All things history in Baker County!

Mission Statement

The purpose of Baker County Historical Society is to stimulate interest in and a knowledge of the past, present and future of the peoples of the region; to cooperate with related agencies to discover, collect, preserve, deaccession when appropriate and make available any records and materials which may help to establish or illustrate the history of the county or state. 

Historical Society History

The Baker County Historical Society was founded August 28, 1946 and held its first meeting at the Baker Hotel. The nominating committee was Lott D. Brown, Mrs. J. Roscoe Lee, and W. H. Strayer. Officers elected were: Miss Belle Reed, President; Joe O’Conner, Vice-President; Miss Georgia Smith, Secretary; O.H.P. McCord, Treasurer; and George Hyde, Historian.

Their meetings had a dual purpose: that of fellowship, including the sharing of the distant past, and of preparing for a museum. Dues were $1.00 a year.

Under the leadership of 1951 President Joe O’Connor, the Society rented the Community Center and presented an Antique Fair. The building was filled with family heirlooms. Adults paid $.50 admission; Baker merchants donated toward free tickets for children. This was the first of many successful fund-raising projects. The Society became a co-sponsor of the Pioneer Basket Picnic with the Pioneer Association as many members belonged to both organizations. (See Pioneer Assoc. Story) The Society became incorporated under the laws of the State of Oregon, January 21, 1954, (Amended: January 6, 1965), and that August, opened their first Museum. (See Museum Story)

On October 19, 1956, the Sportsman’s Club was rented to celebrate the Society’s 10th Anniversary at which they served the famous Kentucky Derby Burgoo soup-supper. The afternoon was spent in visiting or playing cards. There was a table of bazaar items, and another with light refreshments to tide appetites until the supper which was followed by dancing. This event was held annually for over ten years on the Saturday nearest to October 23 to commemorate the discovery of gold by Henry Griffen, and was often attended by over 200 people.

The commemoration of Statehood Day became another well-attended event. The first baby born on February 14 was given a gift from the Society and a Savings Bond donated by member Henry Levinger. Following the evening’s program and the Lighting of the Candles Ceremony, (written by Ethel Love), an elaborate cake was cut and served. One such evening was held in the lobby of the Baker Hotel. The cake had been made and sculptured to be a replica of the State Capitol building by Edna Dove. Dancing until midnight completed the evening.

The membership of sixty swelled to over 350 in preparation for the 1959 Oregon Centennial Celebration. With the help of George Borgen, among others, Old Town was constructed in May on Court Street, between Main and Resort Streets, and near the Society’s Hospitality Lounge, (now the Blue Door Beauty Salon), on Resort St. Members hosted the Old Town on a full daily schedule, kept the Hospitality Lounge open and participated in or sponsored, several events in the Geiser-Pollman Park.

When the Centennial Wagon Train rolled into Baker from Independence, Missouri, on a Saturday afternoon, the members of the seven-wagon Train were hosted to a pancake and sausage supper, and again on Sunday morning. The general public paid $1.00 for the ample meal prepared and served by the members dressed in pioneer clothing. Insurance-man Don Reed was head chef. Sunday morning service was held in the Old Town Chapel before the Wagon Train continued on their journey.

The baby born on February 14, 1959, was Daniel Martin Davis, son of 2nd Lt. and Mrs. (Marjorie Chaves) Davis; and grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Chaves. The Centennial Queen was Mrs. Joseph C. Chaves, great-grandmother of the Centennial Baby. The Centennial was kept alive throughout the year with the Grande Finale being held in the Community Center Friday, February 14, 1960, closing the Centennial Year.

Years earlier, the Society has assisted in placing the Walter Meacham granite marker on the Oregon Trail, (Virtue Flat). In 1968, the Society placed a Highway Marker and a Graveside Memorial in Medical Springs honoring the late Grace Powers. Mrs. Powers was the daughter of Dunham Wright, Senator in the Oregon Territorial Legislature and founder of the Medical Springs Health Resort. Mrs. Powers was a life member of the Baker County, Union County, and Oregon Societies. Nearly 1000 attended the dedication.

The organization has participated in parades, sponsored the 1961 Gold Ball and other dances, sponsored two Chautauqua, and for some years the Hay Ride Tour during Sumpter Valley Days in addition to the annual events. In 1980 the Newsletter became a Quarterly, and the Society organized the Century Farm Awards Banquet honoring the descendent owners of the Century Farms in Baker County. Obtaining the lease from the City for the Natatorium Building in 1976, the Society organizes the frequent work-parties needed at the Oregon Trail Regional Museum, schedules the Volunteer hosts, records the acquired artifacts, creates exhibits, and performs general maintenance of the museum. On July 7, 1985, the Society placed and dedicated a granite marker on the site of the first cabin in Sumpter, and in August honored the 1985 owners of Century Farms.

The present officers of the Society during that dedication were: Kenneth Crawford, President; Vice-President, Alvin Ward; Secretaries, Silas Allen and Ilah Baker Taylor; Treasurer, Ray Dielman; Board Members: Harry Williams, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Freeman, Lois Ward, James Monroe, Mr. and Mrs. Ron Bowers, Caroline R. Sherrieb, and Sudie Boyce. Advisors are James R. Evans and Byron Brinton.

Baker County History
(from the book by JR Evans, 1986)

Baker County, in far Northeast Oregon, was molded by a violent geologic past into a unique land of mountain valleys separated by ancient, scenic, and gold-bearing ranges. It is a land of gold, cattle, timber, power generation, adventure, and tourism.

It is a land bordered on the east by the Snake River, which plunges into the Hell’s Canyon; on the north-northeast by the Wallowa Mountains; on the north-northwest and west by the Blue Mountains, and on the southwest and south by the Malheur Mountains.

Significantly, a rough geographic pass slants across the county, and, thus, the county lies astride the Old Oregon Trail and the modern highways, railroad, pipe lines, and communication lines which connect the Northwest to Mid-America through that pass.

It is the purpose of this book to make a lasting historic record of Baker County; to interpret the controlling geology and geography; to interpret Baker County’s place in Oregon’s past and present; to recognize its industry; and to present a record of its people.

Northeast Oregon is considered Oregon’s oldest land. It may be understood best against preliminary analysis which will promote understanding of the human history and transportation as presented later, the discovery of gold, the buildings constructed of volcanic tuff, the life style and the industry of today.

The account is written by remarkably competent people who have lived and worked in the area of which they write. Please see at end of each section.

This writer will insert interpretative or coordinative notes as appropriate to join the various sections.  

-J. R. Evans, General Historian 

AuburnBridgeportClarksvilleDurkee Valley
Eagle ValleyHainesHalfwayHereford
PocahontasCity of SumpterUnityWingville
School Districts
HuntingtonUnityPine-EagleNorth Powder
Mt. Carmel SchoolPrivate SchoolsParochial SchoolsCollege
General Information
GeologyNative AmericansClimate & SoilElkhorn Range
ExplorationAstoriansOregon TrailPerkins Wagon Train
ChineseCounty GovernmentDooley MountainHistoric Baker City
Organization of Baker CityRadium Hot SpringsSumpter Valley RRSumpter Valley RR Restoration
Unity ReservoirEducation in Baker CityBaker Education AssociationBaker School District
New Bridge GrangeTelephonesTelephone BookPublic Library

Oregon Trail Regional Museum History

On February, 2, 1954, the Baker County Historical Society signed a lease with Carl Davis, Manager of the Pioneer Federal Savings and Loan Association, for the balcony space in that Association’s building, 2100 block, Main Street. The Society’s committee made up of Davis, Judge Forrest Hubbard, Joseph O’Connor, and Clyde Whited, purchased cases for the Society with financial aid from Pioneer Federal.

The Society’s first museum opened Aug. 2, 1954, with 55 displayed items, and was open three afternoons a week. In late 1960, the display was moved to the City Hall basement where it was open to the public until accessions overcrowded the space.

In the spring of 1973, Board members of School District 5J (George Gildersleeve, Dan Warnock, Ralph Ward, Frances Burgess, and John Story) upon encouragement of Supt. J. R. Evans, (who was also chairman of the City Centennial committee), declared a collection of school artifacts to be a school museum collection. These were materials salvaged from a 20-year renovation of the gold-mine era buildings. It was further suggested that Baker County and the City of Baker join with the School District in promoting a county museum organization that request being made formally on Nov. 7, 1973. The County and the City approved such a joint effort.

County Judge Lloyd Rea appointed a County Museum Commission on Dec. 28, 1973. Members of the Commission were Chairman Henry Levinger, Mrs. Donald Ellingson, Mrs. Irving Rand, Bill J. Robinson, R. D. Thompson of the Panhandle, John Mitchell of Sumpter, and Ted Heard of Haines.

Alice Warnock advertised and chaired an open meeting held in the Children’s Room of the Baker City (Carnegie) Library, on Nov. 13, 1974. Approximately 40 persons attended and discussed the possible uses of the Natatorium Building. The museum concept was introduced and accepted. A volunteer Citizens’ committee was organized: Chairman. Mrs. Dan Warnock; Vice Chairman. J. D. Lethlean; Secretaries, Carol Sherrieb and Berry Kuhl; and members Joann Boyer, Mr. and Mrs. Bill J. Robinson, Richard Langrell, Hazel Bates, Nell Irby, Byron Brinton, and Truscott Irby.

On December 3, 1974, the Citizens’ Committee made their initial presentation to the Museum Commission, and on December 19th, made the first of many visits to the City Council and its Committees. In April, 1975, the County Commission received its first gift of money for their expenses. This came when Connie (Palmer) Hogge and Carol Sherrieb arranged for the University of Oregon’s Dobre Folk Dance Ensemble to perform in Baker, and a donation from the Sumpter Women’s Club.

It became apparent that the Baker County Historical Society, Inc. would be the natural legal participant between the County Museum Commission’s interests and the City of Baker. The City honored the Committee’s request to improve the Nat’s appearance by using 91 sheets of plywood to cover the broken windows.

The Society gained a two year lease to the building on Nov. 2, 1976, from the City. Gaining previous entry to the building, the first phase of clean-out removed 26 loads of debris. After completing their workday volunteers worked as long as the sun’s light was available in the dark structure. Their suppers were served in the park by the Society in appreciation for their hard, dirty work.

The American Association of University Women conducted a Charter Membership campaign for the Oregon Trail Regional Museum in April, 1977. The letter reported the installation of a new metal roof, and new steel-concrete footings of all support posts in the building through funds from Baker County Bicentennial Committee, Baker County Oregon Bicentennial Committee, Baker County Historical Society, Organizations, and Private Donors. The campaign was well received. Several donors continue to support the reconstruction progress with annual tax-deductible donations and maintain their Charter-OTRM-support.

In October, 1980, the Society observed Gold Discovery Day with an Open House in a partially finished room and unfinished hallway with limited artifact exhibits, and a program which was a slide presentation of historic pictures of Baker County. Seating was provided by using the old Methodist Church pews. For want of facilities, a “chidk-sales” was rented. Gold Discovery Day, 1981 Open House showed more progress in the reconstruction work, and activity increased to prepare for opening for Miner’s Jubilee, 1982. A gas furnace and ducts, another power panel, more wiring, insulation, sheet-rock, painting, and windows were installed. Thousands of volunteer labor-hours were donated to achieve the goal, “Open for Jubilee,” mostly by Harry Williams, Jerry VanHoomissenm, by Rarey, Carol Sherrieb and Mary Oman.

In addition, the museum installed the front door, gift of Edna Pollman Nash; received the painting, “Crossing the Powder,” a gift from Ellen Williams; exhibit cases were arranged with appropriate displays; and special showings and tours were given; over 1750 people from 28 states visited during the Jubilee and the museum being open two days a week for the season.

Ready in June 1983, with more improvements the volunteer staff opened the Museum 4 hours a day, five days a week, and received 3,100 guests. In addition, the museum hosted the 75th Anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service observance, featured a C.C.C. exhibit; and dedicated Room #2 to be the Loe Adler Exhibit Hall. Over 150 attended the dedication. Mr. Adler’s portrait was painted and given by Ellen Williams. The remainder of the Society’s artifacts were packed and moved from the City Hall to the Museum by Keith Long, Jerry VanHoomissen and Carol Sherrieb.

Former Baker resident, Mamie Cavin, Pismo Beach, Ca. called Henry Levinger, and offered the Cavin-Warfel Collection of Rocks and Minerals. The Museum aimed to have this outstanding collection on display by July 20, Miner’s Jubilee. The Museum opened a drive to secure matching grant funds. The city and the county gave financial assistance; Society President, Harry Williams became both an advisor and the contractor for the project; work began to construct three new rooms, carpet four rooms, and level floors and paint Room #3 and the Accession Room.

Byron Brinton and Jerry Van Hoomissen went to California, where they were joined by Ardis (Brinton) Cousins in inventorying the Cavin-Warfel Collection. In March, Ron D. Brinton, Byron Rarey, Byron Brinton, Jerry VanHoomissen, and Dennis Larios were gone twelve days to pack and transport the eighteen tons of rocks, minerals, and other items. Floyd Duncan’s donated tractor-trailer, a rented truck, and three pickups made up the caravan.

The Museum was opened in June for six hours a day amid the sounds of hammers and saws. Accession work began on the Ruth Best Collection of sea shells and life, and the clothing items in the Cavin Collection. Fifteen cubic yards of concrete was wheel-barrowed through the entry hall to level the floor of Room #3. On July 16th, the 38 fluorescent fixtures and tubes for the interior of the fourteen new display cases had not arrived; nor did they come on Tuesday. Wednesday found Jerry VanHoomissen, By Rarey and Ron D. Brinton installing the fixtures; Keith Long and Jim Lee brought up the boxes of rocks in wheelbarrows. As soon as a case had its fixtures installed, the Henry Levingers, the Bob Putmans, Letha Shumway, and Lillie Lovelace began building its display. By noon, the Calvin-Warfel Collection was open to Miner’s Jubilee!

The Grand Opening of the Collection was held August 15. County Judge, Larry Smith; City Manager, Arthur Reiff; Councilman, (former Mayor), Ralph McNeil; and Commissioner Fred Ringer cut the ribbon. Representing Mamie Cavin were her nieces Ferne Putman, of Baker, and Virginia Wessler of Sacramento, and great-nieces Ferne Putman, of Baker, and Virginia Wessler of Sacramento, and great-nieces Merna Putman and Judy Wessler.

The ceremonies and Open House in the Museum were followed by a no-host banquet at the Kopper Kitchen where Mrs. B. D. Kuhl was Mistress of Ceremonies. Ellen Williams was graciously thanked for her portrait of Mamie Cavin to the museum. Mrs. Putman presented a photograph of Beth (Cavin) Warfel, and the family presented the rare-crafter Chengtu Silver Collection. In addition to the contracted work, volunteers contributed 1200 hours. The museum was open for 110 days and hosted 4100 guests. The 1985 Season’s attendance topped 7,600 with the Museum being open 850 hours in 140 days. The Ladies’ Rest Room had been built.

The 1986 Season has begun with over 2,000 visitors by mid-June. Electrical work and finishing the upstairs for a storage area is in progress. Reconstruction of the Annex to house the Rocks and Minerals exhibits in a larger space, and better utilization of the Theme Hall are the next projects.

The present Baker County Museum Commission is chaired by C. J. VanHoomissen, with members: Mrs. B. D. Kuhl, Mrs. Kenneth Boyer, Mrs. Dan Warnock, Byron Brinton, Byron Rarey, and Fred Warner.

The Oregon Trail Regional Museum is a major attraction to Baker County. Its reputation is spreading rapidly as out-of-state visitors are making repeated visits. The Museum Commission and the Historical Society are mutually proud of their concerted efforts toward an outstanding museum. (Sponsored by the Baker County Historical Society.)