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Old Homesteads of the Sagebrush Ocean

A seemingly endless sea of sagebrush stretches across the broad Fort Rock basin south of Bend, broken here and there by upthrust rimrock, eroded volcanic buttes and a few widely scattered ranch buildings dwarfed by an unbelievably expansive sky.

But hidden beneath and among the tall sagebrush lie hints of a nearly forgotten past, when the last great land rush of the American West brought more than 1,000 homesteaders into the Fort Rock and adjoining Christmas Lake valleys to scrape out their vision of the American Dream—to own their own piece of land on the Western Frontier.

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The settlers came in response to the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which promised 330 acres to any man or woman who could pay the $10 filing fee and establish at least a subsistence farm within five years. Over 550 acres in the Fort Rock basin was included in that act. In the early years of the last century, this barren landscape was crisscrossed by neat rectangles of barbed wire fences enclosing hundreds of homesteads, giving rise to at least a dozen small towns. But the land was unforgiving, the rainfall woefully short of expectations, and it eventually became obvious to even the most persistent that their farms would never support their families.

One by one they gave up and left—in a trickle at first, but by 1918 it was an exodus. Of the approximately 1,200 homesteaders who had rushed into the valley between 1908 and 1915, only 300 remained by 1920. By 1930 the population was 9 percent of what it was just 15 years earlier.

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The homesteaders left in their wake a landscape littered with abandoned cabins, idle windmills and deserted communities. Today, there is scant physical evidence that they were ever here. The only original homestead town still in existence is Fort Rock itself, a sleepy hamlet of approximately 50 souls, with a small post office and store, a restaurant and a saloon.

But all is not forgotten. On 20 acres of donated BLM land, about a mile south of the Fort Rock State Natural Area, the memories of the headiness and heartache that marked the end of an era are preserved within a corral of about 10 rescued homestead era buildings.

For the past three decades the all-volunteer Fort Rock Historical Society has been finding and relocating long-abandoned cabins and other structures and filling them with reclaimed artifacts donated by descendants of the original homesteaders. Today, the Fort Rock Valley Historical Homestead Museum includes a half dozen original cabins along with a school, a general store and the crown jewel of the collection, tiny St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, originally built in 1918.

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