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Heroes and rascals...
shipwrecks and lost gold ...

Welcome to Offbeat Oregon History, a public-history resource for the state we love. Here's what you'll find here:

  • A weekly newspaper column published in about a dozen Oregon community newspapers;
  • An archive of columns we've published since 2008, with pictures (arranged by date of first publication);
  • A daily podcast (7 to 12 minutes long) optimized for mobile-device listening via iTunes, Stitcher, or the podcatcher of your choice;
  • An active Facebook page, Twitter feed, Pinterest boards;
  • Two pop-history books (and counting!): Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon and Love, Sex and Murder in Old Oregon. (And Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon is coming Summer 2021!)

Enjoy! And if you have any comments on stories, suggestions for column topics or other feedback — or if you're coming by the OSU campus and have time for a cup of coffee with a fellow history dork — drop me a note at fj-@-offbeatoregon-dot-com any time!

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On the lam from the FBI? Try hiding out in a small, friendly Oregon town!


HAPPY NEW YEAR! In the spirit of the American tradition of the season, today we’re going to explore the stories of two Missouri men whose New Year’s Resolutions probably once included “Give up crime” and “Hide from the F.B.I.”

This is the sort of thing that used to be very easy to do in Oregon, which is actually the only state (so far as I have been able to learn) to have ever had one of its U.S. Senators serve under an alias which he adopted while running from law enforcement. (That would be John M. Hipple, a.k.a. John H. Mitchell — a cool, amoral Gilded Age rascal after whom the town of Mitchell is named — who in 1860 abandoned his wife and family in Connecticut, “borrowed” $4,000 from his employer, and fled with his mistress to the West Coast to start a new life under a new name.)

Hipple’s adventure is another story, although it's worth circling back to if you're not familiar with it. Today we are going to talk about two other fugitives, both of whom had the bad luck to be on the lam 90 years after Hipple’s successful scampering-off. Their luck would not be as good as his.

Like Hipple, neither was a killer. One of them was arguably not even a “real” criminal. But both of them were fugitives from justice who were caught “laying low” under aliases in little towns in Oregon, and both were caught through the media — in one case, the newspapers, and in the other, a radio show....

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— FEBRUARY 2021 —

Coos Bay shipwreck became the scene of a massive, drunken looting party


ON THE MORNING OF NOV. 5, 1915, at the back of the entrance to Coos Bay, a big steamship could be seen towering improbably over the beach, stuck fast in the sand close to shore.

This was the Santa Clara, a 233-foot steamer on the Portland-San Francisco run.

The Santa Clara didn’t much look like the scene of a humanitarian disaster, jutting out of the sand nearly plumb and level and nearly high and dry; but appearances were deceiving. Sixteen people died trying to get ashore when she first struck, three days before.

Nor did the wreck scene look like a very likely place for a massive, boozy free-for-all mob rampage … but a little later on that day, after a small army of looters swarmed aboard and found certain very desirable refreshments among the ship’s cargo, things would be different.....

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— MARCH 2021 —

Oregonians played a prominent role in the 1930s’ most horrific murder


OREGON DIVORCEE AGNES Anne “Annie” LeRoi arrived in Phoenix in the first few months of 1931 with her best friend and roommate, schoolteacher Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson. They were climate refugees: Sammy had tuberculosis, and at the time the only cure for “consumption” was a dry climate and rest.

Back then, many patients with TB waited until they were so far gone that the climate couldn’t save them; essentially, they moved to Arizona to die. Sammy wasn’t one of them; her case was mild. But, although she didn’t know it, she, too, was moving to Arizona to die. She had less than nine months to live. So did Annie.

Neither one of them would die of tuberculosis, though....

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— APRIL 2021 —

Not all fugitives hiding out in Oregon were running from the law


SOMTIME IN 1915, a 40-year-old Black woman named Frankie Baker stepped off the train at Portland’s Union Station. She had come to stay; Oregon would be her home for the rest of her life.

At that time, Portland had a a reputation as a good place to hide out when you were on the lam. It was far off the beaten path; but the town had all the cultural perquisites of civilization, or most of them anyway. Plus, the people of Oregon had a reputation for minding their own business.

So a lot of people who got into trouble back east came to Portland hoping for a fresh start. And yes, Frankie was one of them.

But she wasn’t running from the law, or from an abusive spouse. She was running from a popular song.

Frankie Baker, you see, was the Frankie — of “Frankie and Johnny” fame. ...


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— MAY 2021 —

Citizens of Boring hired world-champion boxer to humiliate the town bully


All through the summer of 1973, there was one song on the radio everywhere that you just couldn’t get away from: Jim Croce’s smash hit, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

Come to think of it, it’s been very difficult to get away from that song ever since Croce wrote it. You probably are humming it to yourself right now: “Bad, bad Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole damn town. Badder than old King Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog.”

The little Cascade-foothills town of Boring once had its own Bad, Bad Leroy Brown — although when the song came out, very few people then alive were old enough to remember him. His name was Free Coldwell — or at least, that was what he called himself. Like Leroy Brown, he a proud, strutting tough guy who got a humiliating comeuppance. But his downfall didn’t come from making a pass at “the wife of a jealous man” in a Boring nightclub or bar. No; Free Coldwell was taken down by the citizens of Boring, who basically played an elaborate practical joke on him — with the help of a professional prizefighter.


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— JUNE 2021 —

Hoard of gold in shipwrecked yacht piqued the FBI's interes a day too late


Dawn was just breaking, and Tom McAdams had just barely crawled into bed, when he got the alarm. A 50-foot sailboat was washing ashore near Waldport.

McAdams had been up all night escorting a leaking fishing boat into port after it got caught in a bad storm 20 miles offshore. Now it was the morning of Dec. 13, 1973, and it was his wife Joanne’s birthday. He’d planned on snatching four or five hours of sleep and then maybe doing something with Joanne.

Instead, he was sprinting across the street to Newport’s U.S. Coast Guard station, jumping a fence, and bounding into his 44-foot rescue lifeboat. ...


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— JULY 2021 —

Nationally famous writer Stewart Holbrook captured spirit of mid-century Oregon


Ninety-eight years ago, in a logging camp deep in the forests of British Columbia, a logger in a funny hat walked up to a big stump, an ax in his hand.

Taking off the hat — it was a battered bowler, an old-fashioned dandy’s hat even in 1923 — he laid it on the stump, set a nail in it, and drove it in.

Then he turned and walked away. Probably he walked straight to the logging locomotive for his last ride into town. Nailing the hat to the stump was a symbolic act — Stewart H. Holbrook was quitting the logging business forever.

For Holbrook, the hat was an especially significant object, and if he’d thought more about it he probably would have realized he really wanted to keep it ...

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— AUGUST 2021 —

Sordid Portland slasher murder was baffling 100 years ago, and still is today


It was a little after 10 p.m. on a Friday evening in the summer of 1921. In their little house on Druid Street in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, Robert Green and his family were getting ready for bed when they heard the screams.

Rushing to the front porch, they found their neighbor, Ann Louise Agee, in her nightclothes, wild-eyed and disheveled.

“Help! Come quick! They’re killing Harry!” she screamed.

Green looked across at the Agee home. From where he stood, by the light of streetlamps and the few lights inside the house, he could dimly see the front porch. The door was opening and a figure was staggering out of the front door, clutching at its throat. Then it collapsed on the porch.

Green sprinted across and leaped onto the porch. There he found his neighbor, carpenter Harry Agee, in a pool of blood, dying.

Looking up at him, Harry opened his mouth and tried to speak. Only a ghastly gurgling resulted from the effort....

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— SEPTEMBER 2021 —

OSU’s record-setting hen sparked “fowl” feud with eugenicist newspaper editor


OCTOBER OF 1913 was a triumphant time for Professor James Dryden, the poultry specialist at Oregon State University (or Oregon Agricultural College, as it was then called). His name was in newspapers nationwide, in glowing tribute after glowing tribute to his success.

One of his experiment-station hens, the prosaically named C-521 (later renamed Lady MacDuff), had just shattered the world record for egg production with a stunning 303 eggs in a year, breaking the 300-egg barrier for the first time ever. The highest-producing non-Oregon chicken, prior to C-521’s feat, was a Canadian bird that laid 281 eggs in 12 months. This was at a time when the average chicken laid 75.

There was, however, one exception to the “glowing tribute” pattern in newspaper coverage of Dr. Dryden’s work. That would be the weekly Cottage Grove Leader.

“In our opinion, Prof. Dryden is impracticable, out of harmony with the country’s best and most successful poultry breeders, is discouraging the great and growing poultry industry of the state and is therefore out of place at the head of the Department of Poultry Husbandry in our great educational and experimental institution, the Oregon Agricultural College,” the Leader’s editor raged, in the Oct. 28 issue. “We would suggest, in conclusion, that he tender his resignation.”....

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— OCTOBER 2021 —

Astoria is rich in legends of lost gold
and hidden treasure


THE CITY AND environs of Astoria strike most visitors as the kind of place where pirate loot might be stashed away.

Certainly it seems to have struck Steven Spielberg that way, back in the early 1980s, when the legendary pirate-treasure film The Goonies was being shot.

But the town may actually have come by this impression honestly. There are still a few stories about hidden treasure in and around Astoria -- not counting the silver-screen “Goon Docks” story of “One-Eyed Willy.”

And who knows? One or two of them may actually be true....

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— NOVEMBER 2021 —

Legend of Portuguese buried treasure
likely started as a true story


STORIES ABOUT BURIED treasure are very seldom completely untrue. Many of the wildest flight of golden fantasy started out, hundreds or thousands of augmented and embellished retellings ago, as true stories. Maybe that’s why people love them so much: One gets to speculating about just how much truth has survived, and if any of that fantasy gold might just be still out there waiting to be discovered.

One particular tale from the Indians of the northern Oregon coast is especially tantalizing in that way, because it’s so close to its source. The old treasure hunter who recounted it to author Ruby El Hult in 1958 had it directly from the grandson of the man who originally (according to the story) buried the loot.

Here's the story ....

This article is still under its initial two-month embargo, during which participating newspapers have exclusive rights to it. Then, in the second week of January 2022, a link to the full article will appear in this space!

— DECEMBER 2021 —

The Lost Soldiers’ Mine: Is a lost ledge of rocks worth $400 a bucket still out there?


EARLY IN THE summer of 1853, deep in the Coquille Mountains of what’s now Douglas County, six U.S. soldiers were trudging dispiritedly through a trackless wilderness.

The wilderness wasn’t totally trackless, though, because that’s what the soldiers were there to do: scout a route through the mountains, from Port Orford to Jacksonville.

The problem was, they were lost. The track they were scouting wasn’t going anywhere until they figured out how to get un-lost. And they were almost out of supplies, so if that didn’t happen soon, they’d all starve to death.

As evening approached, Lieutenant George Stoneman called a halt. “We may as well camp here for the night,” he said.

So the men set about making their camp. Private Manley Martin was sent down to the creek for water while the others — Sergeant Mann and Privates McKenna, Schlisk, and Schnedicker -- set about the usual tasks: fire, bivouacs, etc.

Down at the creek, Private Martin was filling the canteens when he saw a glint of yellow in a rock in the streambed. Drawing his saber, he used it to pry the rock loose, and then he picked it up. It was white, with a streak of yellow running through it. ...

This article is still under its initial two-month embargo, during which participating newspapers have exclusive rights to it. Then, in the second week of February 2022, a link to the full article will appear in this space!

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