The Year of Decision
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.