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Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Pioneer Oregon governor was made of tough stuff

A 30-mile bike ride to Champoeg, a half-acre of grass mowed with a reel-type push mower and an oak tree chopped through twice were all in a couple days' work

Downtown Bourne, Oregon, during the boom years of hard-rock gold mining and hard-core sucker swindling
A portrait and autograph of Gov. Theodore Thurston Geer, the first
governor of Oregon to have been born here, from a family
genealogy book published in 1914.

Today, the idea that the governor of Oregon might have the leisure to leave the capitol for two days to run an errand for the Oregon Historical Society would be laughable, and -- if you ask someone from the other political party -- maybe a little outrageous. After all, we're paying for his services, right?

Things have changed a great deal in 110 years.

On May Day of 1900, then-Governor Theodore Thurston Geer did just that. But it wasn't exactly a relaxing vacation. Geer rode a bicycle — in 1900 that would have been a modern-style "safety bicycle," not one of those old-style "Ordinary" ones with the huge wheel and no brakes, but still a rather primitive machine — about 30 miles and mowed a half-acre lawn with a push-powered reel mower when he got to his destination. The next day he chopped down a six-inch-thick Garry Oak tree with an ax, cut through it again to make a stake, helped drive this into the soil, and pedaled back home again. And he did all this in proper, gentlemanly attire, necktie and all.

In 1899, Geer was a member of the fledgling Oregon  Historical Society when the group decided to scout the locations of important historical events. One of these was the spot in Champoeg where Oregon's first provisional government was formed in 1843.

The town of Champoeg was one of the most important in the state at the time the government was formed. But two years after Oregon became a state, it washed away when the river rose. It was rebuilt further inland, but in the meantime the railroad had come through elsewhere, and the town of Champoeg never really came back.

By 1900, the sole surviving member of the party that formed the provisional government was Francis X. Matthieu.

So on May Day of 1900, Geer hopped on his bicycle — "bicycle riding was a very popular fad at the time,"  he noted in his memoirs — and headed off across 30 miles of dirt roads, across the Willamette Valley floor to Champoeg, where Matthieu still lived.

When he got there, though, he discovered that Matthieu had forgotten all about the plan, and had left for Portland to run some errands.

A long-distance phone call — a very big deal in 1900 — ensued, and Matthieu, apprised that the governor was waiting for him at home, caught the next southbound train he could.

Meanwhile, Geer was having his head handed to him in a game of horseshoes with the overly-modest secretary of the OHS, George H. Himes, who seems to have been a bit of a horseshoe shark. After two hours of this sort of abuse, Geer wandered over to the porch and sat with the women of the Matthieu household, to whom he mentioned — just making chit-chat — that the grass was getting a bit tall.

Promptly he was told that there was a great lawnmower in the shed. "Game to the last, I expressed my undying fondness for pushing a lawn-mower,"  Geer wrote. "And to prove my sincerity, I mowed something like a half-acre of heavy blue-grass during the next hour and a half, much to the enjoyment of the demon Himes."

The next morning, the party headed over to Champoeg. Matthieu pointed out the spot on which Oregon was more or less born, and the governor promptly borrowed an ax and used it to fell a six-inch-thick oak, which he made into a stake. The stake wedged firmly in the sun-baked silt loam of the riverbank, they headed back to the house and the governor hopped back on his "wheel" and started pedaling back to Salem.

Was he at least a bit sore after this feat of profoundly un-businessman-like physical exertion? The record is silent on that.

 (Sources:  Geer, T.T. Fifty Years in Oregon. New York:  Neale, 1912)

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