An Interview with Thomas E. Cooley

The following was an interview with Thomas E. Cooley
by Velma Olling in May 1956.

THOMAS E. COOLEY was born July 05, 1872 in a cabin at the head of the John Day Valley, just below the Blue Mt. Hot Springs. At that time his father, Charles Cooley, was riding pony express carrying the mail on one of the four laps between The Dalles and Boise. The four laps were: The Dalles to Shaniko (70 miles out from Biggs); Shaniko to Cooley Cabin; Cooley Cabin to Agency where the soldiers were, in Malheur County; On to Boise.

Tom's parents, married in Illinois, landed here about 1869, coming in the same wagon train with the Frey family of Mt. Vernon, Manwarings, Westfalls, and Huffs. His Aunt Sarah kept a diary of the trip. Oxen were used to cross the plains. Tom remembers his grandfather speaking of losing an ox, and of putting a milk cow and horse in harness together.

While the country was being settled and after he carried the mail, Charles Cooley was an Indian scout here in the valley. Anderson, Clemans, and Cooley were the Indian scouts. Whenever the Indians were coming into the valley, the scouts would have the people get to the fort.

In the early days some settlers took squaws for wives. The scouts found Sally Winnemucca out in the mountains after she had been deserted by her husband. She stayed with the Cooley's five or six years until the government put the Indians on the reservation.

The first school which Tom attended was located a short distance up the river from the present Byers Deardorff home. It was called the Andy Thompson schoolhouse, named for Garland Meador's grandfather. "Old Man Biswell was teacher. Bob Deardorff and I were little kids and he'd pack us to school. He'd let us sleep in school, "remembered Tom. A slanting board was nailed to the wall as one long desk for all the children and long benches provided seating for them. They faced the wall. The heating stove occupied the middle of the room. There was a blackboard at one end and the children used slates. The bell used to call the children was a cowbell, wielded by hand. Later the children of the district attended the Riverside schoolhouse. During the Indian scare, there was a log fort where the Riverside schoolhouse is. Some of the pupils attending school with Tom Cooley were; Nettie Laurance (Deardorff), Louie Hyde, Laurie and Jessie Day, Annie Deardorff (Laurance), Alice, Emma, and Tom Douglas, Clara Thompson (McCord), Johnny and Lee Laurance. Tom says that, like many pioneer boys, he was kept busy with work, so that he didn't have time for much formal schooling.

The cabins of the early settlers had dirt floors, which were cold in winter, so they made "punch" floors. These were made of short sections of logs, sawed off with a crosscut saw and hewn square, perhaps six inches long and eighteen inches square. These they stood on end, in rows. In lieu of a window, some early cabins had only an opening, over which a blanket was stretched in bad weather. The roofs were made of shakes. For these the men would get a splitting tree, a pine or some other tree that would split straight, and cut thin shingles from it with a frow. The cabin in which Tom first lived had neither cookstove nor heating stove, a fireplace serving for both. A tin reflecter about 30 inches long was used for baking. The pans filled with salt-rising bread were pushed into the bottom of it and baked in the direct heat from the open fireplace. Dutch overns were used around the campfire on the trip across the plains, to bake bread.

Tom's father was among those who freighted from The Dalles with horses and wagons. He had two freight wagons and eight horses. The driver rode a wheel horse and drove with a jerkline to the leaders. The lead horses had bells on the bows of their hames [?]. When starting up, the driver jerked the leader, the bells rang, and the horses knew it was time to go. Sometimes, when it seemed best, one wagon was tailed behind the other and all eight horses put in front. It took 21 days to go to The Dalles and back, travelling 12 miles a day. The freight came in ships to The Dalles. Tom was big enough to go with the freight train and wrangle the horses in the morning. He rode along behind the wagons, hobbled the horses and turned them out to feed at night. The wagons carried oats for horse feed. The nosebags had been made by the women from long seamless sacks - with stripes. They cut these in two and sewed straps on to put over the horse's head.

Several sets of Conestoga bells can be seen at the Grant County Museum.

Oswald Campbell was a harness maker and shoemaker here for many years. Isham Laurance made shoes out of cowhide for his children. Tom's grandfather, John Manwaring, had a ranch just above the one now owned by Ernest Kimberling. He was the first man here to raise an orchard. He also peddled garden truck in Canyon City with a wagon and team.

Later on, when Tom was batching, he made his own yeast. For this, he stewed hops, grated potatoes, mixed the two together and poured boiling water over the mixture making a kind of starch, and set it on the warming oven of the kitchen range. When it started fermenting, he used it and kept a starter. With this yeast he made bread and biscuits.

The first town (Old Dixie) was located where the road comes onto the Dixie road from Ernest Ricco's. The second house was established in the area around the house now owned by Mads Sorenson north of the present business section. A livery stable, post office, Galbraith's store, a tinshop and other businesses were located there. Chinatown was the section around what is now the Rinehart home and mobile court, the Johns and Eisemann homes etc. Over 1,000 Chinese mined there with wheelbarrows. Tom remembers the early Prairie City as a wild town, with miners, buckaroos, etc; roughing it up. Tom's mother ran a hotel just north of the present Ernest Kimberling home. Later his family lived on a ranch up the valley. His mother died when he was 12 years old.

Immigrants coming into the valley had roughed out a wagon raod over the pass at the head of the valley and down by the Blue Mt. Hot Springs. Later, two men named Howell and Bill Manning located at the springs, and put a fence across the road, making a toll road of it. They had a log cabin station and lived right there, charged all immigrants and others who came east or west over the trail which the immigrants themselves had built. When Eastern Oregon Land Company got this land (a road grant of every other section for three miles on each side of the road), they were to build a military road. But "they just drove through in an oxcart, stopping every once in a while to throw out a rock and take a drink of whiskey".

Mr. and Mrs. Tom E. Cooley were married in January 1897. Mrs. Cooley was born Bessie Preston in 1879. When she was six years old, she came on the train to Winnemucca, Nevada, then by team and wagon to the upper John Day Valley. The Preston family lived on a ranch a mile or so up the river from the Chester Reynolds place. She attended the Winegar school, but not at the same time as Tom. Bessie lived there until 1906 when her mother died. Her mother was a Winegar and her mother's mother was related to the Tuckers. She remembers that her mother had a cookstove, and raised hops from which she made yeast.

Jim and Lester Cooley of Prairie City are Tom's sons.

Daisy Anderson used to tell of the many little houses in Chinatown. She remembered going down there on the Chinese New Year, and being given Chinese candy.

The End

1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved

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