The Year of Decision

The Year of Decision header image
Just after the turn of the century Oregonians made a choice that changed the state.

Tim DelCurto, sitting in an office that smells of old, polished wood and is topped by what seems like an abnormally high ceiling, grins and glances down at his "ropers," the kind of lace-up boots a lot of cowboys wear these days. He’s telling the story of how the big red brick building he’s in came to be, long before he was born a couple of valleys to the southeast on a ranch outside the community of Halfway, Oregon, near the Idaho border and Hell’s Canyon.

Looking through the lens of history, it’s interesting how the little chain of events DelCurto describes, a small political intrigue, ended up having a big impact on the state. It probably affects you today, no matter where you live in Oregon:

In 1887, Americans were still farmers, in large part. So Congress decided to give each state and territory $15,000 a year to operate an agricultural experiment station. The strategy was modeled after a much-admired European research system.

Group photo of Union citizens in the year 1915.

Granger Day, circa 1915. The annual public gathering at OSU's branch agricultural experiment station at Union highlighted station research. Photo: OSU Archives

The next year Oregon’s experiment station started to emerge at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis (later renamed Oregon State University). But the state’s split personality was emerging, too, and by 1899, DelCurto explains, citizens of the higher, dryer Oregon east of the Cascades felt western Oregon was getting too much of a good thing. They pushed for their own agricultural college. Nothing happened, at least not right away. Oregonians from Portland to Pendleton, and Burns to Brookings, rang in a new century. But the push for an agricultural college in eastern Oregon didn’t disappear. Finally, Gov. T.T. Geer proposed that the Legislature set up an industrial college at Union, a thriving community near the foothills of northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Regents of Oregon Agricultural College, down in Corvallis, opposed the idea. The maneuvering continued until later in 1901 when the factions compromised, exactly 100 years ago this year.

Using $10,000 from the Legislature, Oregon Agricultural College set up an agricultural experiment station at Union. For all practical purposes it was a branch of the main experiment station in Corvallis, but they called the Union facility "the state experiment station."

Union turned out to be more than that. Its creation was the initial "sod busting" for a network of 11 branch experiment stations around Oregon, some with geographically separated divisions of their own and most tied to a region’s geography and economy. Eventually they even created a branch experiment station for the fishing industry on the wave-battered shores of the Pacific Ocean, about as far west of Union as you can get, and another one, geared to entrepreneurial product development, a stone’s throw from the financial towers of downtown Portland (for a brief description of each branch station, see the article on page 28).

Fast-forwarding through the work of these branch experiment stations during the decades since 1901 you’d see mistakes, experiments gone astray, but also a steady stream of new products, improved methods for producing them and, increasingly in recent times, improved techniques for protecting the natural world. The OSU Agricultural Experiment Station’s branch station network has literally changed the face, and the economy, of Oregon, and many, many challenges lay ahead in the century just beginning, particularly in the area of how to continue working with Oregon’s natural resources without damaging the environment.

Square brick building.

Oregon's first branch agricultural experiment station, established at Union in 1901. The two-story headquarters, which cost $3,500, was built on 620 acres where the state originally planned to put a mental institution. Photo: The Doug Deroest Collection

But no one on the edge of the town of Union in 1901, standing where the "state experiment station" was supposed to go, could have foreseen all this.

"As a matter of fact, the 620 acres where the station was built was originally set aside in 1893 to be the site of a mental institution for eastern Oregon," says DelCurto, an OSU animal scientist now in charge of the Union facility. For $3,500, he explains, the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station hired local people to build the squarish, two-story, red-brick headquarters he’s sitting in. The main floor had four big offices, each with a coal stove. The stoves smoked, a lot, and the rooms’ 12-foot ceilings helped the researchers who used them avoid asphyxiation. DelCurto notes that a relatively small addition to the red brick building, which is now under construction, will cost almost $200,000.

Construction costs are not all that has changed. In recent decades researchers at Union have specialized in livestock and range research. "But the land here was pretty much a flood plain and a lot of the research the first 20 years involved figuring out how to use [underground] tile drains to reclaim it for agriculture," he says. The findings had wide use, he adds, because "most of these mountain valleys over here in this part of the state—Baker, Grande Ronde and Wallowa—were very poorly drained."

Man standing in doorway.

Today Tim DelCurto, an animal scientist who grew up in nearby Halfway, is superintendent of what has become the Union branch of OSU's Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. The center's headquartered are in Burns. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Technically, he notes, the very first study at Union was on how to grow sugarbeets. Many people had diversified farms and crops weren’t transported long distances like they are today. Researchers at Union also studied swine, poultry, various forage grasses, fruits, berries and vegetables. And through the decades they studied other crops that might amaze any "Johnny-come-lately" who thinks of northeastern Oregon as beef cattle country. These include flax, soybeans, rice, artichokes, durum wheat, grapes, peanuts and grass seed. The annual report from 1909---–10 focuses on research with potatoes, but scientists at the station also experimented with head lettuce that year. "They did a lot of draft horse research before people started going to tractors," adds DelCurto.

The first superintendent was A. B. Leckenby. His assistant, Robert Withycombe, replaced Leckenby in 1906, filling the job until 1931. Withycombe was the son of James Withycombe, a director of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Corvallis who went on to serve as governor from 1915 to 1919.

Union Station surrrounded by hills and trees.

The Union station was built on a flood plain. The first 20 years, much of the work centered on figuring out how to drain the land so it could be used for farming. Lessons learned were applied in other parts of eastern Oregon. Research in the decades that followed tested an amazingly wide variety of crops. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The Union station has seen lots twists and turns, DelCurto points out. One of the biggest came in 1940 when OSU purchased the Hall Ranch about 10 miles east of Union on Catherine Creek. "That really was the beginning of the focus on beef cattle research," he says.

Later the station became part of another branch station, the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center headquartered at Burns. In 1982, during a budgetary squeeze at the state and federal levels, OSU decided to close Union. Members of the local community and DelCurto’s predecessor as superintendent, Marty Vavra, managed to keep the facility afloat until 1992 "with a skeleton crew" of one scientist and several technicians and support staff.

Then Union’s fortunes slowly began to change, fed by growing legislative interest in helping the agricultural industry in northeastern Oregon survive and in protecting the area’s environment. In 1999 the Legislature appropriated funds for three additional scientists to conduct research and to help with teaching in an agricultural program at Eastern Oregon University at nearby La Grande operated jointly with OSU. Now the station is breaking away from its animal and range science tradition in recent decades by hiring a "terrestrial ecologist" who will help broaden research projects by studying how to manage range and forest lands to help threatened or endangered species.

"The challenges facing the beef industry are changing," says DelCurto. "We no longer look at how to raise more pounds of beef. It’s winter feeding and reproduction efficiency and how to help producers take care of the riparian areas [around streams] where fish and many other creatures live.

"I think the agroforestry research done here starting in the 1960s, on the interaction of cattle and logging on forested rangeland, some of the first done anywhere, is going to pay dividends for a long time. For example, some of the exclosures [fenced areas] are 30 years old. Some have been grazed by cattle and wildlife, some just by cattle, some only by wildlife, and some not at all. That information will be invaluable in the future."

Clydesdale horses.

Before tractors, researchers at the Union station studied draft horses like these Clydesdales. Photo: OSU Archives

But one question some people have for Tim DelCurto has nothing to do with the station’s research. They ask him why Oregon’s first branch experiment station was built at Union instead of at a larger eastern Oregon community like La Grande or Pendleton.

"Union was one of the largest cities in eastern Oregon at the turn of the century," he explains. "At that time the road came through here and anyone traveling through northeastern Oregon had to go through Union. There was a big rivalry between Union and La Grande." It’s generally thought that Union could have kept the upper hand, he says, if its residents "wouldn’t have been snooty about not wanting the railroad switching yards, and then if the highway department had put the main bed of the new highway that was going to transect northeastern Oregon through Piles Canyon [at Union] instead of Ladd Canyon [a few miles to the west near La Grande.]"

But that’s another little chain of events, another small political intrigue, that played out long ago. Like the creation of Oregon’s first branch experiment station, the stakes are easier to see now, looking through the lens of history.


"You can see the state by touring the station," bragged a little OSU report titled "What Have We Done for You Lately?" that was produced in the late 1980s.

The assertion isn't far off. The report explains that the headquarters for the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station are on the campus in Corvallis but some scientists and other personnel are permanently assigned to the branch stations. So here, amended to reflect changes since that time, and with the year each station was established in parentheses, is the "quick tour of the branch stations" the report offers:

Man sitting on ground clipping plants.

Dennis Sheehy, a range scientist who worked at Union in the 1980s and 1990s, clips all the plants in a small area for a study of livestock and wildlife grazing patterns. Photo: Andy Duncan

At the North Willamette Research and Extension Center (1952) at Aurora, just south of Portland, researchers study ornamental and nursery crops and small fruits, berries and vegetables.

To the northeast, up the Columbia River Gorge, scientists at the Mid-Columbia Research and Extension Center (1913) at Hood River focus their work on Oregon's high-value pear and cherry crops, as well as on fruits like apples and peaches.

Farther east in the Columbia Basin is the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (1909). The center has three research subunits: potato variety development, horticultural production and quality, and integrated pest management. A recently hired aquatic entomologist will work in cooperation with researchers at OSU's coastal branch station to study inland influences on the lives of salmon and other aquatic creatures.

A short drive east of there is the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (1928), headquartered just outside Pendleton and with a division, the Sherman Station, at Moro. Researchers at these facilities study the production, diseases and pests of dryland wheat and other grains, and search for alternative crops and farming methods on the area's erosion-sensitive, former desert soils.

To the southeast, at the Idaho border, is the Malheur Experiment Station (1942) near Ontario. In on of Oregon's most intensely farmed areas, the Treasure Valley, researchers provide support to farmers producing onions, potatoes, sugar beets, small grains, alfalfa seed and other crops on irrigated land. The station is a leader in the development of automated, drip irrigation that takes advantage of precious water.

Almost due west of Ontario, in the heart of Oregon's cattle country, is the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center's (1972) headquarters about 7 miles south of Burns. The center has a division at Union in northeastern Oregon that was the first branch station. Scientists study rangeland management and cattle production, particularly how to improve beef cattle production while maintaining or enhancing environmental quality. Many ecological studies focus on understanding changes in plants such as juniper and sagebrush communities and the potential impacts of those changes.

Group of people standing on and around an open-bed truck.

A 1982 field day at the Union experiment station, when the public come to hear about the latest research findings. Speaking is Marty Vavra, superintendent of OSU's Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center headquartered at Burns. Today, Union is part of the center. Photo: Andy Duncan

Farther west is the Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center (1948), which is headquartered at Madras but has a facility at Powell Butte. Scientists study the production of mint; grass, garlic, carrot, radish and other vegetable seed; pasture grass, alfalfa and grain varieties; and search for new crops such as native grasses and forbes. Researchers at the center, the OSU campus and several other branch stations use the Madras and Powell Butte facilities to grow experimental potatoes and search for improved varieties for Oregon.

Swinging south, the Klamath Agricultural Experiment Station (1939) sits three miles below Klamath Falls and 20 miles north of the California border. Researchers work with potatoes, sugar beets, cereals and forages, paying close attention to the area's unique soils and harsh climatic conditions, including severe water restrictions.

Man working in lab.

Research technician Ron Slater analyzes fecal samples in a Union station lab in the early 80s. Such work tells Slater what animals are eating. Photo: Andy Duncan

Farther west, at Medford, is the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (1910). Research focuses on pear production, pest control and storage. Scientists also study wine grapes and search for alternative crops for that part of southern Oregon.

West to the Pacific Ocean, and north to Newport, are the headquarters of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (1989). The OSU Seafood Laboratory in Astoria is a division of this station. At Newport, scientists study ocean creatures in support of Oregon's fishing industry. A new emphasis is developing a more holistic view of influences on the lives of salmon. This work will be conducted in cooperation with inland researchers at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. At Astoria, researchers study seafood processing and safety issues and search for new seafood products.

The newest branch station, the Food Innovation Center (2001), is in downtown Portland. The center is a partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and is dedicated to helping Oregonians add value to raw commodities grown around the state by finding ways to develop and market new products.

Through the first 100 years some branch stations came and went, addressing important needs in their geographic areas along the way. For example, the Red Soils Branch Station, established in 1939 in Oregon City, and the John Jacob Astor Branch Station, established in 1913 at Astoria, disappeared in the 1960s and 70s. Others, such as the Harney Branch Station at Burns, were merged into larger entities to cut operating costs.

Challenges with water quantity and quality. Demands for more effective, and environmentally friendly, pest and disease control. Concerns about threatened plants and animals. Steeply rising farming, processing and transportation costs linked to skyrocketing energy prices. Fears about the potential impact of global warming and other climate change issues. Shifting markets and growing competition from goods produced in countries with less expensive labor. These are a few of the challenges facing Oregon and its agriculture industry these days.

Man standing by wire fence.

There have been exclosures, or controlled areas like these, at the Hall Ranch for 30 years. They yield rich information on the impact of domestic and wild animals. Some have been grazed by cattle and sheep, some by wildlife like deer and elk, some by both, some not at all. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

But Thayne R. Dutson, dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station since 1987, predicts the branch station network, whose work spans the introduction of tractors, the horrors of World Wars I and II and countless other social aberrations, the unraveling of the DNA molecule and the onset of the computer age, will continue evolving. And he believes that evolution will help Oregon's $3.5 billion-a-year agriculture industry continue to contribute to Oregonians by utilizing a deepening knowledge of the integrated natural, economic and social system we humans call the state of Oregon.

"I stand in awe of what has been accomplished by the branch stations in the first century," says Dutson. "I believe these accomplishments will be magnified in the next 100 years."

Published in: People