By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Happy 170th, Yamhill County

Happy birthday, Yamhill County. One hundred seventy candles on your cake. One hundred seventy years of accomplishment. One hundred seventy years of memories.

What a celebration Yamhill County deserves. With her first breath, she was a winner. When our provisional legislature on July 5, 1843, created the original four districts — districts were not yet called counties — ours was the second. Twality was the first, then Yamhill, then Clackamas and Champoeg (Champooick).

That Yamhill was a healthy youngster. It included all of the Oregon country west of the Willamette River and south of the Yamhill, all land to the California border and to the Pacific Ocean on the west.

The county was generous with its land. Over the years, 12 counties, at least in part, were lopped from Mother Yamhill. So generous was it that today it is Oregon’s fifth smallest county — about 718 square miles.

From the beginning, with its lush plains to the foothills of the Coast Range and the rolling hills in between, which would one day raise grapes and produce world-renowned wines, Yamhill County was an esteemed site. In 1843 and 1844, so many weary ox teams and their covered wagons ended up in Yamhill County, it became known as “Yamhill: Mother of Oregon.”

“The Dictionary of Oregon History” notes: “Many of these settlers became leaders in the life of the growing commonwealth. ‘Yamhill against the world’ was the slogan adopted by these hardy pioneers and was based on the high quality of farm produce exhibited at early state fairs and national expositions.”

A description of Yamhill County in “History of the Pacific Northwest, 1887,” was like a description of paradise. It described our county as “richest and most productive in the state ... with its rolling prairies, park-like groves of stately oaks, rushing streams, and distant dark-hued forest clad mountains, the region is considered just a notch ahead of any in Oregon.”

It continued (in part): “Yamhill County is the kernel of Western Oregon. Old Yamhill has more pretty girls, more fine horses, more lovely vales and oak-crowned hills, more well tilled farms and ‘far-seeing statesmen’ to the square mile than any other equal area west of the Rockies.” Additionally, it estimated Yamhill County’s wealth, circa 1889, at more than $4 million, being a larger amount per capita than that of any other of the agricultural counties of the state.

This complimentary passage about Yamhill County was written by R. L. Fulton, in the May, 1897, “Overland Monthly” (as reprinted in “The Making of Oregon”): “Its soil was impounded by the beavers in dams that concentrated thousands of acres of fertile alluvium from the uplands, and assisted by a climate as genial as that of any country on the globe, will produce fabulous crops ... wheat as high as 60 bushels (to the acre) ... Indian corn — no table corn, yes ... Oregon cider rivals the most popular beverage for private tables as well as for public bars.”

And what a truly benign climate early settlers found in Yamhill: average January temperature, 39 degrees; average July temperature, 65 degrees; average mean temperature, 55 degrees. Average rainfall, 43.6 inches. Average growing season, 175 days.

Soon, Yamhill County was creating firsts still read about in history books today:

Yamhill County staged the first county fair in Oregon, at the Lafayette courthouse in 1854. The first agricultural society in Oregon was organized in Lafayette in 1853.

The first Circuit Court to convene in Oregon met in Lafayette in 1847.

The first United States Court held in the Pacific Northwest met in session at Lafayette in 1849.

The first municipally owned water and light plant on the West Coast was built in McMinnville in 1889.

The first ferry on the Willamette equipped to carry wagons and teams was operated in 1844 by Daniel Matheny whose claim was at Wheatland in Yamhill County. (We still have that Wheatland Ferry.)

The first brick house west of the Rocky Mountains was built 1841-42 by George Gay on his Yamhill County claim near Wheatland.

The first cargo of wheat ever sent east from the state of Oregon was shipped in 1868 by Joseph Watt, Amity. That same year, he was the first to ship a cargo of wool from Oregon to a foreign port.

The first junior high school in Oregon was built in McMinnville in 1914.

A Yamhill County pioneer, James W. Marshall, was said to have been one of the first two men to discover gold in California.

At least seven of the 51 signers voting for the provisional government at Champoeg on May 2, 1843, were from Yamhill County: George Gay, Amos Cook, Francis Fletcher, Medorem Crawford, Pleasant Armstrong, Sidney Smith and William M. Doughty.

Yamhill County has a river — its namesake. That river once had a locks — and steamers plied its waterways to docks in McMinnville near the confluence of Cozine Creek and the Yamhill. It was Yamhill County’s superhighway.

We have a hand-hewn log block house, constructed 1855-56, as a refuge for settlers in case of Indian attack. It was once at Fort Yamhill, but in 1911 was dismantled and brought to Dayton City Park.

Yamhill County has the Hoover-Minthorn House, Linfield College, George Fox University, Yamhill County Historical Museum, Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, Joel Palmer House, a nationally known dental instrument firm, a 19th century gingerbread house in Yamhill where the well-known children’s writer Beverly Cleary lived.

And remembering Yamhill County’s early days brings to mind such names as Parrett, Watt, Wortman, Kershaw, Edwards, Everest, Sitton. Such names as Wilson Carl, W. A. Howe, Andrew D. Smith, William Reid, Joel Perkins, Dr. James McBride, John G. Baker, William Newby, Sebastian Brutscher, Ewing Young, A. B. Faulconer, Willamina Maley, Paul Fundman.

We have no gifts for you to unwrap July 5, Yamhill County. But surely no county could have greater gifts than residents such as these.

So, Happy Birthday, Yamhill County. Your 170 candles will be burning.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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