Prairie City - Northwest passages: riding out the storm - CycleBlaze

April 11, 2020

Prairie City

The temperature dropped about fifteen degrees over night and the wind picked up considerably.  Rachael isn’t keen on biking in the cold and wind, and she needs a break from the bike anyway so she decides this would be a good day to walk up to the airport and see those nineteen deer again.  Ten miles later she returns, a bit glum - she only saw two deer today and is afraid maybe the hunters got the other seventeen.  I point out that it isn’t hunting season yet, and wild deer are apt to wander a bit.  They’re probably just starting to work their way up into the hills as the weather warms up.

I’ve been accumulating a list of local destinations I want to get back to with the camera.  This is the sort of outing that would drive Rocky nuts, so it’s a good one to take on my own.  Plus, between favoring my injured leg and lagging behind with the camera I’ve been getting pretty far behind Rachael in accumulated biking miles.  By the end of the day I’ll put in my 40 miles and go a long ways toward closing the gap.

Kam Wah Chung

A week ago, while I was still off the bike recovering from my injury, I took a walking tour around town.  One annoyance was that I was somehow unable to locate the most important site in John Day, the Kam Wah Chung house.  It’s easy enough to find - consulting a map would have been a good place to start - but Mr Grumby helpfully pointed me in the right direction.  I’m finally getting back to see for myself.

The Kam Wah Chung Company Building, built in the 1870’s, is both a state park and a National Historic Landmark.  Believed to have originally been a trading post to support the gold mining operations in nearby Canyon City, it was later taken over and then purchased by Ing Hay and Lung On, Chinese immigrants who came to Oregon to work the gold rush and then became entrepreneurs.  They ran an herbal apothecary and pharmacy from this building until Ing Hay’s death in 1952.  

Ing Hay left the property to the city under the stipulation that it be used as a museum.  It took decades for his vision to be realized, but now it is regarded as one of the finest representations we have of the Chinese immigrant experience settling the American West.

Unfortunately it is of course closed now due to the virus, and won’t reopen until after we leave John Day at the end of the month.  I’d love to see the inside, so it gives us just one more reason to pass through here again some year.

The Kam Wah Chung Company Store.
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The Kam Wah Chung Company Store.
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Mount Vernon was a race horse

Next up on the agenda is a ride west toward Mount Vernon to take a closer look at a small stone building standing alone in a pasture, surrounded by a split rail fence.  I’ve noticed it as we’ve driven or biked past before, but didn’t find it compelling enough to stop.  It’s a somewhat chilly ride six miles west into a headwind before I reach the building, but I find a few reasons to stop along the way.

One reason to stop is the most interesting, but I’m not quick or quick-witted enough to take a photo of it.  I come up behind a short queue of cars stopped in the road, arrested by a woman holding a stop sign.  Nothing is happening on the road itself, but there is a small stampede of cattle running toward a barn not far from the highway.  Soon, the woman turns her sign and we all proceed on.  There’s nothing to be seen other than those cattle to suggest why traffic would be held up, so it’s a small mystery.

She’s still there by the road on the way back, so I stop and ask her what’s happening.  She and a second flagger further down the road are from the ranch, and are protecting passing drivers and their own cattle.  Today is branding day and they’re rounding up all the youngsters to get their tattoo.  They’ve been known to run across the highway - I think their ranch might extend to both sides of it - as she says happened just about a half hour ago.  Sounds like I barely missed the show, and the stampede I’d seen must have been in the road minutes earlier.

A nice barn, west of John Day. I forget for sure now, but I think this was where the branding was occurring today.
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Another look at David’s house. He was crossing the highway to pick up the mail when I biked past, so we had a second chat. He pointed out its foundation this time, built of stone blocks three feet thick. Now that he’s pointed it out, I’ve seen several other buildings like this along the highway.
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Nice truck.
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A few more.
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So here’s the house.  It’s interesting enough - a small, almost fort-like stone building.  What’s it doing here? 

Mount Vernon’s barn. I love the story behind it.
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Bill ShaneyfeltCool story! I lived in Richmond, KY a few years and knew nothing of horse racing, but Secretariat soon put an end to that.
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3 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Bill ShaneyfeltIsn’t this the best story though? I doubted it at first - it has the feel of an urban legend - until I researched it further.
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3 months ago

Two nights back, I went to the Outpost Bar & Grill to pick up a take-out meal we had ordered.  It wasn’t ready when I arrived, so while I was waiting I browsed the paraphernalia.  It included a postcard stand, with photos of historical buildings of significance in the region: the Adventist Church, the Kam Wah Chung Museum, the Johnson Brothers Store, and surprisingly, this stone building.

This building has a remarkable story.  It was built in 1879 by a pair of Scottish stone masons for David Jenkins, a local homesteader who had just received a horse in trade from an immigrant family from Kentucky.  The family needed to trade horses because theirs was spent after crossing the plains, but they claimed it was a purebred racer.  Once Jenkins verified that it really was a valuable race horse, he had this fortresslike stone barn built for it to protect the horse from Indians.  Apparently at that time horse-theft raids were still a concern in the valley.

The race horse went on to an illustrious racing career as a trotter, allegedly losing only once in his career, on his fourth race of the day.

The name of this horse?  Mount Vernon.  The town is named after him.

Prairie City

Next up: the town of Prairie City.  I want to bike out there to look around the town, since we didn’t really look at it at all on our earlier trips out.  Prairie City is thirteen miles east of John Day, so about twenty miles from where I am now.  I bike back to John Day, swing by our cottage for  a quick snack, and then continue on east.

I’ve been looking forward to this ride from John Day to Prairie City ever since first driving it.  I’ve driven it twice now, and it’s quite beautiful - probably the most scenic part of the valley this side of Picture Gorge.  Rachael has ridden it twice now, but it’s a first for me if you don’t count my ride to Baker City 35 years ago.

It’s an easy ride.  The winds are generally favorable in this direction today, and are sometimes quite strong.  As I approach Prairie City I have a brief race with a cluster of tumbleweeds going my way at 10-15 mph.    I give them a wide berth as I inch past.  It would be just too embarrassing to show up at the ER door again, victim this time of a tumbleweed attack.

About a mile east of John Day, the road and river hug the base of a basalt-capped ridge.
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Dixie Butte, one of the high points in the Blue Mountains.
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Another view of Dixie Butte.
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Waiting for the work week to begin.
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Shoe tree.
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Pronghorn.
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An interesting wreck, and the Strawberry Range.
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David told me to watch for these two buildings with their stone foundations like his home has.
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Another stone relic.
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The Leaning Tower of PC.
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I’m quite impressed by little Prairie City, population 878.  Only half the size of John Day, but it looks like a more enjoyable place to stay if you’re passing through the valley.  Some nice historical buildings, a small commercial district with a surprising selection of places to eat, drink and be merry.  There’s an attractive lodging option too - the spiffy Prairie City Hotel flies a bicycle friendly banner beside its entrance.  If we come back this way some year, we might stay here.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows Building, Prairie City. I’m pretty odd and independent, come to think of it. My kind of town.
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Fresh baked pizza! Award winning pies! Craft beers! Yes, we’re staying in Prairie City next time.
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Jen GrumbyThe Oxbow pizza gets 2 thumbs up from the Grumbys.

👍👍
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3 months ago
Some steel wheels, outside the Masonic Temple/antique store.
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A colorful pair.
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The Prairie City Cemetery

So, just one more item on the list and then I can brave 13 miles of headwinds on the way home.  We’ve seen this cemetery before, of course.    I need to return for a second look though.  After I posted that first visit, our dear friend Lynn emailed me with the surprising information that her great grandfather Levi Anderson is buried here.  She’s the family genealogist, and would like to make it out to Prairie City sometime to visit the site.  Well, if Lynn is good enough to so faithfully follow our blog, the least I can do is bike back out here, find Levi’s grave, and send her photos. 

As I bike the short distance from Main Street, two women call out to me from a park as I pass by.  They want to know if this small brown dog running loose is mine.  Nope, I yell back, and bike a bit faster.  It will be awhile before either Rachael and I are comfortable around dogs again.

It takes me awhile in the cemetery.  It’s not that large a place, and since Levi died in 1888 I only need to search through its oldest quadrant.  Still, it takes about twenty minutes wandering up and down the rows, looking on both sides of stones for any Andersons.  Like most old cemeteries a few names predominatehere, and they come in clusters.  No Andersons though.

While I’m searching, I’m startled to feel something wet on my leg.  I look down, and it’s that dog!  He’s pressing his wet nose on my ankle, just below my bandages.  Yikes!  He seems very friendly though - beagle-like, maybe just a puppy looking for some love.  He’s not getting it from me today, and I shoo him off.  I should have taken his photo though.

Finally, when I’m just about to give up, I find Levi’s stone at the farthest corner.  It’s the only Anderson stone, but he has company on it.  It’s an engraved four sided obelisk, with a different Anderson’s inscription on each face.  Interestingly, there is a bunch of artificial flowers at the base, one of the few such in the oldest part of the graveyard.  Someone must still care.

The ride back isn’t as bad as I imagined it might be.  The wind is quite variable, and more of a crosswind than head on.  It’s strong enough though, probably topping 20 mph at times and forcing me to take heed that I don’t get blown out of my lane by a sudden gust.  I’m quite pleased when I get home and pour a red IPA from the growler, courtesy of 1188 Brewing Company.

Lynn, I’ll save you some work. It’s this tall stone in the extreme northwest corner of the cemetery. Just beyond the fence is Bridge Street.
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