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Voices of Spencer Creek
|The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frank and the Rivers
The Willamette and McKenzie rivers have been important features in this community clear back to Native American times.
By Lois Barton
Posted on Jun 10, 2007
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|The Furguson home on Echo Lane, Santa Clara neighborhood, Eugene during high water in the 1940s |
The Willamette and McKenzie Rivers of Oregon join together a few miles north of Eugene. The original Willamette was subject to massive flooding in the spring when rains were augmented by spring snow melt from the high mountains. The river ran through fairly level prairie country and flooding washed it into changing channels on the valley floor. The changing flows cut into farming country and created confusion for those who lived along river banks.
Congress passed a bill in the 1930s authorizing flood control dams to reduce flood damage and the Army corps of Engineers has since built eleven such dams on tributaries of the Willamette. These dams work for minor floods, but those in 1964 and 1996 widely overran the area.
My son-in-law Frank Ferguson grew up near the confluence of the rivers. Conversations with him tell a story of the neighborhood and the adventures of youngsters who lived in the area. Clarence Buss, son of a homesteader still living on part of the original homestead, lived across lots next to Frank's home on Echo Lane. Frank has a yew wood bow Mr. Buss' father had made when they came to the homestead. Way back then the father found a yew log in a log jam at the riverside and carved the bow from it, fulfilling a promise he'd made to his eleven year old son as they traveled west.
Mr. Buss was in his late 80s and nineties during the years Frank knew him. He liked to fish in the ponds in the neighborhood where there were a variety of fish including large and small mouth bass, blue gills and catfish. He thought catfish were good eating and devised a way to skin them by nailing their head to a board, cutting the skin around the neck, curling it a bit and attaching pliers to the curl. He could then pull the skin off cleanly with the pliers, getting better results than trying some other way to skin them. As he became more feeble with age, his hands lacking the strength to do that pull, Frank used to do it for him. There came a time when he could no longer walk to the pond to fish either and Frank took over that job as well.
Those neighborhood ponds are no longer there. They had been created by early removal of gravel when the machinery had not been developed to sort, crush into various sizes and wash the gravel. The gravel retrievers would work one area till they exhausted the supply they could get at with the simple machinery, then move to another place and start again. The abandoned spot would fill with water and fish were washed into them by the floods. These were the ponds that Mr. Buss fished in.
Part of the old homestead had been sold to Mr. Babb who with his sons later went to a more modern extensive operation which created a huge pit removing the earlier ponds completely. The sons eventually put in a pump which enabled them to work at the deeper level.
There was an island on the Babb property where they wanted to get the gravel, but the island was piled with flood deposited logs on the upstream end. The island was about a quarter mile long. Mr Babb decided to burn those logs to clear the island. This decision was reached in July when the logs were fairly dried out. A fire was started in the log pile and Frank took a boat to the other end to start the fire there. The wind was blowing down the length of the island across the first fire which had traveled to the other end of the island before the boat got there. With that wind blowing briskly the fire roared so hot that the boys in the boat jumped out of the boat and hid behind it away from the heat. Even though the boat was 30 feet away from the fire the heat blistered the paint from that side of the boat. After that fiery furor at least the island was clear of brush and promptly incorporated in the gravel operation.
Babb's sons at one time moved the big gravel operation to a new location within the pit and removed the machinery from the original spot, leaving the wooden scaffolding behind . The neighborhood children used to play around that scaffolding, drawing straws for two teams who held wars over possession of a treasure chest containing fake diamonds and gold. There were remains of four bins at an upper level which had held different sizes of gravel, a ten foot deep pond into which they could dive from a ramp. One team would get the castle and the other the dungeon behind the upper bins to compete for the treasure chest. Those children at that time were early teenagers.
Frank remembers a curved slough, a former river channel, that lay near the Division Ave. exit. It circled around past Echo Lane and on to the place where they were later able to unload a raft of rescued timbers.
When Frank got a little older he and buddy Rob turned to other adventures. Once they loosened a log from the river bank near Skinner Butte. It was the bottom half of a pretty good sized log which had been split lengthwise. They had poles and rode the log as it floated down stream. The log was fairly waterlogged and dragged bottom in places. It eventually grounded to a complete stop down river, but on the opposite bank from home. This was December and the boys were wet and cold from their work and their ride. Frank approached an isolated farmhouse nearby with some trepidation, but was able to get permission to phone his mother to come get them. She had to drive into Eugene to the Ferry Street Bridge to get across the river, but they were very thankful for that ride home.
"Down below, closer to home there were lots of islands in the river. We wanted to explore those island," Frank said. They dug other beached logs from the river bank at various times. One, they learned when it was loose and turned over, was an Indian dugout canoe. One end had been buried near the water and was wet and heavy floating, but when dried floated better. They did some minor repairs to cracks and used that canoe for a couple of years. They found that it was very tippy and had a tendency to turn over in the water, and they were dumped more than once. Eventually they attached a board to one side something like an outrigger which helped to keep the balance upright, and they'd lean to that side as they rode. It was hard work getting the canoe up on the bank among the blackberries and brush when they were through for the day. So it was an awkward thing to safely moor and the '64 flood eventually took their canoe on down river. Somebody had spent a lot of time digging it out. There were still some burned spots in it where fire had been used to help the hollowing process. Frank thinks it was a cedar log.
The 1964 flood washed a bunch of lumber four or five miles from under the bridge that was being built near Judkins Point for the freeway. Frank thinks one reason the freeway bridge is sagging today may be because some of that lumber had been supporting the concrete pillar at the near end of the bridge and the concrete may not have been completely set.
A big pile of the lumber landed on the tip of an island the boys were exploring. They conceived the idea of rescuing that lumber. There was a quiet inlet right at the back side of that pile, out of the current, where they could build a raft. Part of the assembled lumber was 4 or 5 big planks 8 inches thick, two feet wide and 30 feet long. The boys were able to place those planks side by side in the inlet out of the current, using the come-along for extra muscle, and fasten them together by nailing boards across them. That come-along had been hitched to a chain that was tightened around one pile of 3x5 boards. That chain would make a fine tow chain but the come-along was on the bottom. They began trying to loosen the chain and free the come-along by pounding one board out of the bundle, and then another and eventually were able to turn it over and free the chain.
When all the boards were stacked on the raft the pile was 4 or 5 feet high. Poling the raft out into the current they started downstream with their load. Rounding a corner they spotted a large log sticking out unexpectedly from the bank and above the water. They had been down that stretch of river before, and there was no log there, but the flood had washed the bank 15 or 18 feet back under the log, creating a new channel. That old three foot diameter log was hanging out about 4 feet above the water. The current was going at a pretty good clip right there and floated the raft under the log. The boys scrambled up and over the log, coming down on the back of the raft just as it cleared. The log had scraped across the top of their load, wiping the top layer off the raft as it floated under. Later they were surprised to see the boards which had been wiped off the raft by the log had followed them to the slough and could be retrieved.
As they neared home they wanted to guide the raft away from the current into that long slough mentioned earlier to a place where they could unload the boards. A cottonwood tree stood on the point above the slough and Rob jumped off and tied a rope from the back of the raft around that tree thinking the current would swing it around into the slough. The raft was turning and came near the bank just as the tree, pulled up by the roots, fell in the water beside the raft, where it began to float downstream pulling the raft with it. They finally severed the rope releasing the cottonwood. Then, exhausted as they were, they managed to pole their booty, one foot length at a time, perhaps a quarter of a mile farther into the slough away from the current to where an old road came down to the bank. Frank could bring his car and trailer down that lane to take the wood home. They were able to sell part of their haul but didn't realize minimum wages for all that work.
As the river has settled into a more permanent channel since flood control, many of the small lakes left from the past have been filled or dozed. Continuing gravel harvesting has changed the local landscape as well. Frank and Rob might not recognize their former playground.
There was a pond in the neighborhood where the youngsters used to swim that had a big cottonwood tree on the bank. That tree leaned over the water at about a 45 degree angle. It was considered brave and exciting to climb up in the tree and jump off into the water. Frank estimated the tree at 45 to 50 feet high and it took real daring to climb clear to the top before jumping. One day when there were a lot of kids in the tree it began to crack and slowly fall over into the water. The warning noises alerted the kids to their danger and they began to leap for the water. The report is that by the time the tree hit the water there were no climbers still aboard.
Another story about swimming was in a pond that had a healthy growth of stinging nettles along the edge. A log stuck out over the water so swimmers could walk out past the nettles to dive. One day when several boys were swimming in the nude Frank started out the log again, but it was wet and slippery from all the traffic and he lost his balance and landed face down into those stinging nettles. What torture! His skin was afire all over. The only relief he could find was to stand over a cold spring that came up in the bottom of the pond. That gave some relief, but after a bit, he'd get so cold he'd have to surface and face the stinging.
When Frank was in Jr. High school he had a trap line along the slough which he had to check before school while it was still dark in the mornings. He caught beavers, muskrats and later nutria. Once he got a mink. Those furs were sold to someone in Eugene for $2 to $4 apiece. One dark morning Frank was out checking his line. A clump of fair-sized maple trees, sprouted around an old stump, clustered just above one of his traps. He was able to swing himself between two of those trees onto the rubble from the original stump in the center. There he was confronted by two eight inch wide green eyes about two feet apart. This monstrously startling apparition stunned him into immobility temporarily. Eventually he turned on his flashlight to look down at the trap and was able to take another look and realized that he had been looking at phosphorous imbued ends of a small rotting fallen maple sprout resting at the edge of the old stump rubble.
The Willamette and McKenzie rivers have been important features in this community clear back to Native American times. Trout fishing on the McKenzie is world-renowned, attracting famous anglers over the years. The Willamette was the primary "road" north through the valley in the early days. Their confluence is a notable geographic feature of interest and their history of annual flooding damage was important enough to spur the National Congress to authorize control dams. This glimpse of personal history adds a bit of entertainment for a unique community.
Copyright ©2007 by Lois Barton
Writer and historian
Lois Barton is an 88 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.
Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life-long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.
Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: These Stones Are Speaking
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Lucy McIver, Peace Pole Artist
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Telephones, Then and Now
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Remembering Bovine Tuberculosis
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: What Is a Quilt?
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Quakers in the British Virgin Islands
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Manta Rays, and Dandelions, A Poem, also introducing Carolann Krohn
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Those Husky Macadamia Nuts
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Fender's Blue, a Nine Day Wonder
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frannie and the Arrow
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Bhavia's Cambodia
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of the Smoking Chimney
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of Big Oak Stables
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Fishy Story
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Different Peace
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Hal and the Mountain
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure
Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development
and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.
See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By Northwest.org online magazine's archives:
Visit the Heron Rookery
Sauerkraut and All That
Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?
The Midwife–The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.
The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.
Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.
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