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History finds a home in the desert

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The Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum in Lake County pulls together the handiwork of local settlers
Photo by Lee JuilleratEnglish sweets, flour, evaporated milk and baking powder were pioneer necessities.
Photo by Lee JuilleratAn old gas pump sits outside Homestead Museum cabins.
Photo by Lee JuilleratThe Chuck Wagon Barn is the Homestead Village's newest building.
Photo by Lee JuilleratThe Fort Rock Store's shelves are stocked with 1920s items.
Photo by Lee JuilleratThe Webster Cabin was home for a generation of Websters.

FORT ROCK — Anytime is a good time to visit the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum, but it’s especially fun to make the trip with someone who’s never been there before.

Mention the idea to a newbie and they often shrug. After all, what’s so interesting about a museum and homestead-era village in the wide open, little-populated expanses of far northern Lake County.

Turns out the answer is plenty. Originally opened in the summer of 1988, the village has gradually added buildings collected from homesteads that date back to the early 1900s.

Preserving homestead-era buildings was a goal of the founders of the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society in 1984. They wanted to remember the homestead period that began shortly after the turn of the 20th century and peaked in 1912. It was a time when families wanting to own their own land and farms settled the Fort Rock Valley.

The region takes its name from Fort Rock, the crescent-shaped landmark that dominates the desert landscape and is visible from the museum grounds. The massive tuff ring was created by a series of eruptions an estimated 1.6 million years ago. Because the lava dome in the center of the caldera was underneath a prehistoric lake, instead of sending out volcanic debris over a wide area it was concentrated in a large ring. Its southern rim was eventually eroded by waves from the lake, creating the amphitheater-like bowl.

The homesteader era was much briefer. The Fort Rock Post Office was established in 1908 during the flush of optimism, but settlers soon left the region after years of unsuccessful farming. For those who stayed or, in some cases, returned, preserving buildings from those pioneer times became a goal.

The former office for Dr. Thom, who moved to Silver Lake from Minnesota in 1905 and built an office-home a year later, was moved 16 miles to the village, while Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church was hauled 12 miles.

Saint Bridget’s and Dr. Thom’s office are two of the village’s 12 buildings. Others include cabins used by the Boedigheimer, Webster, Menkenhaier families, a former blacksmith shop, an artifacts building, a chuckwagon barn, the Widmer cabin that also served as a land office, along with the Stratton and Belletable houses and the still charming Sunset School.

Unlike most museums, the buildings are completely open, with few barriers to separate visitors from desks, beds, dining tables, books and others items used by some of those early settlers. Handouts available at the museum entrance-shop provide snapshot histories of each building.

The Stratton house, for example, was built single-handedly by Fred Stratton, a carpenter who moved to Fort Rock from Michigan with his family and two sons in 1912.

More elaborate is the Belletable house, which was built about 1914 for Alex Bellatable and his wife, French immigrants who moved from Philadelphia to Fort Rock. Bellatable was regarded as the valley’s wealthiest homesteader, and the features and household items in the house reflect that wealth. But after planting a rye crop three times, and seeing them blow away three times, the Bellatables left the valley in 1922.

The museum grounds include a homestead garden, weathered gas pumps and a windmill that, with even the slightest breeze, taps a staccato beat.

Among the most-visited buildings is Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church, formerly known as St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. It was built in 1918 in the nearby ghost town of Fleetwood, about 11 miles east of Fort Rock, on land donated by Alex Bellatable following conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

The Sunset School, with its blackboard, desks and old textbooks, seemingly is waiting for classes to begin. The school was made from two homestead buildings placed end-to-end.

A newer building, the Artifacts Building, displays some of the oldest items. Lake County’s cultural history goes back 14,500 years, when Native Americans lived around the edges of Fort Rock and Summer Lake. The displays include a sampling of ancient artifacts, including tools probably used to grind flour for bread.

Fascinating, too, is the Fort Rock General Store, which thrived in the early 1910s when homesteaders lured by promises of rich soils that would yield bountiful crops of cherries, pears, apples and plums along with crops of wheat, rye, oats and barley.

At its peak in 1916, the valley had about 1,200 residents. Massive out-migrations soon began after years of beggarly rains. From 1909 to 1913 the five-year average precipitation was a relatively bountiful 11.61 inches. But those averages dipped to 7.9 inches from 1914 to 1918. By 1920, fewer than 100 people remained.

Whether visiting for the first or the umpteenth time, the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum is a place where history has found a home.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

If You Go

The Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays and holidays until Oct. 3 or by special request. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children 6 to 17, and free for 5 and younger. For information call 541-576-2251, email FRMuseum@centurylink.net or see www.fortrockoregon.com.

The museum has a reception center with a small gift shop. Among the books, “Portraits: Fort Rock Valley Homestead Years,” is an excellent history that, as its title says, describes the region’s homesteading years.