When I’m sorting through folder after folder of pictures, records, and old newspaper clippings while researching the history of Florence, sometimes I luck out and find some real gems. It might be just the perfect photo of the person I’ve been looking for or a newspaper description in language not used by newspapermen today or something totally surprising. During my research these past couple of weeks at the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum Research Library, I’ve found a few gems that I’d like to share.
I knew that the section between Waldport and Florence was the last part of the Oregon Coast Highway to be completed in 1932 and that this area was cut off transportation wise from the inland cities for decades. On maps prior to the late 1800s, it was referred to as “Terra Incognita” (unknown land), but I’ve never seen such a blatant statement as this before:
“It can be safely said that the Coast of Oregon was one of the last stretches of maritime seaboard in the world to be settled.” In the whole world. Wow!
But eventually, it did become settled. And these first two items are from the journals of Elizabeth Knowles one of the area’s first settlers. Here she describes how she and her husband, Frank, got to the Siuslaw Valley, which was open to settlement in 1876. This was 1878 before there was a town named Florence:
“They went to San Francisco where they spent a week waiting for the sailing of the coal boat The Empire which was going as far as Coos Bay. There was but one available bed left on the boat so Lizzie had that. Frank and the four others who were looking for farms went into steerage with the Chinamen who were going North to work in the fish canneries. They were four days at sea, then after arriving at Coos Bay, they had two more days by stage North [along the beach] to the Siuslaw country. Arriving at what is now Florence by crossing the river in a rowboat, they found there were no white women in the village. There were a few white men but no white women.”
After they arrived, they were pretty much on their own:
“After choosing the homestead, Frank put down some poles, wigwam shape, and covered them with ferns to make a shelter in which to live. Elizabeth cooked over an open fire. . . . Rabbits and bread with maple leaves for greens were the main stay until the potatoes that they planted grew. They also ate fish and bear meat and used bear oil for butter. Before winter, Frank built a shack of split shakes. He was handy with tools and soon had a rowboat. . . . That winter, he also made wooden dishes, spoons, forks, a bread tray, a deep dish and a water pail. He made furniture as well.”
The village that would become Florence was located on a river dependent on sea-going vessels, yet the Siuslaw River had a very unstable mouth. It had two, some say three, mouths that it switched between. Here was the situation in 1886, prior to the first survey:
“The entrance to the Siuslaw was plagued with problems. The unsurveyed bar was extremely dangerous to larger shipping vessels, and what navigation aids existed were insufficient. In addition, the mouth of the river shifted regularly on a seven-year basis.”
It was the first time to read that it switched on a regular basis.
While the river was doing its thing, a town was developing mostly through the one-upsmanship of two entrepreneurs, William Kyle and O.W. Hurd. One man would build a store and then the other. One had a cannery so the other built one. Soon a town was developing. So I was very surprised to read in the newspaper in 1892 about William Kyle, by then one of the most prominent businessmen in town, being served with an arrest warrant:
“Constable Dan Linton, of Eugene, arrived here with warrants for the arrest of Wm. Kyle and P.J. Shistad, managers of the Florence Canning Co., and Rose Hill Cannery respectively, for violating the fish law. . . . The open season closed on the 1st and the warrant charges that these canneries have been receiving and canning salmon after that date.”
Before this article, I didn’t know there was a fishing season as far back as 1892.
This next piece is an ad for the Hurd general mercantile store in Florence in 1892. I find their inventory interesting:
“Hurd and Davenport of Florence-Head-quarters for groceries-Provisions, glass and crockery ware, paints, oils, doors, windows, school books and stationary, drugs and patent medicines, lamps in all styles and sizes, sugar by the barrel, and in fact, everything which is kept in a first-class store.”
Dig the over-the-top language of the following article from 1895 for a new store, a second Kyle store, to open in Mapleton 15 miles upriver from Florence:
“Nothing like it! When the whirlwind of progress does strike us, it comes thick and fast. The canners of salmon are entering into keen competition in catching these food fishes, and a new store building is to be erected at Mapleton by Meyer & Kyle, which will be thoroughly stocked, thus adding competition in trade too.”
Moving forward a few decades, there are many changes in the town, but the editorial license and flowery language of news articles are still evident. Here is an example from the 1934 edition about when the Hurd Home, one of the most famous buildings in town, caught fire. It is not exactly a dispassionate recounting of facts.
“Before a single line of hose could be spread, large clouds of black smoke, pierced with flames, were hurled about over the entire upper roof. The awe-stricken crowd knew that the building––and perhaps the town––was doomed.
“But Florence has firefighters, even if they are not organized. A small window in the high attic was broken and a stream of water played on the inside flames, alternating on those, which roared from the outside. The populace began to breath a sigh of relief. With such a high wind and only one line of hose, it couldn’t be done, but it was—the fire was brought under control. Soon it was out. Damage estimated at $500.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed these tidbits of how it was!