By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Classy Dayton woman helped make history

Mary Robinson Gilkey, a Daytonite, was a classy lady. And if you don’t know about Mary Gilkey, you need a refresher in Yamhill County history.

Perhaps her most renowned feat, as detailed in history books, is having been one of the first two women to reach the summit of Mount Hood in 1868. In a long-ago column, written by Fred Lockley that appeared in the Oregon Journal, Mary told how this climb came about:

“... My schoolmate, Fanny Case ... told me Colonel Williamson had been making a survey of Mount Hood to determine its height. In a newspaper interview, he had announced that it was so steep no woman could climb it. Fanny Case and I decided we would show him he didn’t know what he was talking about, so we climbed to the summit in 1868. I believe we were the first two white women to stand on the summit of Mount Hood.” (“Dictionary of Oregon History” concurs — except citing the year as 1867.) The two women were accompanied by David Powell, L.J. Powell and John M. Garrison, according to a McMinnville dispatch in The Oregonian on Feb. 9, 1930.

Mary was a gal with a mind of her own. In the above-mentioned Lockley column, she tells of her views at age 13 with regard to marriage.

One of Mary’s favorite girlhood chums, Martha, about age 15, one day failed to show up at school. Mary was told that an “old bachelor” had proposed to Martha, that her parents thought it an excellent match, so the couple married and went to Southern Oregon.

Said Mary, “I thought that was a dreadful thing ... to go away ... with that old man and stay with him.” A few days later, Martha’s brother proposed to Mary. At that time, when there were many more men than young women, it was not uncommon for girls to marry at 13.

Mary thought differently. She told Martha’s brother that she didn’t care to get married — that she wanted to know something, that she wanted to come and go as she pleased and that she wanted to become a teacher.

That’s not to say she did not have many chances at an early marriage. Said Mary, “I received a good many proposals.”

Mary’s parents made history, even before Mary was born. Benjamin H. Robinson and Elizabeth Jane Chrisman were, in April 1845, the first white couple married in Yamhill County. They met while traveling to Oregon across the plains in the same wagon train. Benjamin paid his way by driving and caring for an ox team. He and Elizabeth were married in Yamhill County, took out a donation land claim south of Dayton in the Webfoot area and, there in a log cabin, daughter Mary was born in 1846. Whereupon Mary wins a place in history: she is thought to be the first white girl born in Yamhill County.

Her playmate was a little Indian girl named Moonshine.

Mary started her education in a one-room school in the Webfoot area, built on land donated by her father; 42 pupils, one teacher. And she went to Portland Academy and Female Seminary. Every Friday night, her father came to pick her up and take her back home, making the return trip on Monday morning.

Next she enrolled at Willamette University, where the preceptress was Lucy Lee, daughter of Jason Lee, well known Methodist missionary and pioneer leader. Mary graduated in 1866 at age 20, in a class of 19 that included other women, although few women were getting college degrees at that time.

Even before attending Willamette, she had her first teaching job — the profession she dearly wanted to follow. At 14, she taught a three-month summer session for $24 a month.

After finishing college, she taught for some 15 years in public schools — Dayton, Lafayette, Amity and others — and then was preceptress of an academy connected with Pacific University.

This woman, who at 13 said she wanted to come and go as she pleased, now saved money to go to Philadelphia in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition. It was a trip that required considerable planning: first, a trip on the narrow-gauge railroad to Portland. From Portland she went to San Francisco by water in an old steamer. There, she boarded the newly completed Union Pacific Railway — the only one then carrying passengers to the east coast.

On Jan. 16, l880, at age 34, apparently deciding it was an acceptable age for marriage, she became the wife of William F. Gilkey, Dayton millwright and farmer. They lived on the family’s old donation land claim and were regarded as well-to-do because they had two buggies and two horses. William passed away in 1918.

Mary, who died in 1931, was a “doer” her entire life.

In 1917, she took her first plane ride — in an era when planes did not serve hot meals or provide televised movies while aloft. She crossed the continent twice. In a 1928 interview, she declared herself “an ardent follower of newspapers.”

When the Webfoot Methodist Church burned, Mrs. Gilkey saddled up her horse, and she and a neighbor woman rode for days — and countless miles — seeking subscriptions to build a new church. She served as state president of the Cradle Roll Department for the Methodist Church in Oregon.

She helped form the Yamhill County Pioneer Association in 1893.

And — she founded Dayton’s Mary A. Gilkey Public Library. In 1922 she gifted $500 for that purpose, borrowed a shipment of books from Oregon State Library, requested books from former students — and, in the community hall of the Methodist Church (later, Pioneer E.U.B. Church), Dayton Library became reality.

On her birthday in March 1923, a “huge banquet and testimonial” was held in the library she founded. Speaker was E.E. Gilbert, district superintendent of the Salem Methodist Church. Guests from across the state attended.

In 1948, on what would have been her 102nd birthday, she was again honored in her hometown. Her niece, Lena Stilwell, also a beloved teacher, gave $25 to Dayton Library in her memory,

Now the Gilkeys rest in Dayton’s historic Brookside Cemetery: William F. Gilkey, 1834-1918; Mary A. Robinson, his wife, 1846-1931.

Even at age 13, that classy lady knew what she wanted: she wanted to know something, she wanted to go places, she wanted to do something. And she did.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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