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Grazing rights, cow arrests spark uproar in downtown Forest Grove

      The battle over cattle grazing on public land is making headlines in Eastern Oregon. But about 150 years ago, it was making headlines right here — on the streets of downtown Forest Grove.

In 1872, residents of the community of Forest Grove voted to become a city so they could have legal authority to tackle the most pressing issues of the day. Among the challenges City Council members dealt with was alcohol use, which was banned. They also banned the cutting of trees and enacted gun controls. Those were all easy. But eventually they tackled perhaps the most controversial issue: Cow control.

Lacking any effective refrigeration, shipping and selling dairy products in stores was extremely difficult, so by 1872 nearly every family in and around Forest Grove owned at least one cow for milk. In the countryside, even 320- and 640-acre Donation Land Claims weren’t always enough to contain cattle, and many of the first murders in the area involved disputes over grazing on other people’s private land.

In the cities, the issue was whether people had a legal right to let their cows graze on public land, which in Forest Grove’s case meant grazing on weeds in the city’s open sewage and drainage ditches. Some residents argued this provided a public service.

But in 1872, council members were inundated with complaints of recalcitrant cows blocking the streets and doorways of stores downtown and wreaking havoc on the new downtown wooden sidewalks.

The council passed ordinances to limit the hours of grazing on public land. The resulting uproar and petitions forced council members to rescind the ordinance. Over the next few years, city officials tried to restrict grazing by geography, season and in other ways, once even authorizing the town marshal to arrest cows and auction them to other owners. Each time petitions for recall or defeat at the next yearly election thwarted these efforts.

The controversy continued for another 30 years until 1902, when Forest Grove hit the jackpot in the hottest industry of the day: Canned milk. In the late 1800s, a Seattle firm, the Carnation Evaporated Milk Company, invented a way to condense milk and can it, eliminating the need for refrigeration. Cities nationwide competed fiercely for factories as Carnation announced plans to expand. Forest Grove presented its case, and landed the first plant in Oregon.

The plant eliminated the need for every family to own a cow and the city wanted to ensure its success, so after decades of battle over grazing on public land, the council finally banned cows from the city’s ditches. The next spring, the city was faced with a new crisis: Weeds choking the drainage ditches, just as

public-grazing advocates had warned.

These local disputes paled, however, in comparison to grazing battles in Central and Eastern Oregon during the 1870s and ‘80s. There, even the largest claims couldn’t sustain many cattle in the arid high desert, a desolate area which initially drew few pioneers. At the time, the federal government had almost no restrictions on grazing and even fewer resources to enforce restrictions if they’d existed. The combination of empty land and a lack of laws eventually drew ranching entrepreneurs: Why settle for 320 or 640 acres, they reasoned, when they could have access to almost unlimited federal land?Ken & Kris Bilderback

This view led to conflict as railroads made it easier to ship herds to slaughter in cities such as Chicago. The land no longer seemed limitless as cattle ranchers flocked to the region. Dispute over land became so intense in Prineville, for example, that in 1884 a handful of ranchers decided they needed some controls after all, although they demanded local control over the land. Many other ranchers disagreed, but the small band of control advocates eventually earned themselves appointments to all of the top positions in the newly formed — and ironically named — Crook County. The persuasion they used was a series of brutal shootings and lynchings of rival ranchers and political opponents — sometimes both, reportedly, as they used the bodies of lynching victims for target practice.

The reign of terror didn’t end until rival ranchers formed their own posse and challenged the vigilantes to a shootout. Instead, the vigilantes slinked away in silence and were voted out of office a few months later.

By comparison, the cattle battles in Forest Grove seemed pretty tame.

This story contains excerpts from books written by Ken and Kris Bilderback, including “Walking to Forest Grove” and “Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail.”