Mt. Vernon's Barn

by Joe Southworth

Why would a carefully built stone structure that looked like part of a feudal fortress be in an area of rail and wire fences & simple wood buildings?

But there it is, across the Mt. Vernon- John Day highway from the Clarence Stratton home. The answer includes some Scottish luck and begins when Mr. & Mrs. David Jenkins rode horseback into the area in 1863. Their year-old daughter rode much of the way standing in a pack sack attached to a pack mule's saddle. In 1864 David Jenkins pre-empted and homesteaded 240 acres of land around the fort site.

In 1875 or '76 a traveler riding a worn-out sorrel mare traded her to Mr. Jenkins for a fresh horse so he could continue his journey. The traveler told the unlikely story that the mare was bred to the best trotting stallion in Kentucky.

Her chestnut-sorrel colt was named Mt. Vernon and became the finest trotting horse in the area. When he was 3 years old in 1879, the fort was built behind the Jenkins house to protect him from the Indians.

Two old Scottish stone masons built the building. The stone probably came from the hillside nearby. There two men also built some of the better stone buildings in Canyon City. Then they went south and built some fine stone structures in the Harney County area.

The door of the fort facing the highway in opposite a window in the other end. Above the window is an entrance to the attic. Heavy wooden doors protected these three openings. The date 1879 is carved above the window. Hewn beams support the attic floor. The original roof of clay dirt was supported by poles. The walls are over a foot thick and amazingly even on the inside. There are two small squarish openings in each wall.

Any creatures inside the building were quite safe. Any Indians on the outside would have been, too. For these small openings were not flared to be larger on the inside like gun holes in other forts. So to be shot, an Indian would have had to have been accommodating enough to stand directly in front of one of the openings, as people inside could not have aimed or maneuvered their guns but only shoot straight ahead.

The Jenkins house east of the fort was about where a hay stack yard is located now. Stones near the northeast corner of the fort are the remains of the old cellar which was between the house and fort. Five or six feet of the cellar was below ground and lined with the stones. A well beside the house was lined with river rock. That well was filled with dirt in 1904 when a new house was built where the Clarence Strattons live now.

In 1909 after Mr. & Mrs. David Jenkins had died, their daughter and son-in-law, Mr. & Mrs. Alex McKenna, moved to the place. In 1920 they built the wooden section on the back of the fort for chickens. That section was destroyed by recent winter storms.

When Mt. Vernon was between three and five years old, his mother was stolen by six Indians. David Jenkins, who could talk some of the Indian language, overtook them and brought his mare home. Since the Indians preferred quality horses, Mt. Vernon would have been a valued prize for a horse stealing raid.

Mt. Vernon was kept in the fort many nights, especially if there were rumors about Indians in the vicinity. Some local people occupied the fort for several days on one occasion during an Indian scare. But the Indians crossed the John Day River near the Stewart ranch just east of Dayville.

Mt. Vernon was only beaten in one trotting race. Black Hawk, owned by a Washington man, defeated him. David Jenkins drove him that day, winning three races. He was so confident that he did not bother to rest Mt. Vernon but went right into the fourth race and lost. It was claimed that he was also beaten in a Portland race. But since the time was not all announced, Grant County people did not accept it as an official defeat.

Mt. Vernon weighed 1,100 pounds and was branded with a J on his left shoulder. He accepted challenges to trotting races in various places in Oregon. Many races were held at the old race track west of Mt. Vernon where the Dennis Lemons ranch is located.

Of the numerous colts he sired, many were sold to the U.S. Cavalry. Horses of his strain were still around here till 1920. Several stallions from his line were used in the La Grande area for breeding until 1918.

A Portland man purchased Mt. Vernon for breeding purposes when he was 17 years old. Years later, Bill Alsop of Izee recognized the famous horse on an eight-horse team near Athena. Mr. Alsop bought him and brought him home to Grant County to retire on his Izee ranch. It is believed that Mt. Vernon lived to be 41 years old.

Thanks to the following people for their time and information:


Mr. Ted McKenna and Mrs. Dora Walker, grandchildren of David Jenkins; Mrs. Myrtle Stratton, Miss Nancy Stratton, Miss Shirley Stratton and Mr. W.A. McKrola.

1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved

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