John Day Fossil Beds
Historic Resources Study
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Chapter Eight:

While steamboats, railroads, stagecoaches, and sternwheelers fostered early-day tourism in many parts of the state, leisure-time travel into central and eastern Oregon was constrained by the lack of easy access. In the rugged John Day basin, overland travel remained challenging until World War One and beyond. Early recreational and social activities among the residents of Grant and Wheeler counties were simple, local in nature, and often outdoor-oriented. With the advent of improved roads and motorized travel, tourists first began to enter the basin to view and enjoy its unusual natural landscape. The development of state parks in the fossil beds area in the 1940s, and the subsequent establishment of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument introduced the unique attractions of the region to a wider world.

Early Recreation

On foot, horseback, or horse-drawn wagon, the early inhabitants of the John Day basin meandered slowly to their destinations, fording streams, including the John Day River itself, climbing ridges, and avoiding chasms. Few traveled solely for the pleasure of the trip. Sojourners were generally limited to local residents going to and from town and the courthouses at Canyon City or Fossil, peddlers, wool buyers, and freighters (Munro 1984: 7, 26). Traveler services were almost non-existent, limited to stage stops at local ranches and, by the turn of the century, modest commercial hotels in small towns.

Because isolation was a common aspect of life for settlers in the John Day basin, people were especially eager to congregate for recreational purposes. Picnics, holidays, and overnight dances occasionally brought families together from scattered ranches for camaraderie and social interaction (Campbell 1976: 37-39). For example, in 1899 — the year Wheeler County was established — long-time residents gathered at a Fourth of July celebration at Kelsay's Grove outside the town of Fossil and formed the Wheeler County Pioneer Association. Typical of the period, the day's events included patriotic speeches, entertainment by the Fossil Brass Band, and a grand dinner at the Donaldson Hotel. In 1901, the annual event was held in what is now the ghost town of Richmond and the following year at Mitchell. The organization evolved to become the Eastern Oregon Pioneer Association. In 1903, the group selected forty acres at a centrally located site on Sarvis Creek. From that time on, the traditional picnic was held at what is now known as Julia Henderson Pioneer Park on SR 19 between Fossil and Service Creek (Shaver et al., 1905: 647-648; Fussner 1975: 31, 53).

Pioneer Picnic
Fig. 61. Pioneer Picnic at Richmond, ca. 1901 (City of Fossil Museum).

In the year 1900, Scottish immigrants in the vicinity of Fossil organized the Caledonia Club. The group boasted 100 members, and met regularly at various locations — in 1903 they traveled all the way to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. Scottish sports and entertainment brought in from outside cities were enjoyed by all (Shaver et al., 1905: 651). Grant County ranchers gathered for Scot-American dances at Dayville and Canyon City. Bagpipes, fiddles, accordions, and a piano provided musical accompaniment. Couples danced; men went outside to drink Scotch and home brew, exchange lies, discuss the merits of a racehorse or a young woman, and throw a few punches. Long-time resident Rhys Humphreys recalled how important it was for people just to get together, "from dark until daylight, and then come home with a headache the next day." Non-drinkers and non-dancers went to church or attended "Skip-to-My-Lou" parties, chaste events where no one danced (they skipped) but gained an opportunity to socialize (Humphreys 1984a: 9,14, 18, 36-37; Humphreys 1984b: 9; Munro 1984: 9-11).

Community events in the upper John Day basin included the Chautauqua Circuit in the early 1920s. It brought speakers to audiences eager for continuing education and social contact. In 1928, traveling movie shows replaced the lecture programs and became an increasingly popular form of entertainment. Rodeos, especially when connected with county fairs, drew crowds who wanted to watch brave if reckless men risk their lives to ride bucking horses and Brahma bulls. In the twentieth century sports became an important magnet. Baseball and basketball games associated with schools or community teams attracted players and audiences. Sports events became a useful means for gathering socially and competing to enhance school or community pride. Personal pursuits filled rare spare hours for others. These included reading books, newspapers, and magazines, whittling, and chasing wild horses. "I knew one herder that built a thirty-foot log cabin, perfect," recalled Rhys Humphreys, "that he whittled with his pocket knife out of a stick of wood" (Cant and Cant 1984: 39-42; Humphreys 1984a: 9; Humphreys 1984b: 14).

Hazeltine family
Fig. 62. Daughters of Martin Hazeltine of Canyon City on a camping and hunting trip in the mountains of eastern Oregon in the late 1880s (OrHi 3,509).

Outdoor recreation remained ever popular among the rural population. In winter, children had entertainment options of sledding and ice-skating. On occasion the residents of Dayville diverted the South Fork of the John Day River into a field and converted it into a large ice rink. In summer children and young people went swimming, hiking, camping and fishing (Cant and Cant 1984: 39-42; Humphreys 1984a: 9; Humphreys 1984b: 14).

Fig. 63. Fishing on the John Day River near the town of John Day, n.d. (OrHi 16011).

As early as 1902, Grant County was noted for its mineral and warm springs. These places became the first destination tourist sites in the region. Soda Springs, at the upper end of Bear Valley south of Canyon City was well-known. Blue Mountain Hot Springs was another:

In the mountains on the north side of the county are several hot springs, all possessing, to a greater or less degree, medicinal properties. The most noted warm springs are near Reynold creek, a tributary of the John Day, about twenty-five miles east of Canyon City The location has become the summer resort of the county. Bath houses have been constructed for the use of visitors. It is an ideal camping ground, the surroundings are picturesque, the streams afford good fishing and the mountains on the south abound in game (Anonymous 1902, 728).

swimming pool
Fig. 64. Swimming pool at Blue Mountain Hot Springs, near town of John Day, n.d. (OrHi 16003)

Another popular, and long-lived mineral springs resort took shape at Ritter on the Middle Fork of the John Day. The family resort developed intensively after 1896 when the existing ranch was purchased by the Charles Davis family. A cabin was built over the springs, and more of the 110-degree water was carried by trough to a bathhouse with three wooden tubs. A hotel, store, cabins, dancehall, and large stable for guests' horses went up in the early years of the century. Ritter Hot Springs stayed open year around, and guests came from Baker, Heppner, and Portland, some staying for weeks at a time. Hearty meals, served family style, gained fame. The Davis family kept cows, chickens, and pigs, supplying their own meat and dairy products. A large garden and an orchard irrigated with the warm mineral water are said to have grown luxuriantly, providing fresh fruit and vegetables (Secord 1973:133-136).

Large dances were held in the resort dance hall every two weeks or so. These events drew dancers from Monument and Heppner after automobiles made access into Ritter easier. In the 1920s, the owners added a swimming pool and dressing rooms at the upper hot springs, one mile up the river. Reportedly, many a moonlight swimming party took place at the pool during Prohibition. In 1956 the widow Davis retired and sold the resort to new owners. In the 1970s, the resort was still operational although much altered, with a new swimming pool, duplexes, and camper and trailer sites (Secord 1973: 133-136).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002