A narrative by Helen Bee (Van Patten) Macnab
29SEP1890 - 11APR1981
* This comes directly from the notes of Helen Bee (Van Patten) Macnab, the daughter of Francis
Willard Van Patten and Mary Emma Starns, of Sherman County, Oregon. In order to keep the "feel"
of her narrative, I have intentionally left in all misspellings, grammar, etc. I hope that this story will
put you in the boots of the 1800's homesteader, like it did for me...enjoy !!!
I'm only trying to narrate the story of my father's homsteading in Sherman
County. At that time it was known as Wasco County, taking in all the territory
from the Rockies to the Blue Mountains. In 1889, this huge portion of the
Western country was divided into smaller counties, Sherman being the smallest,
and being bordered on the East by the John Day River, on the West by the
Descutes River, on the North by the Columbia River, and on the South by
My father came to Oregon with his father and two of his brothers, Dr. Edwin
and Ezra. They came from Springfield, Illinois around 1880. Grandfather and
his sons settled first in the state of Washington near the town of Dayton where
he farmed for a number of years. Learning of the wonderful prospects to be
had in Oregon, he left Washington and come to the Oregon county with three of
his sons: my father Frank, and Edwin and Ezra. They came to explore the
wonderful bunchgrass lands offered to homesteaders in this vast wild portion of
Oregon where the bunchgrass grew knee high and the land was very desirable
for building a home and raising a family.
Grandfather and his sons were so impressed with the idea of homesteading here
in what was the Wasco County. The land here was so much more tillable and
would be much easier to cultivate: the Washington hills were so rugged and
dificult to till. After pondering the situation, they decided to each take up an
acreage of 160 acres, the amount allowed for a homesteader's claim. They built
a cabin large enough so the cabin would occupy a portion of each mans
homestead. He was required to live and sleep on his piece of ground, and
cultivate so many acres and do some fencing. Wire and posts were hard to
come by in those days: The fences had to be rock or dug ditches. All this work
had to be done with pick and shovel and a lot of good old elbow grease. Tilling
the land was another tiring task, but with determination and many long hours of
labor, the task were accomplished and soon things became a bit more money,
and small patches of tilled ground began to take form.
Then to increase the acreage, each homesteader was given the right to take up
what was called a timber culture. This land had to be tilled and planted to trees:
10 acres in all. Most of these trees were locust and boxelder. These trees
seemed to thrive with very little care and a small amout of moisture. My dad
planted a grove down by the spring, about a half mile from the cabin. Uncle Ed
planted his just across the road from the house. The cabin was built so each
brother had his part on his particular plot.
When it was decided a road was to be built, to their sorrow, it came in the west
window and out the south door. This necessitaded the moving of the little cabin
farther back. However, by this time the homesteaders rights had been
approved, so my dad and Uncle Ezra built a two room cabin with an attic. The
downstairs boasted one bedroom and a kitchen and living room all in one. Here
the cooking and eating was done and any guest who might drop in were
entertained in this room. Neighbors and friends were frequent callers.
The small bedroom at the back was where mother and dad slept: the little
upstairs attic room was quite confortable, warm and cozy in the winter, warmed
by the chimney that extended up through the floor and provided considerable
Finally after struggling with the ditch fences, my dad felt prosperous enough to
afford a bit of barbed wire and posts enough to build a few fences: enough to
keep the range cattle and wild horses out of the grain fields. The posts had to
be hauled from Goldendale across the Columbia River by ferry boat. On windy
rough days, the boat had to be tied up untill the river became calm and was safe
to cross. Bunchgrass grew knee high and furnished wonderful pasture for the
horses and the few cattle they had acquired, mostly milk cows and maybe a
young beef for family consumption. Our meat supply was mostly wild sage
hens and a lot of jackrabbit. In the fall there were many wild geese, and that
was a festive time with all those wild geese. Many goosee dinners were served
by my mother for the many hunters and family and friends.
Hunters came from all over, staying at our home for days at a time. Mother
pluncked enough geese to make five feather beds and several pairs of pillows.
These feather beds were very warm and cozy in the winter when the nights
were quite cool and nippy. These little cabins were not built very sturdy: lined
inside with layers and layers of cardboard which was very hard to come by in
those days. Newspaper and scraps of wallpaper lined the inside walls.
In the spring the sheep herders with their great bands of sheep appeared,
moving from the Shaniko pasture land where they stayed until laming time was
over. The bands were moved to the Washington mountains for summer
pasturing. These sheep had to be driven to Grant and farried across the river.
This was quite an undertaking and consumed several days labor before the band
had all been crossed over. After the sheep and all the herders had gone by, the
old Indians would follow the band and pick all the bits of wool off the fences
and they would clip the wool on any dead sheep they found.
My father and mother were married in October 1885 and come to live in the
two room cabin. My Uncle Ezra was still living there also. He slept up in the
attic room and found it very cozy. After about a year he left and returned to
Dayton and farmed Grandfather's land for him. Grandfather was a minister and
had little time for farming. The land was hilly and dificult to farm with the
equipment availabe in those days.
Mom and Dad became the proud parents of a baby girl in June of 1887, they
named her Jennie Rowena. She lived only a couple of years: died in 1889. She
was buried near the grove of trees and later moved to Emigrant Cemetery,
where my dad was buried. He had purchased a lot there, paying $10.00 for the
plot, making a down payment of $2.00. My mother, after his death, made the
After the death of my little sister, only a short time passed until I made my
appearance to replace the lost loved one. I was always busy and my dad called
me his little busy bee, a name that to this day has been my trademark. Later on
the name of Helen was added and I became Helen Bee. When I was 22
months old, another little girl came to join us. She was called Rachel, named
for Grandmother VanPatten, my dad's mother. With two babies and a little two
room cabin, things became a bit cramped. It was then that dad planned an
addition. I was now four and the house was getting smaller every day. It was
then that the new rooms began to take form. Dad built a two story addition, a
nice sized living room and a large bedroom down stairs, a large closet for the
storage of extra bedding and other items. It was my mom's pride and joy just to
have this wonderful space, something she had never had in the little cabin. The
addition had nice store bought carpets and a few pieces of furniture to take the
place of the homemade pieces my dad had so cleverly put together. They were
really very pretty and all useful. He had made my mom a rocking chair, a
couple of tables, and a real cute desk, one he attached to the wall with a cute
little space at the top for books, and knick-knacks. Wish I had it now: it would
be a treasure and an antique for sure. There was a beautiful bay window
extending from the ground floor to the upstairs bedroom. Mother always had a
green thumb, so the windows were full of all kinds of lovely houseplants: every
kind one could imagine. They made the room so cheerful and homey. There
were bright red geraniums, calillies and many other kinds of flowering plants.
Mother had a way with flowers and vegetables. She had a garden with every
vegetable one could ask for. Dad stretched his luck and tried his hand at
growing peanuts and sweet potatoes. He built a frame and covered it with glass
-- sort of a hot bed -- and we really had sweet potatoes and peanuts. I used to
love to help dad in his garden. He would push and I would pull the little
cultivator. Those were the happy childhood days.
I was five years old when the new house was finished. Dad put up a swing for
me on my fifth birthday. That was a nice present and how I loved to swing.
Dad would push me and I'd swing high. That was a highlight of my young
days. Mom had a little girl friend come over that day and we had cake and
lemonade. What a party. I'll never forget that day. Five years old and all these
wonderful things happening to little old me.
I was not quite seven when another little sister came to join Rachel and me.
She was a beautiful baby with big brown eyes like my dad. We all loved her
dearly and were so proud of the new baby. She was named Frances for dad.
Rachel and I were both on the fair side so a brown eyed baby girl was a delight.
Not too long after Frances arrived, Dad met with his accident, he was injured in
a fall into the Biglow well. While cleaning the well, the man holding the rope let
it slip and fell striking his head on the rocks and fracturing his skull, he died July
29, 1899. Mother was left a widow with three small girls to raise, my sister
Rachel was five, Frances was two, and I was seven, but the memories still
linger. I can still see dad as he lay in waiting for the day of burial. In those
days no undertaker was needed. Instead a good neighbor came in and prepared
the body for burial. Another good friend rode the countryside announcing the
death of the person who had died. I can still see my dad as he lay all cold and
stiff: being young I didn't understand why he couldn't talk to me. Mother tried
to carry on by hiring the farm labor done. That was not the answer, so she
finally rented the place and moved to town with us girls. There we were able to
attend school, which we had never done. Mother had tought us at home so this
new experience was quite a venture. But we were well schooled at home. I
was put in the fourth grade and Rachel in the second, which pleased mother.
Dad raised lovely horses. He had a beautiful stallion. 'Old Glen': we called
him. He was gentle and us kids could ride and play around with him with no
fear of being hurt. Mother used to drive him sometimes. He sired many
beautiful colts. He died and that was a family tragedy. Dad was so proud of
this beautiful creature.
Our first teacher (at St. Mary's School, Portland, Oregon) was Miss
Moelsworth, a very dear person, so kind and understanding.
My mother had the first ladies bicycle to come to Sherman County. Dad had
one of those high wheelers with a small wheel, and he and mom used to ride a
lot. Dad built a cinder cyke circle and he and mom would ride for pleasure and
exercise. Mother made herself a bloomer outfit for riding She became quite
expert with the bike.
A friend and neighbor, Wilmar Cooper, owned a ranch just north of my dad's.
It is now known as the Leland Medler Ranch. Cooper and my dad farmed a
partnership and bought a header, one of the first to be bought in Sherman
County. It was an interesting piece of farm equipment, and homesteaders came
from all over the county to see the new machine in operation, before the header
came along, the grain was cut with a reaper, then gathered up and stacked and
later on the threshing crew came along and threshed the grain. The crew
usually consisted of 15 or 16 men: quite a number to cook for in a small
cookhouse -- bread to bake, pies, and not to mention all the other foods to
prepare. The women were all good managers and really cooked wonderful
meals. A meat wagon came by usually about three times a week with fresh
supplies, which eased the meat situation. Then the fruit growers came around
with fresh fruits and vegetables. No way to keeping meat and fruit fresh, so the
meat and fruit was bought fresh several times a week. Milk and eggs came
from the ranch. Water had to be hauled from Biglow well for both the engine
and the cookhouse.
There was quite a large Indian camp on the John Day River not too far from
our homestead. The Indians often came up the canyon past the Happold place.
Some of the old bucks were not too friendly, so mother always had something
to give them: a few cups of flour or a little sugar. One old fellow was called
Chief Mudhead. He was sort of disagreeable at times. Often the Indians would
bring a salmon or some berries to mother. She always bought some to keep
them in good humor.
Dad often went fishing and sometimes he took me with him. One day I
remember it was quite warm and he threw his coat down on a rock and when
he came back for it, the crickets had chewed big holes in the collor and parts of
Dad always kept his horses near the barn, as there were rustlers roaming the
hills and often a good animal would come up missing. Whenever he saw
strange riders out in the hills, he would round up all his animals. Everyone had
a brand and all stock was branded. Ours was VP. Even the farm tools and
machinery were branded. It was wild open country and not everyone was
honest, so to protect ones belongings, it was necessary to mark everything. Dad
had a nice workshop and often I'd pump the bellows for him to keep the coals
hot while he pounded out the plow shears or other metal he might be working
on. Dad welded and made all sorts of things. He even constructed a miniature
engin and threshing machine and it really worked, even the little whistle blew.
Whatever became of the little outfit I'd like to know; would give most anything
to have it. He cast all the molds and poured the hot metal for all the parts. It
was a unique piece of machinery. These were days of happiness I'll never
forget. Dad was a wonderful man, a loving husband, good neighbor and a
father to be envied, so thoughtful and kind to all. He had many friends and was
always ready to help anyone in need of help. Mother used to have terrible
headaches and for days at a time she would be in bed. It was then that dad
took over and with the little help I could give, we managed. I can remember
how I would stand on a stool and wash dishes and help with the dinner. I could
stir the gravy and set the table and help take care of my little sister, Rachel. She
was a little mischief-maker; always getting into some sort of difficult. I would
be playing with my dolls and Rachel would mess them up, so one day I really
got peeved and said to her, "Lena Estell, what makes you act so queer?" Her
first name was Lena but we always called her Rachel.
The original grade down the Scott Canyon was surveyed by my dad. Some
parts of the old grade still remain where Dad and Brigam Young built the first
road down the canyon. All the work was done with pick and shovel, a team
and scoop shovel. Lots of hard work and back bending went into the old
grade. It was quite narrow and very few places for the wheat wagon to pass.
When an empty wagon going up the grade would hear an approaching wagon
coming down the road, they would pull off on one of these sidings and wait for
the team to pass. It was easy to hear the approaching outfit as the lead horses
wore bells, the purpose to warn any outfit coming up to give right of way.
Mr. Young and his family lived on the Helm place, now owned and farmed by
Dr. Frank Reid, a dentist practicing in The Dalles, Oregon. This piece of land
was operated by McCoy and Helm. The canyon is still known as Helm's
There was a lovely grove of trees and a wonderful spring of water, from which
dad haled water when the Biglow well was inable to furnish enough water for all
the neighbors, who had to depend on wells and springs.
Dad tried several times to dig or drill a well, but always met with some
difficulty. At one time he hired a well driller, a Mr. Kretchler, who had an outfit
operated by a treadmill, a team of horses on a moving treadmill, but after so
many feet the drill got caught and the work had to be closed down. I think the
old casing can be located today.
My father rigged up a filter system and caught all the rain water from the roof.
He had a big can with sand and charcoal and small pebbles: the rain water
would filter through these layers of sand and charcoal and into a cystern.
Mother would use the water for laundry and washing out hair. It was soft and
vey heplful in saving the drinking supply.
The Biglow well furnished only three or four tanks a day and our neighbor over
the hill had to use this same well, so one day I saw him going across the field
for water and dad was also hauling that day, so I said, "Hampy Lauter's hauling
water from the Biglow well. If you get there before he does, he'll find an empty
well." Dad said "I've got a poet as well as a busy Bee".
Dad was so kind and gentle to all. I remember how he cared for a little bird that
had its little leg caught in some threads and was hanging out of the nest, crying
and in such pain. Dad unwound the threads and put the little creature back in
the nest. The poor mother bird had been so distraught and so concerned for her
Mother had canaries, beautiful warblers, and one especially was a pet. He
would sing and warbel. It was a pleasure to listen to him. One day poor Dicky
Bird was no more. We all mourned his death and did fix a little box for a coffin
and we buried him out under the big tree.
Seems I spent a great deal of time helping dad. Rachel was too small to get
about very much. I used to help with the milking. I wasn't big enough to hold a
bucket, so I'd milk in a cup and empty it into the bucket. Got to be a fairly
good milker. We had an old Jersey cow: gental as a kitten. She come to the
house almost every day and stand at the gate and moo until mother would come
out and give her some bread. She loved nice freshly baked bread. Guess she
could smell it baking. She was a wonderful milk cow and many a pound of
butter came from the good rich cream she produced. It was so rich and golden
in color. Mother used to make butter and sell it and then any extra she would
salt and pack in stone crocks for use when old bossy was not producing. She
was a pest at times. Especially when dad wanted to plant potatoes. She would
follow him and pick up the pieces of potatoes as he dropped them, so dad
would have to tie her up, much to her displeasure, until he could get them
Mother raised white geese and ducks and also turkeys and lots of chickens. She
would pluck the ducks every so often and used the down for pillows and feather
beds. Then with the first signs of winter approaching, the wild geese would
come south to feed and winter in the green fields and lush grasses. It was then
that the hunters came along and always seemed to find dad and mother ready to
put them up for a few days of good hunting; sometimes they came in with 40 or
50 geese apiece; no limit in those days. It was like a holiday with all the good
goose dinners mom used to prepare. Seems there was always a croud around
and how they did enjoy those feeds. Mother was a wonderful cook. She could
get together a meal with almost nothing it seemed. The hunters, came from far
and near to hunt at our place. There were doctors and all sorts of business men
out of Portland and other towns. They always brought gifts for us girls and
always something special for mom and dad.
Christmas was a very special time. The kitchen would buldge with pies, mince
and pumpkin, and all sorts of cookies and fruitcakes, and one old gobbler,
always seemed to mix up with the chopping block and ended up in the oven.
What a beautiful bird he turned out to be, bursting with good old stuffing and
dripping with juice. Seemed there was always someone at our house for
Christmas dinner. Mother and dad loved company and Sundays always found
some neighbor or the preacher sharing our dinner.
The table was set for grown-ups and the children played while they were
enjoying their dinner. Then after they had all left the table for smoking and
gossipping, the children were allowed to come and eat their dinner. Not like
that today - the kids eat first and after everything has been served them, the
grown-ups ate their dinner. By the time the kids came to sit at the table they
were really not very hungry. After all the homemade popcorn and cookies and
good old-fashioned home pulled taffy my dad made. He was an expert at taffy
Several days before Christmas we would string popcorn and fix cranberries and
make bright colored paper chains. Mom always saved all the colored pieces of
paper she found during the year so we could make decorations for the tree.
We never had a real tree, only a big sage brush or a branch from a tree. Dad
would set it up and mom and us girls would trim it. Make snow from pieces of
cotton and bits of tin foil. The tree was really quite gay. I must have been 10
or 11 before I ever saw a real Christmas tree. Christmas was a day we all got
an orange all our own. As a rule, we had to share. Popcorn balls were another
treat, with a pencil and some paper. What a treat to have ones own tablet. And
then a rag doll and some clothes for our new doll. Once dad made us a doll
cradle out of an orange crate and mom made some little quilts and covers for
the cradle. That was an extra special gift.
Mother made scrap books out of flour sacks sewn together and we would cut
out pictures from old magizines and catalogues and paste them in our books.
These made real nice scrap books.
One Christmas I remember we took a train ride to our grandparents home in
Dayton (Washington). I was five and Rachel was three, but I can still
remember that train ride. Mother had us all bundled up like little toads. It was
quite cold and we had a long wait at Waitsberg, I think, was the town where we
had to transfer to the Dayton train, Rachel and I were getting tired and sleepy,
so mom put us down on one of the benches and covered us up. We had a nice
nap while waiting for the train to take us to Dayton and Grandma's house.
Finally the train came and we were all aboard and on our way. Uncle Ezra met
us at the station and in a short time we were at Grandma's house. It seemed
like a mansion after our little cabin. Grandma took us in and got us all settled
and warm and she had a nice warm meal waiting for us and did it ever taste
goog after just cookies and crackers on the train.
She then took us into a big room she called the parlor. What was a parlor? We
didn't know, so she told us that was a special room for company and we were
company. It was a lovely room with such pretty furniture like we had never
seen. Beautiful chairs all red velvet and a nice horsehair sofa and little tables,
but best of all was a lovely melodian, something like an organ but an
all-to-gether different sound. Grandma put me on the bench and let my little
fingers touch the keys. What a thrill! It was wonderful and she said "When I'm
through with it, you may have it." But that day never came. Someone else
inheirited it I guess, because I never saw it again. Aunt Ethel could play it and
what a thrill to listen to her play. I'd give a lot to have that melodian.
Then came Christmas day, and what a day. Grandma was a wonderful cook
and all the good smells coming from the kitchen. We could hardly wait: at last
we were told the dinner was ready and out to the big dining room where the
prettiest table was set. A lovely white cloth and pretty dishes and silver and
crystal glasses, and best of all there was the big turkey all juicy and brown with
all the other goodies: dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberries and jellies, and all
sorts of goodies. What a sight. At home we only had red checkered tablecloths
and the simplist of dishes and bone handled knives and forks, and simple
glasses. I thought I was eating in a palace.
There was Uncle Ed and Aunt Julie and Uncle Ezra and Aunt Ethel and little
Julie, their daughter who was just about Rachel's age. They were seated in high
chairs, but I was permitted to sit at the table with the big folks. Ha, Ha. So I
really felt like a little lady and my dad said I was his little lady.
Then the great moment came. Grandpa stood up and began to pray, thanking
the Good Lord for all the blessing and all the people at the Christmas dinner.
Uncle Will was there also; he was single and was a handsome fellow, also
studying to be a doctor. Well, after the prayers, Grandpa started to carve the
turkey. Along with all the chattering and visiting, I was getting more anxious to
eat, but being a lady I had to wait. All the big folks were served first, and then
my turn came. Grandpa gave me a drumstick and all the goodies gradually
filled my plate and was it ever a feast. I'll never forget that wonderful
Christmas day at the grandparents.
All the stockings had been hung that night before and all had been explored.
Grandmother had given me a beautiful doll with a chain head, and all dressed up
so grand. I couldn't believe she really belonged to me. How I loved that
beautiful doll, had her for years and then in all our moving about, she finally
met with a bad break and that was the end of my pretty doll "Daisy." There
were other gifts and a smaller doll for Rachel and Julie.
We spent almost a week and then good-byes and we were on our way home;
another long and tiresome ride. Quite a bit of snow had fallen so when we got
home dad made us a sled out of some timber he had and did we have fun in the
snow! Dad would pull the sled and we'd ride and fall off in the deep snow.
What fun. Then he would pop corn and pull taffy. He was the world's best
taffy maker, at least we thought so. He had a big hook on the porch where he
would pull the taffy until it would get brittle and white as snow, then he would
break it up into bite size pieces and on, what a candy feast we would have.
Uncle Ezra had a big St. Bernard and what a nice dog. He would watch Julie
and if she got too far from the house, he would gently push her down and bark
so her mother would know she was out of bounds and would get her.
Grandpa would hum and sing softly to himself, he was a wonderful person;
happy and always ready to joke and play with Rachel and me. Grandpa was
Holland/Dutch. His father (father's ancesters) came to New York and settled in
New Amsterdam (NYC), New York (actually it was Schenectady, New York).
From there he moved to Springfield, Illinois. From there Grandpa emmigrated
to Washington and took up farming near the town of Dayton. The farm land
there was very hilly and difficult to cultivate with the farm equipment they had
to work with in the early days of pioneering.
It was then he decided to try his luck in the vast Wasco County territory where
the land was not so difficult to cultivate and was just as productive as the
Dayton acreage. After proving up on the Oregon homestead he returned to
Dayton and Uncle Ezra stayed and helped my dad for a few years. Shortly
after dad and mom married, he too went back to Dayton and before too long he
got married to Ethel Rayborn and lived with the grandparents. They had a little
girl, about Rachel's age. She was a chubby little girl and cute as a bugs ear.
They were married a number of years before they ever had another child.
There were no boys yet to carry the name Van Patten, so when a new baby
came and it was a boy, the family all rejoiced. Uncle Ed never had a family,
which saddened my Uncle, he so wanted a family, and as to to date Uncle Will
was not not married. It was some years before he married, and he and his wife
had only one child and she was a girl.
Uncle Will loved children and he would play with us girls, Grandma had a big
bear rug and Uncle Will would cover himself with the rug and play bear. We
thought that was quite a lot of fun.
Uncle Ed and Uncle Will were both doctors and they came quite often to visit
our house; especially during the goose season,. Sometimes it seemed the sky
would be alive with geese. Often there would be a number of white geese in the
band, and it was quite a fete to shoot a white bird. Nowadays it is illegal to shot
a white goose.
Another big day was Easter. We never heard of the Easter Bunny and we
never saw mom color any eggs. We thought the old hens laid the colored eggs.
We would save every piece of colored glass and break it up so the hens could
eat it, as that is what we thought caused the pretty colored eggs. It was our job
to gather the eggs, so at Easter time we always found those pretty ones in the
Background: Helen Bee Van Patten was born 29SEP1890 in Wasco County,
Oregon and died 11APR1981 in The Dalles, Oregon. On 05MAY1909 she was
married to Alexander Macnab who was born 23NOV1877 in Cedar Groves,
Ontario, Canada and died 19MAR1949 in The Dalles, Oregon. Helen and Alex
had 12 children. Helen was the daughter of Francis (Frank) Willard Van Patten,
born 04AUG1858 in Richland, Sangamon County, Illinois and died 29JUL1899
in Sherman County, Oregon and Mary Emma Starns, born 05AUG1862 in
Leavonworth County, Kansas and died 12AUG1943 in Portland, Oregon.
Francis (Frank) was the son of John Coop Van Patten, 1832-1912 and Rachael
Ann McCoy, 1834-1901. John was the son of Myndert Van Patten, 1793-1861
and Anna Coop, 1796-1861, Myndert was the son of Arent Van Petten, 1764-?.
Arent was the son of Nicholas A. Van Petten, 1716-1790. Nicholas was the son
of Nicholas, 1690-17??, and Nicholas was the son of Claas Frederickse Van
Petten, 1641-1728; our patriarch.