Millions of Acres
150 years ago, the Homestead Act of 1862 opened a new frontier to west-seeking settlers.
story by Brooke Brown
Exactly 150 years ago in the midst of the American Civil War, Congress passed a bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln making the 1862 Homestead Act into law. Pioneers - especially new immigrants - looked westward, buoyed with hope that homesteading would allow them the opportunity to establish themselves in a new country. They searched to find a home in America where they could make a living on its land.
By way of the Oregon Trail, the Pacific Northwest welcomed many homesteaders. Some 50,000 travelers made their way here. And perhaps one of the more interesting plots is the Gerber Block in southern Oregon. Currently public lands managed by the BLM's Lakeview District, the Gerber Block was initially described by cadastral surveys in 1868 and 1871 as grassy prairie land surrounded by timber.
A Legacy Begins
In 1886 and 1888, Louis Gerber and his brother John acquired 840 acres in southern Oregon under the Swamp Land Act. Then in 1895, Louis filed for a homestead comprised of 167.77 acres in Horsefly Valley, Oregon, along Miller Creek - a place known today as the "Gerber Block."
Back in Sacramento, California, Louis and John had originally established themselves as purveyors of a wholesale meat business. Louis was a meat buyer for the company known as "Gerber Brothers" which allowed him to travel through northern California and southern Oregon. He drove cattle from southern Oregon to northern California for shipment by rail to his own slaughterhouse.
Over the course of his travels, Louis slowly began building a ranch. And in 1899, Louis married a school teacher from southern Oregon, Ida J. Campbell. Louis and Ida had two sons. Though one died when he was two years old, the other grew up as Henry Gerber.
Watering the West
Louis and John weren't the only ones helping to develop the west. In 1878, a number of irrigation projects were building canals to deliver crucial water to thirsty farmlands. And once the Reclamation Act was passed in 1902, the Federal government became a key player in Oregon's irrigation efforts in the Klamath Basin.
A few years later, the Klamath Project was authorized to provide additional irrigation water to the local agriculture community. This water came from Lost River, Oregon, and Clear Lake, California, to serve tens of thousands of acres within the Klamath Basin. At the Gerber Block a dam was constructed. And by redirecting water to grow crops, many of the 359,000 acres of wetlands in this area were drained - and ultimately offered as homesteads to U.S. citizens as well as World War I and World War II veterans.
For the Public Good
By 1923, the Gerbers' original 840 acres acquired under the Swamp Land Act and the 167.77 acres of homestead lands were sold to the U.S. government for development under the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project. Today, these lands have been taken over by the Gerber Reservoir that was developed as a part of that project.
Ranchers in this area came to realize that the quality of the rangeland was seriously declining. And competition between livestock would only make the situation worse. So in opposition to potentially tighter grazing controls, local livestock men formed the Southern Oregon Grazing Association in 1933. Louis' son Henry Gerber was an original member of the Association as well as the group's secretary. The Association submitted a bill to Congress seeking the creation of a Federal grazing district.
First in Oregon, First in the Nation
The Taylor Grazing Act was passed shortly thereafter by Congress in 1934. This new law took out 142 million acres across 11 western states from homesteading. Ultimately, this act created the U.S. Grazing Service - which has been incorporated into today's BLM. But the original mission of the Grazing Service was to manage lands in the public domain and to develop grazing districts. And Henry Gerber wrote to the Department of the Interior asking for help in establishing a grazing unit in the Gerber Block.
Two days after the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, the U.S. Geological Survey recommended to the Secretary of the Interior that the Gerber Block was useful for grazing and forage crops and that a grazing district should be established. And so in April 1935, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes created Grazing Districts 1, 3, and 4 in Oregon. The Gerber Block was bestowed the title of Grazing District Number 1 making it the first grazing district in Oregon - and the nation.
Home, and Back Again
Perhaps even more impressive in the Gerber Block becoming the first grazing district in Oregon is the fact that the three granddaughters of Louis Gerber - all daughters of Henry - still retain Gerber Ranch lands in the Gerber Block area and live on the lands. From the 1980s onward, the Gerber family has been a key player in lands management working with both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service. The Gerber Family has also implemented their own land improvement projects to include fencing, thinning, and wildlife habitat improvement projects - as well as working with Oregon wildlife biologists to monitor and reintroduce elk on the lands.
Through the Homestead Act, folks like the Gerber family laid a historical foundation that have allowed these lands to be set aside for public use and enjoyment and to be managed responsibly by the BLM. Travelers to the Gerber Block can still hear and feel the echoes of earlier settlers. They can see, if faintly, the roads which once carried wagon trains and early pioneer families. And by their continued presence, it is perhaps the Gerber family who carries on this history the most. Louis Gerber's 1895 homestead led to a family legacy on a public landscape that is still very much felt and seen today.
Check out more historic homesteading photos online.
And check out more info on the Homestead Act and its 150th Anniversary.