads. Experience would also be necessary, perhaps, to enable one to fully appreciate the humorous phases of the journey; but doubtless scores of old pioneers have smiled at sight of a certain paper which was posted on a tree by the side of the trail between Elk creek and Auburn in the fall of ’62, for it could not but remind them of the manner in which emigrants asked any one of whom they chanced to meet on the plain, for information about the country beyond, and also about mining for gold when they first encountered men who were engaged in following that pursuit.
In a gulch a few rods from the place where the paper above alluded to was posted, three or four miners were at work, and when any one stopped to read the questions and answers written upon the paper referred to, they evidently enjoyed taking observations of the progress he was making in the pursuit of knowledge.
The queries and replies ran something like this:
Q. Are you digging gold?
A. Yes sir.
Q. How much do you get?
A. About enough to pay grub.
Q. Are you on a lead?
A. Not that we know of.
Q. Where could I find a rich claim?
A. Don’t know.
Q. What do you pile the stones up for?
A. To get them out of our way.
Q. Ain’t there any gold in ’em?
A. Think not.
Q. Ever mash any of ’em?
A. Never did.
Q. What you got troughs for?
A. To wash dirt in.
Q. Gold in that dirt?
Q. Don’t it go through the troughs?
A. Not much.
Q. What’s your name?
Q. Where’d you come from?
Q. Did you know Ezekiel Snyder there?
Q. Did you ever get acquainted with Jonas Fowler?
A. Never did.
Q. Did you ever see Samuel Finch?
A. No Sir.
Q. Or Joseph Blazer?
A. No Sir.
Q. Or Hugh Crapper or his brother?
A. No Sir.
Q. Does this path go to Auburn?
A. Yes sir.
Q. How far is it?
A. Three miles.
Q. Can a fellow get a good claim
A. Can’t tell you.
Q. Did you ever prospect that hill?
A. Never did.
Q. If you don’t make more than grub what do you stay here for?
A. Just to answer questions for immigrants.
‘Away back in the sixties,’ to use a pioneer’s phrase, when the wild geese and ducks were plentiful in the valley, parties of sportsmen would go down from Auburn on a shooting expedition every spring. On one occasion quite a number of persons went down to the valley and camped near the old Slough House. The next morning they struck out through the valley hunting wild fowl. C. M. Foster and David Littlefield going in the same direction but keeping a little way apart. Presently Littlefield fired both barrels of his shotgun and called excitedly to Foster to come to him. When Foster came up he inquired: “What were you shooting Dave?” “I don’t know, but its something big,” said Dave. He had his gun reloaded by that time and seeing the dry grass and weeds shake, he discharged both barrels again in the direction of the big animal evidently with fatal effect that time. Upon going to the spot he found a dead sheep. Littlefield begged Foster not to tell about it when they returned to Auburn. Foster told the boys in camp without letting Dave know what he had done, and when the party started for home, some of the boys went across the hills and told everybody in Auburn. Littlefield returned by way of the river road, and when he arrived at town all of the people were imitating the bleating of sheep.
In 1863, the few settlers in Powder River Valley who tried farming and gardening, realized great profit, as all kinds of vegetables were in demand at high prices. Mr. Kinnison had quite a patch of corn which he sold at one dollar per dozen ears, and all kinds of garden vegetables sold at corresponding rates. Some rutabagas were grown, requiring no other care than to plow the ground and sow the seed and gather the crop in the fall. The yield was great, and prices being so high, they were a most profitable crop, and the next year so many were grown that there was no market for them, although they were rated at three cents per pound. In the winter of ’64-5 a trade could be made any day if a person could be found who would take rutabagas in exchange for anything he might have to dispose of. It became a kind of stereotype joke to refer to anything pertaining to the valley as a rutabaga arrangement, &c., the name even being taken into politics in 1870 when it was thought the candidates in the democratic convention who hailed from the mining districts were slighted, and the ticket nominated by the convention was called the rutabaga ticket.
One of John Furman’s characteristic jokes was an allusion to the notoriety of the rutabaga. He was telling in the presence of an Auburn landlord, how he had been flattering himself with the prospect of a different fare, during his stay in the city, from what he had been having in the valley. He said the landlord who was helping to serve the guests, asked a city gent who was next to himself, if he would have roast beef, roast pork or mutton chop. Furman said he thought when his turn came he would order what would be a real change from the valley fare, but when the city gent was served, he said the landlord came to him and asked: “Which will you have, soft cabbage or rutabagas?”
Some of the valley boys organized a troop in the winter of ’67-68, which they called the Ruta Baga Minstrels. They gave several entertainment’s in the rutabaga district and then made an appointment at Baker City. The evening the exhibitions were to be given they came into town in a wagon, bearing two poles, each have a large ruta baga on its top. The price of admission was $1; sixty tickets were sold.
A Mr. McConkey who spent the winter of ’64-5 in Powder River Valley ‘rustling for grub,” said he could get plenty of work to do, but when he would apply for a job, he said: “they jist got to pokin’ bagas at me.