Origin Stories

The surprising beginnings of six of Oregon’s claims to fame

Lillustrations by Leo Zarosinski

The Grass Is Always Greener

Grass seed's start in Oregon was a convergence of perfect conditions: wet soil; mild, damp winters; and warm, dry summers. This profile had limited value for most other crops but was well suited to growing grass seed, which has grown like a weed: grass seed was the state's sixth top agricultural commodity in 2012.

It began in tiny Tangent in Linn County, where the state's first grange was established in July 1873. In 1891, a farmer named William Felzer acquired a small amount of grass seed that may have been the beginning of the present ryegrass industry.

By 1921, Tangent farmer Forest Jenks had established the first commercial grass seed farm. Jenks employed W. A. Vollstedt's local seed-cleaning plant to clean the seed, which was then distributed via the Jenks-White Seed Company. The latter helped open the market for grass seed beyond Oregon, priming Linn County to become the “grass seed capital of the world.”

Oregon saw swift development in grass seed farming techniques, and growers became both foremost experts on the crop and the world's leading producers. According to Grass and Legume Seed Estimates for 2013, Oregon growers harvested more than four-hundred thousand acres of grass seed on more than fifteen hundred farms in 2013, for a value of more than $417 million.

There are downsides. First, post-harvest field-burning—traditionally used to control weeds, remove debris, and kill crop diseases—came under scrutiny in the 1960s for its impact on air quality. In 1988, an out-of-control field-burn in Albany produced enough smoke to severely compromise visibility on nearby Interstate 5, leading to a multicar pileup. This prompted legislators to consider tighter regulations on burning, and in 2009, the Oregon legislature narrowly passed a ban on the practice.

Second, the stretch from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July in the valley basin is typically punctuated by citizens' sniffles and sneezes, not to mention wheezing and watery eyes, as the air teems with invisible but ferocious grass seed pollen. Portland is ninety-fourth this year in the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's “[top 100] allergy capitals”—not bad in terms of allergy capitals, but certainly something to sneeze at.

—Bobbie Willis

Good Intentions


From the Rainbow Family of Alpha Farm to the devotees of Rajneeshpuram, Oregon's terrain has long drawn the idealists and dreamers, the intentional and their followers. The draw could be that Oregon's valleys and coastlines are mostly lush and bucolic; bucolic is earthy, and earthy is secure, provisioned—safe. And Oregon's central and eastern deserts are clean, sparse, and not entirely hospitable; there is freedom in that solitary and fierce geography. It is in these small corners of this small corner of the world where collectives are able to nestle, establish a separate but parallel universe, and flourish.

But those countercultural intentional communities were predated by more practical, conservative ideals in the Aurora Colony, established in 1856 by Wilhelm Keil. In his eyewitness account for The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875), Charles Nordhoff says of Keil, “I thought I could perceive a fanatic, certainly a person of very determined, imperious will united to a narrow creed.” After leading a train of twenty-seven wagons from Bethel, Missouri, to Willapa, Washington, Keil changed course to settle in the rich farmland of the Willamette Valley in what is now known as Aurora.

In the summer 2009 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly, historian James Kopp wrote that to some, Aurora's leader was known affectionately as “Father Keil,” to others more critically as “King Keil.” Despite the criticism, most accounts agree Keil was a charismatic leader, who was able, according to University of Missouri historian and language instructor William Godfrey Blek, “For thirty-four years ... to rule this extremely loosely-knit body dogmatically and ... to his own liking.”

The colony, just south of Canby and west of the Pudding River, was a Christian community of about six hundred German and Swiss emigrants. According to the Old Aurora Colony Museum, religious beliefs provided the basis for the colony, as did “a need to protect their business interests in a new country.”

Aurora Colony persevered under Keil, with new members arriving from Bethel until 1867. Colonists built homes and businesses, including shops and mills, on eighteen thousand acres of land purchased with communal funds. The boom came to an abrupt end upon Keil's death in 1877. Historical records indicate the community persisted to 1883, but, without clear leadership, momentum eventually faltered. The community dissolved, and members received a fair share in total property and holdings.

While Nordhoff describes the colony as subsistence, even somewhat primitive, living, Blek's records indicate that at Aurora Colony's height, “There was much leisures and many celebrations. Saturday afternoon was observed as a half-holiday. There was a great deal and variety of music.” For the believers, Aurora Colony was what it intended to be.

—Bobbie Willis

The Rise of the Roses


Roses came to Oregon with the first white settlers, but Portland's civic identification with them took root during the Progressive Era, when the city's population and economy boomed. The phrase city of roses first appears in a June 1899 Oregonian story about the upcoming national convention of the National Editorial Association. The convention program includes a flower show, under the direction of the State Horticultural Society, to feature roses as well as local wildflowers. The uncredited author implores Portlanders to “be enthusiastic in this floral display and do everything possible to show to the strangers that this is indeed a city of roses.”

Informal rose shows had been a part of high-society life in Portland dating at least to 1889, when Georgiana Pittock held a competition under a tent in what's now known as the Pittock Block. In December 1901, during the planning of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, local attorney Frederick V. Holman wrote an Oregonian piece called “Make Portland the ‘Rose City.'” He suggested readers start planting roses the following March, so that by the summer of 1905, the streets would be lined with them.

Holman also suggested that readers should plant roses because of Portland's agreeable climate and because the city did not yet, like other cities, have a nickname “emblematical of their particular charm or characteristic.” Seven years later, he contributed a piece to Sunset celebrating roses for less-savory reasons: “The rose is the flower of the dominant white races of the world, and it has been from the beginning. It is interwoven with their traditions. It is in their poems and songs from the beginning of civilization. Consciously—and at the same time unconsciously—the rose, in its perfection, quickens the beauty-love and satisfies the beauty-hunger of every normal human being. It assists in making life worth living.”

In the years following Holman's article, three public rose gardens—the Ladd's Addition Rose Garden, the Peninsula Park Rose Garden, and the International Rose Test Garden—opened in Portland. In 1936, Mary Drain Albro founded the Pioneer Rose Association and started several public gardens dedicated to preserving heirloom roses. Only one of these gardens still exists, in a shady corner of the Lone Fir Cemetery.

—Christen McCurdy

Leave Us to Ourselves


“We were our own state back in 1941!” hardcore secession advocates insisted as I crisscrossed the region researching my book The Elusive State of Jefferson. “If it hadn't been for Pearl Harbor,” they mused.

As four counties on the California side of the border voted in 2013 and 2014 to embrace the Jefferson mythology, the 1941 tale is now worshipped as reality. It goes something like this:

Suffering from bad roads and tired of sending tax dollars to faraway government capitals, secessionist seekers threw roadblocks across Highway 99 and, armed with long guns and a righteous cause, stopped traffic to pass out their Proclamation of Independence establishing the State of Jefferson. “We rugged individualists living between Salem and Sacramento would prosper free of urban shackles,” they said in 1941, words parroted today—despite the financial and political impossibility of Jefferson as a fifty-first state.

Oregon's separatist movement traces back before statehood. At a meeting in Jacksonville in 1854, a collection of local movers and shakers considered carving what they called Jackson Territory out of the what's now Jackson and Josephine counties (and maybe grabbing Curry, Klamath, and the southern reaches of Douglas). Many of them envisioned Jackson becoming a slave state.

“Not so fast,” warned General Joseph Lane, who rose to speak against the hyper-locals. Back from the Mexican–American War and about to fight in the vicious Rogue River Indian Wars, Lane—proslavery himself—was Oregon Territory's governor, and he feared a separate Jackson Territory sympathetic to slavery would doom Oregon's statehood aspirations.

By 1941 Mayor Gilbert Gable of Port Orford was using his ample public relations savvy to gin up developers' interest in isolated Curry County—its mineral wealth, cedar forests, and pristine coastline. Mayor Gable threatened secession from Oregon and sent a note to the California governor suggesting he annex Curry. When the governor laughed, Gable approached fellow disgruntled pols in far northern California, and the contemporary State of Jefferson was born. The San Francisco Chronicle responded by sending star reporter Stanton Delaplane to cover the histrionics. Delaplane won the Pulitzer Prize for his antics, which, he later claimed, included staging those roadblocks and writing that famous proclamation.

Yet the daydreams keep growing. “Jefferson, Jefferson,” sings local jam band State of Jefferson, “leave us to ourselves,” to Jeffersonian cheers from Redding to Roseburg.

—Peter Laufer

Priming the Pump


"A standing invitation to arsonists.” That's how Senator Jack Lynch described self-service gasoline stations in 1951 during the legislative debate in Salem that would ultimately result in Oregon's self-service ban. The bill hadn't been getting a lot of attention in the press, overshadowed by the much more controversial measure to legalize colored margarine. Maybe Lynch felt it was his duty to fan the flames, as it were. He tried to make Oregonians aware of the menace lurking just around the corner, just off the highway—a menace that could detour your Sunday drive into a blazing crime scene.

The ban was always intended to reduce fire hazards. Senator Phil Brady, who introduced the bill, pointed out in the same debate that eight gasoline station fires had recently occurred in California alone. Whether those fires were set on purpose remains unclear, but either way, fuel pumps apparently posed a danger. The state fire marshal had already issued a temporary self-service ban three years earlier and at least thirteen states had similar bans on the books, so when the law passed 25–3, there was little resistance. Efforts to rescind the law failed in 1969, 1977, 1982, and 2003.

By 1951, Lynch was winding down his nine-year run in the state senate. He capped off his career with a flurry of efforts to keep Oregonians from harm, both accidental and otherwise. That same term, he introduced a bill to ban the sale of fireworks—a bill that became law in time for a subdued Fourth of July. He also introduced the “fugitive fathers” bill, which required men who had abandoned their wives and children to return to the family fold. Lynch's Oregon was no place to hide, and no place to wander off into temptation.

His fear tactics probably weren't meant to change anyone's behavior. He must have felt that something much larger was at stake, perhaps the moral rectitude of the entire state. Anyone still against the bill, Lynch seemed to imply, would be dangling a forbidden—and highly flammable—fruit in front of would-be wrongdoers. Law-abiding citizens who extended that standing invitation would be just as guilty of death and destruction as the arsonists who RSVP'd. Lynch spent his last year in the Senate trying to save Oregonians from themselves.

—Melissa Leavitt

Life's a Public Beach


There's the Beach Bill, and then there's “Beach Bill.” The Beach Bill was signed into law in 1967, establishing the entire Oregon coastline as public beaches. Oregon's beaches had been largely protected from development since 1913, when the coast from the mouth of the Columbia River to the California border was declared a public highway. But it wasn't until 1967 that the beaches were set aside for free, recreational use, all the way up to where the sand gives way to soil.

Beach Bill, on the other hand, is Bill Hay, owner of the Surfsand Motel in Cannon Beach, who fought the bill. His attempt to barricade the beach for private use made Oregonians realize why they needed the bill in the first place. In 1966, he incited public ire by blocking off an area of dry sand that only his guests could use. He put up lounge chairs and beach umbrellas, and at night he built a bonfire to make things cozy.

The Surfsanders loved it, but that was about it. Lawmakers were pelted with thousands of cards, letters, and telegrams, urging them to restore public access to the beach. The problem, whether Hay knew it or not, was that nobody knew exactly where the beach was. Those cabanas raised some perplexing ontological issues about the nature of property rights and, well, nature. Did the beach only include the shore? The wet sand left after the tide pulled back? Or did it include dry sand, too—the best place to picnic, fly a kite, lie back and gaze at the sea?

Governor Tom McCall rode the tide of public sentiment as far up the beach as he could go. With the help of scientists from Oregon State University, he determined that the beach was the beach all the way to the vegetation line; public access encompassed everything from the shore to the grass and trees. The bill became law, but Beach Bill didn't care. As soon as it was introduced in the state legislature, he planted grass on the dry sand in front of his motel. Take that, vegetation line.

—Melissa Leavitt


Civic Life, Economics, Environment, History, Identity, Oregon, Politics, Race, Religion


1 comments have been posted.

These origin stories are great! Lot of interesting info in few words, fascinating topics. So inspiring to see all the great work Oregon Humanities is doing! Thank you!

Marie Deatherage | August 2014 | Portland

Also in this Issue

Will, Work, and Imagination

To Begin Is to Start

Before You Know It

Almost a Family

Origin Stories

Small Man in a Big Country

Clowns for Christ

On the Bench