Traveling back roads in Polk County will reveal many attractions: covered bridges and pleasant parks, vineyards, wineries, and bed and breakfast lodgings that spot the surrounding hills. Many roads meander through beautiful, fertile valleys from the Willamette River to the timbered foothills of the Coast Range. One Polk County city, Independence, was the final destination of early wagon trains to Oregon. Other cities located in Polk County include Dallas, Monmouth, Falls City and portions of Salem and Willamina.
Polk County was officially created from Yamhill District of the Oregon Territory on December 22, 1845. On August 13, 1848, President James K. Polk signed a bill approving the boundaries of the Oregon territory, which officially separated the territory from England. Thus came the name Polk County.
The present area of Polk County is 472,960 acres. Hudson's Bay Company hunters and trappers had penetrated the Willamette Valley as far south as Polk County as early as 1830. Initial settlement of the Willamette Valley started with the establishment of Etienne Lucier's farm at the extreme northwest corner of French Prairie in 1829. French Prairie was colonized thereafter, during the 1830's and 1840's, by retired servants of the Hudson's Bay Company.
White people from the eastern United States began settlement of Polk County during the early 1840's. Jason Lee was actually the vanguard of this settlement, having established his mission at Wheatland on the east bank of the Willamette river in 1834. The original Polk County Courthouse was a wooden two-story building located on the north side of Dallas in a community first named Cynthia Ann, named after a daughter of Thomas J. Lovelady. It was located near the intersection of Ellendale and Main in north Dallas and was completed in 1851.
As a village on the south side of the LaCreole River, now known as the Rickreall Creek, began to grow in size, Cynthia Ann lost its inhabitants to the new community and a new county courthouse was needed. In 1856, John E. Lyle, Isaac Levens, Solomon Shelton and others sought a charter for LaCreole Academy. They funded the project by selling lots in the original town of Dallas as the plat stated. One block was set aside as a courthouse square. This second courthouse was built in 1859. It was a two-story wood structure of classical design. It was said to be modeled after the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia. After years of controversy over the site and its inadequacies, the building burned to the ground the night of June 10, 1889. Arson was strongly suspected and the County court offered a reward for information, but the reward was never collected.
The present courthouse was built in 1898. In an effort to develop a local building stone industry, early residents decided to use Polk County sandstone from a local quarry. There is a fossil attesting to the stone's origin on the northeast side between the old and new buildings. Architect Delos D. Neer, of Portland, was commissioned to build the new building. (Mr. Neer also designed the courthouses for Lane County, Benton County, and Baker County.) Neer's name appears on the cornerstone located on the north side of the building. The Jennings Lodge Masons laid the cornerstone on September 30, 1889. A bronze marker on the northwest step of the courthouse indicates that point is 325 feet above sea level. The clock is 95 feet from the ground. The basement is 11 feet deep and the main superstructure is 44 feet high. In the early part of the century, the clock tower was used to launch fireworks until one backfired and caused spectacular results and $900 damage.
Due to the increasing demands of county government, an addition to the old section of the courthouse was completed in 1965. In the late 1980s, officials decided the old building needed extensive renovation and removed the colorful, but destructive Virginia Creeper ivy from the exterior walls.
In 1927, the County built a new jail to replace the 1857 jail behind the Courthouse. Known by many as the "Pink Pokey" because of its distinctive color, it served until torn down in the mid 1960s. On May 21, 1996, a bond was passed to build a new jail that would have 175 beds. Construction was completed in August 1999.
During the decade between 1850 and 1860 the population of Polk County tripled. A census for 1850 recorded 1,046, and in 1860 it had expanded to 4,126, largely due to overland immigration. Polk County had seven sawmills, five flour mills, a tannery, fanning mill factory, and several machine shops. Value of all industrial plants amounted to $94,000. In 1860, they used $188,235 worth of grain, logs, and hides to produce lumber, flour, and mechanical products to the value of $247,700.
Various small industries sprang up in Polk County during the period of pioneer settlement. Among them were grist and woolen miles. In the late 1840's, a grist mill was established at Ellendale and in 1852 one was established at Falls City, but later moved to Rickreall. In 1865, a woolen mill was established on Ellendale at the site of the old grist mill, but was later destroyed by fire. A woolen mill began operation in Dallas in 1896. Some of these industrial plants had sizable capacity. John Waymire's flour mill at Dallas, though not the largest, used 20,000 bushels of wheat in 1860 to produce flour to the value of $21,000. He also had a carding mill producing 14,000 pounds of spinning wool with a value of $2,000.
Waymire reached Oregon in 1845, and during that year built the first wharf erected in Portland. In 1846 he came to Polk County. What was reputedly the first pottery works in the northwest was established at Buena Vista in 1865. Early products were housewares, but among later products were sewer pipes, a considerable amount of which was shipped to Portland. The plant closed in 1886 when the owner moved his operations to Portland.
During its pioneer period, river navigation was Polk County's principal means of transport for goods produced in the County and for incoming supplies. River navigation was displaced after 1890 by railroads as the most important means of transporting goods to and from the County, although riverboats were still in operation as late as 1894. It was during the period of steam navigation that the port of Lincoln attained prominence as a wheat exporting port on the Willamette. For a time, Lincoln was second only to Portland among Willamette River ports in the tonnage of wheat it handled.
Grain, cattle and sheep were among the more important rural industries during the period after pioneer settlement in Polk County. A big change in the agricultural scene came in the 1890's with the introduction of two new crops, hops and Italian prunes. Prunes rapidly declined in importance after World War I when European prune orchards began to increasingly supply the European market. At one time, there were nearly 4,000 acres of hops in the County, but this crop rapidly declined in importance after World War II, leaving only about 400 acres of hop cultivation in the County by 1974.
In 1860, there were twelve post offices in Polk County, including offices at Bridgeport, Dallas, Etna, Independence, Luckiamute, Law Arbor, Monmouth, Plum Valley, Salt Creek, and Valfontis. Location of some of these sites is now obscure. Bloomington Post Office, established in 1852 and closed in 1863, was in the area of Parker. Etna was in existence for about 12 years, located roughly four miles north of Rickreall. Luckiamute Post Office, established in 1851 with Harrison Linnville as postmaster, was among the earliest in Polk County. Presumably it was located on the Luckiamute, where Linnville's ferry crossed that stream. Law Arbor Post Office was south of Sheridan at the Polk County line. Plum Valley, whose name was derived from the wild plums that continue to grow in the vicinity, was at Bethel. Valfontis Post Office was located at Lincoln and was established by A. J. Doak, who had a ferry there in the 1840's.
In 1856, the remnants of the Willamette Valley Indian tribes, as well as Indians from other parts of Oregon, were settled at the newly established Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. More than 1,000 Indians were on the reservation at one time during the 1860's. In 1908, there was a division of the reservation lands to the various Indian residents housed at the time, but Federal supervisory control over the last remnant of reservation land, some 500 acres, was not terminated until 1957. The Grand Ronde agency had been terminated in 1925.
In the decades before pioneers came to Oregon, colorful trapper brigades from the Hudson's Bay Company passed through the oak groves and grassy plains of the future Polk County on their journeys to the south in search of beaver pelts. Many adventuresome pioneers of the 1843-1845 wagon train used these same trails to find new valley homes after having passed down the treacherous Columbia River.
Courageous and public-minded men such as Cornelius Gilliam, David Goff, Levi Scott, and the indefatigable mountain man "Black Harris" made some tentative, but unsuccessful, probes into the Cascades in search of a new, safer route into the Willamette Valley. On June 20, 1846, some of these men were joined by Jesse and Lindsey Applegate. This new company came to be known as the South Road Expedition, and mapped the historic Applegate Trail.
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