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Telling tall tales in the Siskiyous

When a man on a mule who looks like Groucho Marx wearing a pith helmet rides by, you just have to believe the man’s got a story to tell.

That would be Hathaway Jones. He could spin 1,000 tales at the drop of a lip and you never had to ask him.

Some called him a colorful character, a true wit. Others said he was the biggest liar Oregon had ever seen.

Born in 1871 on the family’s land claim just north of Roseburg, Ivan Hathaway Jones inherited his tall-tale ability from his father and grandfather, but Hathaway would outclass them both.

Nearly 50 of the Jones boys and girls had crossed the prairie in 1852 from Indiana. Heading the wagon column was Captain Jacob Jones, Hathaway’s great-grandfather. Jacob bought an interest in a flour mill, and before he died in 1865 he passed it on to his son, Isaac.

Isaac, better known as Ike, liked to say he came to Siskiyou Mountains when all the trees were just tiny saplings and the Rogue River was nothing but a crack through the rocks.

Ike claimed that his son, William, was suckled by a cougar and would only talk to cougars until he was 9 years old.

William’s favorite story was the time his son, Hathaway, was looking for gold and found a 6-inch-long nugget.

“Look what I found, Dad!” Hathaway said proudly.

William turned, spit out a chaw, and said, “Mighty fine hunk of ore son, but we’re just too far from the railroad.”

By the mid 1890s, William had turned miner, sold the flour mill, and moved with his family into the Curry County wilderness along the Rogue River, just about 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

In March 1898, Hathaway began his lifelong career — mail carrier along the Rogue River. With just mules to talk to as he made his way over the perilous trails that were barely etched into the canyon walls, Hathaway had plenty of time to cook up some outrageous yarns.

Old Betsy, his trusty rifle, was one of his favorites. Loaded with special black powder cartridges, he said, she fired the slowest bullets anyone ever saw. Why, maybe you remember the honking goose he shot. It was so high in the sky it took all afternoon to finally hit the dang thing.

Then there was that deer, two miles away, shot with his last bullet. By the time Hathaway reached the animal he realized the deer had run into that very same bullet 16 times, just trying to escape.

Sometimes he loaded Old Betsy with salted bullets, explaining, “That danged rifle kills at such a distance that if I didn’t salt them bullets, especially in warm weather, the meat would spoil with age before I could get to it.”

Hathaway Jones told his last story in August 1937. In the middle of the night, his riderless horse led a team of five pack mules into Marial, the old post office in Curry County. Hathaway had fallen off the trail and onto a sharp rock.

“He soaked up the flavor of the pines,” said a reporter. “When he sat across from a campfire, he always had a story to tell. We will miss him.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.