Offbeat Oregon History

Lafayette from river

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Finn J.D. John

On November 11, 1887, a 28-year-old convicted murderer named Richard Marple stood on the scaffold in the town of Lafayette and shouted his defiance at the crowd below.

“Murder!” he yelled, as the black hood was fitted over his head. “May God judge you all!”

Marple had maintained his innocence until the bitter end. But his alibi story had changed several times, and he’d further damaged his credibility severely by claiming that the real killer of storekeeper David Corker twelve months before was the Yamhill County Sheriff, Thomas J. Harris, leading a conspiratorial cabal of prominent members of the local Masons Lodge.

Lakeside hotel & seaplane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Finn J.D. John

For people like Bing Crosby, Lily Pons and Clark Gable, success in show business came with some distinct drawbacks ... millions of them: the fans. Screaming, pointing, asking for autographs and sending mash notes, they were a great inconvenience — yet it was their attention that had made the movie-star lifestyle possible.

On most days, the big stars handled it OK. But everyone needs a break now and then. Sometimes they wanted to go (with apologies to the classic sitcom Cheers) where absolutely nobody knew their name.

On those days, they would often point their long, low, powerful automobiles northward and drive deep into the lush forests of southern Oregon.

High-water mark of Oregon’s postwar-timber-era culture

Pixie kitchen

 

 

 

 

By Finn J.D. John
It goes without saying that Oregon has changed in the 50 years that have gone by since the Tom McCall era.
People who remember Oregon in 1967 look back on a sort of Edenic place, comfortably conservative in some ways and progressive in others; a place with plentiful good-paying jobs and high levels of public services and low taxes and excellent roads, all paid for by a booming timber industry.
It went away, of course, when the mills started mechanizing and the available logging projects dwindled, starting in the mid-1970s. But while it lasted, it was a real and distinctive regional culture.
To get a sense of that culture (or, for those of us who have been here long enough, to remember it), there’s really no better refresher than Pixieland.

mona bell-snake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Finn J.D. John
In the summer of 1936, when Edith Mona Bell Hill moved into her cozy hunting cabin on the shore of Dunbar Lake in north-central Minnesota, the neighbors didn’t really know what to make of her.
In fact, they didn’t really know who she was — although she’d owned and occasionally visited the cabin off and on for a decade or so. It was said that she was a distant relative of railroad baron James J. Hill. She certainly had money; although she dressed very simply, she drove a great expensive beast of a luxury car.

By Finn J.D. John

White Eagle

Low on the east bank of the river, in the shadow of the Fremont Bridge, stands a narrow brick building that looks like it’s right out of the 19th Century.
It’s not — almost, but not quite. The White Eagle Saloon was actually built in 1905. But it’s one of a tiny handful of watering holes still open today that people were almost certainly shanghaied out of back in the age of sail.
Now owned by the McMenamins brew-pub-and-restaurant chain, it also regularly tops the lists of “most haunted places in Portland” which occasionally appear in the popular press.
“At the White Eagle, the line between this world and the other — and between fact and fiction — seems to have been thoroughly and wonderfully blurred,” writes the author of McMenamins’ official history of the place. “There is more than just good storytelling going on here, though.”

Gov Martin speechBy Finn J.D. John
It was the morning of Oct. 1, 1938, at the ceremonial dedication of the new Oregon state capitol building. Following several dedicatory speeches (including one by President Franklin D. Roosevelt), the ribbon was cut and the crowd outside invited to come inside and have a look.
But as the crowd moved forward, those at the front found themselves up against a door stuck shut. The crowd of Oregonians found itself packed tightly against the door.
Then a voice rang out, strident and harsh and full of authority. It was the governor of Oregon, Major General Charles Henry Martin, and if he’d been in his dress uniform he would probably have had his sword out whacking people with the flat of its blade.
“Get back, you bastards!” he roared.
“It was just like a blowtorch,” former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield told historian Gary Murrell. “The people fell back.”

Charles MartinBy Finn J.D. John
Remember General Jack D. Ripper, the character from the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”? Can you imagine what might have happened if General Ripper had been elected governor?
For Oregonians, just a few years ago, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. In 1934, voters elected a retired major general named Charles Henry Martin — known to the soldiers assigned to his care during the First World War as “Old Iron Pants.” And although Martin isn’t known to have gone on any anti-fluoridation rants or spluttered about “precious bodily fluids,” his political style was more than a little reminiscent of Ripper’s … and, of course, it’s not a work of fiction.
“If things come to a crisis,” he wrote to a sympathetic fellow military man in 1937, while discussing the likelihood of a Communist takeover in America, “there are enough strong men left in the country to handle it properly. … The Italians wouldn’t submit; they organized their blackshirts. The Germans wouldn’t submit, so they had their brownshirts and Hitler. I don’t believe Americans will submit.”

Hawthorne asylumBy Finn J.D. John
For many years, the case of Charity Lamb was looked at like a crime-fiction yarn from a pulp magazine like Spicy Detective. It seemed to have it all: illicit sex, a mother-daughter love triangle, conspiracy — and, of course, a brutal ax murder committed by a woman with the most ironically innocuous name imaginable.
“Charity Lamb and her seventeen-year-old daughter shared a passion for a drifter named Collins,” pop-historian Malcolm Clark Jr. explains breezily, in his 1981 book Eden Seekers. “When (Nathaniel) Lamb, as outraged father and cuckolded husband, strongly protested, Charity cut off his objections with an ax.”
The real story, of course, is not only more nuanced, but, well, totally different. In actual fact, the only part of Clark’s account that’s historically supportable are the names of the involved parties, the words “strongly protested,” and the word “ax.”

Linn Cty mugshotsBy Finn J.D. John
By 1908, most Oregonians’ views on the Unwritten Law were hardening into suspicious disapproval.
Just one year earlier, citizens had burst into spontaneous applause in the courtroom when Orlando Murray was acquitted of murdering his sister’s ex-boyfriend. Since that time, though, suspicions had been growing that things were getting out of hand. The newspapers found the trend rather frightening, and didn’t hesitate to say so. Defendants were still getting acquitted because of the Unwritten Law — but it was getting noticeably harder for cases to qualify for its protection.

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McKenzie River Reflections is the weekly newspaper serving Oregon's McKenzie River Valley. Available by mail for $23/yr in Lane County, $29/yr outside Lane. Digital subscriptions are $23/yr. Subscribe at: http://mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/catalog/subscriptions-0. Purchase copies online at: http://mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/catalog/back-issues-0. Read about area communities including Cedar Flat, Walterville, Camp Creek, Leaburg, Vida, Nimrod, Finn Rock, Blue River, Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge.