La Grande History, Union County, Oregon

   With the completion of Ben Brown's home on the trail taken by many of the emigrant trains moving westward, it is not surprising that a commercial settlement grew up in what is now known as the "Old Town" of La Grande. This distinction between "Old Town" and "New Town" did not come into being until after the arrival of the railroad on the flat below in 1884. The Brown home was easily expanded into a form of inn. It being the most commodious dwelling, it early became a natural stopover for the weary emigrant train travelers, mule trains, and heavily laden freight wagons. Mr. Brown hospitable and ever eager to afford accommodations to visitors thus established a hostelry. In 1862 he sold a half interest in this business to Green Arnold and in the following year disposed of the balance to him.

     Mr. Brown being the leading figure in the establishment of the community it became the general practice to refer to the settlement as "Brown's Town" or "Brownsville." However, there was, already a Brownsville in Linn County in western Oregon. When a move was begun to establish a post office, the Past Office Department decreed that some more distinctive name would have to be selected. A young Frenchman was living in La Grande at this time and he was extravagant in his praises of the beauty of the Grande Ronde Valley as seen from the heights of "Old Town." His use of the French phrase "La Grande" in this connection was familiar to all of the residents. When a meeting was called to discuss a name for the post office it seemed quite proper to use his descriptive and altogether apt phrase as the name for the community. But little can now be learned of this individual other than that his name was Charles Dause.

     Under the name La Grande a post office was established in 1863 with Edward Patterson as post master, the office being located in his general store on what is now C Street. Before a post office was opened William Currey was engaged in carrying letters by horseback by way of the Grande Ronde Valley from Walla Walla, the nearest post office, to the mines at Auburn in Baker County. Residents of La Grande had their mail directed to Walla Walla and Currey carried the letters in and out, charging 50 cents for each one. As one pioneer remarked, it made it rather expensive for any young swain who corresponded with more than one girl, as he had to pay a half dollar for every letter received at or dispatched front La Grande.

     With the nucleus of a permanent community established in the region of old to Grande, the town grew at a relatively rapid pace during the latter 60's and early 70's. Its growth in fact for a time took on the proportions of a boom. The new arrivals were mostly people from the middle western states, but there were also large numbers from earlier migrations who had passed through the valley on their way to western Oregon, but who now were returning. Many came because of the further discoveries of rich placer mines in various localities in eastern Oregon and Idaho and Grande Ronde was rather a central point where the families of many of the miners stayed.

     The first industrial establishment in the area around La Grande was a sawmill. The first houses were of course built of logs, but the task of shaping the timbers was difficult and consumed much tine and an has been previously mentioned some of the earliest arrivals planned the building of a mill. It cannot be definitely determined just who built the first sawmill in Grande Ronde but it was probably Charles Fox who constructed one at Oro Dell in 1862. The Fox mill was operated by water power from a water wheel in Grande Ronde River and was of a type known as a "sash saw " A large part of Fox's limber supply was taken from the hillside just to the north of the river and since that time that area has been known by his name.

     In 1863 a second mill was placed in operation in the hills just south of old La Grande. It was operated by a steam engine, probably the first one in Grande Ronde and had circular saws. It was in operation but a short time before being dismantled and taken to the Idaho mines by its proprietors, Joseph Palmer and J. A. McWhirter.

     A second industrial establishment which the early settlers found desirable was a grist mill. The earliest inhabitants had made flour by grinding whole wheat in coffin mills but as more and more people began to establish themselves on farms near La Grande the need for a flouring mill became very real. To turn the virgin soil of the valley the Rynearson brothers had begun the manufacture of plows, these probably being the first satisfactory agricultural implements manufactured in Oregon. By using these plows more land was brought under the cultivation and the, primitive method of grinding flour was no longer sufficient.

     The first flouring mill was built in 1856 by a Mr. Woods who located it at the mouth of Mill Canyon in south La Grande, the canyon taking its name from that early structure. The mill was of a stone burr type and was placed in operation sixty days after construction was commenced. When completed it was capable of milling 25 barrels of flour a day. Mr. Woods sold the mill in l886 to John B. Wilkinson who in turn disposed of it in 1871 to Augustine I. Gangloff who operated it for many years.

     One of the first nurseries in Grande Ronde Valley, if not the first, was planted by A. I. Gangloff in l863 on a 4 acre tract of land on the flat below Old Town. The present Pioneer Park in the city of La Grande is included in the Gangloff land. Mr. Gangloff had previously owned a nursery at Olympia in Washington Territory and moved his entire stock to Grande Ronde Valley.

     The business establishments of early La Grande were many and most of them appear to have been rather ephemeral in character. They cenştered along C Avenue from present day Fourth Street to the hillside at the western end. Mr. Thomas Cottle opened a butcher shop in 1862 and a year later built the first livery stable, doing an extensive business in both enterprises. Oats at the stable sold for 20 cents a pound and the standard charge for hay for one animal per night was one dollar. The first general merchandise store was conducted by S. M. Black, who opened it in 1862 with a stock of merchandise freighted in from Portland. In 1863 general stores were opened by A Sommer, A. C. Huntington and a man named Quinn. The Rynearson brothers engaged in blacksmithing and general repair in addition to building the plows heretofore mentioned. One day in 1863 an enterprising gentleman came through La Grande with a wagon load of cats which he was able to sell at extremely high prices. Ben Brown bought one for his children, for nine dollars.

     Business was carried on with some difficulty during these early years because of the instability of the currency then in circulation. Up to the 1870's gold dust was in general use as the medium of exchange each business house being provided with a scale on which the precious metal might be weighed and its value determined. Paper money at one time in this period was accepted only on the basis of 25 cents on the dollar, and even at that low rate of exchange was not wanted. Gold dust went out of circulation in the 1870's, principally because of the stabilization of currency. Another factor which brought about a decline in the use of gold was the practice of dishonest people who mixed brass filings with the dust. The merchants lost money when they sent the metal to the mint at San Francisco and found to his chagrin that he had been victimize. Much dust was lost in the handling it the business houses and the story is told of one individual who made a comfortable living for himself simply by loading the sweepings from the floors of the stores into wheelbarrow and carrying them to water where he washed out the gold.

     The early settlers of to La Grande were determined, it appears, to keep, the community moral. Early records of the courts show that there were many arrests for such offenses as "keeping a store open on Sunday." and "keeping a tippling-house open on Sunday." In 1866 one Herman Weyneman was indicted for betting on a gambling device, to wit a Billard game. For that offense he was fined $50. In May of 1868 the records show a woman of some notoriety around La Granite by the name of Biddy Oats was indicted for keeping a house of ill, fame. In order that there be no question about what the state claimed she was guilty of, the complaint was amended further by stating that she was being indicted for keeping a house of ill fame for the purposes of prostitution. James H Slater later United States Senator was the prosecutor and the jury found her guilty, but the judge was evidently tender-hearted and fined her only $100 for her derelictions.

     Records of the town of La Grande appear in be lost and it is impossible to determine what city officials were chosen in the years prior to 1985, it is recorded that the town of La Grande was incorporated by an act of the legislature approved on 18 December 1865, but whatever municipal government was in effect for the next 20 years was evidently most inefficient. The act of legislature approved February. I885 incorporating the city of La Grande, states that "inasmuch as the present municipal government of the town of La Grande is inefficient and does not subserve the intermits of the inhabitants thereof, this act shall take effect and be in full force after its approval by the governor.

     The plat of the original town of La Grande, filed in the office of the Commissioner of the General land office in 1868 shows one R. H. Mallory as the president of the city council and B. P. Patterson the mayor, so it is evident that there were elected officials, inefficient though they may have been.
     Under the charter granted in 1885 the first officer of the city of La Grande were: Mayor, C.  H. Finn: Recorder, B.C. Warriner: Treasurer, A. T. Neill: Attorney, J. D. Slater: Marshal, J. W. McCoy: Members of the Council: First Ward, Ben Brown, David Bay, W. J. Snodgrass, R. E. Bryan; Second Ward. O. Ralston, H. W. Wildey, E.L. Dean and G.M. Means.

Contributed by: Jim Reavis

Union County

´╗┐
Latest Content

Oregon Obituary Database

We changed our name, and have expanded!

Contains obituaries for Baker, Crook, Grant, Hood River, Lane, Linn, Malheur, Umatilla, Union, and Wallowa Counties.

´╗┐ Untitled 1
Suggestions
Report broken link


Oregon Host


Member Site


Member Site


Contribute to Oregon Genealogy
If you have information you would like contribute to the website, please use our comment form!! If you find a broken link please let us know!