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Longtime Gresham farmer dies at 87

Ralph Clinton worked on the family century farm and as a carpenter
by: Shanda Tice, Ralph Clinton points to pictures along the wall of his house in Pleasant Valley. Clinton, who died at age 87 Tuesday, worked his family's century farm.

Ralph Clinton died Tuesday, April 3, at the age of 87, ending a lifetime as the thoughtful steward of a small Gresham farm that stretched from pioneer days to modern development.

A child of the Depression and a veteran of the war in the South Pacific, Ralph chose to return home to Gresham after World War II, taking up his family's historic farm to raise kids, cows and berries and supplementing his income by working as a master carpenter.

A memorial service for Ralph will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 11, at Gresham Funeral Chapel, 257 S.E. Roberts Ave., followed by a graveside service at Lincoln Memorial Park, 10600 S.E. Mount Scott Boulevard. Viewing is from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, also at Gresham Memorial Chapel.

Ralph was a farmer/philosopher who kept his tractors in fine shape, raised a few cows, never missed a haying season and liked to joke that he had a pension 'so I can afford to keep the farm.'

On land settled by his great-grandmother in about 1870, he and his family raised berries and row crops, bused in winos from Portland's Old Town to help with the harvest, and until 1979, lived in the historic and drafty old farm house built about 1900 on what was known as Lone Oak Farm.

Rooted on 19 acres - now 17 - at the corner of Butler and Rodlun roads, he and his wife, Bessie, saw the historic farm named an Oregon Century Farm in 1985. He died last week after a brief illness, anticipating that 15 acres of the farm will now grow houses as a high-end residential development, the first in Gresham's Pleasant Valley plan. A farm home he built himself, the historic oak tree planted by his ancestor, Euphemia Butler, and a gravesite where her two children are believed to be buried, will be preserved.

'He wanted the sale of the land to pay for his grandchildren's education, but most of them are out of school now,' said his son, Carl, of Portland. 'So it will be up to us to see to that legacy.'

One thing is sure, said his son, Keith of Bend, 'Dad wanted quality.' They remember that their father once quit a carpenter job because he refused to do sloppy work.

'After he built the house, he spent two years looking for putty the right color to finish the nail holes,' Carl Clinton remembered.

Ralph was a volunteer for the Gresham Historical Society and helped rebuild the Bethel Baptist Church, later destroyed by an arson fire in May 2004.

Born Ralph Newton Clinton on Jan. 23, 1920, in Portland to Samuel and Etta (Vollum) Clinton, he graduated from Gresham High School in 1938. Clinton started work on the family farm before his parents could afford a tractor, helping to till the field with a single-bottomed plow pulled by horse. After high school, he went to work at the Oregon shipyards at St. John's, building templates for every piece of steel that went into the Liberty Ships. His construction experience sent him to the South Pacific as a member of the Navy's first World War II construction unit, even before the term 'Seabee' was coined. As part of the Third Naval Construction Battalion, Ralph followed the Marines to Pago Pago, Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Engebi and Manus Island.

Still in the Navy, he met Bessie McDaniel at a dance in Seattle. They were married June 8, 1946, and he convinced her to live on a farm.

'My father practically gave me the place,' Ralph Clinton said in a 1990 interview with The Gresham Outlook. He and Bessie moved to the farm as newlyweds and raised three children there.

'We didn't have any extra money to spend,' he remember in 1990, 'though we did mange to buy a new car in 1951.'

A severe freeze in the winter in 1955 destroyed Ralph's crops and forced him to go to work as a carpenter in Portland, where a steady paycheck and prospects of a pension kept him at the job. He and Bessie raised their last berry crop in 1980. But the Clintons continued to raise beef cattle and hay. Bessie Clinton died in February 2006.

After retirement from carpentry work in 1982, the Clintons traveled to Seabee reunions. He was an avid fisherman and hunter, and in his younger days, led a 4-H photography club and was an assistant Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 289. He was a 51-year member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

He is survived by his sons, Carl Clinton of Portland and Keith Clinton of Bend, daughter, Irene Rathmann of Portland, as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and a sister, Nellie, of Redmond.