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Hankerin' for History
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
You won't find these retired people kicking their feet up, enjoying their golden years.
They'd rather spend their time, energy, and money seeing, doing -- and, most importantly for this sturdy band of senior travelers, learning.
They learned about the region by tramping along the ruts of the Oregon Trail. And by seeing for themselves just how little things have changed for one area ranching family over the past century.
Last week, 11 members and two group leaders from an Elderhostel program based at Southern Oregon University in Ashland visited Eastern Oregon as part of a tour called "Ranches, Rodeos and Routes."
Some of the stops were no-brainers -- visits to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and the Pendleton Round-Up provided participants their "rodeo" and "route" learning opportunities.
But another highlight, group members agreed, was a visit to the Warner Ranch, a place so steeped in history that it has been home to six generations of ranchers.
The ranch is also home to hundreds of acres that have never been plowed, according to Fred Warner Sr., who, along with his son, Fred Warner Jr., spoke to the group, then plopped participants aboard a trailer outfitted with hay bales to show the visitors what they'd just learned about.
"In all the years our family's been here, we've never had a crop failure," Fred Sr. said about the never-tilled land, which is part hay and part pasture. "Baker Valley is not the best place in the world to raise tomatoes, but even a cold spring like we had this year will produce a good crop of hay.
"We irrigate in the spring, then cut one crop of hay. We irrigate again and get a ripping good pasture for the cows to eat. It's a real good producer, both in terms of quality and quantity."
"I think it's the best ground in the world," his son added, "except for our 30-day growing season."
The history of the Warners' Century Ranch dates back to 1872, when Fred Sr.'s great-grandfather, Jonathan Parker, whom the elder Warner described as "a pretty fair gambler," won the ranch in a poker game.
That story has been in the family so long, his son said, that the younger Warner decided to check its veracity against records in the Baker County Clerk's office.
Sure enough, he said, there's a transaction in a ledger ascribed to Parker with a note linking $40 and "other considerations" with a 160-acre parcel where the ranch is now.
His bride-to-be, Nancy Parker, came out along the Oregon Trail in 1864 with 75 horses and cows, Fred Sr. said.
"She never put a foot in the wagon," he said. "She walked the entire Trail."
The younger Warner took his guests on a brief history tour, describing the trees, brush and grassland that greeted the area's first white inhabitants.
"That grassland they found is what Baker County is all about," he said. "When Mason Dam was built in 1967, it really made the valley what it is now a green place that gives us grass throughout the year."
It was the longtime dredging operation in Sumpter, 20 miles up the Powder River canyon, that gave the area's ranching community another boost, he said super-deep soil. The Warner Ranch sits at the very lowest point of the Baker Valley, he said; all the soil carried by the Powder River thus settled on or near his land.
"All these things changed everything for us," he said. "They've made us more effective producers."
The elder Warner regaled Elderhostel members with tales of what ranching was like when he was a boy in the 1930s. A portion of the current ranch was purchased at that time from a family friend he described as "a little eccentric."
"He owned a lot of land near town, but he preferred to stay out here and homestead 400 acres," he said. "It was raw land, but he had a team of horses, and he used to freight items with the horses all the way from The Dalles to Boise. In the winter, he fenced in all 400 acres with rail fences. When it froze, he'd shoe the horses with sharp shoes, then use them to go out and pull out clumps of willows.
"There's at least as much history here as you'll find on Flagstaff Hill."
About 2,000 people have participated in SOU's 56 Elderhostel program so far this year, said Nicole Graham, the university's conferences and senior program coordinator.
"The only complaint we ever hear is that people don't have enough time to see everything," said Molly Smith, one of two coordinators for the local tour. "Our emphasis is always on education. In fact, we don't usually use the term tour.' That suggests a curriculum.
"This is more of a learning process than any curriculum you'll find."
For more information on SOU's elderhostel program, visit elderhostel.com or call Graham, 541/552-6378.