The Homestead

The “Saunders Place”, an original homestead dating from the early 1900's, is one of the last remaining cabins of the homesteading era in Harney County, Oregon. Against a backdrop of Steens Mountain, cowboys, antelope, and The Alvord Desert, Linda and Rod, her brother Marc, and many friends helped to re-build the homestead cabin that had been abandoned more than 70 years. In the process, Linda met 91 year old Olga Schwender, an original homesteader from that area. She revealed many secrets about “Uncle Al” who built the original cabin, and provided a glimpse into the rugged life of the old homesteaders.

Only 30 years after the Piautes and Bannocks banded together under Chief Egan to try and drive away the white settlers who were taking their land, Linda's grandmother, Ruth Saunders, arrived in Eastern Oregon Piaute country as a young homesteader. The year was 1912.  Ruth (on left in photo) was a child whose mother had recently died of tuberculosis. Ruth's father, an itinerant piano tuner, had arranged for his brother Al to care for her and her sister in his new house in Harney County, Oregon. Harney County is larger than most states, and one of the least populated counties in the US. Located in Virginia Valley, 45 miles SE of Burns, Oregon (population 3000), the homestead is land “where the deer and the antelope play”. Humans are a mere speck on the landscape there, where sagebrush and juniper, rattlesnakes and bobcats, dominate. Out there the greasewood can puncture a hole in your tires, and cowboys can show up on your front doorstep at any time. It was some of the last land in the lower 48 states to be opened for homesteading.

Near the homestead is Steens Mountain, a 10,000 foot high rock rising out of the Alvord Desert with its deep glacier-carved gorges, and names like “Donner and Blitzen River”, “Big Indian Gorge”, “Whorehouse Meadows”, and “Wildhorse Lake”. Steens Mountain has recently been preserved as a National Scenic Area by the federal government.

The cabin was elegant by most homesteader's standards. It had two stories, large windows, newspaper insulation, a stone fireplace, and wallpaper. There were four rooms, two up and two down, a wood cook stove, a well and an outhouse out back. The homesteaders were supposed to “prove” the land for seven years, and then the land was deeded to them by the government. “Proving” the land meant improving through farming.  Unfortunately for these homesteaders,  the land was basically unfarmable because of the extreme climate and poor soil in this high desert country. Linda's great-grandfather, H.D. Saunders, ended up supporting his brother and children on earnings from his piano tuning. There were chickens, cats, and horses on the property and thousands of jackrabbits that Ruth trapped and exchanged for nickels on their twice-yearly pilgrimages to Burns. Ruth Saunders documented some of the stories of this place in her short autobiography.

Eventually, the 160 acres of sagebrush and greasewood that is “The homestead” were acquired by Linda and her husband Rod. The land was desolate, but beautiful, and it reminded Rod of his reservation back in Arizona. The cabin was on its last legs. The wood had warped in the sun and freezing temperatures, the roof was open to the sky, and many of the stones on which the cabin rested had rolled away. Bird droppings lay a foot deep on the upper story. The stone chimney had lost half its stones. The downstairs floor had holes in it from when a calf fell through. It was far beyond a “fixer-upper”.

One clear desert evening in 2000, Rod and Linda were sitting around the fire pit visiting with their friend Dave and Dave asked what they were going to do with the land.

“I don't know.” Linda answered. “We need to fence out the cows so they don't damage the house any more, but I'm not sure beyond that.” He looked at the old place.

“You know, you could fix this place up if you wanted to.”

“You could?” Linda's voice sounded incredulous. Dave walked over to the house, kicked at its foundation, and said, “Sure, there's no rot – too dry here for that.” He paused, “I love it out here. I'll help.”

That was the beginning of a two year rebuilding project. Linda's brother Marc got involved. Marc milled all the wood with his portable sawmill, and became the “project manager”. He salvaged the roofing from the Carnation Milk Company warehouse. He made pancakes and served them  in his army tent. Marc worked extremely hard, and in the process he helped restore not only the cabin, but also his relationship with his long-dead grandmother.

Over the course of the two years, more than thirty friends came out and helped with the homestead. Don contributed the insulation, hauling it 300 miles from NE Washington. John and Bunny helped install the windows. Dee helped with the pressure washing. Chad spray painted and helped put on the roof. John drove 250 miles to help with the wiring. Mike helped finish the upstairs room.

The original floor plan, the original inside walls, many of the original studs, and the original spirit of the cabin were all retained. The only big change was the addition of a back and front porch, necessary in winter to minimize mud. Everyone who spends time at the homestead now can feel the good energy of ancestors, friends, and family. The spirit of the old homesteaders remains within the walls. 

Recently Linda and Rod built a barn, a bathhouse, an outdoor kitchen, and an outhouse with a stained glass window that belongs on "Outhouse Tours of America". Linda and Rod go there often to write, for ceremonies, and to get back in touch with what really matters.

When visitors come, they are all infused with the energy and peace of the high desert described by the Sufi mystic Hazrat Khan:

"In remote places sometimes the voices have become buried, and there is a kind of overtone which is most gentle and soothing, for the voices have gone, and the vibration remains as an atmosphere. If the place has always been a desert it is still more elevating, because it has its own natural atmosphere which is most uplifting. And if some travelers have passed through it and if this brings their voice to us, even that is much better than what one perceives and feels in cities, in towns, because in nature we are quite different people. The more we approach nature, the more that is artificial falls away from us; we become more and more free from the superficial life and at one with nature."