Monday, January 4, 2016

Gold and Cattle Country

Reading "Gold and Cattle Country" is like sitting down and listening to a lifetime of tales about how things were in the real "old west".  And what a lifetime it was!

Herman Oliver's father came to the US from the Azores as a stowaway, and ended up settling in Oregon's Grant County.  Herman Oliver was born in John Day Oregon in 1885, when horses were the main means of transportation, and died in 1970, after a man had walked on the moon for the first time.  He was a successful cattle rancher and banker, and later became involved in local and Oregon politics as a member of various committees.

The sense of listening to an "old timer's" stories is strong, as the book rambles a bit at times, but in a pleasant way.

The author dedicates some space to evidencing the differences between the real west he lived in, and "the west" of movies and TV, like most of eastern Oregon. Nonetheless, the book carries a sense of "west" that is not present in the mossy green valleys and slate gray skies of western Oregon; a west of ranches and gold mines and of raw, remote country.

This is reflected in the names, too:
Western Oregon, perhaps due to the mild and friendly climate that attracted home loving people, abounds in gentle names such as Amity, Glad Tidings, Freedom, Forest Grove, Goshen, Fernhill, Fairview, Enchanted Prairie, and the like.
Indeed, Western Oregon was mostly settled by people looking to farm, build churches and schools and communities, and otherwise create a peaceful, and somewhat dull existence compared to the "gold and cattle country" of eastern Oregon.  While it's hard to disagree with the motives of the former, it does not make for much in the way of stories.

At times the book rambles a bit too much, and goes into more detail than many might find interesting about actually running a cattle ranch, but those parts are brief and bearable.

A few anecdotes that jumped out:

Sheep had a reputation for being driven through areas and laying waste to the graze. An Irish sheepherder is allowed to graze his sheep in some wheat that otherwise would have gone to waste:
I said to the herder, "Pat, did you ever have your sheep in feed as good as this?" He answered, "Ounly in the moonlight."  A whole story of an era is wrapped up there.
Interestingly, the wild horses of Oregon were in high demand when they were still used by various military forces:
The U.S. cavalry and light artillery looked to Oregon for their choicest mounts. In the Boer War, the British bought many thousands of horses, and in the first World War, British, French and American officers could be seen inspecting horses at every eastern Oregon shipping station.
Some border on the "not very politically correct", but I guess that goes with the times:
Once, while judging the riding events at the Pendleton Roundup, I was sitting on my horse waiting for the next event, while the Indian women, in their finery, happened to be lined up in front of me. They were back to me and another judge was appraising them and their costumes for the title of "Indian Queen". An old Indian saw me, noticed the judge sign, hurried up and told me confidentially but emphatically, "You no judge squaw's behind! You judge 'em in front." 
The book is full of stories like these, and they give a real sense of what life was like, and how much things changed over the years.

Lastly, this quote struck me as something that makes as much sense now as it did then:

If asked for a single sentence of advice to anyone starting a ranch or any other business, I'd say, "Be constructive." Time spent in fighting neighbors, fighting the business people, fighting other organizations, is wasted. We improved the meadow, improved the breed, made our association stronger, built harmonious relations, made friends everywhere. The policy has made our lives smoother and has made it fun to live.