"ANCIENT HISTORY"- AN INCIDENT IN SOUTHERN OREGON IN 1880|
From the Fireman's Fund Record, November-December 1935.
By MILLER S. FARRELL,
THERE is little that we do of good or evil that does not leave its mark somewhere, perhaps to be buried in the sands of time for half a century or more, perhaps forever; perhaps to be brought to light again only by the vagrant curiosity of an idle passerby.
In 1880, the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company was only seventeen years old, viewing with pride its assets of $1,160,017, an increase of 56 per cent over the previous year, and in the million dollar class for the first time.
In entering southern Oregon at all the Company was pioneering beyond the railhead; special agents - if such there were - traveled by stage or buggy or horseback or not at all. In 1880, there lived in southern Oregon a man of medicine, and he insured his home and barn in the Fireman's Fund.
The doctor married, but he does not seem to have been adapted to double harness. The couple separated, the house and barn were rented to others, and the doctor lived elsewhere.
One September night, well after dark (but not at the usual hour between twelve and 1:00 a.m.) the sleepy little town was aroused by the cry of fire. The doctor's barn was burning nicely, but the community turned out en masse and succeeded in saving the house. During the course of the fire, quite early in fact, the doctor arrived with his team of horses on the dead run.
Naturally, a claim was made under his insurance policy. History does not relate who the adjuster may have been or who investigated the case. But it was shown that a team had been tied in a grove of pines back of the barn, and the tracks of a man who had walked from the buggy to the building and back again were still visible in the dust.
Furthermore, it was shown that one shoe left a peculiar impression as of a sole recently patched along one edge, and in town there was a shoemaker who was ready to swear that he had only recently mended the doctor's boots in just that way.
There were those who contended that the doctor couldn't possibly have left the dinner table nine miles away at a fairly well established hour and reached his house in time to set the fire, retreat and arrive again at a psychological moment.
It was tried with the same team over the same route, and the evidence was negative. But the friend who made the experiment did not lather the horses as the doctor had, and the point was never proved.
The community took sides violently, and bitter words were spoken. But the Fireman's Fund thought so much of the justice of its case that it retained an attorney in Jacksonville to assist in the prosecution of the doctor for arson. One jury disagreed; the second finally voted for acquittal. Whether guilty or innocent, the doctor pressed his claim no further.
Not long after that, he drifted away to a neighboring state, practiced for several years in various locations there, and finally disappeared entirely from the ken of those in the Rogue River country who had known him.
All this might have been forgotten fifty years ago, and perhaps should have been. But one warm afternoon in August, 1935, a special agent with an hour or so to spare (it happens very rarely), chanced to meet the Mayor of a southern Oregon town, an old man now, born in the community, and proud of having been one of the first white children born along the Rogue.
The name of the Fireman's Fund stirred reminiscence, and this story was told, very much as it appears above.
There was still time for a short call at Jacksonville a few miles away, one of the oldest towns in Oregon, founded by overflow gold miners from California in the days of '49.
When the price of gold jumped a few years ago, the quiet home owners of Jacksonville became frantic miners, scrabbling happily and successfully in their own back yards for the gold they had always known was there.
Mining is still being done in that town, but if active mining does not interest the visitor, perhaps old buildings will, and surely the "Museum of Southern Oregon" is worth a minute.
The special agent browsed through several files of old letters and papers in the "Museum" that afternoon, pursuing in a rather desultory way his desire to locate an old Fireman's Fund insurance policy.
All the papers were interesting, with their fine spencerian handwriting, but policies there were none. And then, a letterhead came to light, a Fireman's Fund letterhead showing the old building at California and Sansome, with tophatted gentlemen on the curb and prancing horses in the streets! It was dated November 10, 1880, and related to this loss!
The search became a little more careful. Here was another, dated January 18, 1881, to the same attorney and discussing the same loss! One was signed by E. W. Carpenter and the other by George D. Dornin. Both were hand written, indicating where the title of Secretary comes from.
One noted the enclosure of a check for $100 payable to the attorney (the check was gone), and the other refused a compromise. The Fireman's Fund would either pay none of the loss or all of it.
Both letters were well preserved, slightly yellow with years, but still faithfully and legibly recording the sentiments of fifty-five years ago. Both are now in safe keeping at the head office, restoring to that extent the records destroyed in 1906.
If there is any moral to this story it has been written in the opening paragraph. For fifty-five years the tale has been sleeping; now it stirs itself again, mellowed by time, robbed of its bitterness.
Once it was a vital issue; now it can only serve to excite a casual interest in the lives of yesterday, a mild curiosity that it came to life at all, and more than a little wonder at the coincidence that brought it to life not once, but twice, in the same afternoon and in different towns.
[Fireman's Fund Archives: 4-1-3-4-46; 0409.]
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