Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Circuit Rider and Lumber King: Two Generations of Robert Booth at the Capitol

Early in January of 1921, R. A. Booth of Eugene proposed a statue to honor his father, Robert Booth, a minister who started preaching here as a Circuit Rider in 1855. Later in January on the 26th, the Legislature and Governor accepted the gift and started looking for a site.

Circuit Rider and old Capitol
April 1924 dedication program

You might recall Burt Brown Barker and his gift of the Pioneer Mother statue to the University of Oregon. The Circuit Rider is another instance of a benefactor using the personal story of a parent to figure myth as part of a more general origin story for the state. Even if it is not exactly a deliberate conflation of genealogy and history, it still valorizes one part of the story at the expense of others. It's not necessarily wrong, but it is one-sided.

R. A. Booth in Looters of the Public Domain, 1908
(composite image: page 237 and title page)

Robert A. Booth was a lumberman and civic leader with a large complex right on the edge of downtown Springfield.

From a capsule biography at the World Forestry Center:

Robert A. Booth, one of the founders of the Booth-Kelly Lumber Co. and the son of a Methodist Circuit Rider, was born May 15, 1858 in Yamhill County, Oregon. He graduated from Umpqua Academy in Wilbur, Oregon in 1875 and later attended Heald Business College in San Francisco....

Robert A. Booth was more than a successful businessman. He was a state Senator for two terms in the Oregon Legislature. He was the leader in formulating the Oregon highway system and served as chairman of its Highway Commission. He served as trustee of Willamette University, was President of the Oregon Land and Livestock Company, served on the Oregon Tuberculosis Association and the State Park Commission and was active in Rotary, Boy Scouts, Portland and Eugene Chambers of Commerce and other public service organizations.

The Booth-Kelly mill has been redeveloped as an office park and maker space, and it has an important place in the history of Springfield, the upriver valleys, and Cascades foothills. The impacts of forestry on wildfire also make an important impact on our current history.

Booth in the Salem papers
March 18th, 1910 (top)
April 8th, 1905 (bottom)

Lumber King? Fraudster?
May 11th, 1904 (left)
July 13th, 1906 (right)

But we should probably also understand the statuary as part of reputational laundering, of sanitizing the story of Pioneers and then of their offspring. Settler colonialism and second-generation extraction industry both benefited from shaping a more laudatory history.

A kind of plunder is at the center here, and we forget it too easily. And even after the original displacement of Native peoples, how much "success" depended on a second round of fraud? Booth was likely a figure in the Oregon Land Fraud schemes. He is known to have participated in other schemes. A piece in The Lane County Historian notes

Booth secured some of his land with dummy entrymen acquisitions, later known as the land-fraud system....The different lumber companies orchestrated these purchases and often times assisted the "settler" to and from the Land Grant Office. A long-time employee of Booth-Kelly referred to it as the "Tom, Dick,and Harry" method....Booth was also indicted, but after years of federal investigations and a trial held in Portland, Booth was acquitted and the Company rolled on.

So there are different kinds of "dirt" that it might be useful to clean up in both family history and in state history.

Oregonian, January 9th, 1921

Statesman, January 9th, 1921

The positive, myth-making part of the project wasn't very hidden. From the Statesman:

The pioneer circuit riders who were an important factor in the early civilization of America are to be fittingly commemorated in Oregon by an equestrian statue of heroic size which is to be presented to the state by former Senator R. A. Booth of Eugene. The statue will represent the pioneer type of minister of the gospel who was an educational and civilizing influence among the early settlers of the Pacific Northwest, and largely instrumental in saving the state of Oregon to the union.

On the 26th, the Legislature accepted the gift.

January 27th, 1921

It wasn't until the Spring of 1924 that the statue was installed and dedicated. 

Around the installation they had a poetry contest. Mary Carolyn Davies wrote the winning poem. She is prominent enough to have a capsule biography at the Poetry Foundation and a somewhat longer entry at the Oregon Encyclopedia, though the end of her life in the early 1940s she was poor, ill, and obscure, and the biographers found no obituary or other notice when she died.

March 7th, 1924

As published it also participates in the myth-making:

God tramps on through the scourging rains
God vaults into the saddle
Rides along past the dusty plains
God’s back bends to the paddle —
Cedar branches and sunlight through!
And on, still on, speeds the lone canoe!

God rides out on His ancient quest;
Healing, saving, commanding.
Here in the savage unknown West,
Settlement, cabin, landing —
Well they know the steady beat,
In the stillness of God’s horse’s feet.

God leads to grace the pioneers,
Who walk each hour with danger;
Knows these grim men for His peers;
Give His bread to the stranger —
Doing all that a neighbor can,
God rides still, a weary man.

God rides out! And founds three states;
Their Scourger, their Defender;
Guides their loves and tones their hates,
Leads them into splendor!
God — in the Circuit Rider’s breast —
Once more, God built a world — Our West.

There's a Christian Nationalist center to the poem and since this poem won, the take on religious destiny was clearly welcome. The program at the 1924 dedication featured the Methodist Bishop and his address, "The Christian Minister and the State." And in his acceptance, Governor Pierce, whom we remember as at least KKK-adjacent, called the statue

a constant reminder to citizens of the Pacific Coast of the arduous work of those who laid the foundation for this unparalleled civilization that we today enjoy.

April 20th, 1924

There are lots of thematic strands, of course, and it's not possible to squish them all down to one interpretation. But the strands of white Christian Nationalism in our Oregon origin story and of reputational laundering for the Booths are threads that at this moment in our current history we should consider more strongly.

The Circuit Rider is art and history we teach in schools, but the establishment story about it has a lot of myth rather than history in it.

Additional notes on the Circuit Rider or the artist:

Previously here on our monuments, memorials, and myth-making:

1 comment:

Jim Scheppke said...

Thank you for this. Someday we need an article on Booth in the Oregon Encyclopedia.