Rancher to Rancher Tour
Sumpter Valley, Oregon
A clash of ruinous events, started a century earlier, were rubbing shoulders today in Sumpter Valley, Oregon.
Lyle Defrees’ maternal grandfather in 1892, was a teamster for a logging outfit and helped build sawmill businesses in the area. Lyle’s paternal grandfather came in 1881, from Indiana and his enterprises were dairy cattle and other livestock as well as hay (made with a stationary baler) sales to the Portland race track. They also sold butter and eggs to the mining companies and town dwellers. This agricultural economy was rocky and in 1913, the Powder River Gold Dredging Company came on the promise of gold. A second dredge worked its way upstream and past Sumpter from October 1915, until 1923. A third dredge (presently at the State Park in Sumpter) owned by The Sumpter Valley Dredge Company worked downstream from June 1935, until it returned to Sumpter and stopped operation in August 1954.
The Federal Government raised the price of gold from $20 per ounce to $35 per ounce in 1934 when the country was building industry, paying for war and establishing a nation…we needed the gold. Landowners who couldn’t make payments to the bank were threatened with foreclosure on properties suitable for dredging if they didn’t sell to the dredge company. Dan Warnock said one man stood at the line of what had been his property, land that he had cared for, given his labor and his heart to. When the dredge started chomping into it, tears flowed down his weathered face.
A mixed attitude was in the air of this valley with some enjoying the income of the gold business and others soured by its devastation. The floating dredge with 72 buckets could dig twenty feet deep into the rich river bottom meadows seeking alluvial gold, small flakes of gold and gold powder found in layers of sediment. Up to a mile wide area, 8 miles long, or 2500 acres of choice farm and grass land was dredged, averaging 60 acres a year for 41 years. Inside the dredge was an inspiration of inventive ways to draw gold flakes and powder from its bed. Dan explained, “The floating dredge took the river with it, digging back and forth across the valley.”Lyle described “Technically, it turned the place upside down.”
Thanks to the efforts of the Defrees and Warnock families, a valley once torn apart is slowly being restored.
Dan remembers mowing and bucking meadow hay in front of the dredge to get it out of the way before the land was dredged up – time was money and the dredge was making it. 9 tons of gold were pulled from under the Sumpter Valley Meadows, a financial gain of $4.5 million in gold that went straight to Fort Knox.Forty-one years after it came, the Dredge Company left the valley owing enough taxes to have to abandon the land to the county.
During the gold digging, Sumpter had a population of 5000 plus; its hey-day of placer and hard rock mining in the late 1890’s up until about 1910. The mining was subsiding by the time dredging started and populations went way down, especially after Sumpter burned in 1917. The smaller population was quite stable until the dredge shut down in 1954. Within a couple of years, city lots in Sumpter could be bought by the handful for $50 each…or less. Lyle’s firm, determined tone “The Defrees’ didn’t sell out.” brings you to the understanding of a commitment to the land rather than the promise of quick riches. A person not committed to a place could not comprehend this tone. His parents had a lot of chickens and raised barley to feed them. Lyle said, “You could always sell eggs in Sumpter.”That income and frugality, kept them in this place—their place. Dan’s family came from south of Eugene and took advantage of the land prices to build their own ranch.
As you look over the landscape the eight and ten foot continuous rock piles laying up to a mile wide through the valleys center, with forest covered mountains and good meadow grass to the south of the dredged area, it paints a scene that you can imagine previous to the gold digging. What was once a river bottom valley is now a series of ponds found among the rock piles with some flow working through the piles.
Dan and Lyle and his son Dean have given their life energy caring for what is theirs through the decades. Dan’s son, Randy, lives near Maupin and cares for the ranch cattle herd through the winter.Dan and Lyle noted that the land turned upside down through the center of the valley they love, was starting to come back with a few willow and pine growing through the rock piles. They wondered if they might be able to help things along…to build some top soil over the rocks. Lyle used his dozer to shape enough rock to pull a hay wagon across the first plot. He seeded this plot in the spring with a hand seeder, without results, and seeded again just before the cattle came in for winter feeding. The hay residue the stock were leaving, with their natural fertilizer made a cover layer that encouraged some grass seed to germinate, along with weeds, the first layer of succession.
When grass began to grow, livestock were again brought in as the grass became seed ripe and they trampled in the seed and laid their fertilizer over it. The stock also came in during winter feeding, leaving refuse to build soil. When a ten-acre plot started responding, they increased the project by another ten acres, taking bites into rehabilitation as the dredge took bites into hopes of gold. Dan was less intensive in his project, seeding an area and bringing cattle in to graze riparian areas and trample rock to impact any potential soil underneath.The response they have gained has caused Cheyleen Davis, professor at Blue Mountain Community College, to field study it. The first two years of the course were so successful that it is becoming a curriculum regular – “Ecology of Sumpter Valley, Recovery After Dredging”.
The meadow land above the dredge site is vibrant because of Lyle and Dan’s management of livestock grazing rotations through 58 paddocks. Their forest land is managed with as care and they both have vibrant forest property. While Dan selects trees for cutting and marks and holds them till the price is at his desired point, Lyle cuts selected trees each year.
They both have won Tree Farmer of the Year awards. In 1991 Lyle took a Master Woodland Managers course through the Extension Service. He has increased the wood in his private land forested acres by 216 thousand board feet per year by cutting dead and diseased trees and managing for a more balanced diversity of Ponderosa, Larch and Douglas Fir. Lyle says, the diversity “confuses the bugs.”
They explained that you can see, while standing on their land, 43 different mammals and 125 different bird species any day and have encouraged assistance from the Forest Service and Oregon Fish and Wildlife to help preserve and enhance this diversity.
The tour was especially educational with wonderful hospitality shared through the weekend.