By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties
Ah, November. The wet and the darkness set in and we feel like turning on the teapot and bundling up. For woodland owners, winter lends an opportunity to catch up on indoor projects: accounting, taxes, and maybe updating or writing a management plan.
Another indoor activity that I guarantee will be more interesting than any of the above is researching and putting together a history of your woodland. It may mean digging through old family files or recording the memories of an elder relative, if your property has been in the family for a while. For those with a newer relationship to their land, it may mean a lot of online research. Either way, it can be a revealing and rewarding process; and by documenting what you learn you will gain a richer connection to your woodland and ensure this history is not lost to future generations.
Not all woodland owners are history buffs, but fortunately Pat Wheeler, a Benton County Master Woodland Manager, is one of them. After painstakingly researching the history of her own property, she not only shared many of the online resources she used with her Extension agent, but also volunteered (or was arm-twisted?) to write up a history of the Cameron Tract (an OSU Research Forest in Benton County).
Once I learned about Pat’s efforts, I became very intrigued and immediately saw an opportunity to put together a similar document for the Matteson Forest. The donor, Marion Matteson, bequeathed the property to OSU in the his will, and we never had an opportunity to meet him or learn much about his relationship to the property (he had no children). We obtained some information about recent management activity from a distant cousin, and we knew from old aerial photographs and some remnants of foundations and machinery that there had once been a couple of homesteads on the property. But that was about it.
So, armed with Pat’s resource list, I set to work. And soon I was in far deeper than I anticipated. It turns out that the Matteson ancestors came over on the Oregon Trail, and were among the first white settlers in the Gaston area, so there was a lot of history to discover. I found myself examining census records from the 1860’s, cemetery inventories, and land patent records, all available online. I checked out a book about the history of Gaston from my library, and even made a trip to the Pacific University historical archives to look at the proceedings of a 1973 symposium related to the construction of Scoggins Dam.
Eventually I was able to piece together as much as I could into a cohesive, semi-complete story, which I then sent to the distant cousin for fact checking. I learned that what is now the Matteson Forest had been parts of three separate land claims dating to the 1870’s. Over the next century these ownerships changed hands many times, from homesteaders and land speculators, to bank foreclosure during the Depression, to loggers and small farmers.
Meanwhile the Mattesons who had come on the Oregon Trail staked claims elsewhere in the area, including where the town of Gaston is now situated. Eventually one branch of the family, Marion Matteson’s grandparents, operated a dairy farm on the Scoggins Valley flats. When the Scoggins Dam was built and farmers were bought out to make way for the reservoir, Marion Matteson and his brother started buying property upslope (including the current Matteson Forest) and transitioned from dairy to timber.
The history of the Matteson Tract will be included in the management plan for the property, which is currently in development. Having knowledge of the property’s past gives me and others involved with managing the Matteson Tract a new lens with which to view the land and frame our management decisions. We can deduce, for example, that the oldest timber stands on the property are second-growth, having regenerated naturally after early owners cleared the merchantable timber. These areas may have subsequently seen light use by the early homesteaders, perhaps for livestock ranging and firewood. On the other hand, the areas now occupied by medium-aged Douglas-fir plantations had been in pasture for decades. A rambling apple tree in a small clearing dates back to the earliest known homestead on the property, and may be 100 years old.
I admit I spent far too many hours developing this property history – once you’ve gone down the rabbit trail, it’s hard to pull yourself back out. But I consider it time well spent. On a personal note, I have been facing some serious health issues and this was the perfect project to distract me from reality for a while. Perhaps you or another member of your woodland family are also in need of a distraction this winter. If so, I encourage you to dig into your own property history and record it for others in the future. You can find our resource list for getting started, along with the Cameron and Matteson Tract examples, on the Oregon Forest Management Planning website.