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A Long Look(out) Back
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
When Leonard Bacon saw a story about fire towers in a recent "American Profile" magazine, it dredged up the tales he'd heard of his father's two-month stint as a lookout on Bald Mountain about 13 miles south of Baker City.
"It got me thinking about what happened there and those stories I've heard," he said.
It was the summer of 1932.
Bacon was less than a year old; his sister Gladys barely 2.
That was during the Great Depression, he said, so it's no surprise that his father, John Bacon, packed up his family and headed to the hills to watch for fires for the Forest Service.
"Times were tough back in those days. He'd do anything to making a living," said Bacon, 72.
The Bacons' situation, though, differed a bit from the vintage fire lookouts featured in the magazine story.
John Bacon had no tower.
He had a flat rock.
"He'd take lunch up there and sit most of the day," Bacon said.
The family of four parents John and Alma, Leonard and Gladys camped in a wall tent near a spring on the north slope of the mountain, Bacon said. (A second daughter, Adele, was born a few years later.)
John died in January 1982.
No one in the family ever recorded the whole story, and not even Alma remembers how John responded when he glimpsed a puff of smoke in his expansive view of Baker and Sumpter valleys and the Elkhorn ridge.
"Whether he called someone or went and told them," said Alma, 91.
Though their memories of flames are sketchy, everyone remembers the goat.
"The goat was the thing I remember nothing about a fire," Bacon said.
Alma smiles at the memory.
The family kept a nanny goat at the camp to supply milk for the youngsters, but the mischievous animal didn't take well to being tethered.
"If it was, it just got loose," Alma said.
Then the nanny headed for the tent.
This is the story that everyone agrees on: The goat was after its food that Alma stored near the bed.
"It just stood there in the middle of the bed," she said.
Bacon knew the goat story, but his curiosity about his dad's communication techniques from the top of the mountain prompted him to head to the Forest Service.
No one there had sufficient memories of fire lookouts in the early '30s, he said, although he did discover that there were later three different fire towers in the Bald Mountain area, which is near the Dooley Mountain highway.
Those were constructed after his dad's career as a lookout was over.
Sifting through 90-some years of memories to remember two months in 1932 isn't easy.
"That was some time ago," Alma said with a smile.
Tips for recording family history
These tales are a tradition, a way to pass on family history before it disappears into fading memories.
Have a desire to begin getting those stories down on paper?
An easy way to begin recording an oral history is to prepare a list of questions to get the stories started.
Then, grab a pen and paper, tape recorder or video camera and start visiting.
Here's a few sample questions to get started, courtesy of a questionnaire created by the Burnt River Heritage Center:
o How and when did our family migrate to Oregon and choose a spot to settle?
o Where did you live? What did it look like then and now?
o What's your earliest memory of life?
o Where did you attend school and what was a school day like? What are some of your fondest and not-so-fond memories of school?
o Tell me about your courtship: What did you do and where did you go on dates?
o What was your wedding day like?
o What was the family's occupation?
Those questions should prompt the memories, and might bring forth forgotten memories like the Bacons' two-month stay on Bald Mountain.
Still seeking more information?
Photographs are worth a thousand words, so try flipping through albums and start asking questions or just listen to the stories prompted by the pictures.
The family history Web site www.genealogy.com suggests keeping interviews to about two hours. If that's not enough time, you can always schedule another session.
Once you've collected the raw information, you might want to transform the stories into a written record to share.
Another article at www.genealogy.com suggests turning those interviews into a compelling read by telling the story in the form of a narrative. Choose, for example, a unique experience or adventure to start off the tale of your family's past.
Then, if you have other facts (such as births, deaths and other dates) that don't fit in the story, you can separate those into another section of family trees and family records.
The Web site also offers free online classes to help get you started, and suggests several books about the topic.