Saturday, February 11, 2012

Weiser Rancher, Merchant, and Developer Solomon Jeffreys [otd 02/11]

Solomon Jeffreys.
Illustrated History photo.
Solomon M. Jeffreys was born February 11, 1835, in Jackson County, Missouri, near Kansas City. Ten years later the family traveled the Oregon Trail as part of a large wagon train to Yamhill County, Oregon.

In 1849, Solomon, with father Thomas and brother John, joined the California gold rush. They did well in the gold fields, but the father died on the trip home.

With the stake they had earned, the sons expanded their farm holdings and Solomon started his own place. He later moved east of the Cascades and developed a considerable stock ranch. In 1862, he made a highly profitable cattle drive to the gold fields in Canada.

In 1864, Solomon’s brother Woodson moved to Idaho and took up land along the Weiser River. Apparently he made glowing reports back to Oregon because Solomon followed him the following year. The two partnered in the cattle business as the Jeffreys Brothers Cattle Company. Solomon eventually opened a small store a mile or so from the mouth of the Weiser, serving the stage line along the river.

The area grew slowly; not until 1879 were there enough people to create the new Washington County. The fledgling political unit faced one small problem: It contained virtually no towns, not even so much as a hamlet. Thus, two areas faced off for the honor of being county seat – Upper Valley (now Salubria) and Weiser Bridge (now Weiser). Weiser won … aided by some ballot box stuffing and other chicanery, according to local pioneer and historian Judge Frank Harris.

At first, officers ran county business out of their homes, or borrowed space where they could find it. Finally, Solomon Jeffreys gave the county five acres of land near his store. Weiser City began with the sale of lots from the donated acreage. The town did not really grow until the railroad approached. Then, in 1882, the village center moved somewhat closer to the railroad right-of-way near the Snake River.
Western train station, 1884. Glenbow Museum photo.

Solomon’s brother and ranching partner, Woodson, had died the year before. Apparently seeing no future for the cattle business in the area, Solomon had the herd sold off. Thereafter, he joined with several other pioneers to form an irrigation company. Unfortunately, the project was severely under-capitalized and years passed – and the company dissolved and reformed a couple of times – before enough water could be delivered to all who needed it.

A major change hit Weiser in 1890, when a huge fire wiped out the main business district. During the next two or three years of rebuilding, the center of town moved even further west, close to the railroad station. Through all this, Solomon continued to play a substantial role in the Weiser City business community.

Besides a term in the Territorial legislature, Jeffreys also served as a county commissioner, county treasurer, and member of the city council. He died in October 1904.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State.]
Frank Harris, “History of Washington County and Adams County,” Weiser Signal (1940s).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

National Forest Oversight Transfered from Department of Interior to Agriculture [otd 02/01]

On February 1, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Act that transferred responsibility for America’s national forests from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The move resolved an issue that had roots that ran back more than a century.

U.S. Navy shipyard. Library of Congress.
When the U.S. became a new country, it had custody of vast expanses of land. At first only a tiny fraction of this acreage was held out of the “public domain” – the Federal government reserved some tracts of forest to insure supplies for naval shipbuilding

The Louisiana Purchase [blog, Oct 1] expanded the nation even more. Thus, in 1812, Congress authorized creation of the General Land Office to oversee the public domain. Under their auspices, huge amounts of land were sold outright to private interests, providing a steady revenue source for the government. In 1849, Congress created the Cabinet-level Department of the Interior, and made the Land Office part of it.

Of course, land sold to settlers became private property … and mostly farms. In 1862, Congress addressed the needs of this large agrarian constituency by authorizing an independent Department of Agriculture. The Department attained Cabinet-level status in 1889.

However, the early legal structure did not view timber utilization as part of farming. Not until 1881 did Agriculture even have a Division of Forestry. Of course, the public forests – over in Interior – were not part of their job. The Division’s foresters, along with responsible private lumbering interests, could only watch in horror as hit-and-run timber pirates, and private landowners, pillaged the public timberlands.

Finally, in 1891, Congress authorized the President to set aside forest reserves, where usage would be restricted and policed. Many reserves were quickly established, but a serious problem remained: The reserves were still public lands, and therefore under the General Land Office. Unfortunately, the Department of Interior had essentially no professional foresters of its own.

Only Agriculture’s Division of Forestry had such expertise, which they had developed to support the private timber industry. Thus, Interior “borrowed” experts from the Division, but that was not a viable long-term answer. Private interests as well as the academic community urged the government to transfer those duties to where the experts already existed.

Gifford Pinchot. Library of Congress.
Finally, as noted above, President Roosevelt made the necessary change. (The bureaucratic and political ins-and-outs of this history cannot be detailed in this short essay - see the Steen reference.)

Under the leadership of professional forester Gifford Pinchot, the Division, soon to be renamed the U. S. Forest Service, made great strides in managing and protecting our national forests.

Their approaches would become models for how Federal agencies handle various classes of public lands. This is clearly relevant to Idaho: About 60% of the state’s area belongs to the Federal government and is administered by the Forest Service or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
References: [Brit], [French]
Harold K. Steen, The U S. Forest Service: A History, University of Washington Press (1976).