By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Happy birthday, Yamhill County

Our county, born July 5, l843, assuredly was no preemie. At “birth,” it was one big chunk of land — one of four original districts created in l843 by Oregon’s Provisional Government at a meeting in Champoeg.

Twality, Clackamas and Champooick were the other three districts — all names of Indian derivation. The districts later were called counties.

Yamhill was named for the Yamhelas: the Yamhill Indians of the Kalapooian family. Six bands at one time lived along the Yamhill River.

Even before the creation of the Yamhill District, the area was destined for big things. Its fertile soil, benign climate, adequate water for agriculture, bespoke of a veritable breadbasket. And by 1836, French Canadian Louis LaBonte had started the first farm on the Yamhill River on his claim near Dayton.

By 1846, more than 160,000 bushels of wheat were being produced in Yamhill County.

And this exciting news: In 1847, word was received that Congress had established mail routes in the Willamette Valley. Lafayette, a town founded by Joel Perkins in 1846 and named for his hometown of Lafayette, Ind., was to be the distribution point for our county. Daily mail — another matter — would come 23 years later and arrive by a four-horse stage operated by West Side Stage Company.

Already, however, post offices were dotting the area: little communities joined the Yamhill family, such as the following: (the first figure in each instance refers to post office opening year, and second figure, the closing year); Amity,1852; Carlton,1874; Chehalem,1851-1852; Dayton,1851; Lafayette,1851; McMinnville,1855; Mount Hood,1854-1862; Muddy,1855-1869; North Yamhill,1851-1908; Washington, 1858-1860; Wheatland,1867-1903; Willamina,1855; Yamhill,1908; Yam Hill Falls,1850-1852.

Lafayette was Yamhill County’s big city. In the 1840s and 1850s, it was the principal trading town in western Willamette Valley. Its population in 1850 was 125. It had some 30 stores. Likewise, it was the first county seat — a town with as much history as a Bancroft volume.

Lafayette also was a popular starting point for gold seekers, after they had stocked up on supplies. Pack trains originated there, loaded with produce from local farms, headed for the goldfields. The county’s first court was called to order in Lafayette, under a large oak tree later known as the “council oak.”

When need for a courthouse became apparent, $800 was paid to Lem Scott for a building, formerly a warehouse or country store, at what is now the southwest corner of Third and Jefferson. The building burned in 1857, destroying all county records except some land records and probate documents.

By 1858, a fine $14,000 brick courthouse, built by Rush Mendenhall, was the pride of the county. When an election later was held to determine the site of the county seat, and McMinnville won, the retired courthouse was acquired by Evangelical Church and used as a school until 1900, when the school merged with LaCreole Academy, Dallas. When the old brick structure was torn down in 1922, it was said to be in fine condition.

In 1851, practically all of Oregon Territory was agog over the news in Yamhill County. The Yamhill River at Lafayette was to be bridged by a structure unlike any to date in early Oregon. This was the era of ferries and fords. The earliest recorded bridge was in 1846 — a log bridge — across Dairy Creek in Washington County. But in Lafayette, a group of local businessmen formed a corporation, pungled up $8,000 and contracted with a Portland firm to build a double-track bridge. “Old Yamhill” referred to the bridge as “astonishing” and “truly remarkable for its time and place.” Bridge plans called for a double track, each 10 feet wide; abutments of hewed timber, bolted and filled with earth; 50 feet clearance above low water — and a self-supporting span.

In June 1960, Oregon Historical Society Quarterly referred to the bridge as important in early Oregon history. “... A really substantial enterprise ... differing from most local trestle bridges in that it had a self-supporting span. … The cost was unusually high for such an early Oregon bridge and a decade was to pass before another span comparable to it was built.”

But the Yamhill River then had its day. In January 1852, the flooding stream took out the two finished abutments and washed out work started on the central span.

By fall of 1852, the bridge was completed, but the Yamhill River again had its say. Expensive and grand though that bridge was, the river flooded again in l857 and took its toll. By fall that year, another bridge was being built.

As of 1865, proud Yamhill County could boast of a newspaper. Jonas W. Upton began publishing the Lafayette Courier. And oh, the Christmas present Yamhill County received in 1883. On Dec. 3, the Wortman family’s First National Bank of McMinnville opened its doors, the first bank on the west side of the Willamette Valley between Portland and Eugene.

Oregon rain, however, caused a minor glitch in the bank’s opening as reflected in this historical remembrance: “When the Wortman Bank of McMinnville was started ... the Wortmans bought a safe — but the opening date had to be delayed because the safe had not yet arrived. When it did arrive at the McMinnville depot, the problem then arose as to how they would get it to the bank. The fall rains had started and McMinnville streets were nothing but mud. It was impossible to bring the safe by wagon because the weight of the safe would have mired down the wagon. They finally opted to move it on a large dolly down the board walks of McMinnville’s main street. The weight of the safe broke many of the boards, so the bank’s first expense was $50 to repair broken sidewalks.”

Yamhill County, you were quite a kid.

So in 2014, Happy Birthday. For your gift — unwrapped — our profuse thanks for your rewarding and exciting first 171 years. We shall be profoundly grateful if only the next 171 years are comparable.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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