March 22, 2001 11:00 pm

by Mark Highberger

For The Observer

Snuggled beneath the covers of our collective memory, ready to rise with the roosters first crowing, lies a farming past that plows across wide fields, hunkers inside big barns, and smells of turned earth and cut hay. The first and most precious of all the arts, Thomas Jefferson said about farming.

But because few practitioners of that precious art remain, our ties to the land are often nostalgic, glowing with the sunrise of mornings that lay dew-bright and quiet along sun-dappled paths. Well, now you can visit a farm thats almost as good as the memorythe Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater.

For 115 years, beginning in 1868, three successive generations of the Frazier family lived in the farmhouse that now stands as the centerpiece of a six acre complex devoted to preserving pioneer artifacts and a 19th century view of life. In our nomadic century, museum curator Diane Biggs writes in her history of the Farmstead, when families change homes with the same frequency as they do cars, few properties can boast of an occupancy by the same family for well over 100 years.

That occupancy began with William Frazier, an ex-Confederate soldier living in Texas with his wife Rachel and their seven children. On a spring day in 1867, Frazier hitched his horses and mules to three wagons, loaded up his family and their possessions, and headed for Oregon. The next spring found the Fraziers building a cabin on their 320 acre homestead near the Oregon-Washington border, and four years after that William laid out the town site of Milton, which he named for English poet John Milton of Paradise Lost fame.

The Fraziers, however, seem to have found their paradise in the farming country lying near the fledgling town of Milton, located some 10 miles south of Walla Walla. Here they lived in their homestead cabin until 1892 when William, 10 years after his wifes death, built the house that his family would own until it opened as a museum in 1984. (It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.)

Through those years, as William Frazier gave each of his sons a piece of ground on which to build their homes and as farm fields gave way to building lots, the grounds shrank from its original 320 acres to it current six, though a half-dozen outbuildingsincluding two barns, a woodshed, and a chicken house remain from the Fraziers farming operation. In addition, the house underwent significant changes in style from simple farmhouse to elegant Victorian to sturdy Craftsman as well as slight changes in location moving 100 feet to allow for a through street and to bring it in line with other residences).

Although the house today looks virtually the same as it has since that 1913 move, some of its original elegance had to be restored before opening as a museum. It took about 10 years, Diane Biggs says, to replace wallpaper, carpets, and other things from the 1950s and 1960s.

In many ways, the home still seems to carry the Fraziers presence, for the family also left its household furnishings to the Milton-Freewater Historical Society, which has operated the Frazier Farmstead since its opening.

Most of the furnishings have been in the home since around the turn of the century, Biggs says, and several were transported with the family on their westward migration in 1867.

Standing in the kitchen, surrounded by an original cook stove and ice box, dishes and utensils, Biggs picks up a blue plastic pitcher and sprinkles water on the plants lined up on the kitchens window sill. You can set one modern thing in this room, she says, holding up the pitcher, and it stands out like a sore thumb.

The effect for many who come to the Farmstead is a step back to an earlier time. Its like walking into a time capsule, says a woman examining the Ivory Soap package perched on the edge of the claw foot bathtub.

Adding to the authenticity of the house is the extreme care reflected in its appearance, for this is a home of spit and polish: the wood shines and the glass glistens, the curtains hang creased and the linens lie folded. Time and neglect, Biggs writes in her history of the museum, the two foremost destroyers of so much of our past, have touched but lightly on this farmstead.

Those items not original to the housethose acquired through donations, estates, even yard salesstill come from the same late 19th and early 20th century era. The rooms upstairs, for instance, hold cradles and trunks and quilts, rocking chairs and spinning wheels.

The neatest thing we found here was a packet of 10 letters from the Civil War, Biggs says. The battlefield letters, found in an old trunk, were written by two Frazier relatives during their time with the New York Volunteers. Its a great story, she says. It makes you feel that after all these years youre inside their heads again, their thoughts and feelings.

If those 1860s letters written by the boys in blue are the most dramatic part of the Farmsteads collection, then an 1834 sampler made by nine year old Elizabeth Batt is its oldest. Tis the sweet morning of our days, reads one of its lines.

The days still seem sweet along this quiet neighborhoods street, where trees cast their speckled shade along the sidewalks leading to the Frazier Farmstead. On soft summer mornings you can still catch the scent of hay, hear the drone of bees, watch the spread of light across a new-mowed lawn. And through it all the old house stands straight and steady, as though guarding the memories it stores.