The year is 1905 and you have traveled thousands of miles across the country. You spot a fort-shaped rock formation in the distance and know you are finally close to your destination. A sage thrasher perched atop sagebrush seems to be singing its melodic song to welcome you. As you draw closer, you see several buildings clustered around a windmill-driven well. The wind blows the desert dust into your eyes. Blinking to make sure it’s not a mirage; you can’t help but let out a sigh of relief. You made it – you are finally here.
Though that account was fictional, it would be easy to imagine that kind of scenario as you tour the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum. The site currently contains 12 buildings from the early 1900’s that were moved to the site from various locations in Central Oregon. A replica blacksmith shop was constructed at the site in 2006 using reclaimed wood and other materials. Volunteers restored the buildings and carefully furnished them with artifacts. As you walk into a house with the table carefully set, you really get a feel for how the early pioneers lived. You will be impressed by the attention to detail. There is a small store with items related to the area on the front of the property.
There are buildings of businesses representative of what would have been present in a small town of that time period. A small doctor’s office sits waiting for the next patient. The Fort Rock General Store welcomes visitors with a wide selection of goods. It is the only building original to the site. It supplied goods to 1,200 people at one time. Sunset School has lessons on the chalkboard and rules for teachers to abide by near the door. The pews at Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church are empty now but were once full of people at the only building in the vicinity built expressly for worship. It still serves as a place for weddings and memorials.
Six buildings served as homes for pioneers in the early 1900’s. There was a major influx of settlers after the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 increased the allotment of land from 160 to 320 acres. Fred and Hannah Stratton moved to the area from Michigan in 1912. Their sons, Frank and Lewis, grew up in the house and Frank later married Vivian. Frank and Vivian founded the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society and opened the Museum in 1988. The Widmer cabin was moved from the Bend area and now houses a large collection of arrowheads and other ancient tools crafted from obsidian collected in the area. George Mekenmaier built a cabin in 1910 before he married Hazel Penrose. Their children, Beatrice and George, played in the area now known as Fort Rock Cave. Many years later, Hazel encouraged anthropologist Dr. Luther S. Cressman to explore the cave. He excavated the cave and discovered nearly 100 sagebrush bark sandals that were later determined to have been made 9,000 to 13,000 years ago. They are the oldest ever discovered and they were arranged in a ceremonial pattern. Simon Boedigheimer came to Fort Rock around 1912 and built one of the few two-story houses in the area. He left his wife and two children in the Willamette Valley while he worked on the house. A carpenter by trade, his house included special features such as built-in shelving and a stairwell closet. The Websters and their six-year old son moved to the area in 1912. They bred Hereford-Shorthorn cattle and were very successful. Their son Carl went on to become a successful trapper and he kept careful records of his trap lines on the bedroom door casings. Alex Belletable and his wife came to Fort Rock in 1911. He was one of the wealthier homesteaders in the valley. The couple were French immigrants and they tried farming in the area but were not nearly as successful as they had been in France. They left the area in 1922.
Fort Rock is a short drive away and it is now part of a state natural area. After a short walk uphill, you enter an amphitheater-like setting. The formation is part of a 6,000 foot wide caldera. About 12,000 years ago this area was covered by ice hundreds to thousands of feet thick. Temperatures warmed and a 900 square mile lake formed over the site. Three thousand years later sagebrush replaced the marshlands.
The Brother’s Fault zone lies beneath the site. Faults allow magma to get to the surface. As the lava hit the water, it caused a massive explosion. This explosion, and the prevailing Southwesterly winds, caused the horseshoe shape of the Fort Rock formation. The tuff walls are all that remain as it collapsed upon itself. Terraces formed by the pounding action of the waves can be seen on surfaces of the tuff ring.
When I was there in May of 2015 on a Bend Parks and Recreation field trip, wildflowers were in full bloom and cliff dwelling birds flew around the site. There was a thick stand of death camas in the crater. A few bitterroot plants bloomed nearby. Early pioneers quickly learned from the resident Native Americans that the camas was poisonous while the bitterroot root could provide sustenance. Meriwether Lewis ate bitterroot during his explorations and brought specimens back east. The scientific name, Lewisia rediviva, reflects his discovery of the plant.