By Linda Hill
When Mary Norton's family recently arranged a family reunion around the time of her 90th birthday on July 15, 70 people arrived in Madras to help her celebrate. Then, the following Sunday when she returned home from church, she was greeted by more than 120 friends who had gathered for her birthday.
Born in 1913 in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Mary Madeline Mainini was raised on a dairy farm. As one of six children of Italian immigrant parents, Italian was Mary's primary language until she began attending a tiny one-room school. After finishing eighth grade there, she attended and graduated from high school in San Luis Obispo, then worked for nine years for a large insurance and realty firm.
Mary married Parr Norton in 1939. Parr, the son of a superior court judge, had also been raised in San Luis Obispo. He loved horses, and decided that a farming life could allow him to own and work with them. His first job in agriculture was on his grandfather's farm near San Luis Obispo, and in 1945 he and Mary took on a rice farm near Willows in the Sacramento Valley. But rice farming was not for Parr. "He really wanted to be in ranching," Mary relates, "and he kept me busy answering ranch advertisements for him."
Though the Nortons didn't have much ready cash, "it was possible in those years to tie up land with no money," Mary said. In 1946 the couple secured two ranches near Mitchell in Wheeler County. When they moved up from Willows in 1947, however, they settled on the old Priday Ranch near Willowdale.
Mary's earliest recollection of Madras was that "it seemed to have as many small churches as houses." The roads were generally unpaved, and dust was everywhere, she remembers. "Parr came through Madras once, before we bought up here, and there was a dust storm. Then it began to rain, and it rained mud."
Finally, the Nortons settled on a ranch near Ashwood. Though Parr died in 1969, Mary, with the help of her eldest son, Tom, continued to run between 700 and 800 head of cattle there until 1973.
Life on the Ashwood ranch, with six children to raise, was always busy. Shuttling the children back and forth at different times along the nine-mile road between the ranch and Ashwood often meant two hours a day behind the wheel of a car.
"We were at the end of the road, most of it gravel, and some of it just dirt, and there were several other mothers who lived along it doing the same thing I was," Mary remembers. To cut down on all the trips to Ashwood and to create a little recreation, the women decided that occasionally, after dropping the children off for school, they would spend the day in Ashwood and learn to play bridge. "We taught ourselves, and then we played regularly twice a month."
Without television or phones during the early years that the Nortons lived on the ranch, folks in the Ashwood area also managed to find other ways to have fun. "When the new gym was built at the school, we organized volleyball games," Mary recalls, "and everyone played--even the little children."
Living beyond Trout Creek also brought its share of danger, excitement and inconvenience. Just before Christmas 1964, Parr took the two youngest children and drove into Madras to do his Christmas shopping. When they returned, they found that Trout Creek had flooded and washed out the bridge in Ashwood. The two eldest children, Tom and Parrline, saved the day by swimming their horses through the flood water to carry their father, siblings and the presents back across the creek. "The water and power lines washed out in that flood, and we had nothing for weeks," Mary recounts. "We had to wait until the water went down to even ford the stream. The bridge wasn't rebuilt for months."
In 1973 Mary sold out at Ashwood and moved to Jericho Road in the Culver area. But she still was as busy as ever. She recalls: "Someone talked me into running for County Commissioner. I was up against Louis Olsen, and was really surprised that I beat him. But I enjoyed my stint on the Commission."
Serving on the County Commission has not been Mary's only public service. She has also been an Ashwood School Board member, a Juniper Bank Board director and a council member for St. Patrick's Church in Madras.
Mary now lives on the eastern edge of Madras, where she had a house built in 1985. She still keeps active and still plays bridge. With four surviving children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren, there are numerous family visits. And then, of course, there was that 90-year milestone to celebrate, both with family and with all the friends she has made in her 55 years in Jefferson County.
Looking back to when she first arrived in 1947, Mary remembers: "We moved up in the winter, in February, and I could see only rocks and sagebrush. I remember thinking to myself, what am I getting into here? But it grows on you, and I've come to love it and the people."