The tradition of farming in Klamath County is nearly as old as the county itself. To understand those traditions, you have to look at the history of the Klamath Basin.
THE BEGINNING OF KLAMATH FALLS, AS WE KNOW IT.
The first recorded contact between Euro Americans and the Native Americans occurred in 1826, when trapper Peter Skene Ogden came to the Upper Klamath River Basin. With the creation of the Applegate Trail in 1846, those interactions increased. While most white settlers simply passed through the area, in 1852 a young man named Wallace Baldwin drove fifty head of horses into the Basin and set up his homestead. Four years later he moved into Jackson County, near Talent.
Around that same time, in the winter of 1856, the very first cattle were introduced into the Klamath Basin by Judge F. Adams and Wendolen Nus. Adams kept his herd near Keno while Nus ran his near the Klamath River. Neither stayed in the Klamath Basin however.
As travel continued along the Applegate trail, conflicts with the native Klamath, Modoc and Northern Paiute tribes facilitated the establishment of Fort Klamath in 1863. The Fort became an important Army post as the stationed troops provided protection for trail travelers and became a supply depot. A year later a treaty was signed between the U.S. government and the tribes which created the Klamath Reservation. The Klamath Reservation covered about 50 square miles of land east and northeast of Klamath Falls.
The U.S. Military Enters Klamath County
Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society
In 1865, a company of infantry was added to the fort to help build a military road across the Cascades. This road made it easier to travel both to and from the western valleys, thus promoting more white settlement. With the native tribes relocated to the reservation and a better roadway, the first cattle ranch was established in 1866. The following year the state of Oregon opened up swamp lands to its settlers, and George Nurse established Linkville on 160 acres of marshland, located on the eastern bank of the Link River. Regardless, very little farming was being done throughout the area, as the ground was just too marshy and wet.
The Klamath Basin experienced some growth over the following years, despite troubles with the Modocs, who were unhappy with the Klamath Reservation and wanted their traditional homeland along the Lost River returned. The troops of Fort Klamath were called by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to return the Modoc to the reservation after they had slipped away and attempted to reclaim their lands. What ensued afterward was known as the Modoc Wars, and lasted until the spring of 1873 when the last of the tribe surrendered.
In 1876, the Army requested bids for providing both flour and beef for not only Fort Klamath but also several other military posts in the Pacific Northwest. Despite a steadily growing cattle industry throughout the Klamath Basin, prices were still high due to limited roadways and a lack of railroad. What roads were available traveled through mountains that were often covered with snow for half the year. Most commercial farming was still getting off the ground, and what little wheat was being grown could not meet the demands of the forts. Both contracts ended up in the hands of farmers across the mountains in Jacksonville.
New Settlers Join the Effort to Farm in Klamath Falls
Following the conclusion of the Modoc Wars, the Fort continued to operate. Settlers began arriving in the region in earnest, but had trouble developing much of the land due to the large number of lakes, marshes, and wetlands. Cattle ranching had continued throughout the Basin despite troubles with the native peoples, though the devasting winter of 1879/1880 created a major setback. Significant snows and low temperatures killed a number of animals, and by the spring of 1881, quite a few ranchers gave up and left the area.
The next winter proved to be much better, and the stockmen far better prepared. By 1885, Linkville had grown to a modest-sized town and it was determined that the settlers in the area no longer needed the protection of the nearby fort. President Grover Cleveland ordered the fort to be closed in 1887.
Despite lessons learned in the 1879/1880 winter, the 1889/1890 winter proved to be even worse. Over 20 feet of snow fell, setting the Klamath Basin ranchers back so significantly that the industry did not start to recover until after 1900. In June of 1890, Fort Klamath closed, and the final troops left for Vancouver.
Linkville Renamed to Klamath Falls
Linkville by this time had grown to seven stores, three hotels, and four saloons. The town was also served by four doctors, several lawyers, and a newspaper. Regardless, no one believed that Linkville would grow to be much larger. In 1893 the town was renamed Klamath Falls in an effort to show that it was much larger than a smaller backwoods village. Still, railroads and major road development bypassed the community, providing a major impediment to the economic growth of the area lumber mills and farmers. Small towns were also springing up nearby but with the same impediments, including the town of Merrill in 1894.
Settlers continued to trickle into the area, though the marshlands proved to be difficult for farming. While the soil itself was fertile, it was a matter of getting to it. Early settlers did have some success on the more arid lands with small, private, hand-built irrigation works.
In 1902, Congress created the U.S. Reclamation Service. Along with this new entity they also passed the Newlands Reclamation Act. The act was to convert marshes, deserts and other lands into workable farms. Three years later in 1905, Oregon and California ceded 230,000 acres of lakes and marshes along their border to the government for this purpose. Congress then authorized construction of the Klamath Project, which was amongst one of the first irrigation projects in the west.
Klamath Lake Becomes Focus for Improved Farming Land
With the Klamath Basin Project, swamps and marsh were drained into lakes that could be utilized for irrigating during the dry summer months. Construction of the Klamath Reclamation Project began in 1906 and was able to provide irrigation to thousands of acres of potential farmland. In addition, the lands under these swamps was fertile and gave rise to a number of farmers being able to plant crops. Crop yields also helped to improve the downtrodden cattle industry.
To add to the boon of the irrigation projects, the Southern Pacific Railroad completed a line from Weed, California to Klamath Falls in 1909. This created a huge economic influx into the area, and soon afterwards 90 new buildings were either opened or under construction. Also in 1909, the Czechoslovakian Colonization Club of Swanton, Nebraska, sent three men on a search for farmable lands out west to start a new community. After visiting potential lands in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Utah, the men selected land in the Klamath Basin. Homestead arrangements were soon made, and the Czech colony moved to Oregon and founded the farming community of Malin.
The Rise of Horseradish & Potato Farming in Klamath County
The Czech farmers soon found that the high desert presented a wide array of difficulties. Hot summers, cold winters and summer frosts provided hurtles. While their first grain crops grew quite well in the rich soils that had previously been lake bottom, a single summer frost wiped them out. Horseradish roots that they had brought to the Klamath Basin with them soon proved to be more readily adapted to the area. The Czech farmers persisted, and the town of Malin began to thrive. Root crops, particularly potatoes, proved to be the secret for the Czech success. Nearby, the town of Merrill had come to the same conclusion.
Four years later, using the Czech’s as inspiration, the Klamath Development Company recruited Russian immigrants to give the Basin a try. Around 20 actually settled in the Henley-Mount Laki district. While the Klamath Falls Evening Herald had welcomed them and predicted their arrival as being of “prime importance” to basin development, those predictions fell flat. Within just three short years the Russians were gone. Land payments, property taxes, irrigation fees and the high cost of farming proved to be insurmountable odds for them.
However, by the 1920s Klamath Falls had become a robust town offering businesses, services, and entertainment for the rural communities of both northern California and southern Oregon. Growth was steady, and the railroad provided new ways for shipping products both into and out of the basin. With the consistent growth of croplands the cattle industry had turned a corner, and had rebounded from the travesty of the late 1800’s.
How Free-Range Grazing Became Possible in Farming
After the Klamath Project brought irrigation and created farmland, the next infusion to the agricultural community came in the form of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The act is a federal law that provides access for grazing animals on public lands. The lands can include national forests, parks, monuments, reservations, and railroad grant lands. The Grazing Act allowed ranchers to move their cattle onto public lands to graze as free-range, freeing up privately held lands for crop farming. Klamath became one of the very first of the free-range districts.
How Military Veterans Built a Legacy for Generations to Come
Following World War I and World War II, the Federal government awarded Klamath Basin farmland to veterans for the purpose of homesteading. The Bureau of Reclamation opened up 86 farm units of 160 acres or less to homesteading. Some 2,000 veterans applied for the lottery that determined who would get to live on and develop Reclamation farms. These early homesteaders had no electricity, running water, telephones or police services. Many of the farmers endured, and by the 1990’s over 1,400 farms existed as part of the Klamath Project, growing over crops of wheat, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, onions, horseradish, garlic, sugar beets, strawberry plants and other crops over 210,000 acres.
Irrigation woes in the last part of the twentieth century resulted in irrigation being cutoff to a number of farmers in 2001. While quite a few rebounded, some farmers left the crop industries all together and moved exclusively into cattle and hay.
While the bulk of crops grown in Klamath have not changed since earlier 1900s, there are a number of newer farming enterprises happening as the basin adapts to the ever-changing agricultural market. Algae farms have appeared out at Klamath Lake in recent years, and several geo-thermally heated greenhouses exist to make growing frost-sensitive plants more of a reality than in the past.
Modern Day Farming in Klamath County
Today, 10-12% of Klamath County’s GDP can be attributed to agriculture. Crops such as sugar beets, potatoes, onions, garlic, horseradish, wheat, barley, mint, pasture and hay crops make up roughly half of the estimated $300 million in sales generated by Klamath County farmers, with livestock making up the other half. 39% of County residents are listed as self-employed, the bulk of which are in agriculture. Over half of the farms and ranches in the county are listed as hereditary – meaning they have been owned by at least two generations of the same family.
More than two dozen farms that were started during the Klamath Reclamation Project are still owned and operated by descendants of the homesteaders that were allotted lands in the lottery.
The area enjoys a rich history of over 150 acres of farming history. It has been the long-standing tradition of the Klamath Basin and is projected to remain that way.