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Harney County Court House History

Harney County Court HouseA Brief History of Harney County and its Courthouse...

This text is an excerpt from the book Exploring Oregon’s Historic Courthouses by Kathleen M. Weiderhold.

Harney County covers 10,180 square miles, but only about seven thousand people live within its boundaries. One can travel along a main highway for miles without seeing a house or fence, just an occasional road that leads seemingly nowhere. While communities such as Blitzen and Ragtown faded, Burns managed to endure and became “the biggest town in the biggest county in Oregon.” With the exception of the later community of Hines to the south, Burns today stands alone, the only town within a seventy-five mile radius.

The discovery of gold in eastern Oregon in the early 1860s brought thousands of prospectors through the area, and their presence soon led to violent skirmishes with the Northwest Indians. To restore peace, the federal government established several military camps in the present-day Harney County before negotiating a treaty in 1869. Cattle ranchers, attracted by the vast amount of bunchgrass and the railroad available at Winnemucca, soon began moving their herds into the region. While small, family-owned farms grew on the northern sections of the county, several vast cattle ranches, financed by out-of-state owners, developed on the southern end. For the next several decades, an uneasiness that sometimes erupted in violence brewed between the settlers and the cattle barons as each jockeyed for land ownership and water rights.

Burns consisted of a hotel, a saloon, and a barber-shop in the early 1880s. George McGowan, a merchant from a rival settlement, soon moved to the town and started a general store with Peter Stenger.

When establishing a post office, Stenger wanted to name the community after himself, but George Francis Brimlow in Harney County, Oregon, and Its Range Land wrote that McGowan discouraged this, observing that too many might call it “the Stenger town where they got stung.” Instead, McGowan suggested the name of Burns, after Robert Burns, his favorite Scottish poet.

The Burns townsite was part of a land grant given the builders of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road, which extended from Albany to the Washoe Ferry on the Snake River. Although the quality of the road in some locations was poor, the federal government awarded the land grants, the promised incentive. Subsequent owners of the military road land grant recorded a twenty-four-block plat called the “Town of Burns” in 1883. One early settler wrote that in the mid-1880s, “There was nothing attractive about Burns in those days; in fact it was as raw and crude a little burg as one can well imagine. There were two saloons, two small mercantile stores, a rough-and-tumble hotel, a blacksmith shop and a livery stable in the making.” The saloons, by far the most popular businesses, attracted visiting cow-punchers and settlers, who made it their headquarters while they were in town.

Burns has only a few two-story structures. Because of the extra cost, owners generally had specific reasons for constructing an additional story. In small towns, fraternal groups such as the Masons frequently erected two-story buildings, with the intent of renting the ground floor and using the upper story for lodge activities. Fraternal groups usually identified their buildings with their emblem in the center of the structure above the top floor. Three interlocked rings are exhibited on the Odd Fellows structure at 348 North Broadway, while a compass above a carpenter’s square decorates the Masonic building at 406 North Broadway.

Other builders of two-story structures usually were prominent merchants who thought the town had a future, such as Voegtly or Nathan Brown, whose building stands at 530 North Broadway. An early settler wrote that Brown, who previously had lived in Walla Walla, Oregon City and San Francisco, rode through the surrounding valley and said, “This is going to be a good country; I’m going no further.” The exterior of his 1896 building, exhibiting fiscal caution, displays six no-nonsense narrow windows and a row of stone dentils on the second story. Its less-dressed rubble sides suggest that the structure anticipated same-height neighbors, which never came, to hide its ungainly parts.

A History of the Courthouse

Burns extends several blocks beyond the Brown building, and then the main street reverts back to a highway heading northbound for the Blue Mountains and Grant County. Harney initially was part of Grant County, but the distance to the county seat at Canyon City, several days away by horse, influenced many citizens to petition for a more locally based government. Supporters circulated a bill in the legislature as early as 1887, but it was not until February 1889 that the state created Harney County, honoring the general who had assisted in opening up eastern Oregon for settlement. Harney City was designated as the temporary county seat, but had to face Burns and three other towns in a general election for the permanent position.

Burns citizens began campaigning vigorously. The May 17th, 1890 Herald listed Burns’ natural advantages, including that “public buildings erected in Burns are not liable to destruction from cloud-bursts” and that “[the town] is free from the annual mosquito and gnat visitation that afflicts other parts of the county.” Other persuasive arguments were “Burns has the only brewery in the county” and “the Burns Brass Band, of 18 pieces, is the only band in the county.” Such compelling reasons undoubtedly swayed the voters, for the final election results were 512 votes for Burns, 415 votes for Harney, with the rest of the contenders sharing the remaining 89 votes.

Even before the official count was finished, the June 4, 1890 newspaper reported triumphantly that “the battle is over, and victory perches upon the banner of the Burnsites.” The battle was not over. “Burnsites” had to file lawsuits to compel county officers to move to Burns. After the officials had relocated, a court ordered them back to Harney City until claims of suspected voter fraud were resolved. However, Burns citizens, including several town leaders, armed themselves and marched back and forth in front of the building housing the county records, threatening to shoot down the first person who attempted to move the records.

According to a petition filed by a Harney City citizen, several of the Burns men “threatened and still threaten to kill” the sheriff and officers of the court if they moved the records. The petition claimed that some of Burns’ citizens had made bribes with the promises of money and employment, had intimidated school children to vote, had furnished whisky to voters, and had circulated fraudulent ballots to “careless, illiterate and hasty voters.” In addition, it stated that Burns “is an unhealthy and sickly place and the inhabitants thereof not law-abiding but notorious and dangerous. Many of the buildings therein of old wood and about to fall in….There is great danger of flood at all times.”

However, Harney City citizens themselves were not guiltless. While Harney City citizens claimed that 110 Burns votes were fraudulent, Burns citizens countered that 146 Harney City votes were fraudulent. Finally, almost three years after the initial election, an independent referee ruled that Burns had won the county seat position by a mere six votes.

Perhaps in response to the fear of flooding mentioned in one of the county seat election lawsuits, officials in 1894 located the first Harney County courthouse, a two-story wooden structure, on a hill two blocks away from the main street. In the second-floor courtroom, small ranchers fought cattle barons over land ownership. The most famous trial occurred in 1898, when a jury found Edward Lee Olivier, a homesteader, innocent of murdering cattle baron Peter French.

Forty years later, the November 4, 1938 Burns Times-Herald called the courthouse “antiquated [and] poorly arranged.” Voters were deciding whether the county should construct a new $100,000 courthouse, with 45 percent of the cost to be paid by the federal Public Works Administration (PWA). With such largess, the issue passed, and the county judge immediately traveled to Portland to present a request to the PWA official. But the PWA refused the request; later newspaper accounts blamed either incomplete plans or that the county’s part of the funding was not entirely available in 1938.

By 1940, the court began discussing building a modest courthouse entirely with its own funds. Officials and interested leading citizens toured recently constructed courthouses in Tillamook, Linn and Deschutes Counties. Economy, however, was foremost in their minds. The court even reduced the amount of the lowest construction bid by about 5 thousand dollars to $63,066. The county moved to the Brown building and, assisted by a grant of over four thousand dollars from the Works Progress Administration, work began on excavating a basement.

Just one month after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, the county court moved into the courthouse, and the community began using the new facilities. One group that announced plans to meet there, the Harney County Wild Life Association, apparently preferred their wildlife dead; according to the March 6, 1942 newspaper, they would “enjoy the new rifle range in the court house basement.”

The Courthouse Today

A sidewalk and a berm along the front of the courthouse distinguish this block from others along the street. The landscaped square provides a cool respite during Burns’ hot summer months, although sprinklers discourage lolling on the grass. Most of the trees provide only shade, but an apricot tree on the southwest corner also bears fruit, which locals pick during the summer.

Elms flank the walkway leading to the front of the building, which faces east like the first courthouse. Except for its square, the veteran’s memorial, and the words on its façade, the building has little to suggest it is a courthouse. A modest budget and a shift in architectural styles from ornate embellishments to nondescript facades were two major factors contributing to the courthouse’s austere exterior.

Decoration is concentrated on the central entry, where concrete fluting flanks a tall twelve-pane window over the two front doors. A plastic owl, which replaced a rotted wooden flagpole, guards against birds perching on the ledge over the entry. Another owl stands above the back door, whimsically added not to discourage birds but to match the one in front. During the spotted owl controversy, pranksters painted spots on the back-door owl; it has since been repainted.

The lobby’s rose-colored terrazzo floor, one of the few interior extravagances, has become the basis of the courthouse’s subsequent color scheme. Benches lining the wall exhibit a similar shade, as does some of the lower half of the lobby walls in order to simulate wainscot. Even the elevator, a recent addition that replaced one of the two stairways to the second floor, sports this warm color on its exterior doors. Using nothing more than a bucket of paint, the maintenance man, Irv Rhinehart, showed that the county cares about the courthouse’s appearance.

Even though shepherding, farming and logging also were ways of life for Harney County citizens, the pioneer society chose a cattleman on a horse for the seal lying in the center of the terrazzo floor. At the head of the seal, a setting sun bisects the date 1870, the year the county was created. Darrell Otley, whose family were ranchers, designed the seal and was awarded a wrist watch for his efforts.

The courthouse construction budget did not allow much interior embellishment, but employees and officials have added their own decorations, which define Harney County and personalize the building. A picture of two cowboys amid grazing cattle, painted by Otley, dominates the far wall. (A rendition of the painting, naturally in a rose tint, is printed at the top of the county’s official stationery.) On a side wall, three paintings donated by county employees and Otley also portray ranching scenes.

Pictures of Harney County’s rangelands are located throughout the courthouse. In the county clerk’s office, one prominently located painting depicts the site where the famed cattle baron, Peter French, was killed. During election nights, interested citizens waiting for the voting results in the clerk’s office share a potluck in the nearby break room. While as many as fifteen to twenty people stand around talking, the clerk posts the results on hand-written poster board lying along the long counter in the clerk’s office. Unlike metropolitan areas where counting can continue throughout the night, courthouse-loitering residents, many with full stomachs from the potluck, generally will know the election outcome by 10:00 p.m.

In the midst of election night socializing, few probably notice that the piers in the clerk’s office have either rounded or squared corners. Those with the squared corners were added after the discovery in 1959 that the aggregate in the reinforced concrete construction was inferior and was causing the seventeen-year-old courthouse to sag. Employees vacated the building for three years while the county court vacillated between tearing it down and repairing it. During that time, the local newspaper even referred to the building and its grounds as “the old courthouse property.”

The courtroom on the second floor is another place where the Harney County identity is strong. In 1995, a local junior high school art class painted a mural on the wall outside the courtroom. This forest scene, depicting the northern part of the county, contrasts with the rangeland paintings on the first floor. However, inside the courtroom, a painting of a cattle roundup towers over the judge’s bench. This picture, like the wildlife scenes on the entry door walls, once hung in the old downtown post office. Another later addition is the elk trophy on the rear wall – the evidence in a case against several hunters who had killed the elk illegally.

The furnishings connect the courtroom to the rest of the courthouse and the community at large. The recorder, witness, prosecution, and defense sit on modern burgundy chairs, a deeper shade of the rose tones found throughout the building. The Edward Hines Lumber Company supplied the clear pine for the spectator benches, and unlike other counties, which selected their benches from a catalog, these appear to be locally made. The Hines company also provided the knotty pine used in the judge’s bench and jury box – a wood found more frequently in vacation cabins than in solemn courtrooms.

Because Harney County did not receive the PWA funds to help build its new courthouse, the building does not feature a lobby with costly marble wainscot or elaborate ornamentation on the exterior like the courthouses in Linn and Clackamas counties, which did received PWA funding. The Harney County courthouse is a plain structure, but through the years its citizens have personalized the building with things that speak of the community. Just like their predecessors at the turn of the century, Harney County citizens are aware that the courthouse represents them.

Want to learn more about Harney County and it’s historic Courthouse?

Exploring Oregon’s Historic Courthouses by Kathleen M. Weiderhold provides an excellent description and history of all of the County Courthouses in the State of Oregon and is where the text listed above originated. This book was published in 1998 by the OSU Press.