Our County Through Time: Five Oaks
By Liza J. Schade, Washington County Museum Curator
Many people visiting Washington County Museum ask about the Five Oaks, located on the north side of Hwy. 26 and just east of Helvetia Rd. Was it a Native American place? Was it a pioneer site? Does it still exist? Where is it located? Can we go and visit? These questions prompted me to go and look in our archive to see what information we had available on Five Oaks. I would like to share with you all what I have found so far!
First, you need to know about the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garry) itself. This majestic tree was named by the famous botanist David Douglas, who felt awkward naming the new species he found near Fort Vancouver after himself. Instead, he named it after his friend and deputy governor of Hudson’s Bay Company, Nicholas Garry. The Oregon White Oak is a deciduous hardwood tree with grey-black colored bark, native to Oregon, but it grows all the way up the Pacific Coast, from California to British Columbia. It is a tough tree, resistant to both drought and fire, and it usually grows in open meadows and savannahs, where it can get full sun.
For centuries, the Atfalati people of Tualatin Valley would seasonally burn out these valley meadows to keep conifer forest growth under control. The fires would replenish the meadow soils for camas growth the next season, but the strong oaks would stay standing through. Tribes would also camp and meet under the oaks during their annual migration from Wapato Lake at Gaston to trade, hold meetings, settle disputes, and perform religious rites.
In 1840, Joe Meek, chose the Tualatin Plains to settle in, along with a handful of mountain men tired of the hardships of trapping in a declining fur trade. They had probably already known about the Five Oaks from trading with local Atfalati and they called it the Rocky Mountain Retreat at first (later becoming West Union). In 1843, Alexander Zachary and his wife, Sarah Luster Zachary, made their way to Oregon in the first large migration and took up a 639.84 acre land claim where the Five Oaks stood. Those who settled around the Zachary’s claim were David Lenox, founder of West Union Baptist Church, Walter Pomeroy, who traded claims with Robert Newell, Edward Constable, and Stephen Holcomb.
Some of the writings about the Five Oaks that we have in our archive say that originally these early settlers picnicked there with the local Atfalati, in one incidence noting over 1,000 Native Americans and 200 settlers. Robert Benson wrote that a British warship anchored on the Columbia River brought sailors and new settlers, who would get together and have horse races, gaming, and rum parties there. Some of the more conservative settlers didn’t like that much. They even held a few criminal trials there before David Hill donated a log cabin to be used as county courthouse.
In 1845, the first Fourth of July celebration was held there, which had a two-fold meaning for settlers; freedom as an American and freedom from British influence in Oregon. David Lenox called the meeting to order at 10am that day and guns saluted at various times between speakers. A local company of soldiers marched around the oaks, Rev. Cushing Eels prayed and the Declaration of Independence was read out by Richard S. Caldwell. Orations were then spoken by Eels, Joe Meek, Mr. Myers, Rev. R. Weston, and Rev. Northup. Then the crowd feasted and a 31 gun National salute was given, where some soldiers released balloons that all “rose majestically to about 600 feet, when striking a current of air floated to the North.” Once finished with the main program, the crowd sang My Country Tis of Thee and one last cannon salute rang out before everyone went home.
The picture at the top of this article shows the Five Oaks still standing around 1930. Between 1948 and 1952, high winds blew down two of the trees. A third fell in the Columbus Day Storm of 1962. After that, there were only two (plus the third stump) of the Five Oaks left, both about six feet in diameter and aged 400 to 650 years old.
Mr. Arnold Berger now owned the land (see left picture) and decided to try and save the site by replanting new baby oaks nearby, knowing eventually the original Five Oaks would be gone. He sold the farm to Riviera Motors in the 1970s though. In 1995, a company called PacTrust bought the property and built the Five Oaks Industrial Park there. They (along with partner Big Trees Today, a Hillsboro area mature planting firm) promised to replant the grove with new oaks at least five inches in diameter, to promote healthy rooting and future growth.
Finally on September 20, 1999, PacTrust, local West Union garden clubs and the community gathered to dedicate a pavilion there with a placard and small park area. The old Five Oaks site was now preserved for anyone who wanted to stop off Hwy. 26. and imagine what that first meeting would have been like.
Today, most people have never even heard of the Five Oaks, or simply know the term, but none of the history. Just recently in May, I went and hiked Cooper Mountain Nature Park with my sister and came across a preserved Oregon White Oak meadow blooming full with dark purple camas flowers. It was so beautiful I was taken aback and I could’ve stayed there in peaceful reverence for hours. I imagined what it must have been like for those visiting the area and places like the Five Oaks over the centuries. I plan to take my sister to Five Oaks next time we get together and have a picnic. I encourage you all to do the same!