Renewing that pioneer spirit: GeerCrest Farm takes steps to preserve past, ensure future

August 2010 Posted in Arts, Culture & History

By Brenna WiegandThere’s a multi-generational team at work to honor the past and build a future for historic GeerCrest Farm: Erika and Jim Toler (standing), Kya and Hayden White (with baby Sorin), and Delana Beaton.

When offered the chance to become part of the 160-year-old GeerCrest Farm tradition, Hayden and Kya White had to pinch themselves.

The farm, nestled in the Waldo Hills between Silverton and Stayton, was established by Ralph and Mary Geer when they arrived by wagon train in 1847. The following spring, their 640-acre homestead became Oregon’s second land claim.

Just as the Geers’ arrival in the Willamette Valley was the culmination of a dream, the prospect of becoming today’s pioneers of a sort, Kya said, “was a dream of ours to a T.” They’d long desired a back-to-basics life in which they could raise their food – and children. Until recently, though, reality was living and working in Portland. Last summer they learned a baby was on the way.

“I’m not fully alive in the city,” Kya said, “and as I thought about being a stay-at-home mom, I wondered if my life was just going to be laundry, dishes, cooking and crossword puzzles…”

In February they heard of an historic farm outside Silverton in need of live-in help to keep it viable. Now their days begin at 6:30 a.m. with birdsong, breeze and baby Soren heralding the onset of chores – feeding animals, milking goats.

Homer Davenport Days
Friday through Sunday, Aug. 6-8
Events take place at Coolidge & McClaine Park,
downtown Silverton and at GeerCrest Farm.Highlights
include parade at 10 a.m. Saturday,
Davenport Races at noon Sunday and visits to
GeerCrest Farm Saturday and Sunday.

But that’s only half of the new farm team working to make GeerCrest Farm viable. The historic site was a favorite boyhood haunt of Homer Davenport (1867-1912), the renowned influential political cartoonist and the first importer of Arabian horses to the United States.

Homer’s mother, Florinda Geer, was part of a family line rich in Oregon history that included politicians, nurserymen, performers and entrepreneurs. One of these, Musa Geer, whose 94-year life was exciting and diverse, kept nearly every letter or document she ever received; they are in four huge steamer trunks in the farmhouse attic. In addition, there are numerous books and treasures brought across the prairie aboard Ralph and Mary Geer’s wagon, including a hand-cranked sewing machine, a rocking chair, an “occasional table” and the quilt hand-pieced by Mary along the way. One of the deepest desires of Jim and Erika Toler, fifth-generation owners, is that none of these artifacts be lost. They want them made available for public enjoyment and education.

The Tolers’ dream now seems within reach, thanks to historian Delana Beaton, who has pledged to volunteer two years of intense work to that end. Many hours of work a week have already formed GeerCrest Historical Society.

“What Delana is now doing has been a huge burden for us,” Erika said.

“If you are to keep history alive, you’ve got to live it and teach it,” Beaton, a retired history teacher, said.

“This place is a wonderful way to do this.”

And that’s her goal as she wades through stack-after-stack, digitizing, cataloguing and preserving every item. “GeerCrest is not the oldest farm in the area, but it is the best preserved,” Beaton said. “And it is unique in that it has been kept in the same family since 1847, who still dwell in the original home.”

The farm is finding creative ways to generate the funds needed for its preservation. They sell eggs, goat cheese and goat’s milk, but their bread and butter lies in farm visits. In May, more than 200 schoolchildren came to GeerCrest for a hands-on history and farm life experience.

The first group arrived just days after Hayden, Kya and 8-month-old Soren set foot on the place. Plunged into 12-hour days of farm life, learning alongside the visiting school groups, the Whites and their youthful charges explored the farm’s rich history and created bonds.

“We figured if we could survive that we could survive anything,” Hayden said. “Some groups were here as long as a week; it became a tear-jerker when they left.”Nadia, Davenport Arabian

The family dived into organizing a fund-raising “hoedown” and are now in the midst of summer camps and readying the farm to be open to the public during Silverton’s Homer Davenport Days the first weekend in August.  Then, on Aug. 14, they’re throwing their first gourmet farm dinner.

The farm team, which includes Aunt Vesper Geer Rose, 93, realizes that, for GeerCrest, hanging onto the farm has a lot less to do with producing crops and a lot more to do with selling the experience of pioneer life.

The enthusiastic young family and Delana have become more than a farm team to the Tolers – and to Vesper. They’re becoming a pioneer-style extended family, in which several generations lived in close proximity. They eat together, work together and are always brainstorming ways to make the age-old homestead a vibrant delight for centuries more.

“Ralph and Mary would be very proud if they could see the farm now,” Vesper said.

Another dream – of Homer himself – came true on July 4 with the birth of Nadia. The foal of Davenport Arabians named Special Me and Mandarin. She is the first Davenport Arabian to be born on the family place Homer always called home.

For more information go to GeerCrest Farm and GeerCrest Historical Society.

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