An impending divorce between owners Ted and Sheri Birdseye may put the historic Southern Oregon home's future in limbo, although the co-owners say they'll make every attempt to save it


The historic Birdseye house, gutted by fire in 1990, is still standing, celebrating its 150th birthday and looking much as it did in pioneer days when it was among the first homes built by settlers ' even serving as Fort Birdseye, protecting settlers during the Rogue Indian Wars in 1855.

Like their ancestors who successfully defended it against American Indians and, later, the bankers, the present Birdseyes, Ted and Sheri ' headed for divorce court after five years apart ' hope to preserve the simple, white-painted log cabin and its 320 acres.

It's one of the oldest farms in Oregon, with a Donation Land Claim filed in 1853 and I've been told all these wonderful, historic stories about it all my life, says Birdseye, who raises cattle, horses and hay there. I have a real sense of roots here. I knew my great-grandmother (Effie Birdseye, daughter-in-law of the settlers) and she told me all about my great-great grandfather (David Nelson Birdseye), who was a packer to Portland and the coast.

David and Clarissa operated a trading post in Jacksonville and were parents of the first white child born in the Rogue Valley ' Jim Birdseye in 1854 ' says Ted Birdseye. Jim was the one who changed the pronunciation of the surname to birds-ee, he notes, so he wouldn't be mistaken for an Indian in his run for county sheriff. Ted pronounces it the old way ' birds-eye ' although some older residents use birds-ee for the adjacent creek and road, says Sheri Birdseye, a teacher at Elk-Trail Elementary School.

Dates are a little misty, but the Birdseye house appears to be one of the earliest three or four homes built in Jackson County, along with the Colver and McManus homes in Phoenix and the John P. Walker home in Ashland, according to Carol Harbison-Samuelson of the Southern Oregon Historical Society. The Mountain House Inn on Old Siskiyou Highway dates to 1852. All are still standing.
— Situated on the left bank (looking downstream) of the Rogue River between Gold Hill and the city of Rogue River, the structure looks like an ordinary, older home ' until you get within 20 paces of it and notice its literally carved out of surrounding environment, with huge timbers, hand-hewn and notched by a broadaxe, explains Ted Birdseye.

He points to the shrewd craftsmanship of the clan father, five generations back, who lapped each beam a half-inch farther out than the one below it, so rain wouldn't eat away the mud-and-straw chinking.

Fifteen years ago, the Birdseyes faced an awful choice: Raze the fire-charred cabin and its one-story extension off the back, or heed the pleadings of history lovers and rebuild the shell. They went for history.

It was a gutted mess. It was like losing a child, but at least we didn't lose our children (Victor and Kelley, then 15 and 5), he says. The house has given me and my kids a sense of who we are, but I can't decide whether I've just been propagandized or if it's really important to save this. We thought about bulldozing it and starting over.

The Birdseyes pressure-blasted almost 2 inches of charcoal off the inside of the beams and restored the inside, adding a second story on the extension, against the wishes of historians, he adds. A historic, open-walled buggy bay, built of hand-hewn beams, still extends off the two-story addition.

The home was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. A bronze plaque, placed in the 1920s by the Daughters of the American Revolution, sits on a large stone by the homestead's wrought-iron fence. With federal grant help, says Sheri Birdseye, the home was restored and served, as required by the grant, as a living history museum 12 days a year in the 1970s and '80s.

It was a difficult place to live in, with wood heat and insulation from the 1860s, often colder inside than out, says Sheri Birdseye. But I just love it. My heart is there.

The Birdseyes don't know if the home and land will be sold in their divorce settlement, said Sheri Birdseye, but our intent is to preserve it. We would like it for our children, if at all possible. It's a continuing family discussion. It's a huge responsibility and I don't want them to be tied into a life, unless it's a life they really want.

It's tough trying to make a living on this land, Ted Birdseye observes. It reminds me of great-grandma Effie, who lost her husband (Wesley Birdseye) and, in her 40s, had to raise her three sons. Everyone told her she had to sell and move to town with the boys, because no way could a woman do it alone out here. She said 'I'm not going to do it.'

Effie Birdseye's response is quoted in Southern Oregon: Short Trips Into History, by Marjorie O'Harra of Ashland. They told me, 'Don't cry on our shoulders when you lose the place, Effie,' and it made me so mad. They called me a 'mere woman' and said I couldn't pay off the farm alone. 'Set it up and sell it,' they said. 'This place belongs to me and my boys and we are going to keep it,' I told them. 'I know what I can do, and I am going to do it,' and I did.

A SOHS document says She bought out the remaining heirs (the four siblings of her late husband and their children). With her son Glenn, she milked a 17-cow dairy herd by hand morning and night. She sold milk and eggs and in five years' time she had saved the farm. For her valiant efforts, she was honored as Oregon's Unconquered Spirit during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

Continuing the tradition of unconquered spirits, Ted Birdseye's son, Staff Sgt. Victor Theodore Teddy Birdseye III, 30, just got back from combat duty with the Army Airborne Rangers in Iraq and is headed for drill instructor school. When he gets out of the service in 2009, said his father, he hopes to become the sixth generation to call this place home.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland.E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.