By the Federal Writer’s Project in 1938
Interview with Captain W. H. Hembree:
On April 28, 1938, Captain W. H. Hembree, who was then working in a gold mine near Estacada, Oregon, was interviewed by the Andrew C. Sherbert of the Federal Writer’s Project for his knowledge of pioneering days and what he might know about the legend of the Lost Blue Bucket Mine. At that time, Captain Hembree was 73 years old and described by Mr. Sherbert as short, stocky, extremely rugged, and with the appearance of great physical capabilities for one his age. Sherbert also stated that Hembree was knowledgeable in the various methods used in recovering gold, and at the time, had the appearance of a typical prospector, complete with carrying ore samples and a magnifying lens in his pocket.
I was born in Monmouth, Polk County, Oregon, on October 7, 1864, and was christened William Harry Hembree. My father’s name was Houston Hembree. He was named after the illustrious Sam Houston and was born in Texas, though his family later moved to Missouri. My mother’s name was Amanda Bowman and she was born in Iowa, coming to Oregon in 1848. My father left Missouri for Oregon in one of the first emigrant trains of the great migration of the 1840’s, arriving in the Willamette Valley sometime in 1843. The train that my father came to Oregon with is said to have been the first “wheels” ever to make the entire journey from the east to The Dalles.
The wagon train of which my father and his kinfolks were members, was more fortunate than the parties which followed the old Oregon Trail in the years immediately after. The Indians did not trouble the earlier emigrants, were friendly in fact, according to accounts given me by my father. It was not until the later emigrants came through that the Indians began to attack travelers — in 1844, 1845, and thereafter. Father’s train arrived at The Dalles with exactly the same number of members as it had when it left Missouri. There had been, however, a death and a birth on route, both occurring simultaneously at a place now called Liberty Rock, Idaho. The one who died was a second cousin of mine, whose name I have forgotten. The child that was born, was my aunt, Nancy Hembree.
Though there had been gold stampedes, land grants from the government, and all sorts of empire building activities in Oregon after my father arrived from the east, he had not yet struck it rich when I squalled onto the scene 10 years later. When I am asked to recall incidents of my early life and to describe the games we played in my childhood, I can truthfully answer that there was no childhood, in the sense meant. There were no games. All that I remember about my childhood is work, work, and work. Work, long before the sun came up. Work, long after the sun had set. When I was eight years old I was doing real labor — labor that today would draw a man’s wages. Union working hours? Sit down strikes? Such things were not dreamed of then.
My father and older brothers used to make shingles every day in the week except Sunday. They made them by hand, riving them out of cedar bolts with a tool called a “frow.” If you’ve never seen one, a frow is a steel, wedge-shaped cleaver-like blade with a sharp edge, with a handle set at right angles from one end of the blade. You hit the frow with a mallet, driving through the shingle bolt, cleaving the bolt with the grain of the wood. Only the best, the very best straight-grained cedar was used for these shingles. The manufactured shingles of today have a useful life of about ten years or so, but, I’m willing to wager that some of the shingles my family made — if there was any possible way of identifying them — are still giving service somewhere in Oregon. They were made to be practically everlasting.
At the tender age of eight years, I worked right along with the rest of the men of the family. Being the youngest, my job was to keep the shavings all raked up into piles and to bundle the shingles as fast as my father and brothers made them. That was no easy job for a youngster so small, for they contrived to fashion a surprisingly large number of shingles each day and the piles of shavings grow prodigiously large as the day wore on. No sooner would I arrange and tie one bundle of shingles that it seemed another was ready to tie. We used to work well on into the evening. That’s when the piles of shavings were put to use. I would set fire to the shaving piles, one after another as each burned out, and we worked by the light of these pungent fires. It was not at all unusual for us to work 14 or 16 hours from the time we started in the morning until we gave up and called it a day. I was always a pretty tired youngster when I had tied off the last bundle and was mighty glad when my father would say, “Alright boys, let’s put out the fire.”
I worked along with the family, riving shingles until I was 12 or 13 years old when I began to work out for others. Boys in those days seemed to mature earlier than they do now. As soon as a lad had a sign of fuzz on his cheek he was considered a man and was expected to fill any place that a man could. I was no exception. At 15, I was riding the range, and at 17, had been pretty much all over the great plains of central and eastern Oregon.
As I said before, we worked every day but Sunday, and except for chores, Sunday really was a day of rest and a very welcome one. The day was really a quiet and holy day in those times. My family was not what one would consider overmuch pious or religious, for those times, but, it seemed that every family embraced some sort of faith. God did not seem so far away as he does today. He seemed mighty close to us. We seemed to see evidence of His works all around us and were mightily awed by His power. I noticed that folks, in general, don’t have that sort of religious consciousness in them of late years.
Our home was typical of a pioneer Oregon family. Mother made home-spun. I can see her at the spinning wheel, treading out the yarn that was to go into the things that we would be wearing a few months later. Today, women of the age she was then, use the same toe my mother used on the treadle, to step on the accelerator as they drive to a department store for machine-made cloth and ready-made garments. Our work clothes, shirts, and pants, were usually made of home-tanned buckskin. This stuff wore like iron, and though it was not very beautiful to look at, it was extremely serviceable. When a man — and I mean by that, any male person over 16 or thereabouts — was able to accumulate the required number of dollars, one of his most important investments would be in a Sunday-go-to-meeting outfit made by eastern tailors, and consisting of a swallow-tail coat, a fancy, light-colored vest, and a striped pair of pants. He would top this elegant attire with a high, beaver hat. He was then ready for — and considered properly dressed to be acceptable in — the most dignified and formal gathering, or social function.