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The Epic of the Emmitt folk

12:18 AM · Feb 24, 2021

John Emmitt was widely known in Douglas County, in the late 1850s until his death. A man of sterling worth and excellent judgment, he was a leader in many of the plans put forth for the development of the state and was instrumental in the construction of many district schools and laying out early roads. He was born in 1825, in Pennsylvania and was united in marriage with Caroline Thompson, in 1847. The following stories will expand on this family's stories and will generally be in chronological order of their deaths. In the spring of 1852, the Emmitt family crossed the Plains in a covered wagon, with their first 3 children. Their equipment for this 6 months journey consisted of 1 wagon, 5 yoke of oxen, 2 cows and 1 horse. The dreaded desert cholera epidemic raged that year, and the wagon train they were a part of was hit hard. The Emmitt's two oldest children, Louisa (4yrs old) and William (3yrs old) died from it and were buried beside the trail over the desert. Leaving a heartbroken Caroline to care for little Robert (2yrs old) and her husband John, who was very sick with it but recovered. The wagon train followed the northern route and down the Columbia River. Arriving at Coles Valley of Douglas County, they traded the horse to a man for his Donation Land Claim (DLC) of 320 acres along the Umpqua River (Tyee Road) and at once erected a one-room log cabin, 14x16 feet. It would be 2 years before they would even have a cook stove. It was in this cabin, on the banks of the Umpqua River, that the family made their home for 14 years. To this ranch he added more and more acreage, as the years passed. Their then eldest son, Robert, recalled that in 1861, the same year the Civil War started, his father brought home the first clock they had ever seen. When the record high waters of 1861-62 came, it flooded the ranch. One of those nights, a sudden rise of the water put the floor of the cabin 3 feet underwater, forcing the family to get out during the night. After the water had receded, the family moved back, but started another home on a higher knoll. This newer home was finished in 1866 and was used into the 1900s. By 1871, John and Caroline had brought 12 children into the world. The year following, the Oregon & California Railroad finally reaches Roseburg. On 10 Feb 1876, the Emmitt’s 6th child, Emma C. Emmitt (18yrs old) died, while still a teen. Records don’t show how she died, but this was a tough life. For perspective, the Emmitt’s didn’t get their first spring wagon until around 1878 and elsewhere Edison invented the light bulb the year after. The US fought the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1890, Winchester Dam was built across the Umpqua (just 4ft high then), near Roseburg, to produce electricity for those early light bulbs. The next year, on 17 Apr 1891, the Emmitt’s 10th child, Samuel Enos Emmitt (26yrs old) died. Again, records don’t show how he died. The patriarch of this family, John Emmitt, one of Oregon's earliest and most esteemed pioneers, died at his home, alongside the Umpqua (76 yrs old). The Emmitt’s had added to their original acreage and at the time of John Emmitt’s death, on December 6, 1901, they owned 1,860 acres. Not only was this property highly cultivated and improved, but the entire tract was at all times kept in the finest condition and made to yield abundantly. Aside from general farming they also raised considerable stock, meeting with excellent success. Those that knew John Emmitt trusted him. His fellow Douglas County citizens had elected him to the State Senate for two terms, 1884-85 and 1886-87. Afterward, he was appointed a member of the board of regents of the State Agricultural College of Oregon (later becoming OSU). During the early days, he also had served as a Justice of the Peace. John Francis “Frank” Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 4th child inherited the pioneering and civic spirit of his father and had set off to make a name for himself, around 1878, in the Nevada Territory. Around this time he married Kathryn “Kate” Smith. In 1882, Frank Emmitt, competed with two others for election to the office of Sheriff of Washoe County. Frank won the election and served as sheriff until 1896. He is one of only three men to wear the solid gold sheriff badge. The gold badge was said to have been made from a ten dollar gold piece back in 1883. He was elected to the Nevada State Senate in 1888 and served two terms, until 1892. In 1898, he was also appointed US Marshal for the District of Nevada. He served in that capacity until he passed away from an unknown illness in San Francisco, on 9 Jul 1904 (51yrs old). In 1902 he had hired a very notable Deputy Marshal. Wyatt Earp’s reputation preceded him as a legendary frontiersman of the American West. He was an itinerant saloonkeeper, gambler, lawman, gunslinger, and confidence man, but was perhaps best known for his involvement in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1881). Wyatt and Josie Earp had arrived in Tonopah, Nevada, where gold had been discovered and a boom was under way. Wyatt opened the “Northern Saloon” in Tonopah, and served under Frank Emmitt, as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Meanwhile back on the ranch, the matriarch of this family Caroline Emmitt, well along in years, was spending her days in comfort and ease on the old home place and was enjoying the freedom from care, which was her just reward after a life of toil and hardship known only to the pioneer. On 6 Aug 1907, Caroline died at her home, beside the Umpqua (80yrs old). Robert “Bob” Albert Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 3rd child, also inherited that pioneering and civic spirit of his father and had set off to make a name for himself, around 1875. Bob was the child that had survived the long journey across the plains with his parents. Much like his parents, he and his new bride, Flora Leslie, set off with a wagon and some livestock and headed out to the Klamath section of Jackson County. They took up a claim along the Klamath River. They lived there for 5 years, in a log cabin with only a dirt floor. The young farmer prospered and acquired new land two miles east of Keno. He planted wheat and made a success of the crop. It was the first grain grown in the Klamath region. Robert and Flora would raise five daughters. Robert served for 20 years as Justice of the Peace for the Plevna precinct. He also served in 1886-88 as County Commissioner. In 1900, he was elected to the legislature as joint representative of Klamath, Lake, Crook and Wasco counties. In 1908, he was named Postmaster of Klamath Falls and the year after Southern Oregon began to see the arrival of early automobiles. He served a number of years later as Linkville Justice of the Peace. On 2 May 1937, Bob passed away in his sleep (86yrs old). Edward Everett Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 8th child, stayed on at the Emmitt’s lands and married Rhoda Myrtilla Rader, from a neighboring ranch, on 11 July 1893. With the exception of the last 5yrs of his life, he had been engaged in general farming and stock-raising. He and Myrtilla raised 7 children. Some of those will be explored further, later in this story. On 4 Sep 1944, Edward passed away following a short illness (83yrs old). Kittie Ruth Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 12th and youngest child, went on to earn a college degree (Class of 1895) at the State Agricultural College of Oregon (later becoming OSU). She would later meet and marry Edward Von Pessl, in 1900. Edward was a German emigrant to Douglas County, in 1893. They would have one daughter together, Ruth. While Ruth was still attending Roseburg High School, her father Edward would pass away, in 1929. Kittie Von Pessl was recognized and honored during her college’s 50th Anniversary (1918), and later again during her 50th college class reunion, in the spring of 1945. Just months later, on 14 Nov 1945, Kittie passed away following a lengthy illness (74yrs old). Willie Ann Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 5th child, was born on the old homestead, on Christmas Day of 1855. Her parents created a name in remembrance to her brother and sister, who died on the trail to Oregon. All of Willie’s dearest childhood memories were centered there at their school. School days, were so closely associated with the lives of all of them, were enjoyed right there in the old school house at Rock Creek. In her school days there was one room and one teacher, with sometimes 50 pupils. At first the term of school was three months. In later years the time was increased according to the money available. School money was not raised from taxation then. The hazel switch was used freely when necessary. She said there was no such thing as a school grade. Pupils were examined and placed in their studies where the teacher thought they belonged. They did not go from one grade to another, but from one book to another. Willy wrote that she thought that while the pupils did not carry as many subjects as they do now, what they learned, they learned thoroughly. A pupil was not passed on to the next book in any subject, until they had mastered the old book thoroughly. The older teachers were especially particular about spelling. It was considered the important subject of all. Frequently, “Spelling Bees” were held. These were community affairs, and were held at the school house in the evening. Church services and all other public gatherings were held in the school house. Another entertainment was the "Debating Society," which was also held in the school house in the evening. This was led by the teacher and was a community affair. The debates were on topics of the day, and the school house was always packed. Many times the topics of the debate were of such divided public opinion in the community and the debating was so intense, often verging on the personal, so much so that the feelings of the audience would boil over. Then the debate would have to stop until the feelings were again under control. In 1872, Willie married Joseph Churchill and they had one son. Joseph was a decorated Civil War combat veteran who had relocated from his native New York to Douglas County, due to health reasons, in 1866. There he purchased a farm, 2 miles from Umpqua Ferry, clearing it and making improvements until it became one of the most-thrifty looking places in the valley. He carried on general farming and raised stock successfully, making a specialty of raising Polled Angus cattle, which were valued for meat producing qualities. They had 285 acres, 200 acres being valley land, and used only for grazing purposes. Joseph passed away in 1914. 32 years later, on 4 Feb 1946, Willie passed away following a lengthy illness (90yrs old). At the time of her father’s death, Rosalia “Rose” May Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 9th child, was managing the home ranch. She remained loyal to the family business, and hadn’t made time yet for marriage. It wasn’t until 1908, when she was about 46yrs old that she finally married a widowed man, named James Harvey Clayton. He was likely an acquaintance from her childhood, as the “Clayton” name and his late wife’s maiden name, “Applegate” were both well known in Douglas County. James brought with him three children from his previous marriage and some very burdensome baggage. Shortly after James and his late wife, Mary, were married in 1882, they went into the General Mercantile business in Summer Lake (about 120 East of Roseburg) and after some success, started another store in Silver Lake. For reasons not recorded, they sold the businesses, in 1893, and moved to Portland, OR. The new owner of the Silver Lake store, Francis Chrisman renamed the store with his name, but decided to honor James Clayton and leave the 2nd floor hall with the original name, “The J.H. Clayton Hall”. Less than a year into Chrisman new ownership, tragedy struck, on 24 Dec 1883. About 200 people had gathered in the J.H. Clayton Hall, above Chrisman’s Mercantile. It was a chance to get out of the minus-20-degree cold. It was Christmas Eve, and after weeks of anticipation, finally time to celebrate "The Christmas Tree Program" with family and friends. The hall, used for dances, theater programs, and wandering evangelists, was decorated with a large Christmas tree. The tree was piled up with presents, and the walls were decorated with paper chains and pine branches. At one end of the hall there was a small stage for the choir, and the guests were seated, shoulder-to-shoulder, on an assortment of planks, benches, boxes, and the occasional chair. The celebration was almost at an end, the choir wrapping up its last song of the night, when a man stood up from his seat and tried navigating through the crowd by walking along the edge of a bench. Focused on keeping his balance, he cracked his head on a Rochester lamp hung from the ceiling, causing it to slosh coal oil into the burner and flare and flame inside. Francis Chrisman attempted to grab the burning lamp with his bare hands. It was a heroic move that ended poorly when people began batting at the fireball, causing Chrisman to drop the lantern, where it was kicked away in the stampede. Burning oil then spread in all directions. The hall had only one door. The inferno that followed would cost the lives of 43 people. It is still the most lethal structure fire in Oregon history. The details of this horrific event can be read at; https://www.oregonlive.com/life-and-culture/erry-2018/12/a96dc8943c8798/the-1894-christmas-eve-fire-in.html. As mentioned, Mary Clayton died in 1905 leaving James Clayton a widower. He had become a school teacher in Portland. In 1908, he married Rose Emmitt. Then just 3yrs later, James died of heart failure, while on a trip to Arizona. Sometime after his death, Rose had returned to Roseburg. Possibly returning home after the three step-children were on their own. Rose died on 14 Apr 1948, at her home on Pine Street, in Roseburg (85yrs old). Cenira Jane "Jennie" Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 11th child, married Joseph Hulin Coffman, in 1889, in Douglas County. He had moved from Illinois to Umatilla Country and secured land there (1892) and was engaged in farming. The newlyweds returned to Umatilla to farm for the remainder of their lives, and had 3 children. Jennie died on 18 Aug 1950, in Milton, OR (83yrs old). Letha Ellen “Aunt Ella” Emmitt, the Emmitt’s 7th child, was the last remaining living member of the original family. She had been born in 1859, the year Oregon achieved statehood. She spent her first 50yrs living on the original family homestead. She is recorded to have had some level of physical disability throughout her life. She was likely cared for by her mother, Caroline, and by siblings, for most of her life. In 1865, Caroline began to read the newspaper, “The Oregonian” to Ella, until she began to read it for herself. At age 65, Ella moved into the Roseburg home of her sister, Rose Clayton, in 1924, until Rose’s death. Ella never married. In 1951, Ella was publicly recognized as the oldest living faithful reader of “The Oregonian”. She was fondly known far and wide as, “Aunt Ella”. In 1953, she was also publicly recognized statewide as the 2nd oldest living Oregon-born resident. At her 95th birthday, she was still sharp and alert. When asked about her longevity, she said, “It’s not because I haven’t worked hard.” Aunt Ella died, on 13 July 1955, after prolonged ill health (96yrs old). NOTE: At this point in “The Epic of the Emmitt folk”, I’ll narrow the focus onto just 3 grandchildren, of the myriad of Emmitt descendants and some associated history. These boys were 3 of the 7 offspring of Edward (E.E. Emmitt) and Myrtilla Emmitt. They likely worked alongside their father, E.E. Emmitt, farming the Emmitt Family lands, by the Umpqua. To set the stage, in the spring of 1917, the US finally entered into WW1. The War effort caught up many of Douglas County’s young men. Chester Vernard Emmitt, E.E. Emmitt’s 2nd child, enlisted in the Navy in the winter of 1917. Less than 2 months later, on 24 Jan 1918, Chester Emmitt died (22yrs old) of pneumonia and tuberculosis, while serving at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. His mother, Myrtilla, had travelled there and was by his bedside for two weeks, prior to his demise. She escorted his body home to Coles Valley. The community’s sorrow was compounded by the fact that Chester’s neighbor and childhood friend, Zip Pichett, who Chester had followed into the Navy, was also stationed at Mare Island, and had died just 42 days earlier under the very same circumstances. Later in 1918, WW1 would end and the Spanish Flu pandemic would strike and kill 675,000 Americans. Around 1927, the Douglas County turkey business was in full swing. The city of Oakland laid claim to be the "Turkey Capital of the World", in 1928. Every farmer in Douglas County was growing turkeys so a “Turkey Growers Committee” was formed and a large building for turkey shows was built in Oakland. Late each fall a Turkey Show was held, where hundreds of live turkeys were displayed, each in its own wire crate. Imagine all those turkeys gobbling and calling at the same time! When the building was no longer used for turkey shows, it became a community building and it made a great dance hall. Following the devastating fire season of 1910, early fire detection became a priority for the Northwest. Lookout towers began to be built. These building efforts were aided in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). A fire lookout is a person assigned the duty to look for fire from atop a tower. These towers or raised platforms were used in remote areas, normally on mountain tops with a good view of the surrounding terrain, to spot smoke. Sitting alone in their tower, the majority of their time is spent looking at a horizon they’ve memorized over years or even decades, carefully watching for the slightest whiff of smoke. Inside the tower was the primary tool of their trade. The Osborne Fire Finder is a type of surveying instrument used by fire lookouts in order to find a directional bearing (azimuth) to smoke in order to alert fire crews to a wildland fire. It used a map mounted on a rotating steel disc with attached brass sighting mechanisms. In 1933, the recently established, Camp Tyee CCC, sent their men, 5 miles to their West up Bateman Butte, and constructed the Bateman Butte Fire Lookout; a 14’x14' fire lookout. (Later destroyed in 1965). The CCC camp was near the Umpqua River crossing, called Short’s Ferry, and connected the nearby ranches. Stanley Emmitt, E.E. Emmitt’s 7th and youngest child, added another tragic event to Emmitt legacy, but it was one of his own making. For reasons unknown, Stanley, in his mid-20s, was living at the home of eldest brother and sister-in-law, Floyd and Virgie Emmitt. Newspaper articles record that Stanley had been travelling into Roseburg often, in the year leading up to the event. On 30 Nov 1935, Floyd and Virgie were returning home from work in the fields and Virgie entered their home first. She found Stanley slumped in a chair in the front room, with his rifle nearby and two written notes, on the table. Apparently despondent over a love affair, killed himself (26yrs old) just hours before Virgie found him. The notes he had left, one “To All” and the other to “Hattie”, his love interest in Roseburg. In one note, he shifted the blame for his suicide on those causing “interference with his love affair”. In the other to “Hattie”, he signed over his automobile to her. After Floyd had called in the Sheriff, the coroner declined the inquest and ruled it a deliberate suicide. It was for seasonal work, in 1936 that Forrest Edward Emmitt, E.E. Emmitt’s 5th child, began crossing at Short’s Ferry and working at the Bateman Fire Lookout. That very same summer Forrest had also married Annie May Low. The Douglas Forest Protective Association logs reflect her dedication to her new husband. On July 24, 1936, (18 days after their wedding) Annie hiked the 11 miles from Bateman lookout to her home in Umpqua Monday in just 4 hours. Further logs indicate Annie made the trip every two weeks with a pack mule to pack supplies to her husband. A log from August 30, 1938 indicates Forrest was successful in killing a large cougar, which ventured within a few yards of his lookout station. When Forrest wasn’t working for the DFPA, he cared for his home and helped others. A neighboring ranch to the North (downriver) from the Emmitt Ranches was the Hiram and Agnes Powell Ranch, located at Powell Point Bar and near the Myrtle Island Research Natural Area, in the community of Tyee, Oregon. The Powell Families owned ranches at both the Powell Point Bar and the nearby Baskett Point Bar, which were prominent bends in the Umpqua River. There in late fall the turkeys were picked, crated, and taken and taken to market. When their crop grew to nearly 500 by the late 1930s, it was a problem to get enough people to stand out in the cold and pluck turkeys. Their secret of keeping warm while plucking was to get enough feathers around their feet to warm their toes. It took a good part of the neighborhood to pick so many turkeys, even the teacher helped, and it became a social event. The piles of plucked feathers weren’t wasted. They gathered them up and hauled them up in the orchard and plowed them under for fertilizer. Then one day tragedy struck. It was surely a freak accident at the ranch of Hiram Powell. Hiram was so shaken he had trouble recording it in his diary that evening. Hiram’s daughter, Mildred, reported that her Dad's Diary said; “Dec 15, 1939- Picked turkeys until 2:30pm, when Forrest Emmitt got knife stuck in his heart. He died in about 25 minutes.” Forrest Emmitt was helping Hiram cut the turkeys to be picked. A knife with a long sharp blade was used to slit the turkey's throat. The bird was hung up by the feet and the neck cut was made. It is held firmly by the neck until it stopped flopping. Unfortunately Forrest put his right arm across his chest with the knife blade turned inward and the bird’s threshing wing struck his hand, during its convulsive death throes, driving the knife into his chest. Hiram’s son, Lloyd Powell, was home at the time, and had led Forrest to the house where he collapsed and expired (39yrs old). The autopsy later reported that the knife had penetrated the left ventricle of the heart causing internal bleeding. The whole neighborhood was shocked by the tragedy. Life went on and the turkey business continued its growth for two more years. 1941 was the last year they harvested a large turkey crop for market. Larger turkey suppliers had flooded the market and the prices had fallen. Turkeys had given these small farmers a big boost in their economy for fifteen years, but for them sheep and chicken remained the steady income. Epilogue: --Strangely today, after the tremendous impact this family had on our history, the “Emmitt” surname has died out in Douglas County. There are only about a dozen people in the entire state of Oregon, with the “Emmitt” surname. Hopefully this story helps keep the memory of this family alive for the future generations that will call the Umpqua Valley, “Home”. #douglascountyoregon

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