The oldest running shoes in the world were discovered in a cave in southeastern Oregon by archaeologist Luther S. Cressman in 1938. Radiocarbon dating indicated the sagebrush bark sandals to be approximately 9,053 years old, that is 2,000 years before Mt. Mazama erupted to form Crater Lake. You may visit that cave, but reservations are required.
Follow Oregon Scenic Byway Highway 31 southeast from La Pine 38 miles to Fort Rock Junction. Stop to read the informative kiosk explaining the local geology and history. The eight-mile distant landmark resembles a fortress. Check in at the Homestead Village Museum in the town of Fort Rock to meet a guide from the Oregon State Parks & Recreation Department who will lead a limited number of visitors to the cave.
“This was part of Reub Long’s ranch,” our guide Paul Patton said as he drove us west on Cow Cave Lane past Fort Rock.
Reuban A. “Reub” Long (1898-1974) raised Hereford cattle and beautiful horses featured in western films on 7,000 acres here. The rancher, cowboy, horseman, author, and desert philosopher and his wife Eleanor donated 30 acres to the people of Oregon for inclusion in Fort Rock State Park. Known for his wit and wisdom, Reub Long wrote, “God has quit making land, but he keeps right on making people.”
“People lived here during the Ice Age,” guide Paul said. “Fort Rock is a remnant of a maar volcano, or tuff ring, which exploded more than 100,000 years ago. Layers of glassy mud and debris formed a 6,000-foot ring around the crater later solidifying into rock. It rose 400 feet above the floor and, over time, this 40-mile long valley was covered by an inland sea. Prevailing southwesterly winds whipped waves against the fort’s perimeter eventually eroding the gap you see today.”
Half a mile west, Paul unlocked, drove us through, and locked a fence gate. He parked at the end of the dirt road blocked by a metal gate.
“Treat this site with respect and dignity,” Paul said. “It served as home to ancient people and is a vital part of their spiritual and cultural life. It is sacred to Northern Paiute, Modoc, and Klamath tribes. We worked with the natives to arrange tours only. It is not open to the general public.”
A short hike up the slope brought us to the cave formerly known as Reuban Long Cave and Cow Cave.
Paul demonstrated with a six-foot pole, marked at intervals with colored tape, the layers of cow poop (two feet thick), volcanic ash, and mud-caked lake sediment that Cressman’s scientific expedition excavated to uncover artifacts and sandals. The University of Oregon survey team spent five days digging through six feet of debris. More than 70 sandals were preserved in the volcanic ash.
“They are the oldest footwear found anywhere on planet Earth,” Paul said. “The Fort Rock stitch patterns are a distinct weave from other sandals found in a variety of caves in the Fort Rock basin. What looks like liquid running down the cave walls is rat midden. Examination reveals pollens to determine plants and climate conditions at that time,” Paul said.
Standing in the cave looking down at the sagebrush basin, it is difficult to picture an inland sea 21,000 years ago with salmon, shrimp, and shellfish; waterfowl; a marsh with cattails, tules, and willows; and flamingos, pelicans, bison, horses, mammoths, mastodons, and camels. As the climate warmed, the lake disappeared 9,000 years ago and sagebrush replaced much of the marsh grasses.
When Mt. Mazama erupted 7,500 years ago, people fled shoreline villages to outlying areas forming new tribes. A nomadic people, they stored belongings in caves while completing seasonal rounds. Hence, the cache of sandals and other artifacts were found preserved under layers of volcanic ash.
Paul passed samples of sagebrush, sandals, and a shoulder-sling basket with a curved bottom that rests on one’s leg while gathering nuts. He showed an elderberry arrow with a flat feather that flies swifter, a technique developed and perfected in this area. He demonstrated the atlatl, a spear throwing tool using leverage to achieve greater velocity in throwing, the oldest hunting technology on Earth.
In 1963, Fort Rock Cave was designated a registered National Historic Landmark; in 1998, it was donated to the Archaeological Conservancy as a permanent Archaeological Preserve; and in 2000 it transitioned into public hands.
Fort Rock State Monument was designated a registered Natural Landmark in 1977.
We walked down the rocky slope and turned left, right, and left again through the narrow animal barrier. Paul said cattle and horses are unable to twist their bodies through the maze.
Eight horses—buckskins, paints, black, chestnut, and sorrel—trotted toward us. They nuzzled and followed us to the van. We imagined these well-groomed, friendly horses to be descendants of stock Reub Long supplied to western film makers.
One of Reub Long’s saddles is on display in the Fort Rock Museum along with a variety of barbed wires. Pine needle mats, obsidian points, and cattail and tule sandals found in Rattlesnake Cave show different patterns from nearby Fort Rock items, also on exhibit.
An 1860 percussion cap muzzle loading shotgun, found in the desert on a rock overhang and donated to the museum, is thought to be an Indian piece.
Jack Swisher, president of the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society, welcomed us to the Homestead Village, which opened in 1988 to preserve the history of the homestead era (1905-1912). Volunteers preserve and protect these structures by moving them from their original locations to the museum grounds. Local members restore authentic period furnishings.
“The 1862 Homestead Act offered 160 acres to settlers on condition they build a dwelling, clear 40 acres to farm, and live on the land five years,” Swisher said. “The government moved the natives to the Chiloquin reservation to allow only white homesteaders and hoped for young families. In 1908, homesteads were surveyed and staked around an expected railroad that was never built.
“Ranchers pushed cattle up from Silver Lake. Twelve hundred people lived here. There are only 45 of us now,” he said.
A notebook of names and sizes of families living from Fort Rock to Lake, kept by Fort Rock’s first postmaster J.T. Rhoton, was donated by his granddaughter to the museum.
A weathered hay sled and a well driller, probably built in Chicago between 1855 and 1875, stand outside near the Stratton house. Fred Stratton built this house in 1912 after he moved his wife and two sons from Michigan. Years later, the house was moved from Wastina, six miles away, to serve as the Fort Rock post office. Stratton’s son Frank and his wife, Vivian (Hockman), founded the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society and donated the house to the museum. Frank died six years later. Vivian died 21 years later at age 104.
The Widmer cabin dates from the early 1900s in Bend on Reed Market Road. When the Parkway was built, the cabin was donated and moved to the museum. Inside is a collection of grinding stones, pestles, spear points, and arrowheads, including two large white arrowheads, used by the early native peoples. Three walls are covered with dozens of framed pictures made entirely of arrowheads.
Dr. James Thom built his office in 1906. He delivered more than 100 babies in the area and saved many lives during the 1917 flu epidemic. His office was moved to the museum grounds in 1987. The building has shifted off its foundation under a wall on the windward side. Volunteers leveled the rim joist and re-attached the floor joists to it. Wind blows away loose sand, especially on the south and west sides of old buildings, causing them to topple over. Once foundations are repaired, gravel is spread over the ground around the foundation to prevent wind from blowing away the sand.
Our guide, Jack Swisher, said a man attending the annual September reunion of homestead descendants claimed that he and his twin brother were born prematurely in one of the cabins. Dr. Thom advised their mother to place the infants in the oven until they were able to breathe on their own. He and his brother are living proof that the simple and inexpensive procedure worked at that time.
George Menkenmaier built his log cabin in 1910 and married Hazel Penrose in 1914. Dr. Thom delivered their two children who later played in the Cow Cave area. When Hazel met Luther Cressman, she expressed her children’s interest in the cave, which prompted him to explore the area.
The blacksmith shop was built in 2006 with siding donated from the Peyerl homestead. It houses artifacts and tools for shoeing horses and repairing harnesses and horse-drawn farm equipment. Behind the building are a planter , hay rake, reaper, swather, and three Fresno scrapers, all horse drawn.
St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was originally built in 1918 in Fleetwood, 11 miles to the east, because of a conflict between Protestants and Catholics. It was also used as a school. Schools were spaced every six miles because no child could be forced to walk more than three miles to school. Formerly known as St. Rose of Lima, it was donated and moved to the museum in 1988 and occasionally used for weddings and memorials. Outside is a privy with a one-holer and a two-holer.
Simon Boedigheimer, a carpenter by trade, built one of the few two-story houses in the area. A stairwell closet and built-in shelves in the parlor corner showcase his skill. Someone spent time cutting out heart shapes on the overhanging newspapers lining kitchen shelves.
The fenced garden represents plants homesteaders grew: Potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, beets, parsnips, rutabaga, chives, garlic, and rhubarb. Water from the ancient glacial lake bed lies 50 feet below. When the snow melts off Hager Mountain, the volcanic peak far to the south, locals know it’s time to plant.
Britt and Glenn Webster’s 1912 cabin needs repair of its sagging floor, gaps in the siding, rotting skirting boards, and broken window. The couple bred Hereford-Shorthorn cattle, and their son, Carl, was a skilled trapper, selling coyote hides to New Yorkers. His penciled record of his trap lines is faintly visible on a bedroom wall.
French immigrant, Alex Belletable, one of the wealthiest homesteaders in the valley, built his home in 1914 and donated three acres for the new Catholic Church. A prosperous farmer in France, he planted rye crops three times on the high desert and three times they blew away. He and his family left the valley in1922.
Two homestead buildings placed end to end form Sunset School, previously located six miles southeast from Fort Rock.
The Fort Rock General Store, circa 1910-1915, is the only original downtown building still standing from the homestead era.
For more information see http://www.fortrockoregon.com/
or email FRMuseum@centurylink.net