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Sterlingville's rich, haunting history strikes close to home

If I had not crossed over to the dark side to become a journalist writing the first rough drafts of history, I likely would have been a historian poring over dusty tomes.

Historians are time travelers, flitting like butterflies back through the continuum to land on the date of their choosing. They are also detectives, piecing together the puzzles of our past. And they are storytellers whose tales of yore invariably fascinate.

That's why historian Ben Truwe's discovery of James Mason Hutchings' 1855 journal of his journey through our region captured my interest.

It didn't hurt that the traveler's trek nearly 160 years ago crossed on or near the edge of our property along Sterling Creek not far from where the thriving mining boomtown of Sterlingville once stood. His observations of Sterlingville and its environs provided insight into our picturesque neighborhood.

His diary popped up less than a month after I was sent a copy of an old Mail Tribune clipping about a lady who was born in Sterlingville. Coincidence? Perhaps, but the article sent by one of her descendants illustrates the connectivity of things historic.

The lady's name was Alice Gilson, interviewed just shy of her 91st birthday.

There was no date on the yellowed clipping, but a cyberspace check on her history indicates she was born in 1856, a year after our man Hutchings was in Sterlingville. She died on Feb. 29, 1948. The article probably ran in 1947.

The story tells about gold from the Sterlingville area that was minted into $1, $2.50, $5, $10 and $20 coins.

"They used to carry the gold out in buckets, then bring it back from San Francisco in the form of gold coins," she explained, although noting that many miners also traded in raw gold when they came to Sterlingville.

She lamented the dance halls, livery stables and stores that once stood in Sterlingville when she was a little girl were long gone. So was the "old Delmonica house" where she was born.

Yet she noted some things had not changed.

"Hard liquor, for instance, made people do strange things just as it does now," she observed before launching into a tale about a fight she saw at a Sterlingville dance.

"I was the only little girl there," she began. "I always wore dresses of tarleton ... long full skirts. The men used to pick me up and dance me around the floor.

"This night two men just started talking about the oyster supper which was always served at the dances," she said. "They began arguing. Too much hard liquor, you see. One pointed his finger at the other and he bit it straight off."

Yow. Those Sterlingville area folks were made of stern stuff.

And she told of an Applegate Valley farmer who stopped at a store in Sterlingville with a wagonload of watermelons. When he returned to his wagon, all of the melons were gone — stolen.

In the small world category, Vernon Arnold, a former president of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, dropped in early this year to show me an old SOHS photograph of what was identified as the Gilson Ranch. He correctly noted the photograph, which we have since enlarged, is of the eastern front of our 45-acre parcel.

Although the photograph is undated, judging from the fact there are several large fir trees growing where none existed back in the day, it's a good guess it is about a century old, give or take.

In the grainy photograph you can see a wooden fence enclosing the front of the property. Inside the fence are a dozen buildings, including a farmhouse on the hill and outbuildings for livestock, feed and equipment.

Down in the bottom of the little valley is a log house, the only one from the photograph still standing. That structure is part of the humble abode Maureen and I have called home for a dozen years now. We were drawn to the old place because of its rich history as seen in the old building and the ancient fruit trees with their gnarled trunks.

Over the years we have found many artifacts left by those who came before us. That included pick heads and other tools clearly made by a blacksmith, countless square nails, an 1870s-era marble, old glass turned purple by the sun, a 1907 Indian head penny unearthed near our vegetable garden.

But the most fascinating was a book found in the warming oven of an old woodstove in the cabin. Published in 1843, it was "The Mount of Olives," a thoughtful volume of sermons written by the Rev. James Hamilton for the National Scotch Church in England.

Too bad Hamilton's call for living a life of tolerance and compassion wasn't shared with the folks at the Sterlingville dance hall. I believe it meant no biting off fingers.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.