Charles Nelson House
Often referred to as the most photographed house in Central Oregon. The following description and history was collected and written by Theresa L Peterson, not myself.
The History of the Charles E Nelson House of Dufur, Oregon
copyright - Theresa L Peterson - all rights reserved.
The "Nelson" house is arguably the most photographed house in Central Oregon, certainly in Wasco County. It takes the viewer by surprise when it comes in to view, sitting alone in a little swale along Emerson Loop Road, beaten and tattered to the point of collapse, but still somehow it remains standing. Even in its precarious position it is still stately . Out of place in the middle of a wheat field but yet it belongs, as a testament to the past.
There is definitely something special about this particular house that makes it much different than the dozens of other abandoned homes in the Dufur area that were built by homesteaders that came and went at the turn of the 20th century. You know just by looking that it is still filled with the hopes and dreams of those who filled its rooms. Lured by promises of a better life, single men and families came by the thousands to Oregon and to the rolling hills south of The Dalles for free land. All they had to do was live on it for 5 years and show improvements and it was theirs. It seemed so easy but it was anything but. The successful ones were able to bear the incredibly hot dusty summers where the threat of a lightning storm often meant wildfires that would take their livelihood in minutes and cold, windblown winters that might lock them snowbound in their drafty homes for days if not longer, and kill their livestock. Many of their descendants still farm the hills near Dufur. Those that could not soon left for better climates, selling their homestead dreams to another dreamer or an established rancher who made the country work for him.
Perhaps it was this dream that made Robert Lowe (1858-1939) and his wife Isabella (Cochrane) Lowe select this plat of land to homestead. Both natives of Scotland, they came to America as small children and lived in Albany, NY where they met and Robert made his living as a boiler maker. They were married in 1882. Soon they started to dream of going west.
In 1892 Robert received the patent for the land the house sits on from the U.S. government. They started with nothing but the raw land and lived here until 1903 when they decided to give up their homestead and move to Portland where they lived until they passed. Both Robert and Isabella are buried in the River View Cemetery in Portland.
In 1903 Sylvester V. Mason and his wife Mary bought the homestead for $4500. Sylvester had moved from New York state as a single man to the area around 1900 and had already taken up farming. He soon found a wife and they moved in with their new born son, Nicholas and had a second son, Charles in 1906. They sold the property in 1906 and went on to build a large wheat operation near Boyd. Charles is buried in the Rice cemetery.
The next owners were looking for a different type of new beginning. James Leroy Holgate was from an old pioneer family of Oregon. Born in 1859 in Benton County Oregon he later moved to Junction City. In 1883 he married the first cousin of President Herbert Hoover, Clara Hoover, but in 1906 in what must have then been a scandal, he divorced his wife of 23 years and immediately married Anna Case. Anna had also divorced her husband and together the newlyweds suddenly had family of 7, with the children's ages ranging from 21 to 6 years. They got a mortgage for $5500 and started their new lives together. The house must have been bustling with activity. Sadly the happiness was cut short when Anna died in 1910 only 4 years after they moved in. James ,not letting any grass grow under his feet and a big brood to care for married again sometime before 1912. This time Hattie was her name. James and Hattie eventually moved to the Portland area. Details of what happened to the children are hard to find except for this interesting note. According to the book "History of Wasco County" by Wm. H. McNeal (1953), Bert, Anna's son, who was one of the children who moved in when she married, is buried on the property. He is not. He lived a long life, died in 1976 and is buried in the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland. Perhaps it is another child but it seems odd that their mother would be buried in a cemetery while the child would be buried on the ranch. We'll probably never know who or if anyone is buried there.
In 1912 James and new bride Hattie put the property under contract to William Fulton for $6000 and moved to The Dalles. Mr. Fulton paid $1200 and agreed to deliver the first 1/2 of all the crops of any kind to an agreed warehouse before Oct. 15th of each year until the balance was paid with 8% interest. Mr. Fulton also agreed to pay the taxes AND continue to insure the house for $2000. (So we know the house is standing as of 1912). As near as I can tell this contract was successfully completed in 1915..however there is warranty deed for the property dated in 1917 between William and A.B and Lizzie C Carlock of Multnomah County. Mr. Fulton paid $3795. for the property in this document. I have not been able to find any reference to Mr. and Mrs. Carlock buying the property . * I'm not sure if Holgate transferred the contract or lost it in a poker game...more research needed here. The Fulton's lived in the house and worked the land until 1926 when it became the birthplace of yet another family's dream. This time the new family stayed...for 78 years.
Long before Charles E Nelson handed over his $10 and "other good and valuable considerations" for the house and land on Emerson Loop, the seeds were sown and the roots ran deep for his love of the land near The Dalles. His grandparents, both of Wigtownshire, Scotland, James and Elizabeth Nelson had come America with their two youngest of 11 children, David Dalziel and daughter Janie, arriving in San Francisco in December of 1879. Wasting no time they came to The Dalles the following February where they claimed land on Dutch Flats. For a while they were the only settlers in this area, the only road being an old Indian trail and very rough terrain. They made a lasting home there and daughter Jane married William Harriman a rancher who later became a county commissioner. James and Elizabeth are both buried in the Eight Mile Cemetery.
Son David, married Joanna (Joan) Stewart in July of 1893 in the home of the bride at Mt. Hood Flat. She was also a native of Scotland and had moved with her parents to the area. They took over the farm on Dutch flat and had 3 children there, a son who died a birth and two daughters. They sold the farm and moved to a ranch on Emerson Loop Road. In the 1910 census they are shown with 5 children including 9 year old son Charles. Their neighbors, just down the road, are the newly married James and Anna Holgate and their collective children. Perhaps some of them were playmates to Charles. In the 1920 census, Charles is still working as a hand on his father's ranch but saving his money...and keeping an eye on the place down the road.
In 1926 Charles set his eyes upon Miss Ormaly Walton and was smitten. Before he made her his wife though he needed a place of his own, so in September of 1926 he bought the house that would later be known as the Nelson House. There is no way of knowing what the Other good and valuable considerations were in the contract but in any case Charles and his new bride would have a home to start their lives together in.
Charles and Orma were married in March of 1927 and moved in. There was 1 bedroom downstairs and 3 upstairs. Heat was created by a Globe Hot'nTot parlor stove in the front room of the house and a big Monarch cooking stove in the kitchen. There was also no insulation, no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Outside there was a barn for the cattle and the horses that Charles particularly enjoyed, a machine shed, wood shed and a chicken house. Water was supplied by the windmill that still stands today. There may have been a small Delco electrical system on the farm by 1930. In the 1930 census, the question "Do you have a radio?" is answered yes, but grid power didn't come for many years. Two daughters were born to the couple. Rosemary to whom we owe the wonderful details of the house and what it was like to live there and her younger sister Charlene. Rosemary was born in 1931 as the great depression began. It hit the area very hard and Charles worked not only his own land but other ranches in the area as well, often moving his young family with him. Rosemary went to the Fairfield School which was across the road from the house. She went there from 1st through 5th Grades. She was the only student in her grade and about 8 students in total at the school. Eventually students were sent to The Dalles and the school burned a few years later. The property the house sat on was a small acreage. Charles often rented other ranches to grow wheat and the family moved to the larger ranch to be with him. During WWII Charles cared for a neighbor's property while the owner's son was at war. After the war the family came home. In 1946 the REA finally came to the area and installed proper electricity. Joanna was excited and there was 2 things on her list that she wanted. A real refrigerator and an iron. The house still had no running water nor insulation. It was hot and dusty in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. In 1949 they left the house for the last time and it has remained empty since. Rosemary married and after the passing of her parents inherited the property and the house. Over the years the house has been often vandalized and used for midnight parties. It's location makes it very hard for the neighbors to watch over it. I asked her about the popularity of the house to photographers. She laughed and remarked how she wished she had a dollar for every time someone stopped to take a picture of it but she is glad people enjoy it. She sold the house and property in 2004 to the current owner and hasn't been back since but has fond memories of Dufur, the way of life there and the old house.
Who built the house? I'm betting on the Holgate's and a planned trip to the tax assessor should prove it out. He was a man of means and needed a big home for his many children. The architecture also fits with 1906 and in the following contract to Fulton he expressly required that the house be insured for $2000. A lot of money in 1912. It is called the Nelson house due to the longevity of the Nelson family's ownership. Ask a local resident for the Holgate or Fairfield house and you will get a blank stare. Ask for the Nelson house you will get an immediate response and directions.
So what is it about that house that draws everyone to it? To me it invited people in, strangely even in its condition it still does. It still expresses a promise of good things to come .
Theresa L Peterson 8/28/2015. I will update if more information comes to light.
Information for this article came from county and homestead deed records, grave records, published books on the history of Wasco county, family histories found on Ancestry.com and U.S. census records.
I would like to express my deepest thanks to the Wasco County Clerk's office who helped me sort through the deed records and lift the heavy books for me when my injured shoulder wouldn't let me. I would also like to thank the many new friends and descendants of the above mentioned families and neighbors who helped by allowing me to use family photos and by directing me to more information. Most of all I would like to thank the most lovely lady who called the grand old house her home. Thank you so much, Rosemary Nelson Wyatt. You made the house come alive with your vivid memories.
NOTES: Some people have put forth that this may have been a Sears "kit" house. I think it would be doubtful as this house is not in either the Sears nor Aladdin catalogs but only an inspection of the type of wood used inside would prove it out as those (and other Midwest companies) only shipped oak or pine not the fir that so many old homes had in them. Gordon-Van Tine Co was in Chehalis, Washington but didn't ship from there until after 1915.
*Per family lore J.L. was "pretty cantankerous and ....couldn't count cards either"