Spotlight on the historic Shirk Ranch

Greg Shine
Shirk Ranch landscape with buildings

How many times have you driven by an old barn or homestead and wanted to stop, get out and explore its hidden history?

At BLM-administered sites like the Shirk Ranch, you can.

Nestled deep in the Lakeview District’s Guano Valley, the historic Shirk Ranch transports visitors back in time to Oregon’s homesteading and early ranching days.

In person, its century-old boards reveal much about the people who lived and worked there—and the era in which they lived.

View from building at Shirk Ranch
View from building at Shirk Ranch.
Photo by Lisa McNee, BLM.

The Shirk Ranch was originally homesteaded by the Hill family in the early 1880s, during the initial settlement of Lake County. According to the site’s National Register nomination, David L. Shirk purchased the property in 1883 and, around 1910, built most of the buildings and structures standing today.

Shirk was a well-known cattleman—he had assisted with the first drive of Texas cattle to Oregon back in 1869 and reportedly held up to 50,000 acres of Oregon rangeland. But this ranch in Guano Valley was different. It wasn’t a cattle ranch.

Shirk purchased the Guano Valley site as a horse ranch and wrote that he “at once began improving the property to accommodate a large number of horses and mules.”

“These I raised myself, shipped to market, . . . and sold them,” he wrote, “and in this I did fairly well.”

Horse raising was a key industry well into the twentieth century, before the automobile and mechanized farm machinery were widely available. Demand was high. Oregon horses raised by stockmen like Shirk even ended up at war on two foreign continents, supporting military actions in South Africa’s Boer War and, later, World War I in Europe.

Shirk Ranch fence

Family was essential to Shirk’s ranch operations. “I and my family, including my wife and children, were almost constantly in the saddle, doing our work and lessening expenses,” he wrote.

Shirk also relied on the help of ranch hands. “I endeavored to secure as employees the better class of young men,” he wrote. “I had constructed an elegant country home, and all were treated as equals. They ate their meals with me and my family, and in other respects were treated as equals.”

Building facade at Shirk Ranch
Building facade at Shirk Ranch.
Photo by Lisa McNee, BLM.

Today, after more than a century, the site’s main house today offers clues to Shirk’s egalitarian vision. This building’s second floor features a large, rectangular room that probably held, of all things, a billiard room.

“Upstairs,” Shirk wrote, “I fitted up a billiard room, placing therein a modern billiard table for their amusement during times of idleness and the long winter nights. I had a two-fold purpose in this. First, because I believe that every man is as good as any other man, provided he is honest, industrious and conducts himself as a self-respecting man, and also, because I sought by this means and by such methods to secure contentment and steadiness on the part of the men in my employ.”

Shirk sold the property in 1914. In 2009, the ranch was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its national significance. Today, the BLM administers it for public access, keeping it open for intrepid visitors interested in exploring Oregon’s ranching past beyond a drive-by, windshield tour.

To learn more, visit the site’s webpage at https://www.blm.gov/visit/historic-shirk-ranch and view its Flickr album at https://flic.kr/s/aHsmTsfqfN.

Sources for this article include the site's 2009 National Register of Historic Places nomination package prepared by BLM volunteers John Toso and Sherry Nelson, and revised by Ian P. Johnson, Oregon State Historic Preservation Office staff member, available at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77849721. Photos by Lisa McNee, BLM Lakeview.

Shirk Ranch landscape with buildings