Authors note: I probably heard more stories about Farquhar McRae while growing up than any other character known to my family. Among the people mentioned in this story are T.H. McGreer my great-grandfather and Elizabeth (Babe) Scott, sister of Chrissy Scott. Babe was my aunt.) If you have family stories you would like to share in our Sunday edition send them to add mailto:admin@Nevada-today.com form
Those who knew Farquhar McRae swear that he never took a bath in his
life,but his moonshine was the best, and the only supply available to the cowboys and herders scratching a livelihood from the livestock foraging on the shrubs, grasses, and forbs abundant throughout the eastern Oregon plains.
McRae was a sheep-man by profession, a moonshiner by desire, and a businessman of extraordinary talent. That was a skill unknown to most of those who settled the John Day country, east of the Cascade Range and south of the Columbia Gorge, in the late 1800’s.
He had migrated from Scotland to The Dalles, Oregon, in 1872. Two years later sheep were introduced into the area. In 1875. McRae, along with Zach Taylor Keys, walked from The Dalles into the John Day country through grass that was knee-high to a horse.
McRae was as independent as the Antelope that populated the high desert. It
was the Antelope that gave a local stage stop its name. He homesteaded some forty miles from Keys. His business skills and hospitality were taken for granted. Yet, some found his propensity for profanity unforgivable. Others thought the cursing, with a heavy Scottish brogue, fascinating.
Like others of his day, he was addicted to alcohol. He made and drank about a gallon and a half of alcohol each month. If you brought a bottle out while he was visiting, it was generally empty before he left. If not empty, he would take it with him.
He was tricky when it came to the bottle. Once while visiting T.H McGreer, on his ranch along the John Day River, he was offered a drink. He stepped onto the porch and took the bottle and said:
“This stuff ain’t no goot for ya,” and pretended to throw the bottle in the brush with a sweeping motion of his arm while tucking it under his coat. After all, Farquhar was, well Farquhar.
McRae made the best moonshine in the John Day country after his partner Charley Dawson died. Before then, the ranchers and herders could tell McRae-Dawson moonshine by the metal taste it left in their mouths.
It took McRae nearly two-years to get his market back after Dawson passed. He had to drop his prices from $10 a gallon to $6. That helped a lot when earning a dollar-a-day and found, was considered a good wage. It helped that he no longer boiled up his rye in galvanized pots. He found cooper better since it eliminated the metal taste. It was a surprise to Farquhar when some years later, he learned that his partner’s death was probably caused by the toxic gases from the galvanized pots.
By 1880, a great influx of Oregon settlers had worn a path from the old stage station at Antelope, and east down Sorefoot Canyon to the John Day River where it met another road going north to McRae’s place. Those who visited McRae found him very hospitable, yet somewhat more cordial to cattlemen than to those, like himself, raising sheep. Maybe cattlemen paid more for his moonshine. More likely, he recognized the increasing tensions between cattlemen and sheep-men and only wanted to avoid trouble.
In April 1904, 2,300 sheep were killed in a single night in Lake County. In May 1904, a delegation of sheep-men from Antelope in eastern Wasco County traveled to Crook County in an effort to reach an agreement with the cattle ranchers of central Oregon. This attempt was unsuccessful and a few days later, 150 sheep were shot near Mitchell, located fifty miles southeast of Antelope.
Moon-shining was OK, sheep were not. The years 1870 thru 1910 were known as the era of the big sheep ranches, with sheep being imported from Spain, Australia, and Scotland.
Year by year, McRae, and others could see the range grass disappearing as competition for the forage increased. Homesteaders coming into the area compounded the problem. They held their land as private property in contrast to the livestock producers who insisted that the land was open range.
To keep range stock from grazing in the hay, grain fields and in orchards, the farmers fenced their lands. The fences soon became a network. Free movement of the stock was over. Most homesteads were not totally fenced. Nonetheless, permission was usually obtained to move stock across recognized private land.
McRae did what most sheep-men did when crossing private property; he cut fences and put them back together before he continued. If he saw the owners and if they were cooperative, he gave them a half or a full piece of dressed mutton. To McRae, the mutton was not for crossing the land. It was for the grass eaten along the way.
To many, McRae was like the weather. Everybody talked about him, but no one controlled him. And unlike most of the settlers, McRae was an educated man. He had a grasp of numbers, language, history, and geography that was extensive for his day. He had a walking knowledge of World War I and could cite each battle, troop movements, divisions involved, and even the number of casualties on each side.
His ledger showed his income and expenditures. It indicated a business-like mind and good penmanship, although somewhat shaky when he was frisky with a drink. His numerical entries were neat and precise and his math very accurate. He trusted his friends and would often leave them money to pay off his debts to others.
Steadily, silently, persistently, piece-by-piece, the range went. Yet McRae held on. Each spring he, and his herders, trailed the sheep from one range to another and into the Ochoco Mountains to graze on the rich meadow grasses exposed by the melting snow. Other ranchers did the same.
The cattlemen, who also needed grass, began to blame the sheep-men for the disappearing range. Cattlemen cherished the fiction that cattle wouldn’t eat or drink where sheep had grazed. Sheep-men claimed that cattle trampled down five times more grass than they ate.
McRae lived far enough downriver to avoid any confrontations with cattlemen. With his moonshine business and five or six bands of sheep, at about 1,500 sheep per band, to care for, he was a busy man.
It soon became necessary to hire herders, and camp tenders to work the sheep camps, and eventually, he hired a housekeeper who was accompanied by her husband and their children: Andrew, Chrissy, and Babe.
Mr. and Mrs. James Scott were very capable and eventually moved beyond housekeeping to managing his entire operation. McRae was now over fifty and slowing down. It wasn’t that he was too old to work; it was his heavy drinking that kept him inactive.
Eventually, McRae came down with diphtheria, and Jim Scott took him to The Dalles for treatment. When the two arrived, the nurses cleaned McRae, despite his vociferous opposition.
“Ah did not-a cume here to be a-cleaned; ah cume to be a-cured,” he is quoted as saying in his Scottish brogue.
The nurses and an orderly or two got him to the bathing area and took his clothes while suffering an abundance of cursing. As the hot water was being drawn, a naked McRae bolted for the door and ran down the hall. He was finally subdued and forced into the tub. Andrew Scott remembered that while McRae got over diphtheria, he never got over the bath.
Next, to his love of alcohol, he loved five-year-old Chrissy Scott. One day he
was playing with the child near the edge of the river. Chrissy, in a wooden tub, would float along the river’s edge while McRae controlled the tub with a rope. The washtub upset dumping Chrissy into the cold water. Quickly, McRae lifted Chrissy from the river, but that night she came down with the chills and several days later died from diphtheria.
Since diphtheria was contagious, the authorities would not allow the child to be buried in the Antelope cemetery. McRae and Scott bought a coffin at Glisan’s Furniture in Antelope and buried the child in the corner of McRae’s hay field. McRae blamed himself for her death and seldom went near that part of the field. In 1911 McRae and Jack Tunny covered her grave with a concrete enclosure. Chrissy rests there today.
The Great Depression hit the sheep-men hard and McRae was no exception. By then his homestead was owned by the Eastern Oregon Bank. Instead of taking everything, the Bankers put McRae on an allowance that did not allow much, if any, for liquor.
On one, occasion, the Bank gave him several bags of onions that they had received in payment for something. McRae tried to trade them for liquor, money or food but without success. Those who met him reported that:
“In addition to his other odors, he now had strong onion breath.”
Eventually, McRae was forced to hire himself out as a sheep-shearer, and by 1933, his fellow shearers were noted for working up-wind. Once some men chipped in to purchase him some new clothes. As expected, they had a difficult time peeling off the old ones and putting on the new. It was said that his old coveralls were so stiff that they stood up by themselves.
It was in March 1935 that a highway employee stopped at McRae’s cabin for a drink of good spring water. He found McRae lying with his face and hands in the spring water. He was dead.
He had attended a dance at the Lookout Mountain Grange and given a ride home by Mr. and Mrs. Clay Abel. Unfortunately, the Abel’s had a flat tire, and McRae decided to walk the half mile to his cabin.
McRae had stopped in the spring for a drink of water quickly died of lung failure and alcoholism. He was seventy-seven. Ironically, the man who consumed so much hard liquor, rotgut and moonshine, indeed anything with alcohol, should take his last breath drinking pure spring water.
McRae is buried in The Dalles cemetery. His cabin was moved into the Prineville city park as an exhibit of an early pioneer home.
It’s easy to dismiss McRae’s life as that of an alcoholic, but his story has far more meaning. Like his cabin, his life was an exhibit of early pioneer life. Unlike the static cabin, however, his life, like many who trekked the wilderness, was filled with psychic anguish, that was calmed only with the ingestion of the next drink.
Early pioneers awoke, far too often, to face another day alone, lonely, and certainly, overwhelmed by feelings of detachment from all those who once welcomed and loved them. Indeed, many must have felt detached, even from themselves. This continuing deterioration of spirit, certainly, must have characterized the daily existence of early pioneers.
It’s easy to understand how McRae, and those like him, eventually, and unwittingly, would engage in various kinds of self-destruction when faced with the immensity of the land, and an environment, that required survival skills unknown to most modern men and women.
In spite of his self-destructive behavior, Farquhar McRae, was an honest man, an individual friendly and helpful to his neighbors. He grieved over the death of loved ones and aware of the need to care for the land and his livestock.
The land we know as the West was tamed and settled by many Farquhar McRae’s, who had the courage and fortitude to face loneliness and despair on their own terms. We owe him, and to many other pioneers, the respect due to the real heroes that settled the West.
1. Thanks to Art Campbell for his interview with Andrew “Balk” Scott, whose father Jim and mother worked for Farquhar McRae.
2. Special thanks to Babe Scott McGreer, daughter and James Scott McGreer, grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Jim Scott and R.E. McGreer, grandson of T.H. McGreer for their memories of Farquhar McRae as told to the author.
3. Farquhar McRae journals.