More Baker City in the Eighties

On the west side of Main Street and corner of valley Avenue was a wooden grocery which became known as Thompson Corner, Clark and Crouter grocery, N.N. Elliott grocery and finally Palmer jewelry in a new  stone building. This firm began as a bicycle shop in the rear of the J.B. Gardner jewelry store next door, which firm they later succeeded. When they moved to their new stone building, the Gardner building became the Wright Brothers restaurant. Next door was the Bowen hardware store, Baer and Block dry goods; later M. Weil’s New York store and the Wolfe drug store with the Morning Democrat on the second floor. Ed Hardy had a wholesale liquor store in the Jack Walker building adjoining. Following years were Eb Torrey’s saloon, the P. Basche Hardware, and Bamberger & Tichner White House dry goods. The next building, once a shooting gallery with a dance hall and lodge hall upstairs, was successively the home of the Masons, the Knights of Pythias and the Elks. The First National Bank completed the block.

Across Court Street stood the one-story store of S.A. Heilner, soon to have two upper floors added by Mike White, contractor. In the rear across the alley was a saloon, then next to Geddes & Kraft butcher shop where Wm. Pollman first worked in Baker. A dry goods store and J. Keil, shoemaker, completed the block to First Street.

Next North of the Heilner store was Newberger’s saloon. The next brick building north was the temporary quarters of the First National Bank, while the new bank building was in construction. This building was later occupied by Wright Brothers cigar factory, and still later by Goodwin Brothers and card rooms. The Sunderland restaurant was next north and this building was later used by the Levinger Drug and the George Foster Bakery, both in the same store room. The Clarke and Weatherby grocery, J.H. Donald, clothier, Moran & Mills barber shop, Pete Nitsche fish market, a saloon, L.G. Andrews barber shop, Stuchell & Henderson dry goods, all wooden buildings, and the Faull building with steel corrugated siding completed the block. In this location was H. Dale & Co., dealers in hay, grain, feed, hides, ham, bacon and Studebaker wagons. Ed Silver was the manager.

Opposite this block was the Arlington Hotel on the northeast corner of main and Court streets. The hotel was first operated by the senior I.B. Bowen, later by Louis Cook, followed by Jack Burns and Jim Moore. A saloon was in connection. North of it was the fruit and news stand of Jimmy McNamee. The Louis Campeau barber shop, a butcher shop and a little church and a saloon with Louie Menlesohn’s feed store on the corner completed the block before the Washauer Hotel was built in 1887. Various firms have occupied space in this block including the McMurren Furniture, McKay & Eppinger, Carter & Miller, butchers. Before the Washauer Hotel was renamed the Geiser Grande it was operated by Louie Cook, later by Bud Levens and Jack Burns. Jack Rodgers had gambling tables in the saloon and billiards in the rear. H.A. Mitchell had the barber shop. The D.L. Moomaw residence once stood near the corner of this block next to the church.

Where the Sommer building now stands was Rust’s brewery with a saloon in front and office connected. Next was Opera House, famous for all road shows, the home talents “Pinafore,” “Pirates of Penzance,” and others, also local political meetings and school graduations. It was later into a vaudeville drinking house with a balcony of booths and brazen girls. The next building was the Pfeiffenberger saloon. C.C. Andrews later had a small grocery there and A.B. Combs had a cyclery and tandem rental. In the balance of the block was Voruz’s second-hand store, later that of F.C. Fry. The buildings were wooden. Serene B. McCord had a one hundred foot frontage for farm machinery and hardware, Bain and Studebaker wagons and the like. After his death the business was operated by his son-in-law, Asa Shinn. After a fire the corner was sold to Wm. Pollman for $2000 and he erected the Lyndale Hotel.

Opposite the Rust brewery was Griswold’s harness shop, a wooden building which he replaced with a brick general store and later sold to the Citizens National bank at the end of a profitable ground lease of ten years. The next building north was a shoe shop which later became the Alexander Clothing Company. On these two lots the present First National Bank was erected. A grocery store was next north, taken over by Cato Johns, Inc., in 1893. The first school of Baker City was located here near the center of the block. Later the wooden buildings occupied at different times were Meyers Boarding House, a saloon, Fanny Hall, Frank Paine, painter, Green photo shop, Kranz, shoemaker, and J.L.B. Vial, jeweler, who erected a brick building. Other early firms in this block were Patterson & Eppinger, and M. Weil Company.

Across Center Street was the Gagen brick building, the Kentucky liquor store on the main floor, and C.C. Andrews art school and Israel & Manville, lawyers, on the second floor in 1886-1887. This site is now occupied by Basche-Sage Hardware Company. Center Street has been known as Broadway for a number of years. Across Main Street was the Jap McCord blacksmith shop, in the corner of which Tom Dealy and Bill Dealy were expert horseshoers. Dan Kelly sold buggies, sleighs, cutters and implements on this block and Sam Lew, later of Lew & Parker, had a furniture and undertaking business.

This memory list covers most of the early firms. To really visualize Main Street in the eighties one must add unpaved muddy streets, wooden sidewalks, horses and wagons, loads of hay, hitching racks, horse troughs, stage coaches, horse drawn hacks, the old Washauer bus, a few high-wheeled bicycles, and porches on the fronts of stores. The one-horse streetcar operated for about fourteen years, beginning in 1890, in the later years under the management of old Mr. Reel, who was also the driver. Safety bicycles were first introduced in 1893. Carl Adler received a shipment of three bicycles, and the first one sold was to the writer, who for three years was printer’s devil and delivered the Morning Democrat.

The first schoolhouse built was in 1867 on the corner now occupied by the Geiser Grand Hotel. The first newspaper of Baker County was issued may 11, 1870, and some of the advertisers were J.W. Virtue, broker; R.A. Pierce, L.A. Stearns and I.D. Haines, lawyers; Dr. T.N. Snow, City Drug Store; L.A. Reid, Western Hotel; Reynolds & Ferguson, Express Store; McCord Brothers, blacksmiths; McCrary & Tracy Variety Store; J.W. Wisdom, druggist.

The first blacksmith shop was on the corner opposite J.C. Penny Company and Robert McCord was the owner. The first saloon was in the wooden building on the site of the still standing J.P. Bowen stone building, the latter being the first stone building and was built by J.W. Virtue of local stone.

The first brick building was the Arlington Hotel, built by Rev. P. De Roo, followed by the Heilner one-story brick building and the brothers School. The Notre Dame Academy and Sacred Heart School for girls passed into the ownership of the Sisters of St. Francis in 1885, ten of whom came from Philadelphia under Sister Superior Mary Cupertino. In 1892 the J.W. Virtue home on Main Street was bought, and in 1900 the academy enlarged to its present building at a cost of $75,000.

The two-story wooden public school on Fourth and Center was sold to W.S. Levens in 1888 and moved to Tenth and Campbell, where it became a general store. Levens platted the Levens Addition. The one-story public school on Fourth and Church streets was sold to J.H. Donald in 1888 and moved to Fifth and Baker streets and there rebuilt as an apartment house.

J.S. Bingham was the superintendent of the public schools. He retired from this work and built the Presbyterian Church. The first brick high school was the Central School, built in 1888 by Mike White. Herbert Kittridge was the superintendent and J. A. Churchill, principal. The first class, numbering five, graduated in 1892. These were Lee Stewart, Doane Terry, Cary and Dora Jackson and Walter Palmer.

Baker city had a band organized about the time of the first Fourth of July celebration in 1883 and this band, despite changing members, headed the G.A.R. parades and other celebrations for nearly twenty years.

Letson Balliet, president and manager of the White Swan Mining company, had purchased the Weekly Baker Herald from the writer on September 1, 1900, and launched it into a two edition daily the following year. Among the score of Herald employees were five members of the band, and Balliet, being public spirited and learning that the Baker City band was being reorganized, offered the donation of new uniforms. The new organization was incorporated in 1902 and took the name White Swan Concert Band, Inc. Mr. Balliet gave them a champagne banquet and presented each of the thirty members a tailor made uniform of dark green color trimmed in white with caps to match. He also presented what was claimed to be the biggest drum in the world, it being six feet two inches in diameter and lettered in large capital letters the new name, WHITE SWAN BAND, BAKER CITY, ORE.

L.E. Fretag was director of the band, and the five members on the Herald staff were W.M. Moore, Tom Besler, Chet Wilburn, Bill Besler and Jay Yost, who was the drum major, Lon Davis played the big drum, and George Simmers a big golden harp. The names of the other members were Tom Daly, Oscar Soley, Ira Keown, Frank Flynn, Dick Highland, Grant Bartlett, Leo Bierdneau, Eugene Bennett, Edward Reynolds, Bob Hunt, Frank Bushnell, Ed Bushnell, M. Sonne, Alva Littleton, Jim Chord, Bernhardt Baer, Charles Alexander, Robt. Armstrong, Clarence Palmer, snare drum and Mascot Samms.

This band became efficient and won national fame as guests of world’s fairs, with trips in special cars to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other places where important events and celebrations were held, always coming home to Baker with high honors. Only half of the members above named are still living in 1949.

It was 7 A.M. on a cold foggy spring morning in 1903 that 2,000 people were gathered around the outside of an enclosed gallows pen. They could hear but could not see what happened inside an enclosure of plank walls about 15 feet high and about fifteen feet square. There were thirteen steps leading from a cell in the Baker County Court House that led to an eight foot platform on which stood Sheriff Harvey brown and several county sheriffs, the warden of the Oregon State penitentiary, and a deputy. They were facing an audience of about twelve invited news reporters, witnesses and two uncles of the murdered Minnie Ensminger, who were standing compactly on the ground right below them. Pleasant Armstrong had been sentenced to die for murder.

Promptly at seven o’clock, and in complete silence, a priest came up the steps followed by a man doomed to die, escorted by the deputy, Royston Sparks, who had been the death watch for the past ten days.

Black-boarded invitations had been printed and formally issued to representatives of the newspapers, a doctor, and several selected witnesses. When Sheriff Brown presented the invitation for my attendance as representative of The Herald I attempted to decline acceptance until being told it was imperative that the selected witnesses be there. Mr. Brown had been my schoolmate and a close friend and he told me that this was a time he really needed the support of his friends. He seemed more concerned about the seriousness of the execution than did the man he was about to hang.

We had obtained a copy of the speech the prisoner was to make on the gallows, which had been taught to him by the priest, and we had it set up in type ready to print a special issue of The Herald right after the execution.

In the middle of the platform was a trap door about three feet square. Before the long black hood was placed on the head of the convicted man and his arms strapped to his sides, but after the sentence of death had been read, he was asked if he had anything to say. Pleasant Armstrong, who had never denied killing the girl he loved and wanted to marry, tried to give the speech he intended, but could not remember it. He seemed rather happy and anxious to pay his penalty. He had no censure or complaint. His talk was rather incoherent and nothing like the speech we had in type. Some of us afterward thought he was partly insane. When he had stopped talking and stepped back under the noose the sheriff said,” Get in the middle, please.” He side-stepped to the center of the trap door and the deputies placed the hood and strapped the arms and then attached the noose. The drop was quick, and the quivering body with its bent head in the black hood was hanging right in front of those below the platform. Dr. O. M. Dodson reached for the pulse and soon pronounced Pleasant Armstrong dead. In eleven minutes the body was cut down and put in a plain coffin placed in charge of the waiting undertaker.

Silently the witnesses all passed out of the enclosure and mingled with the great crowd standing outside which disbursed. There seemed to be a feeling of horror among many as they slunk away in murmuring conversations.

Next day a delivery truck took the body to the cemetery where it is buried in the potters’ field. Only the father and brother of Pleasant Armstrong accompanied the undertaker. They and the mother left Baker City that night for oblivion.

Pleasant Armstrong lived the last months of his life with a hope given him by his attorneys that the governor would commute the sentence to life imprisonment. He was tendered turkey dinners by sympathetic friends, had visits from reporters, ministers, a priest, and women. The newspaper headlines and the playing of his violin were almost daily events. It is doubtful if he suffered greatly for his crime, but it is certain that the Father, mother, and brother paid the most severe penalty in some distant state, and will to the end of their lives. Capital punishment punishes the innocent more than the guilty.

This was the last county hanging in Oregon. A new state law prescribed that hereafter all executions be performed by the warden at the state penitentiary. Of those who witnessed the execution it is believed that the writer is the only one now living.

Four years later on a summer evening about nine o’clock while sitting at my desk on Main Street in Baker I heard a loud blast. It was from three to four blocks away and the noise was from the bomb that killed Harvey Brown at his own gate. He was returning from the home of A.C. McClelland on Second Street where he had just paid a premium on his $25,000 life insurance policy, and tripped on a wire at his gate that set off the explosion. Mr. Brown died the next day without leaving any definite statement as to the cause of his death, being conscious only a short time.

Twenty thousand dollars reward was offered for the apprehension of the murderer and scores of detectives came to work on the case. Bloodhounds were brought and efforts made to have them trace the scent from the wire strung from the gate around the Brown home on Fourth Street. A few days later all effort to further trace the bombing seemed abandoned. The detectives left the city. The county officials stated however that Harvey Brown was murdered and the insurance was paid to the widow.

There are many former Bakerites now living in Portland and an organization was formed about twenty years ago to hold an annual picnic in Laurelhurst Park. The attendance has grown to about four hundred who come each year, some from a distance. They are a little like a clan, all friends in the common tie that they once lived in Baker. The organization work is carried on by Roy Corey, president, and Walter Meacham, secretary.


Reprinted from Wesley Andrews, "Baker City in the Eighties: Boyhood Memories," Oregon Historical Quarterly 50:2 (June 1949): 83-97. © 1949, The Oregon Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.

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