May 26, 2009

Clearing the sagebrush an acre at a time

A dot on the map of the Crooked River National Grassland marks Nichols Springs, all that remains of a homestead settled more than 100 years ago by the grandparents of Redmond resident Marie Petersen, 90.

Petersen is matriarch of a large extended family that includes four children and 43 grandchildren, great- and great-great-grandchildren, many of whom continue to live in the Redmond area.

Petersen’s maternal grandparents, Mary Elizabeth and Lawrence Lee Nichols, homesteaded on the west side of Gray Butte between Opal City (southeast of Culver) and Trail Crossing (near the Crooked River canyon) in the early years of the 20th century.

According to a memoir by Petersen’s aunt, Deeris Nichols Brown, Madras was a small settlement in the middle of open range land around 1905 when the Nichols family arrived after a two-week train ride from Missouri to The Dalles, followed by a stage coach trip to Tygh Valley and a wagon ride to Madras.

During the family’s first year in Central Oregon Lawrence worked on the irrigation project near Bend and hauled lumber from Madras to Cole’s Orchard at the Cove. Deeris was the sixth daughter born to the Nichols and in 1908, a year after she was born, the family moved to a 160-acre homestead on the west side of Gray Butte.

The homestead house had two rooms, plus a shed that ran the full length of the building housing the kitchen, porch and feed room. The feed room was the only part of the home with a lock and Deeris eventually decided that while people might want to steal feed, they weren’t interested in stealing children.

One of the first jobs on the homestead was to build fence to keep out the many wild horses that roamed the area, Deeris wrote. After that, the family cleared sagebrush a few acres each year until the entire farm was in crops.

The family had enough food to eat, though sometimes it was just bread, milk and beans. Bachelor neighbors brought extra rabbits. Milk and butter were in abundance from the family cows; they butchered hogs for meat and grew a good garden full of potatoes, rhubarb and gooseberries.

Once a year, the family made a trip to an orchard at the Cove to load up on fruit, choosing to walk three miles each way into the gorge, rather than ride in the wagon on the steep, narrow grade. Both Petersen and her oldest daughter, Lois Frey, laughed as Frey read a passage about Deeris and one of her sisters driving the wagon to haul water from a spring about five miles from the house. The older sister would hand the reins to Deeris so she could read forbidden literature she stashed under the wagon seat.

“It so wonderful to have,” Lois said of the memoir that brings the family history to life.

Lawrence and Mary Nichols lived on the homestead until the federal government bought the property due to the decline in dryland farming, allowing it to create the national grasslands. They moved into Redmond in 1937, to a house they built on Southwest Ninth Street that today houses the FISH food pantry.

Petersen’s father, Jesse Lynam, came to Central Oregon from Iowa with a threshing crew in 1911. After he married Edith Nichols, they went back to Iowa twice. The family returned to Redmond for good when Marie was a junior in high school. Daughters Darleen and Lela and son Joe rounded out the family, which settled on a farm not far from the Pleasant Ridge Hall south of Redmond.

Marie graduated from Redmond Union High School in 1937 and in 1938 married Loyd “Bud” Petersen, the son of Scandinavian immigrants who owned a dairy farm south of Redmond. Bud and Marie bought 40 acres adjoining his parents’ Pleasant Ridge Dairy.

The Jake Petersen place was close to that of fellow Danish immigrant Rasmus Petersen, who had a penchant for building things out of rocks. Jake and Rasmus, no relation, ended up in Central Oregon about the same time and settled on neighboring farms, Frey said.

Loyd, the second of five children, was born in 1916 on the family dairy. His father, Jake came to Central Oregon to work on canal projects; his mother, Margit, came from Norway with her sisters. They met and married in Central Oregon in 1914 and became parents to five children: John, Loyd, Laura (Richardson), Carl, and Robert.

Jake Petersen started delivering Grade A raw milk door-to-door in Bend in the early 1920s, Frey said. His son, Loyd, took over the deliveries after his dad’s stroke in the 1930s. In the 1950s Jake started delivering milk again, this time to Redmond. Frey recalled that her grandfather would load the milk in the back of his old Hudson and drive into town. After daughter-in-law Marie started driving for him, he would tell her to drop him off at the Pastime Tavern, saying, “I’ll play cards until you get done delivering the milk.”

Marie and Loyd raised four children on the dairy: daughters Lois (Frey), Margit (Eskew), Edith (Maley), all of whom live in the Redmond area, and son, Edwin Petersen, who lives in Forest Grove.
Running a dairy farm was “busy times,” Marie Petersen said. “We kept busy, but we had a good time, too.” The family milked between 60 and 100 cows daily, Petersen said, Guernseys and Jerseys to begin with, later switching to Holsteins. “Mom worked very, very hard,” Frey said. “So did all four kids,” added Petersen.

Between household chores and dairy chores, the kids never lacked for anything to do, Frey said, and neither did their parents.When not working Marie and Bud were dancing. Bud loved to square dance every Wednesday and Saturday night, and always was up at 5 the next morning and in the barn for milking time.

Bud’s brothers usually did the milking, but Bud brought in the cows. After loading the milk he would eat breakfast, take a five-minute nap then head out for his deliveries. He did that seven days a week until he split the route with his wife, alternating delivery days, Frey said. After deliveries, it was time for supper, then back to the dairy to bring the cows in for evening milking, followed by a myriad of chores – washing bottles and equipment, cooling milk, bottling milk.

Marie and Loyd lived on the family dairy until 1970, the year it burned down, when they moved back to the adjoining 40 acres purchased when they married. They moved into town in 1990.

At 90, Petersen is mentally sharp and active, though her poor eyesight has forced her to abandon crocheting and knitting the afghans and sweaters she once crafted in abundance. For 24 years, until last year, Petersen baked flat bread for use during communion at Zion Lutheran Church.

As for the many family members that surround her, she’s busy working on getting five generations at church at the same time.

- story by Trish Pinkerton

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