Ralph Ward came to know Fred Warner Sr. by getting up to dickens with him, the sort of harmless trouble for which small boys have a particular aptitude.
Both were born into prominent Baker Valley farming and ranching families — Warner in 1926 and Ward a year later — and so it was perhaps inevitable that they would end up playing together when their parents gathered at the Missouri Flat Grange Hall at the northeast corner of Baker City.
(The building stands near the intersection of Cedar Street and Hughes Lane.)
“We would be raising hell and our parents would come out and give us a bad time,” Ward said. “I knew Fred from a way back.”
Warner, whose family’s roots date to the initial settlement of Baker Valley in 1862, died on Oct. 28 in Baker City. He was 94.
Ward and Warner became buddies during the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and their friendship lasted through the end of the century and beyond.
In his 2014 memoir, “From The Middle Both Ways,” Warner wrote that his father, Jack, told him that during the Depression as many as 90% of Baker County’s farms and ranches were threatened with foreclosuren.
Ward said Warner was always a “thinker” — someone who thoroughly considered every aspect of a problem before deciding on the best solution.
“He would think things out, and never get too excited,” Ward said of his friend. “He got it done when other people didn’t.”
Among the many projects in which Warner played a major role, one of the more prominent was the construction of Mason Dam in 1967. The dam, along the Powder River between Baker City and Sumpter, created Phillips Reservoir. The impoundment not only reduced the risk of the river flooding, it supplied a reliable source of irrigation water for more than 30,000 acres of farmland in Baker Valley.
Ward said his brother, Alvin, who died in February 2017, worked closely with Warner on the dam campaign.
Ralph Ward’s son, Mark, said building the dam was the culmination of a concerted effort that started in the 1950s.
“Fred was one of the people that had the vision, and he worked hard to see that to fruition,” Mark Ward said. “He was one of the ground-pounders who went out and signed up farmers and ranchers to be (members) of the irrigation district. There was a lot of effort put into that.”
Warner, who continued his family’s cattle ranch with his older brother, Carl, was a longtime member of many ranching groups, including the Baker County Livestock Association, the Baker County Cattlemen’s Association, for which he served as president, and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, for which he was vice president.
Dan Warnock Jr., 90, attended many meetings and traveled to cattle industry conventions with Warner.
“We had a lot of fun together,” said Warnock, a longtime Sumpter Valley rancher. “He was plumb jovial, very humorous. But he also did a lot of good things.”
Warnock said his wife, Jo, was best friends with Warner’s first wife, Bettie, who died of cancer in 1985.
Warnock remembers in particular a 1979 trip to the National Cattlemen’s Association meeting in San Diego in which the Warnocks traveled with the Warners and other couples from Baker County and elsewhere in Oregon, and then followed with an ocean cruise to Mexico.
“We did a lot of things together, taking trips,” Warnock said. “They were a fun couple. Between the two of them they had a pretty darn successful record in business. They were a true partnership.”
Warner writes with poignancy about Bettie in “From The Middle Both Ways.”
He describes meeting her while ice-skating on a frozen slough during Christmas break of 1946. He was attending Oregon State University, and he was pleased to learn that Bettie was a student there as well.
The couple were married on Sept. 12, 1948, at Baker City.
Warner also writes about learning, in 1983, that Bettie had a brain tumor.
“The prognosis was not good, but she was determined to survive,” he wrote. “Bettie never gave up. After a courageous battle of approximately two years, she left this earth on March 28, 1985.
“The family was devastated and the community which she knew and loved her was deeply saddened. She was an outstanding woman, wife and mother with many talents. She, like my mother, loved the wild hay meadows, the old Parker home and the life she lived on the ranch. Her family, the meadows, the home remain, but her absence is deeply felt to this day.”
A fun guy to be around
Warner’s sense of humor is a thread that connects his friends’ recollections.
“Fred was always a fun guy to talk to,” Mark Ward said. “Agriculture is tough, but he didn’t have very many bad days. He always had something positive to say.”
Ralph Ward said one trait he remembers vividly was Warner’s affinity for cigars, unconventional though it was.
“He always had a cigar, but he very seldom lit it,” Ward said with a chuckle. “I can see him with it yet, a 2-inch cigar. He used it more as chewing tobacco.”
“What a guy,” said Clair Pickard, a Keating Valley rancher who was a member of the poker club, known both as the Lower Powder Self Improvement Club and Poverty Poker, that Warner, according to his account in “From The Middle Both Ways,” joined around 1950.
“He was the best draw poker player I ever played against,” Pickard said. “Lots of fun. We had a lot of fun together.”
But Pickard said he learned a lot more from Warner than when to hold and when to fold.
Pickard said that when he was “just a young buck” getting started in ranching, Warner would sometimes sit with him at the livestock sale yard.
“He’d say, ‘how you doing, kid, let’s watch and see what we have,’ ” Pickard said. He was a mentor. He and Dan Warnock helped me a lot.”
Fascination with history
It ought not be surprising that Warner became fascinated not only with learning about the history of Baker County, but working to preserve it.
Indeed, his motto was “history unrecorded is history lost.”
One of his great-grandfathers, Jonathan Parker, arrived in Baker Valley the same year — 1862 — that the Oregon Legislature, on Sept. 22, carved Baker County out of Wasco County.
That was just a year after Henry Griffin discovered gold near what would become Baker City, starting the Eastern Oregon gold rush. And it was just 3 years since Oregon became a state, on Feb. 14, 1859.
Warner’s great-grandmother, Nancy Jenkins, traveled the Oregon Trail with her family, arriving in Baker Valley in 1864.
Warner said he was fortunate to hear stories of the Oregon Trail straight from his great-grandmother.
“He was awful proud of his ancestry,” Warnock said of Warner. “He had lots of stories about the Parker family in particular.”
Warner named his book “From The Middle Both Ways” to reflect his being the fifth generation of his family in Baker Valley, giving him a perspective both of the past and the future — both ways.
When a group of local residents started meeting in the mid-1980s to discuss the possibility of building an Oregon Trail visitors center, Warner gravitated toward the campaign.
He served on the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council, which was formed in 1990.
In “From The Middle Both Ways,” Warner writes about participating in the trail ride that was part of the festivities for the grand opening of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, on Flagstaff Hill about 5 miles east of Baker City, in May 1992.
He rode from Pleasant Valley along the Oregon Trail with his daughter, Connie Colton and her husband, Gordon, his granddaughter, Courtney Warner, and his second wife, Barbara.
Warner was a founding member of the Trail Tenders, the volunteer group that runs the gift shop at the Interpretive Center and works with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to operate the facility.
Sarah LeCompte, former director of the Interpretive Center, said Warner was a dedicated and enthusiastic Trail Tender.
“He volunteered a lot,” LeCompte said. “He’d do the front desk and interact with visitors. He was a big part of the center.”
Warner’s personal connection with the Oregon Trail, through his great-grandmother, provided a real-life link between that distant generation and visitors to the Center, LeCompte said.
“It was great having him,” she said. “He had that family connection, and he’d lived in the valley for so long.”
LeCompte said she also appreciated Warner’s friendship. He was one of the first people she met after she moved to Baker City in 1993.
“He was so kind and gracious and friendly,” she said.
Dave Hunsaker, the Center’s first director, said Warner’s efforts were instrumental in the Center’s approval and construction by the BLM.
“Fred’s credibility in this community really worked with the agency,” Hunsaker said. “Fred had deep roots, and the BLM respected that.”
Hunsaker was project manager for design and construction of the Center starting in 1989, and he served as manager for 9 years after it opened in 1992.
“Without the Freds of the world, this community would not have gotten on board so solidly,” Hunsaker said.
Not only did Warner help found the Trail Tenders, but he continued his support as an active volunteer and served on the board of directors.
“He gave continued support,” Hunsaker said. “It was a pleasure. Absolute unmitigated pleasure. He was a great guy. I miss him.”
Some of Warner’s historic artifacts are now on display at the Baker Heritage Museum, including a saddle that Hunsaker restored.
“It’s an astounding saddle,” he said.
Joyce Hunsaker worked with Warner when he served on the Oregon Trail Preservation Trust, of which she was executive director. The Trust was instrumental in building the Center, said Joyce, who is Dave Hunsaker’s wife.
“Fred was key in making the Interpretive Center the nationally recognized place it became,” she said. “He worked tirelessly on behalf of this community to see the project through.”
But she knew Warner long before the Trust. Warner went to school with Joyce’s mom, Phyllis Badgley, and the families were friends.
“Fred was the genuine article from beginning to end,” Joyce said. “His word was his bond. His handshake was as good as any legal contract —- in fact, it was often better.”
She especially remembers his dedication to his hometown.
“His commitment to his family, this community, and to our shared heritage was unwavering,” she said. “My heart deeply mourns his absence. He leaves some mighty tall boots to try and fill.”
Education and military service
Warner graduated from Baker High School in 1944. He gave the commencement speech that year, at age 17, and he noted that many of his classmates would be joining the war effort in that penultimate year of World War II.
“The world was struck by a mighty hell and a plague of death and destruction,” Warner said in his speech. “We were called upon from our simple way of life, and we answered the call to industry, to the farm and to the armed forces.”
Warner was among the latter group.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and on Oct. 17, 1944, just 9 days before his 18th birthday. He served on the USS Normal Scott, a destroyer operating in the South Pacific. Warner was aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, ending the war.
But as he writes in his memoir, Warner was actually “several stories down in the ship and observed nothing.”
Mark Ward said Warner’s generation was distinguished by its determination, and not only because its members endured both the Depression and the most destructive war in history.
Ward also marvels at the doggedness that was required to run a farm and ranch in the pre-tractor era.
“We don’t work hard at all compared to those guys,” Ward said. “Everything was done with horses. Haying with horses in particular would have been just pure work. That generation was tough.”
Lisa Britton contributed to this story.