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RICHLAND — There is something about Eagle Valley that keeps bringing people back.
My great-great-grandparents, Dogan and Eliza (Gover) Saunders, settled here in the 1880s. My great-grandparents, Samuel Q. and LouDella, married here in the 1890s. My grandparents, though they eventually moved to the “big city’’ of
La Grande for better educational opportunities for their kids, kept going back and are buried here.
My mother, my uncle and my aunt, all of whom were born in this isolated valley, have made a point through most of their lives to revisit their early days and reconnect with the Saunders, Cundiff and Gover clans that helped settle this beautiful little valley.
Somehow over the years, starting from the time I was a little kid visiting my grandparents in La Grande, it rubbed off on me. Every couple of years I feel the pull to “come home’’ to Eagle Valley, though I’ve never lived here.
This Memorial Weekend, unlike the past several, our closest relatives were unable to come. We felt that someone from the Wink and Betty Saunders part of the tribe needed to get to Eagle Valley. (Two years ago my son Jeb, daughter-in-law Jen and grandson Kyler visited and got a lesson in Saunders and Eagle Valley history from our family’s preeminent historian and Eagle Valley native, Sam C. Saunders. Last year, Uncle Sam’s sons and grandkids were treated to the same.)
We couldn’t expect Junior Saunders and the others who still live in the valley to be responsible for honoring every Saunders in the Eagle Valley Cemetery. There’s a lot of them. Too, there’s the Cundiff side of the family that couldn’t be missed.
So Sunday morning Karyl and I loaded up the car with some rhodies, blooming dogwood branches and daisies from our yard (excuse me, Grandma, but I don’t have any peonies and my lilacs haven’t bloomed) and headed south.
Unlike some years when we’ve headed to the “panhandle’’ via Medical Springs and Sparta, the scenic route, this year we stuck to the freeway and Highway 86.
Most of the drive from Baker City to Richland is, let’s face it, a monotonous one — Hells Canyon Scenic Byway notwithstanding. It’s a faster trip these days than it was when I was a kid, but some of it a bland one nonetheless.
“How in the hell did anyone ever find this place back in the day?’’ I asked Karyl about halfway between the interpretive center and the Keating Valley. “Who’d settle here?’’
‘They knew where they were going,’’ she replied.
Somehow, word traveled back to Kentucky to those Saunders and Cundiffs waiting to exit that Civil War-torn land. And more of them headed out West to this oasis in the middle of desert, one bordered by some of the most majestic mountains in the country. A place where eagles soared and water ran deep. What more could a bunch of transplanted Kentuckians and Missourians want?
What a spot they found. Though most of the Saunders took up ranching and did quite well for themselves, my branch of the family didn’t have the same success living off the land. They pursued other opportunities.
Little really has changed in Richland and Eagle Valley over the years, especially in the years that I’ve been visiting since I was a kid in the 1950s and early ’60s. The Methodist Church that my great-grandmother, whom I never knew, helped start still stands.
Richland Feed and Seed now sits where the old Saunders Bros. store once stood. The original Dogan and Eliza Saunders homestead is now a beautiful B&B. But the sights, the beauty and especially the connections still exist, though there’s no question younger generations are losing contact.
This year Karyl and I didn’t make it in time for the service at the Methodist Church. But we hit the cemetery, paid tribute to those relatives I could recall, and then headed to the Short Horn for the Sunrise Special breakfast, which they served us even though we arrived after they’d switched to the lunch menu.
We overheard some people at the restaurant commenting that “not as many people came home this year.’’
It was true. This year, anyway.
But there’s no doubt that, as years come and go, they’ll be back.
Earlier in the weekend we paid tribute to Karyl’s family, visiting family graves at Hillcrest. They, too, were early settlers to this region, some of them among the original settlers at Mount Glen.
The next day we headed to Summerville where her dad, Don Hendricks, is buried. In the Hendricks-Feik clan, family history runs deep. So does knowing it.