Wallowa County records search unearths pearls of wisdom

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer March 19, 2014 10:35 am

Dave Riley is crawling through 13 volumes of commissioner journal entries to locate any and all information regarding county roads. In his research, he’s also found a lot of other fascinating entries detailing the county’s history. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
Dave Riley is crawling through 13 volumes of commissioner journal entries to locate any and all information regarding county roads. In his research, he’s also found a lot of other fascinating entries detailing the county’s history. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)

While searching for historical road information recorded in Wallowa County commissioner journals since June 1887, Dave Riley has unearthed some fascinating material.

Riley, former children and family services director, was kept on staff this year to work on special projects, one being the coordination of all mention of county roads in commissioner journals.

Mike Hayward, board of commissioners chairman said, “Since I’ve been here there have been numerous times when we needed some historical information about a particular road, maybe as often as once a month.”

Riley is pulling out any and all references to roads and creating a searchable computer file. Hayward said he wants to be able to type a road name or number into the database and everything about that road will come up.

“It’s going to take some time and money, but in the long run it will more than pay for itself. Right now, every time we need to know something about a road we have to go through all those bloody books,” Hayward said.

The journals begin in long-hand. Later, the pages are typewritten and easier to comprehend. Now that Riley is in the typewritten section, he can breeze through 100 pages of typed notes a day.

“I’ve learned to read flowery cursive script from different writers, some more legible than others,” Riley said.

Researching history

Not everything about roads is listed in the journals. Oftentimes, he has to match the entries to petitions kept in other documents that have the detailed information.

“There had to be an official petition signed by ‘freeholders’ describing the beginning, intermediate and terminus of a petitioned road,” Riley said. 

The county appointed a surveyor and viewers, people who were ordered to view the area and lay out a proposed road. The viewers held chains and verified that the road was placed properly. Then they would come back and report to the commissioners whether it should be a public road or not, Riley said.

 The commissioners also had to determine the value of property if a road cut through someone’s land, decide whether there were damages or not and if so, what amount was to be
paid.

Riley said he is gathering several of what he called “pearls of wisdom” as he sifts through the entries. 

“One of which that surprised me a lot was an entry June 15, 1906. The county commissioners reported on the outcome of the election to approve or disapprove of prohibition. The vote on that day was 615 for prohibition and 532 against.”

The topic kept coming up and in 1908 and 1910 the county voted again on prohibition and again approved it.

After a few years, the City of Joseph decided to settle the question for itself. Riley said in about 1911, Joseph voted to approve selling intoxicating liquors within its boundaries.

 In 1912, the whole county voted again on prohibition and the only city that voted to approve it was Wallowa. 

During his research, Riley stumbled on an odd entry made in 1902 regarding a $2 bounty set for scalps. Further reading lead him to realize the early Wallowa County commissioners meant coyote scalps.

 An entry made on July 7, 1906, discussed a vote to locate a county high school. The majority of the votes cast voted to locate it in Enterprise.

Building the courthouse was a hot topic in the early part of the 20th century. The first county court was held in Joseph and later moved to Enterprise, Riley said. Private citizens put up cash for the building, and three different landowners donated the city block on which it still stands.

In 1908, S. R. Hayworth began building the courthouse for a bid of $31,300. 

Riley expects he’ll finish up his fact-finding mission by early summer.