Sod House Ranch
Sod House Ranch
Original buckaroo bunkhouse
|Location||Malheur National Wildlife Refuge|
|Nearest city||Burns, Oregon, USA|
|Built||ca. 1880s to 1900|
|Architectural style||Simple vernacular|
|Governing body||United States Fish and Wildlife Service|
|NRHP Reference #||79002061|
|Added to NRHP||1979|
The Sod House Ranch is a historic ranch in Harney County in southeastern Oregon, United States. The remaining ranch structures are located south of Malheur Lake in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The ranch was built by Peter French, a well known 19th-century cattle baron. The Sod House Ranch became the headquarters for the northern operating division of the French-Glenn Livestock Company, which eventually covered over 140,000 acres (570 km2). After French was murdered in 1897, the French-Glenn Livestock Company slowly sold off its ranch property. In 1935, the United States Government purchased the Sod House Ranch property to add to an adjacent wildlife refuge. The eight remaining Sod House Ranch buildings are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sod House Ranch is located in the Harney Basin of southeastern Oregon. Around 9,800 years ago, the Harney Basin was covered by a single great lake covering 255,000 acres (1,030 km2). The birds, animals, and plants found in the wetland around the lake provided abundant food for early inhabitants. About 3,500 years ago, small villages began to develop around the lakes and along the banks of the river. Beginning about 1,400 years ago, extended droughts began to shrink the lake and surrounding wetlands.
While there are no records of the earliest people to inhabit the Harney Basin, Native Americans used the wetland areas around Malheur Lake, Harney Lake, and Donner und Blitzen River for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. By the time Europeans began to explore the area in the early nineteenth century, the Northern Paiute people were well established in the Harney Basin.
Hudson's Bay Company fur trappers were the first Europeans to visit the Harney Basin. Peter Skene Ogden passed along the north shore of Malheur Lake in 1826. Other fur trapping expeditions followed in the 1830s. Several military expeditions passed through the area in the late 1850s. Major Enoch Steen was the first non-native to explore the Donner und Blitzen River area in 1860. Steens Mountain, that dominates southern Harney County, was named in his honor. In the 1860s, the United States Army established a number of military outposts in the Harney Basin.
Peter French was born in Missouri in 1849. As a boy, he immigrated to California with his family. Then as a young man, French went to work for Doctor Hugh J. Glenn, who owned large tracts of land in the Sacramento Valley. In 1872, Glenn decided to expand his operation into Oregon. To lead the venture, Glenn picked 23 year old Peter French. French was sent north with six vaqueros and 1,200 head of cattle.
When he arrived in the Blitzen Valley, French ran into a prospector named Porter, who had not found much gold and was eager to move on. French bought Porter’s small herd of cattle along with his "P" brand and rights to the west slope of Steens Mountain where Porter had prospected. French settled along the Donner und Blitzen River. Over the next few years, French drained and fenced thousands of acres of wetlands along the river. That land became the P Ranch, which was named for the "P" brand acquired from Porter. French acquired the 43,000 acres (170 km2) Sod House Ranch from A. H. Robie in 1877 along with Robie’s property the Diamond and Blitzen valleys. By the 1880s, the ranch was earning a good income for Glenn. Cattle were raised in the lush valley pastures. In the fall, French drove his cattle 200 miles (300 km) to the railhead at Winnemucca, Nevada.
In 1883, French married Glenn’s daughter Ella. Glenn was murdered three weeks later by a former employee. French continued to manage the Oregon operation for the Glenn family, selling more cattle to help pay the family’s debts. In 1894, Glenn’s heirs decided to incorporate the French-Glenn partnership into the French-Glenn Livestock Company, making French the company president.
Over the years, French expanded the company's holdings until the ranch extended from the foothills of Steens Mountain 40 miles (64 km) along both sides of the Donner und Blitzen River to Malheur Lake, including the Sod House Ranch property running along the south shore of the lake. It also covered all of neighboring Happy and Diamond valleys plus a large part of the Catlow Valley to the south. Eventually, the French-Glenn Livestock Company owned over 140,000 acres (570 km2) of the Harney Basin. Some records indicate the ranch may have covered as much as 200,000 acres (810 km2). The company built and maintained 500 miles (800 km) of barbed wire fence to protect 30,000 to 45,000 head of cattle plus 3,000 horses and mules. In addition to the main P Ranch headquarters, the operation had four other divisions; the Happy Valley Division, the Diamond Division, the Catlow Valley Division, and Sod House Division. The Sod House Ranch served as French’s sub-headquarters at the northern end the property near the mouth of the Donner und Blitzen River and along the south shore of Malheur Lake.
French was not popular with new homesteaders in the area because he owned or controlled most of the water in the southern Harney Basin. His fences also made it difficult for some homesteaders to get to and from their property. On 26 December 1897, French was shot dead near the Sod House Ranch by a settler who had been unsuccessful in getting a road easement across French’s property.
F. C. Lusk, who was the secretary of the French-Glenn Livestock Company prior to French’s death, became executor of French’s estate and took over as ranch manager. To pay off company debts, Lusk gradually sold off ranch assets. In 1906, much of the French-Glenn property including the Sod House Ranch was sold to Henry L. Corbett and his partner C.E.S. Wood. In 1916, the property was acquired by the Eastern Oregon Live Stock Company. In the 1920s, the part of the property known as the Barton Lake Ranch was bought by John Jenkins. This property includes the well-known Pete French Round Barn. In 1935, the United States Government bought the remaining property to expand the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
The Malheur Migratory Bird Refuge was created in 1908. Over the years, the refuge grew to encompass 81,786 acres (330.98 km2) around Malheur Lake. In 1935, the United States Government purchased 64,717 acres (261.90 km2) from the Eastern Oregon Live Stock Company for $675,000, adding the land to the refuge. The refuge was later renamed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
During the 1930s, the refuge hosted three Civilian Conservation Corps camps. One was located at the Sod-House Ranch south of Malheur Lake. A second camp was located at Buena Vista Station and the third was located 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Frenchglen in the P Ranch area. Civilian Conservation Corps crews built a number of stone buildings to house the refuge headquarters near the Sod House site. In addition, they constructed several refuge buildings at Buena Vista, four lookout towers, the main refuge patrol road, four concrete dams, numerous canals and bridges, and hundreds of miles of fence before the camps were closed in 1942.
Because it played an important role in the development of the cattle industry in the western United States, the Sod House Ranch was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district on 29 January 1979. The district covers 10 acres (0.040 km2). Today, eight of the ten original ranch buildings plus three other historic structures remain at the site. Most of the historic buildings are in good condition.
Originally the Sod House Ranch complex included ten buildings. The ranch buildings were constructed between the early 1880s and 1900. Today, eight of those building and several other historic structures remain at the ranch site. They are the main house, a buckaroo bunkhouse, a large barn, a workshop, a carriage shed, adjoining chicken coop and grain storage shed, a stone cellar, a small cabin, a beef wheel, and several original stockade fences. The ranch site is surrounded by a number of large cottonwood tree planted in 1892 by Emanuel Clark, French’s Sod House Ranch foreman.
All of the Sod House Ranch buildings were constructed using native materials including pine and aspen lumber, juniper posts, and locally quarried stone. Most of the buildings have been repaired, reroofed, or restored in some way, but all of the structures still retained their original character.
The barn was probably the first building constructed at site. It was probably built in the early 1880s. It is 120 feet (37 m) long and 50 feet (15 m) wide. It is a post and beam structure with heavy juniper posts supporting the roof, which is 30 feet (9.1 m) high at its peak. The exterior of the barn is finished with pine and juniper boards. The roof is covered with pine shingles. The original roof was replaced in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps using the same kind is pine shingles that originally covered the structure. The interior of the barn is a single large room with a wide center aisle to accommodate a winter hay supply. Feed racks run the length of the barn on both the east and west sides.
In 1999, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service undertook a complex three phased project to stabilize and restore the barn. During the project, house jacks were used to lift the barn clear of the ground while failing interior support posts were removed and replaced by new juniper posts. Concrete piers were also placed beneath the interior posts for stability. The project also shifted the structure 23 inches back into vertical alignment.
At the same time, a number of partners joined the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to restore other ranch buildings. This conservation work took five years. The Sod House Ranch was reopened to the public on 18 October 2003. Among the partners that helped to restore the ranch were the National Park Service, University of Oregon Architectural Field School, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, AmeriCorps, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Harney County Historical Society, Malheur Wildlife Associates, the High Desert Museum, and numerous local volunteer groups. Today, the Sod House Ranch is open to the public from 15 August through 15 October. It is closed the rest of the year because the area provides important nesting habitat for colonies of great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and Canada geese.
The Sod House Ranch Historic District is located within the boundaries of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. The historic district covers 10 acres (0.040 km2). The site is approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Malheur Lake and 1 mile (1.6 km) west of the Donner und Blitzen River. The elevation of the ranch is 4,104 feet (1,251 m) above sea level.
The Sod House Ranch is 25 miles (40 km) southeast of Burns, Oregon in direct line. From Burns, travel east on Oregon Route 78 for 2 miles (3.2 km); then turn south on Oregon Route 205. Follow Route 205 for 23 miles (37 km) before turning east on the Narrows-Princeton Road. Approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) from that junction, turn south on the Sod House Ranch access road. Follow the access road for 1 mile (1.6 km) to reach the historic ranch site.
- "The Prehistory of the Malheur Marshes", Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Interior, Princeton, Oregon, 10 November 2008.
- "A Little Bit of Malheur History", Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Interior, Princeton, Oregon, 10 November 2008.
- Pinyard, David and Donald Peting, "Preservation of the Pete French Round Barn", CRM Cultural Resources Management (Vol. 18, No. 5), National Park Service, United States Department of Interior, Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 30-32.
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- "Sod House Ranch Historic District", National Register of Historic Places Inventory -- Nomination Form, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Interior, Burns, Oregon, 29 January 1979.
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- "P Ranch Historic District", National Register of Historic Places Inventory -- Nomination Form, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Interior, Burns, Oregon, 29 January 1979.
- "French’s 'P' Ranch", Prospector, Cowhand, And Sodbuster: Historic Places Associated with the Mining, Ranching, and Farming Frontiers in the Trans-Mississippi West, Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, Division of History Studies, National Park Service, United States Department of Interior, University Press of the Pacific, 22 May 2005.
- Jackman, E.R. and R.A. Long, The Oregon Desert, Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho, 1964, pp. 120-122. (Fourteenth printing May 2003).
- "Sod House Ranch", Oregon Historic Site Database, State Historic Preservation Office, State of Oregon, Salem, Oregon, 29 August 2010.
- "Sod House Ranch", National Register of Historic Places, www.nationalregisterofhistoricalplaces.com, 29 August 2010.
- "Historic Sod House Ranch", Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Interior, Princeton, Oregon, 27 July 2010.
- "Blitzen Valley Auto Tour Route", Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Interior, Princeton, Oregon, 27 July 2010.
- The Secretary of the Interior’s Report to Congress on Federal Archeological Activities, United States Department of Interior, Washington, D.C., 2003.
- Oregon topographic map, United States Geological Survey, United States Department of Interior, Reston, Virginia; displayed via ACME mapper, www.acme.com, 29 August 2010.