Taking the Census in the Applegate Valley of Oregon

The following article was written by my friend, by William Dollarhide:

Dollarhide’s Rule No. 37: The Post Office shown on the census page where your ancestors are listed is for a town which appears on known map ever published.

During my first five years as a genealogy addict, from 1972 to 1977, I moved into the Hungerford Hotel, next door to the downtown Seattle Public Library, home of one of the best genealogy collections on the West Coast. My wife thought genealogy was really stupid, so I divorced her, and moved into a hotel room by myself. I was able to get a job within walking distance of the hotel. And, I could use my lunch hour to head to the library to do some genealogy work; plus after work every evening, and of course, all-day Saturdays and half-day Sundays, in all, about 37 hours per week. In the evenings, after the library closed at 9:00 p.m., and after an hour or so at the hotel’s coffee shop, I might loiter around the hotel lobby talking to people or watching TV. One fellow who became a favorite conversation buddy, was John Graham, an older bachelor. After telling John about my experiences using the censuses, he told me a story about the time he was a census enumerator for the 1950 federal census.

His Enumeration District was in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. That rural area was one of the earliest settled areas of Oregon, with homestead farms dating back to the late 1840s, before the provisional Oregon Territory was officially part of the U.S. But the Applegate Valley was by-passed by the railroads and main transportation routes established further east in the 1880s, particularly those between Grants Pass and Medford.

In 1950, when my former census-taker friend John Graham visited many of the farms in the Applegate Valley, he was often stopped by a farmer at the front gate pointing a shotgun at him. He was reminded that he was on private property and that his presence there was not welcome. Over 100 years had not changed the folks living there much, and the hard-nosed, stubborn, Oregon pioneer need for privacy was still a way of life. John said he had to go back to about 50 different farms two and three times, under orders from his supervisor – but each time he was met with a shotgun. Finally, he turned the job over to his supervisor, who ended up estimating the number of people living in each of the uncooperative farmhouses, by interviewing the Postmaster, neighbors, old-timers, etc., and then let them have their privacy.

Today, the modern Interstate Highway (I-5) from Medford to Grants Pass is an easy 35-minute cruise along the Rouge River of Southern Oregon. To take the route that Lindsay Applegate blazed in 1848, jump off I-5 at Medford and head for Jacksonville, the old county seat of Jackson County, and where the old 1870s court house is now a museum and genealogical research library. From Jacksonville, head towards Applegate on OR Highway 238, which eventually will take you back to I-5 near Grants Pass. Going this way from Medford to Grants Pass will take well over an hour longer, and follows the Applegate River the whole distance. You will see the Applegate Valley about the same way that Lindsay Applegate first saw it, i.e., natural flowing white-water, and the towering evergreens of the foothills to the Pacific Coastal Range. Most of the man-made things are nearly hidden and the natural beauty of the valley is still unspoiled. Several of the original homestead log cabin farmhouses, and the picturesque covered bridges would have certainly made the place a favorite of Norman Rockwell, had he known about it. Outside of Oregon, the Applegate Valley is still mostly unknown.

Back in the mid 1970s, I recall stopping in the town of Applegate once, which consisted of a 100-year-old General Store and maybe three or four other buildings. Inside the General Store was an enclosed corner serving as the Post Office for much of the valley. I remember counting the PO Boxes, and learned that about sixty valley residents got their mail there. But right after my visit to Applegate, some dramatic changes started to take place. The lava-rich soil and moderate climate of the Applegate Valley was discovered to be a perfect place for planting vineyards, and the valley was located within the same latitudes as the prime wine regions of Europe. The Applegate Valley still looks much the same, over 170 years after the first farms were established there – except the valley is now an official U.S. Wine Appellation in Oregon. Driving the valley hasn’t changed, but as you look up on the hills above the valley, the view is now second-growth forests interspersed with vineyard after vineyard.

Some things have remained the same. Most of the original farms are still there and mostly inhabited by descendants of the original pioneer homesteads.

In the 1950 Census of the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, the figure may have been as high as 50% of all households were unresponsive. Actually, unresponsive households have been part of every census taker’s reality since 1790. There are always a number of households with problems requiring special attention. But the census takers have always handled this problem the same way. For example, in the 2010 census, Robert Groves, the Census Bureau director, decided to purchase additional advertising in locations where responses to the first round of mailed census questionnaires lagged behind. As was the case in all previous censuses, Groves also encouraged the Census Bureau enumerators to rely more on questioning neighbors or other reliable third parties when a person could not be immediately reached at home. It was estimated that about 22% of all U.S. households in the 2010 Census did not respond to the questionnaires and the detailed information about such unresponsive households was provided by third parties. Good grief! If the figure was 22% in 2010, what was it in the earlier censuses?

That might explain why there are so many obvious mistakes in the census, such as incorrect ages, places of birth, etc. – many of households were enumerated by someone not part of the family!

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