History of Baker County Government

Our County

     Beginnings are often the best place to start.

     Baker County didn't exist until September 22, 1862. Before then, Wasco County included all lands east of the Cascade Mountains. The Dalles was the center of Wasco County government. The "original" Baker County included lands north to Washington, south to Nevada, east to the Snake River and west to the Blue Mountains. Union County, including what is now Wallowa County, organized as a separate county from Baker in 1864, using as the common boundary the Powder River and the North Fork of the Powder River. Malheur County followed in 1887, using the mountains south of the Burnt River as their dividing line from Baker County. In 1901, the "Panhandle", the land between the Powder River and the Wallowa Mountains, was returned to Baker County.

     Prior to September 22, 1862, votes submitted as election returns from Baker County were not counted by State Officials because such a county did not legally exist. In early September, 1862, a legislator was appointed at a meeting in Auburn and sent to Salem to represent the proposed County of Baker. He was not admitted to the State Assembly. The legislature did act, however, within that month to recognize the new County of Baker, with Auburn as the County Seat. Our first County Judge was John Q. Wilson, whose term commenced November 3, 1862. The Court's first order of business was the establishment of county roads, awarding a contract for the care of persons who became a public charge, the granting of ferry licenses, and setting rates for toll charges to be used in the county. Other original county officials included Sidney Abell, first Justice of the Peace, who held the first legally-constituted court in Baker County October 29, 1862; and Joseph G Wilson, first Circuit, Court Judge for the State of Oregon 5th District in and for the County of Baker, whose first term began June 15, 1863.

     By October of 1866, the State Legislature signaled its recognition of changes in Baker County by passing a bill to put Baker City into nomination at the next general election to be voted upon as the County Seat for Baker County. At the 1868 general election, Baker City received the majority of votes to replace Auburn as the County Seat. However, nothing was written about the manner in which the change was to take place. Consequently, County Judge A.F. Johnson issued an order to County Clerk Joseph H, Shinn to bring all county records from Auburn to Baker City. Citizens went to Auburn early one morning and carried out that order, removing all county records before the people of Auburn knew what had happened.

In January, 1869, with the seat of government officially  and in fact  transferred to Baker City, the County, under leadership of County Judge J.L. McArthur, solicited bids for the construction of a courthouse (the first of three which would in sequence occupy the block bounded by Washington, Third, Court and Fourth Streets).

     The dimensions of the two-story courthouse were specified as 30 feet wide, 50 feet deep and 24 feet high. A separate jail was to be 20 feet x 26 feet x 11 feet 10 inches high. Although the County considered stone and brick as building materials, it opted for less expensive wooden structures, a choice that 16 years later proved very expensive in human lives.

     At 1:30 a.m., on July 28, 1885, a fire was discovered in the wooden jail, where six prisoners were being held. Before being forced back by the heat of the fire, rescuers were able to pull from the jail only 18-year-old Fred Winkleman, who had been accused of murder. The other five prisoners perished in the flames.

Winkleman was thought to have started the fire a charge he denied. When he came to trial, he was convicted of murdering local ranchers Allen and Rivers. Sent to prison, Winkleman was transferred to the State insane asylum where he died within a year from injuries received in the Baker fire.

     A contemporary newspaper editorial chastised the County for not having erected a fireproof jail, calling the fire "a funeral pyre that might well be termed the alter of a false economy". The criticism was apparently taken to heart, for that same year the County tore down the first courthouse, which had narrowly escaped the flames, and erected in its place the second courthouse. It was a large brick structure housing the sheriff's office and jail on the south end of the first floor, with the Circuit Courtroom right above on the second floor and the other County offices occupying the north half of the building.

     By the turn of the century, the second courthouse was beginning to show its age by an occasional brick falling from the false parapets, which prompted a local newspaper to refer it irreverently as "the brickyard". By now, due to rapid economic growth during the heyday of hard-rock mining, the County needed and could afford a larger, more permanent courthouse. So in 1908, under the leadership of County Judge J.B. Mesick, the County began construction of the third and present courthouse, a three-story building made of the same local stone used a couple of years earlier in the new city hall and Catholic cathedral. It included a clock tower, and at that time, a jail on the third floor. The grounds were graced with two items which have special historical interest - the cannon and the statue.

     The original cannon was a piece of heavy artillery, a relic of either the Civil War or the Spanish-American War. Many years later, County Judge Charles Baird, on behalf of the citizens of Baker County, donated that cannon for scrap metal as part of the war effort in the early days of World War II. A rousing farewell was given the cannon by local residents complete with martial music and a long and profane acceptance speech from a uniformed military officer.

     The cannon presently on the east lawn of the courtyard were a post-war replacement of unknown origin but thought to have been from the Imperial Japanese Army. After a Halloween prank in which the cannon was used to fire buckets of nails, chains and other assorted metallic junk into the roof of a nearby church, County authorities sealed the barrel and firing pin to prevent future use of the cannon.

The statue of, "The Boy with the Leaking Boot", currently displayed in the Courthouse lobby, stood for approximately 66 years in the east courtyard. It was the centerpiece of a fountain with four lion heads spouting water toward the center, with water cascading from the leaking boot.

     Several stories regarding the statue's origin have been published, the favorite one being that the little boy was a Civil War drummer who carried water in his boot to the wounded soldiers. The statue is thought to have been purchased through fund-raising efforts at local grade schools, inspired by Judge Olmstead. There are reportedly 32 statues of the boy throughout the world. Like many of those, our statue has been vandalized and repaired many times. In 1975, the statue was brought inside and enclosed in a protective glass case.

     A more recent addition to the Courthouse lobby is a marble marker honoring Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, the Civil War hero who was killed in action in the Battle of Bull's Bluff and for whom Baker City and Baker County are named. Colonel Baker's marker was discovered near San Francisco in a Colma County pet cemetery in an old barn in July 1979, and was brought "home" to rest in our Courthouse. This recapture of a symbol of local history was accomplished during the tenure of County Judge Dennis L. Fuller. State Senator Deb Potter, State Historian Cecil Edwards and local members of the Historical Society are credited for the retrieval effort.

     The logging wheels that rest outside on the east lawn near the Monument to the War Dead were brought in from the Whitney area where they had been retired from use. Upon request of County Judge Lloyd Rea, they were donated to the county by John Rouse on whose land they were discovered by County Roadmaster Durwood Best.

     The Courthouse has been enlarged twice during the 76 years of its existence. The first expansion was in 1961-62, thus increasing space used for the Assessor's office and storage rooms. The most recent expansion was in 1980 for the Watermaster's office and law library.

     A change has also occurred in the structure of County government. In 1968, by action of the State Legislature, all counties with resident circuit courts were required to transfer the authority over probate and juvenile matters from the County Court to the Circuit Court. With that change, all remnants of judicial authority were removed from the County "Judge". County Judge Lloyd Rea was in office at the time. Subsequent Baker County judges have retained the title even though the County Court and its chairperson, the County Judge, act only in administrative or quasi-judicial capacities.

     To date, 23 County Judges, all male, have held office in Baker County. The shortest term of office apparently six months, was held by Judge Sterns from July through December of 1870. Judge Baird and Judge Rea share the distinction of having held office the longest, each one for 24 years. During the first ten years of its existence, Baker had seven County Judges. One man has served two, non-consecutive times as County Judge: J.B. Messick. Circuit Judge William Jackson holds court in both Baker County and Grant County. (Diane Stone and Gary Dielman)

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