Lawen Rural Community
A Brief History
A small store with a post office is all that remains of Lawen – a once busy community of homesteaders (and squatters), who settled in the 1880’s on the northern edge of Malheur Lake and below the meander lines as the lake receded.
The lush native meadows of the Lawen area are highly prized for hay for cattle, and in later years, with diking and ditches, Ormand and Standley Ausmus and Henry Vogler reclaimed several thousand acres for crops of malting barley and alfalfa. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, boxcar loads of barley were shipped by rail from Lawen. The floodwaters claimed all of that land in 1983.
The original town of Lawen was located about two and a half miles south of the present location, along the edge of the slough. The post office was established in 1887. Lawen once boasted a population of about 100 people, and several businesses were located there.
Alice Parker Presley’s father homesteaded in Lawen in the late 1880’s. Children walked, rode horseback, or ice-skated to school. Skating parties were a favorite winter pastime in addition to potluck suppers and dances at the schoolhouse.
Long time resident Bertha Carey remembered coming to the country in 1898, when Lawen was a big settlement and the school had as many as 45 students. At one time, Lawen had two stores, a dance hall and saloon, a livery stable, a drug store, a blacksmith shop, a hotel and Harney County’s first woman Doctor, Mr. Minnie Iland.
Clothing, most of it sewn at home, was washed on a washboard, and wrung by hand. Sometimes, the women would take their tubs and wash boards to the hot springs near Crane. The water was clear and hot, and the clothes seemed whiter and brighter after being washed in the mineral water.
Long ditches cooled the water from the hot springs so that cattle could drink the water. Dr. Iland operated a health resort and swimming pool there, and at one time gas washing machines were available for people who wanted to do their laundry.
Lawen had the only store in the vicinity, until the railroad came to Crane. Then some of the ranchers who had to move from their homes near Lawen in the spring and summer because of the high water, decided to have permanent residences in Crane, instead of moving back and forth from Lawen in the winters to Crane in the summers.
A terrible drought in the 1920’s and into the 1930’s caused some of the settlers to move, and many places were left deserted. Some buildings from the deserted homesteads still remain. Other settlers survived the drought by haying and planting grain in the dry lake bed. It was at this time that buffalo skulls were unearthed from the center of the lake. And although it is hard to believe today, roads once crisscrossed Malheur Lake, and people had built houses far below the meander line. Today the lake is the largest body of water in the northwest.
Ministers came from Burns to serve the people. Before the store was moved, it had a side room that served as the dance hall, Grange hall and church. Later this room was torn down and these events took place upstairs in the store. P.H. Gray operated the store and the only hotel in the area between Riverside and Burns for a long time.
The first automobile in the Lawen and Crane area came in 1910 and was a Model “T” Ford, which was sold by Archie McGowan.
Ted and Dorothy Carson purchased the Lawen store, located on Highway 78 since 1929, in 1946 from Margaret Bamberry. Herb Fawcett helped move the building to highway frontage. Buildings in Harney County were frequently moved as people moved. The structures were loaded on huge rollers and moved to the new locations.
Former proprietor Dorothy Carson tells of a young couple coming through Lawen on the way to a funeral. They needed gasoline, which was pumped by hand, and the young man and woman had no money to pay for the gas, so they left a brooch with Carson as collateral. Some time later, a letter arrived with the money for the gas and for the postage to return the brooch to the original owners. The brooch was of great value and had belonged to the girl’s ancestors. The Carsons owned and operated the store for 36 years.
The rising of the flood waters in the 1980’s brought changes to the Lawen community. The school was closed, and the district consolidated with the Crane school district. Carsons sold the store, and it has since passed through a number of owners.
Most of the Lawen residents were forced to move as a result of the high lake levels, leaving only a handful of residents to call Lawen home.
The unincorporated community of Lawen has a zoning designation of Rural Commercial Area (RCA). The zoning for this community provides for a multitude of uses although space may be limited.