Reprint from the Blue Mt. Eagle
November 24, 1924
In the Portland Journal of recent date was an interesting article from the popular
and well-known writer, Fred Lockley:
"While in Burns not long ago, I fell into conversation with one of the old time
residents, and in answer to my questions he said:
The first settlement in this country was at Egan. Monte Currey went to Winnemucca,
Nevada in 1880 and bought a barrel of whiskey, some red bandana handkerchiefs and a
few other necessities, and brought them to his cabin. He had to knock the frame off
the door to get the barrel of whiskey inside. He set the barrel on end, put a brass
faucet pretty well down on the barrel, and set a few whiskey glasses on top of the
barrel. The barrel was it's own barkeeper. A customer would draw a glass of whiskey
and put his change on top of the barrel. Any man who was so low down and ornery as to
take a drink and not settle with the top of the barrel, would have been run out of the
county. Sometimes there would be $20 in small silver on top of the barrel, so a man
could always make his change. If he could not make his change, he left his silver
dollar on top of the barrel and took another drink.
Prior to 1880 the only store in this county was at the store in Harney Canyon. A man
named Peter Stinger started a store at what is now Burns and called it "Ax Handle". In
1879 Bill Hanley settled here. Along about then DeVine & French bought most of the
settlers out by buying their cattle. As a matter of fact, they bought the cattle to get
rid of the settlers. George McGowan came to Harney Valley in the spring of 1882. He
bought a four horse load of genl. merchandise and started business at Egan, just across
from Burns. Stinger was afraid that the town of Egan would build up and kill Ax Handle
so he went over to see McGowan and asked him to come over to Ax Handle and go into
partnership with him. McGowan agreed with the proviso that he would change the name of
the settlement from Ax Handle to Burns for McGowan was a Scotchman and was very fond of Bobby
Burns. McGowan had only been here a short time when he decided it would be a good stunt to
have a post office, so he sent a petition around the county to have it signed, asking that a
post office be established. McGowan was appointed postmaster and his suggestion of calling
the P.O. Burns was adopted by the P.O. Dept."
While in Corvallis a day or two ago I interviewed C.A. Sweek, a long-time resident of Burns.
In answer to my question Mr. Sweek said:
"I was born in Tualatin Valley near Portland 8/5/1853. My father, whose name was John Sweek,
was born in Missouri in 1822. His father was born in West Virginia and moved to Mississippi when
Mississippi was the jumping off place to nowhere. My father took the gold fever in 1849 and started
for California. He got as far as Ft. Bridger when word was brough to him that both his mother and
father had died within a day or two of each other, so my father had to turn around and go back home
to settle up the estate. On 2/29/1852 my father and mother were married and in a few weeks started
across the plains by prairie schooner.
I attended Tualatin Academy at Forest Grove for 7 years. I quit in my senior year. This was in 1877,
and studied law with W. Lair Hill. My fellow law student was Henry McGinn. Henry later studied law with
Ellis G. Hughes. I was admitted to the Bar 1/7/1880, four years later. If you know anything about old
timers around Tualatin, you have heard of Levi Anderson and also Webb Anderson. The Andersons were neighbors
of ours. Webb Anderson had a place near Prairie City. He wanted to improve his band of horses up in eastern
Oregon so he bought a blooded stallion in the valley and asked me to ride it up to Prairie City for him.
Levi Anderson was quite a character. He was a relative of John Brown of Harper's Ferry and looked a good
deal like old John Brown. I arrived at PC riding Anderson's race horse on St. Patrick's Day 1880. Webb
Anderson said if I would bring my wife up there, he would see that both of us got a job teaching school at
Prairie City. I sent for my wife and we taught school for two years receiving $130 a month.
In 1882 I moved to Canyon City where I opened a law office. I practiced law at CC for the next seven years.
Harney County was cut off from Grant County on 2/25/1889. Harney Co. was named from Harney Lake and Harney
Lake was named after Gen. Wm. S. Harney one of Oregon's old-time Indian fighters. The railroad that ran from
Yaquima to Albany had been extended to the foot of the Cascade Mts. The name of the road was the "Corvallis &
Eastern" and the plan at that time was to extend the road by way of Minto Pass across the Cascades and on to
Burns. In fact, section men were working on the grade on the eastern side of the mountain for the road to pass
through Burns and go on to Boise. The bonds were issued to sign when the Harriman Interests purchased the road.
The road stopped on the west side of the Cascades at Detroit and never came any further. However, seeing the
men at work on the grade and learning that the road was to run from the coast to Yaquima, I decided that Burns
would be a live railroad town so I moved from CC to Burns. This was in 1889. I lived in Burns 31 years. In
fact, my wife & I are considered pioneers of Harney County. My wife helped organize the Harney Co. Pioneer
The "P" ranch, which is now owned by Corbett & Swift Interests, was owned in early days by Glenn. Peter French
was manager of the ranch. Peter French belonged to the old-time cattlemen and believed that the county was made for
cattle only and that "nesters" or "homesteaders" were spoiling the open range. Consequently when a homesteader
tried to settle there, French treated them rough. If hard words would not drive them out, he used his squirt or
saw to it that they were subjected to so many petty annoyances they pulled up stakes and moved away."
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved
..... Return to Grant County, Oregon Home Page
..... Return to A Place Called Oregon -