Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Old-timers reminisce on their first Pendleton Christmas

On December 23, 1903, East Oregonian editor Bert Huffman interviewed three longtime Pendleton residents and asked them to relate memories from the first Christmas they spent in Pendleton. Their accounts span just 10 years, but Pendleton grew ten-fold in that short amount of time.

Lot Livermore, Pendleton’s postmaster in 1903, was the town’s oldest continuous resident, arriving in Pendleton in 1869. Livermore recalled that sometime before his arrival in Pendleton the old Goodwin hotel was built, and it was from this point that the city was laid out. The Hotel Pendleton was later built on the site of the Goodwin, and the post office was originally located next to the hotel. Livermore was paid $15 a year, and had to get up twice a night to deliver and receive the mail, which was delivered by stagecoaches.

Livermore said his first Christmas in Pendleton was nothing special. Each family (there were 50 people living in Pendleton in 1869) held their own private celebration, and, while their dinner was a little better than usual, the day “passed off with the sameness of the rest of the year” — no big rush at the store, and nothing to denote the arrival of the holidays.

Veteran miller W.S. Byers came to Pendleton in the fall of 1874 to make arrangements to put up a flour mill, though he didn’t arrive in Pendleton to start work until almost Christmas of that year. Byers said when he first arrived in Pendleton the road where Court street now runs was a ravine 16 feet deep, which had to be filled in before the lumber and other building materials for the mill could be delivered. He next visited his property on Christmas Eve 1874, and spent Christmas Day overseeing the progress of the mill’s construction. It snowed hard that day, and by the time he was ready to return to Walla Walla, where he owned another mill, the snow was two feet deep and Byers had to borrow a sleigh and team for the drive home.

Byers said on that day he stood at the mill property and counted just 50 roofs in the direction of what is now the business section of Pendleton (which included the barns).

Another old-timer, Jesse Failing, recounted his first Christmas memory, from 1879. Failing came to Pendleton from Umatilla, where he had owned a hotel. About 100 families lived in Pendleton at the time, and the entire business section of Pendleton was in the block occupied by the Hotel Pendleton and Lot Livermore’s post office.

On Christmas Eve of that year, Failing said the town of about 500 people gathered at the Sanford hotel for a dance and sheet-and-pillow case party. The house was so crowded there was no room to dance. Everyone at the party, young and old, wore a pillow case over their heads, with the corners stuffed out to make horns, and the party lasted until dawn. Christmas Day 1879, Failing recalled, was a rather quiet affair.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Homeless ‘grinches’ steal Christmas dinner

What says Christmas dinner better than a roasted turkey on the table? In a move that brings Dr. Seuss’ Grinch to mind, not a single gobbler could be found on Christmas Day 1910 in Hermiston when a band of tramps absconded with the town’s entire supply of the birds after being asked to skedaddle.

Hermiston resident E.P. Dodd brought the news Dec. 26, 1910, while visiting friends in Pendleton. It seems that a large group of hungry hobos had been hanging around Hermiston for days prior to the holiday, breaking into cellars and stealing whatever they could find. The morning of Christmas Eve the tramps were given the heave-ho by Marshal Phay, who ordered the men to move along.

Hermiston residents awoke Christmas morning to find that every live turkey in town was gone, with the homeless men the chief suspects. Before the advent of giant turkey farms and grocery stores, most families raised their own meat, including turkeys destined for holiday dinners. The residents were forced to scramble for substitutes for the birds they had carefully raised all year in anticipation of a festive meal.

The biggest loser in the turkey theft was the Chinese proprietor of the Hotel Oregon cafe, who lost four big turkeys to the thieves. Dodd related that the man, having exhausted his repertoire of English profanities, was said to have continued on swearing in his native language.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Superstitious train men banish number 13 after fatal accident

The number 13 has been considered unlucky for a long time. Rumor has it that the superstition has roots in early Christianity (the Last Supper had 13 guests) and also Norse mythology (a group of 12 Norse gods was attacked by Loki, the trickster god, resulting in the death of one of the group). A phobia of the number 13, triskadekaphobia, has led to (among other things) airlines omitting the 13th row on planes and high-rise buildings without a Floor 13.

Employees of the Mountain Division of the O.R. & N. Railroad in Eastern Oregon decided they, too, would be wise to eliminate the number from their repertoire after a tragic accident claimed the life of Conductor Charles F. Brown on Nov. 8, 1904.

The fatal order was received by Train No. 6 at Bingham Springs, northeast of Pendleton in the Blue Mountains, at 5:43 a.m. Conductor Brown initially refused to take the order, in his usual jovial manner, and asked the dispatcher in La Grande to change the number. After a few minutes of joking over the wires to dispatch, Conductor Brown signed the order and, in delivering a copy of it to Engineer Pete Theisen, said in fun, “That’s a bad one, Pete, look at the number and then look out.”

The train stopped at Kamela’s switching yard at 7:40 a.m. that morning to take on a dining car from a side track. Conductor Brown was run down by a helper engine on another side track while helping his engineer back up to pick up the car. Death was instantaneous. In his pocket was found the last train order he had received.

When the news of his death reached the dispatchers in La Grande, they decided then and there to never again issue Order No. 13 from their offices. Train orders issued from the dispatcher’s office began at No. 1 at midnight each day and ran consecutively until the next midnight, as many as 200 orders being issued in any 24-hour period. From then on, a blank space was left in the log book for Order No. 13, to the relief of many superstitious railroad men.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

WWII bomb balloon lands in Montana

The East Oregonian in December of 1944 was full of stories of the war raging in Europe and the Pacific. Local heroes, and Umatilla County residents lost to the fighting — either missing or dead — were memorialized almost every day. U.S. citizens in general were thankful that the war was not on our doorstep, but a few stories surfaced about attempted attacks on U.S. soil.

One such was the story of the incendiary balloon that landed 17 miles southwest of Kalispell, Montana. The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced a huge paper balloon, bearing Japanese ideographs and armed with an incendiary bomb capable of starting a major fire in Northwest forests, was found the week before by Owen Hill and his father, O.B. Hill, while on a wood-cutting trip. More than 500 residents of the Kalispell area saw the balloon, but were urged by the FBI to keep it quiet.

Ward Bannister, in charge of Montana-Idaho FBI offices, said the 33 1/2-foot-diameter balloon was constructed of high-quality paper treated with varnish, and was painted in blue and white camouflage. The Japanese ideograms stated date of manufacture and inspection, and the balloon was armed with a six-inch bomb containing “aluminum and some oxide.” A 70-foot fuse, designed to set off the bomb and then consume the balloon, had ignited but sputtered out without causing any damage.

Bannister listed the flying device as a “free balloon,” designed to make only one flight, and said it was not a weather balloon. Free balloons are known to travel as fast as 200 miles an hour in swift, high air currents. In December of 1944 the prevailing winds were from the west and northwest, but Bannister did not comment on the point of the balloon’s release nor its purpose.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hermiston man reaps 5,000-year-old wheat crop

A Hermiston resident in November of 1954 reaped a harvest 5,000 years in the making. Wheat seeds found in a prehistoric homesite in Utah in were planted in the back yard of E.A. Oman, a Hermiston contractor, and produced a stand of wheat an ancient farmer would be proud of.

Oman received the seeds from a friend, Clarence Pillings of Price, Utah, in 1952. The original 173 kernels were found preserved in sand and in clay vases in the cave of an ancient cliff dweller in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains near 9-Mile, Utah, a few miles west of Green River. Oman in 1954 was harvesting his second crop from the ancient seed, a four-foot stand that ripened in about 90 days, he said. The kernels were about 3 times the size of ordinary irrigated wheat kernels, with heads measuring up to 9 inches in length.

Also found in the cave were 8 or 10 clay plaques or figurines representing humans, ranging in height from 6 inches to about one foot, laid shoulder to shoulder on a marble slab. Each figure wore a ritualistic green headdress and a set of delicate beads around its neck. Oman hoped to persuade Pillings to allow the figurines to be exhibited at the 1955 Umatilla County Fair.

An archaeologist from the University of Colorado at Boulder estimated the age of the contents of the cave at “several thousand years” before the time of Christ. A representative from a  Boston museum disagreed, saying he thought the seed had been placed in the vases about 500 B.C.

The 1954 crop, planted from the previous year’s seed, produced the equivalent yield of 80-90 bushels to the acre, Oman guessed. He recommended the ancient wheat to Pakistanis, who on a tour found U.S. wheat “too doughy” for their taste.

Oman planned to make bread from the year’s crop.