Homer’s roots: Historic farm’s family woven into political history

August 2016 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
Erika and Jim Toler, with their dog Boon, on the porch of the GeerCrest farmhouse.

Erika and Jim Toler, with their dog Boon, on the porch of the GeerCrest farmhouse.

By Jim Toler, president and board chair of the GeerCrest Farm & Historical Society, Inc.

In 1898, Oregon voters were frustrated by what they saw as corruption in their state government. Votes were openly bought and sold in the legislature and the influence of the railroad and logging industry were generally put ahead of the public choice. The voters’ choice for governor in 1898 fell on a man whose record as a state representative and one Speaker of the House seemed like a way out of politics as usual.

The man was Theodore Thurston Geer. His first test for support of any legislation was if it would be good for the people. The public was not disappointed in Gov. Geer. Under his administration, the Oregon System was adopted, allowing citizens the right by petition to create ballot initiatives. So a vote on the initiative by a majority citizens could become law, thus bypassing the legislature. Geer’s failure to strictly adhere his party line caused the Republicans to drop support for him in 1902, so he did not return to office as governor.  However, in the vote for U.S. Senator, in 1901 Gov. Geer was the people’s choice. During that time, the U.S. Senate seat was awarded by the party in power in the Senate and they did not choose Gov. Geer. Where did this young governor, who could be seen as a change agent in state politics come from?

GeerCrest Farm
GeerCrest Farm: Established in 1848
by pioneers Ralph and Mary Geer,
the farm now offers farm-life experiences.
Visit geercrest.org or call 503-873-340.

The Pioneers’ Children

Aug. 6, noon
Palace Theatre,
200 N. Water St., Silverton
A documentary of how Homer Davenport
and the Geer family shaped Oregon history.

Homer Davenport Presentation
Aug. 6, 1:30 p.m.
Silver Falls Library,
410 S. Water St., Silverton
Gus Frederick presents
Who the Heck is Homer Davenport?
Repeats at 3 p.m. Free.

In the early 17th century, two orphaned boys were sent by their uncle who was managing their father’s estate with a letter to the captain of a ship anchored in a harbor in England. Unknown to the boys, the letter instructed the captain to set sail with them aboard. Thus, Thomas, 12, and George Geer, 14, found themselves in Boston in 1635, having lost their estate with no evident prospects. There are no records of what befell the boys until records in the city of New London reveal George Geer was awarded property in nearby Ledyard, Conn. in 1650. George Geer achieved prominence in the region. His farm in Ledyard expanded and he lived to be 105 years old. But it is his legacy that matters to us. Generations of Geer descendants have served in America’s wars. They went forward to play important parts in politics, education, the arts and culture of the colony and became a part of the fabric of American society.

By the sixth generation, young Joseph Cary Geer, a veteran of the War of 1812, became the first of the family to venture west to Ohio. With his wife Mary and two towheaded boys, they set out in 1818 and established a farm on the Darby plains. He remained in Ohio until 1840 when the family again felt the pull of opportunity and moved to Knox County, Ill. to establish a fruit tree nursery. Times were difficult for farmers in the 1840s. America was in an extended recession, it was difficult to move crops to markets, if markets could be found, and they were beset by an “unhealthy climate” with diseases such as malaria prevalent.

News coming from the west of a new land some called the “Eden of the West” fell on fertile soil with the Geer family.  Joseph had five grown sons and a daughter, most having families of their own, as well as three teenaged daughters.  In 1845, the first of Joseph’s sons, Joseph Cary Geer Jr., 20, ventured west. He was most likely hired by a family emigrating to drive a covered wagon. So he may not have had a choice when the critical decision at Fort Boise was made to follow the old trapper Steven Meek in a so called shortcut to the Willamette Valley. Meek sought to cut straight across Oregon, and avoid the difficulties of the Blue Mountains and possible trouble with the Walla Walla and Cayuse Indians. The decision of some 200 families with all of their possession and livestock to follow Meek is today remembered as the Lost Wagon Train of 1845. Fortunately, Joseph Cary Jr. survived the ordeal. The opinion Joseph Cary Jr. had of the Willamette Valley must have been high. His message east to his father likely read “sell everything and come as fast as you can,” because that is what happened.  Joseph Cary Geer Sr. led the 1847 exodus of his family, being joined by all of his adult children and their children still living in Illinois. They came west with Capt. Joel Palmer on his second Oregon Trail endeavor and the Oregon Geer branch of the Geer family was born. Oregon was not yet even a territory much less a state, uncertainties about their future hung over many. But it was truly a land of opportunities and men with dreams and fortitude found fertile ground for their germination. 

Joseph Cary Geer’s wife Mary, after 33 years of partnership, died of complications of the arduous journey shortly after their arrival. Joseph remarried Elizabeth Dixon Smith, also a pioneer of 1847 who lost her husband in a similar way. Elizabeth’s story is well-known and often told in Oregon’s history. Her remarkable diary details many of the hardships of the journey and how she survived, destitute upon arrival in Portland with eight children. Joseph Cary and Elizabeth went on together to have three children and lived happily on his homestead across the Willamette River from Butteville. One of Joseph Cary Geer’s sons, Heman Geer married Cynthia Eoff shortly after his arrival in the valley. They homesteaded near Macleay.  In 1851, Theodore Thurston Geer was born. He would rise in Oregon politics to become the first native born governor of Oregon.  His story is told in his biography, Fifty Years In Oregon. A great grandson of Joseph Cary by his oldest son Ralph would rise to become the premier political cartoonist in America. Working from New York City for William Randolph Hearst, Homer Davenport was the highest paid salaried journalist in the country. His political cartoons, published in the Hearst newspapers, shaped opinions and helped steer the course of national politics.  Homer Davenport’s close friends included Buffalo Bill Cody and President Theodore Roosevelt. Both T.T. Geer and Homer Davenport lived parts of their lives with Ralph and Mary Geer on their donation land claim in the Waldo Hills, known today as GeerCrest Farm

Davenport’s attachment to the farm was strong. In 1904 on a visit from New York, one early April morning he awoke and left a pencil drawing of himself on the western wall of the farmhouse. Above the drawing he wrote: “I would like to say that from this old porch, I see my favorite view of all the earth affords. It was the favorite of my dear mother and my father and my grandparents, and why shouldn’t it be the same for me, it’s where my happiest hours have been spent.”

On July 29-31, GeerCrest Farm & Historical Society, Inc. hosted the triennial Geer Family Reunion, welcoming the descendants of those two boys who were shipped to Boston.

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