McKenzie River Memories: The Family of Dr. Benjamin Franklin Russell
From this week's "Echoes from the Past"
By John Russell Gustafson
Memories about life in the McKenzie River Valley run deep in the Russell family. When I was a small boy, I spent many Sundays playing cribbage and listening to the stories about the old days on the McKenzie from my granddad, Fred Russell, and the rest of the family. There were stories about Blue River, Finn Rock, Martin’s Rapids, the swinging bridge to Thomson’s Lodge and the family home on Deerhorn Road across the river from Walterville near Taylor’s Landing. In the early 1900s, my mother and several aunts and uncles were born there.
It was there that grandmother Hazel Russell stepped out on the porch and shot a cougar stalking my mother when she was small child. The old house has not changed much in the past century.
Many of the most unforgettable stories granddad told me were about the man who brought the Russell family west, his father, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Russell. In 1862 B.F Russell volunteered in the Union Army (10th New Jersey Infantry). He fought through Virginia with the Army of the Potomac under General US Grant in some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War: Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor. He was captured in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, kept in several Confederate prisons, lost almost fifty pounds from drinking putrid Danville Prison water, tried to escape, and was finally released from Libby Prison in Richmond to the Union officers’ hospital in Annapolis, Maryland in 1865.
After the war he slowly came west. On the way, he studied under a physician in Wisconsin to become a doctor, got married in Iowa, started a family, and came to Oregon by wagon, finally arriving in the McKenzie River Valley in 1881. On the way to Oregon, family lore holds that he delivered an Indian baby at the request of an Indian chief who provided security for the wagon.
Great granddad Russell settled his wife Maggie and their family near Taylor’s Landing and later moved to Thurston near what is now the Thurston Grange hall. He was one of the first doctors in the McKenzie River Valley. He also was the Thurston postmaster and was active on the school board. His daughters and granddaughters married local men with familiar McKenzie Valley names: Hendricks, Thomson, Bradley, Potter and Endicott. Dr. Russell traveled the Valley by carriage and horseback tending to families until his later years when his clinic in Thurston became the Lane County Home for the poor. Russell’s leather saddlebags, with special pockets for apothecary bottles now belong to his great, great granddaughter, a physician in Portland. Dr. Russell died in Thurston, now Springfield, in 1902. His tombstone in Mt. Vernon Cemetery reads: “He Fought for Liberty and the Union.”
Benjamin Franklin Russell and his wife had eight children. In about 1912, one of his sons, Dr. John Irving Russell, founded the first hospital in Lakeview, Oregon. Unfortunately he died about a year later from kidney infection. Another son was my grandfather James Fredrick (Fred) Russell. He married Hazel Waite Bradley, who had come to Oregon from Ohio. Grandmother Hazel, a gentle, strong and independent person, was one of the only Democrats in the Russell family. Most Russells were Lincoln Republicans. Grandma Russell, said to be the best shot in the family, not only killed the cougar that was about to attack my mother near the river, she also shot a deer feeding in her garden from her bedroom window a few days after giving birth to my uncle Ben. Grandmother Russell taught elementary school in the Walterville area. Maude and Margaret, two of her daughters, also taught school. Grandma’s mother, Ida Waite, also must have been quite a character. She was a divorcee who moved west from Cleveland. In a family rhyme she is called: “Ida, Maude, Miranda, Kate; Victoria Queen, Minerva Waite-Curtin, Bradley.” At least one girl and several cats in the family have been named after her. We have traced the Waite family back to Thomas Waite and the settling of Rhode Island in 1634.
An interesting fact about the Russell family: Three generations in the Russell line were born on the same day, July 4th: Benjamin Franklin Russell in 1835; his son Fredrick, my grand father, in 1877; and my oldest grandson, Jacob Russell Gustafson, in 1997. When I was a boy, the Fourth of July was an especially festive birthday event. We always had a big outdoor picnic in Thurston with rockets, cherry bombs and American flags flying.
The Russell family was a clan of kidders and practical jokesters. When I was a boy, my granddad convinced me that he could see the chain marks on Finn Rock near Blue River where Pete Finn’s mules pulled the huge rock out of the way to make room for the first McKenzie Highway. When there was a wedding in the community, the Russell family sometimes put an aromatic salmon on the motor block of the newlywed’s car, helping to make the honeymoon trip fragrantly memorable. When relatives visited us at our home in Eugene, my mother frequently would “short sheet” their beds and then leave a turnip or a carrot in their luggage before they left.
One of my uncles was Carey Thomson, an expert fly fisherman. He was from the well-known family of McKenzie River fishing guides who owned Thomson’s Lodge. President Herbert Hoover, an avid fly fisherman, once stayed there. Uncle Carey took me fishing several times when I was a young boy in his McKenzie drift boat. He was a big-shouldered man and a fine oarsman. In a book about the McKenzie, he is identified as the youngest person to have taken a boat through Martin’s Rapids. He once told me that he never learned how to swim well because the McKenzie was too fast and cold. If you fell in, you hoped to use the swift water to float you to a rock or to shore. He was one of the first to own a McKenzie River dory made by Woody Hindman in Springfield.
Memories of the McKenzie Valley also include my dad, Melvin Gustafson, and his family. Granddad and grandmother Gustafson were Scandinavian immigrants who settled near the McKenzie River near Coburg after moving from their homestead in South Dakota in the 1920s . They had eight sons and two daughters. McKenzie River fishing was not a sport for my Grandpa Gus. One day he walked into the farmhouse with a salmon wiggling on his pitchfork. He had speared it in a McKenzie slough near his farm. In 1938 my dad and his brothers bought the Dutch Girl Ice Cream Company, now the Oregon Ice Cream Company, in Eugene. They owned the Dutch Girl Company for more than fifty years.
Our family has many memories about the beautiful McKenzie. In August of 2000 we placed the ashes of my eldest sister, Joan, in a riffle in the McKenzie upstream from the old Russell home on Deerhorn Road. My niece and youngest sister said they could see the river twinkle as it passed by.
Editor’s Note: John Gustafson lives in the Washington, DC area. In Oregon, he worked as a state government official during the administrations of Governors Tom McCall and Robert Straub. In 1977, he was asked to come to Washington,DC for a year to share Oregon’s natural resource conservation and development ideas and policies with the federal level. He expected to return to Oregon. However he stayed in DC. In 2005 upon his retirement, he received the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Distinguished Career Award, the highest recognition given to federal employees by the US EPA.