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Fanfare for a common woman

History -- Forest Grove woman brings to life a pioneer settler who faced everyday hardships
by: Sheila Ryan, Mary Hutchens, who has often been seen on the stage at Theatre in the Grove, performed at a different venue last Saturday. The Forest Grove woman was one of several people who portrayed some of the early settlers buried in the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in Hillsboro.

When Mary Hutchens agreed to help the Hillsboro Historical Society pay tribute to some of the area's founding fathers and mothers, she didn't realize that the project would draw as much on her research skills as her acting abilities.

Hutchens, a Forest Grove resident who has starred in several productions at Theatre in the Grove, spent Saturday afternoon at the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in Hillsboro where she sat in a chair near a grave marker and took on the role of the woman buried there, Rachel Ann Davison.

It was the culmination of some serious sleuthing.

'I went to a meeting and they handed me a two-paragraph obituary about her,' Hutchens recalled. 'I looked the rest of it up.'

What she found was a life story of a 'common, everyday' woman struggling to make it as a wife, mother and widow at the turn of the century.

Davison was born in 1841 in Defiance, Ohio. Sometime in the 1850s, the family moved to southwest Iowa where she married and started a family. 'By 1880, she'd had 10 kids,' Hutchens noted. 'That is a miracle itself.'

It seems that as soon as the youngest child was old enough to travel, Samuel and Rachel abandoned the plains of America's heartland and headed west by train. By 1883, Hutchens said, the brood had settled in Manning, where they learned that their 160-acre homestead, just off of present-day Highway 26, was not flat farmland, but primarily sloping woodland.

'They had to change their way of living,' Hutchens said.

As best she can figure, the family hauled logs about a mile to the railroad line where they could be sold. But, Hutchens said, the Depression of 1890s seemed to take its toll. 'By that time no one would give them any money for their logs,' she said, 'and no one would buy their crops.'

Her husband Samuel moved to Umatilla County, presumably to find work on a farm. Records show he died in 1897, though it's not clear whether he took his last breath in eastern Oregon or in the town of Banks.

In either case, Hutchens said, Rachel was now a widow. She went to work as a servant for H.T. Buxton, a wealthy widower with three kids. Buxton's father (for whom the town is named) was an early produce merchant and civic leader, serving on the Forest Grove School Board for many years.

'She cooked and cleaned and, given Buxton's position in society, probably helped him entertain guests,' Hutchens said.

But there would be no Sound of Music ending to this story, Hutchens found. After working as a servant for 10 years, Davison went back to the farm.

Hutchens learned that Davison's daughter, Anna Shute (she'd married the son of a prominent Hillsboro banker, for whom Shute Park is named) took care of her for some time, but eventually took her mother to a some sort of facility in Portland, where on Jan. 1, 1919, she died, at the age of 81, of 'senility.'

'It's just a common everyday story,' said Hutchens. 'And to me, that's what makes it so remarkable.'