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Rohse 10-10 Trickling spring supplied entire ranch's needs

The lifeline of our Eastern Oregon ranch was as tenuous as a cobweb.

That tenuous lifeline was a trickle of water on which our entire existence depended. That trickle came from a spring on the side of a mountain and supplied all household needs, water for the garden, the watering troughs and all the livestock.

It was hard to figure how that trickle “came to be” up there among the rimrocks. No growth of willows, no oasis of greenery surrounded it, but there it was, trickling from a rocky cleft in parched Grant County, where the scant rainfall totaled 14.57 inches per year. Perhaps that lack of precipitation was why settlers had not earlier headed for this area that did not become Grant County until 1864 — 21 years after Yamhill became a county.

It was named for Ulysses S. Grant who, to my knowledge, never came to visit his namesake. But one interested party who did arrive was my stepfather’s dad. Legend has it that he walked from the Willamette Valley to Eastern Oregon, near Spray in Wheeler County, where he took up a claim in Bologna Basin. My stepfather, Lynn, later ranched this land after his parents passed on. But when Lynn and Mother married and Lynn acquired a ready-made family of my sister and me, the Bologna Basin area offered no school, so a move was necessary.

Over the hill to Grant County my parents headed to look for a ranch near a school. They found it a couple of miles west of Monument, at the foot of a rimrocked mountain — a virgin section of land that they could buy for nothing down.

None of its land had been cultivated or plowed. It had no roads, no watering troughs, no buildings, no corrals, no fences, no gates. The John Day River did not flow through this land. Its two creeks dried up after spring rains. A few artesian wells in a remote part of the acreage provided watering holes, but no running water. Its 640 acres were covered with sagebrush, rabbit bush and junipers that required clearing before the land could be plowed. It would be a dry-land ranch, planted to rye and wheat — dependent in part on the sparse rain at the right time.

But it was fertile land, and Mother and Lynn were workers. This was their land of promise — relying on a trickle of water coming from the side of a mountain.

In later years, I wondered about that spring. Wondered whether the rancher who sold Lynn this land had long known about the spring and that this was the first thing mentioned when Lynn evinced interest in buying it. Or, did Lynn, having seen this virgin land, then walk its 640 acres hunting for a water supply, make discovery of this lifeline, and realize the potential?

So, now with purchase of land came selection of homesite. My parents chose a flat place, located at the base of that mountain with the spring, offering a superb open-sky view. To the south were the timbered Blue Mountains where thunderheads boiled on summer afternoons. Stretched out below was the Monument skyline. No skyscrapers, but a school, a population of 100 and smoke curling from chimneys of wood-burning stoves. Buffering Monument was Monument Mountain, for which the town was named. And stitching it all together, the silver thread of the North Fork of the John Day.

Isaac Vilott was one of the first white men to realize the potential of this land, and became one of the first settlers on the North Fork in 1869. He wrote to the folks back home: “There are a great many claims vacant. A man can certainly suit himself in selecting a claim for he can get a big farm or a small one, or a big stock ranch with meadow lands in any quantity, and everlasting hill range for miles around which are covered with the best bunch grass I ever saw...and with timber and water in abundance. What appears strange is that such a valley as this has laid vacant so long...”

Thus, settlement in Grant County was under way.

Meanwhile, in that county in 1928, on that homesite chosen by Mother and Lynn, friends came, staged a houseraising, and we moved into our two-room house. The trickle of water coming from the rimrock, went to work. Lynn shoveled out a 4 x 6’ reservoir, some 2’ deep, inserted a pipe with screen over outlet, and dug a ditch for pipe to bring the water halfway down the hill. From there, we kids carried water to the house until Lynn could spare time to bring pipe down to the house.

And our watering hole, faced with its now huge task, was as dependable as the Eastern Oregon sun that came up every morning.

Nine years later, after finishing high school, I went away to school, but during that time that trickle of water never lessened. Never did the garden go unwatered. Never did a horse go thirsty because a watering trough was empty.

Every once in a while Lynn cleared out the reservoir and changed the screen on the pipe. And for some reason, livestock and wildlife did not “water” at this watering hole. Perhaps they thought it handier to drink from the watering trough by the house. But thinking back, I wonder if Mother and Lynn laid awake nights worrying about their spring going dry, and what they would do if that should come to pass. Few wells had been drilled in our part of the country. And during the Depression, the expense of a well — and the depth to which drillers might have to go to strike water — was too fearful to consider. Rather, perhaps there was not a doubt in their minds that their spring would carry on.

Later, my parents bought a ranch on the John Day, north of Monument. They moved there and sold the ranch with the little spring.

Today, with few ties remaining in Monument, I seldom go back. But occasionally when I return for a much-loved visit, and drive that familiar road from Kimberly to Monument, I can see our homesite from that road. The house is still there — considerably larger. A cluster of greenery, a garden plot, and trees surround the house. And I think about the spring and wonder if it is still the total water supply for the ranch. And I wonder again whether Mother and Lynn spent sleepless nights worrying about that lifeline that to me seemed tenuous as a cobweb — yet served them so well.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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