Before My Time is about the ancestry and extended family of my four grandparents: John Samuel Krentz (Indiana/North Dakota), Margreta Tjode Hedwig (Gertie) Buss (North Dakota), Rosmer Pettis Kerr (Pennsylvania/Michigan), and Evelyn Elvina Hauer (Michigan), and other topics in genealogy and family history.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Uncle Billy Efner

William A. Efner
1853 - 1903

Whose uncle was this?, I wondered, when I saw the photograph identified as "Uncle Billy Efner" among the effects of Rosmer P. Kerr. The photograph was a 4.25" x 6.5" cabinet card, taken by Jones Brothers Photographers in Union, Oregon. I was surprised to find that I wasn't the first one in the family to come to Oregon.

At the
Seattle branch of the National Archives, I found Billy Efner listed in the 1900 census of Union, Oregon as a 46-year-old single man who worked as a fruit grower and owned his own farm. In the spring of 1992, I went to Union County to see what else I might learn about him.

The town of Union lies nestled in the Grand Ronde river valley between the Wallowa Mountains and the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon where, 150 years ago, pioneers wore the Oregon Trail into the earth, leaving ruts which are still visible today. The first white settlers in what would become the town of Union came in 1862, and by the time William A. Efner arrived Union was a bustling town of several hundred people.

The county of Union was formed in 1864 with the town of LaGrande, 15 miles northwest of Union town, as the temporary county seat. Union town won the honor in an 1874 election after one of its citizens, Samuel Hannah of the Northwest Stage Company, promised a change in the stage route to include Summerville and Cove, thus garnering votes from their citizens in favor of Union over LaGrande. He did make the change, but it only lasted until deep snow on the Summerville and Walla Walla Road made it impassable. LaGrande fought bitterly for many years to regain, and indeed is now, the county seat, but during Billy Efner's life there Union had that distinction, making it a hub of activity.

Wisconsin Childhood

William A. Efner was born in the town of Lyndon, Wisconsin on or about 21 November 1853 to Ezekiel Efner and his second wife Eliza A. Davis. Billy was the only child of this marriage, although it was Eliza's first. Ezekiel was about 23 years older than Eliza, and his daughter Kate, from his first marriage, was about 12 years old at the time of her half-brother's birth.

When Billy was 6, his sister Kate married Darius J. Pettis. She moved to Winona, Minnesota with her husband, and so Billy lived then with just his parents and his maternal grandmother, Prudence Markham Davis. His sister returned a few years later with her two daughters, three-year-old Frankie and Kate, an infant. To these two children, the ten-year-old boy was Uncle Billy. They stayed with the Efners for a time while Darius served in the Eleventh Regiment of Minnesota Volunteers during the last year of the Civil War.

Billy was 14 when his father died on 12 March 1868. Ezekiel, 67 years old, was buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Mitchell, Wisconsin. In his last will, he left $100 to his daughter Kate, and the remainder of his property in Sheboygan county was to be divided equally between his beloved wife Eliza and his son Billy, when he came of age.

The following year, Eliza bought some additional property in Sheboygan county. In 1873 and 1874, she sold three lots in the town of Cascade, and perhaps the proceeds from the sale of those lots funded Billy's move west.

Oregon Beginnings

Billy's name first appeared in the records of Union County, Oregon when he bought land from E.H. Lewis on 22 December 1876. His uncle, Jarvis Elliott Davis, had moved to Union the previous year, accompanied by his daughter Mary. The rest of the family followed in 1876 via the Union Pacific railroad to Kelton, Utah. J.E. Davis met them there with horses and covered wagons. Their caravan consisted of five prairie schooners and 21 people, including J.E.'s own family, his mother Prudence Markham Davis, his brother Wilber Froman Davis and family, a family named Beidelman, Billy Efner, and Blade Ashby, the teamster-guide. They traveled the Old Oregon Trail to Union, arriving 17 June 1876.1 Billy was 22.

Lewis' Addition was at the north end of Union town. Billy bought adjoining blocks 8 and 13, each of which consisted of eight lots measuring 50' by 100', a total of just under two acres for $200.

Fruit trees were first brought to this fertile, untamed valley in 1862 by Conrad Miller of Vancouver. At that time, according to pioneer Fred Nodine, "the whole valley was covered with a dense, luxuriant growth of rye and bunch grass, sometimes as high as a man's head, and always so thick and tall that it was impossible for a man to see more than a few feet in front of him. Stock could not be seen at all, but had to be tracked around through the vast ocean of grass...."2 But before the decade was over, the valley was tamed, surveyed, and settled.

Wheat flourished here in the black, sandy loam, along with oats, barley, and some rye. Orchards were important too, and ranged in size from W.T. Wright's 160 acres down to the very small size of Billy's. It was probably Billy himself who planted the apple trees that would grow on this place for decades to come. Today several modest homes stand where his orchard once grew, but here and there an old apple tree can still be found. Were these a part of Billy's orchard? The productive life of a standard apple tree is 50-75 years, after which the yield diminishes. But the tree may live on, or it may be cut back and new growth allowed to spring from the root. I don't know whether these are Billy's apple trees, but I like to think so.

When Billy and the Davises came to Union, all the main roads were toll roads. Crops were transported from the valley over these toll roads and then shipped further by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which took merciless advantage of the valley people. This costly and inconvenient process prompted them to petition the state for a road from Baker up to the Columbia River in the fall of 1876 (with no result) and then to press for the railroad. The town experienced a growth spurt in 1881-82 in anticipation of the railroad's completion, which was finally accomplished in 1884. There was considerable disappointment that the tracks were laid two miles east of the town, but they added a short line to bridge the gap.

Community Service

As members of their community, Billy and the Davises were well-known and respected. Wilber F. Davis was the mayor of Union in 1879 and 1880. His older son Marion Francis Davis was appointed postmaster of the town on 16 March 1899. His younger son Wilber B. Davis was assistant postmaster. By 1902 Edward W. Davis, son of J.E. Davis, was serving as mayor.

Billy was appointed by the Union County Court to act as one of two constables for Union Precinct Not to be confused with the job of sheriff or marshal of the wild west, the job of a constable was to collect taxes from the citizens and turn the funds over to the proper authorities. In addition to his oath of office, a constable was required to post a $1000 bond to assure that the monies would be properly handled. The appointment was made 5 Jan 1883. On November 8 of that year, the county paid him constable fees totaling $13.75 and a witness fee of $1.70. He was paid another $1.70 witness fee on 16 January 1884. Those being the only disbursements I found in Billy's name, perhaps he didn't hold the office more than that one year, his thirtieth.

Indian Scares

In 1877 the valley community had a confrontation with the Nez Perce tribe, led by Chief Joseph. A member of the tribe had been shot in a dispute over horses. Further violence was averted when an agreement was reached with Chief Joseph. The settlers would not bother the Indians if they remained in the Wallowa valley, and the Indians could come to the Grand Ronde valley in small numbers to do business.

That was the same year the first public telephone appeared in the U.S., but not in Union. Still in its infancy, the telephone would not appear in Union until November 1885. Thus it was a Paul Revere-style messenger who rode into Union during the Fourth of July celebration in 1878 and set off a panic among the townspeople when he announced that Indians, lots of them, were headed toward the town on a rampage. A violent uprising inspired by the Bannocks and Piutes did begin in Idaho and move westward that year. But on the Fourth of July, when some children reported that they had heard Indians coming and a messenger hastily rode through the valley with the warning, no Indian attack followed. Upon further examination, it was discovered that the children had heard not Indians but rather a herd of cattle.

Billy lost two young cousins that summer. Three-year-old Lottie, the youngest of J.E. Davis' eight living children, died July 20, and Emma, the nine-year-old daughter of Wilber and Francelia Davis, died August 27.

Six months later, back in Wisconsin, Billy's mother died at just over 55 years of age. Her remaining land was deeded to Billy, and he sold it before the year was over.

Life in Union

Winters in this area are usually short, from December to about mid-February. It rarely gets below -12°. Summer temperatures sometimes go over 100°, but it's fairly dry heat. Thunderstorms are rare, but it rains in spring, and strong winds blow anytime.

The winter of 1880-81 was especially severe, and 70 of the cattle perished from the cold. The following winter on November 5, a heavy windstorm tore the roof off the courthouse. That was also the year that the Presbyterian society, organized in 1879, built its church.

The mid-1880's were a time of prosperity. In 1885, the town of Union had 845 citizens. LaGrande had 1,213. The population of the county was 9,588. (It was noted that 500 were Chinamen.) Though the winter of 1886-87 was again severe, healthy growth continued and the county population quickly increased to 12,688.

There were some losses in Billy's family, however. On 30 March, 1885, J.E. Davis died. The service was held at the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was buried with Masonic honors "amid the largest concourse of people we have seen yet paying their last respects at the grave of a Union citizen," according to The Mountain Sentinel of April 4, 1885.3 The following year Billy's elderly grandmother, Prudence Markham Davis, died.

On Decoration Day 1887, a disastrous fire destroyed several buildings in Union, including John T. Wright's drug store, the Pacific Express Company office, a tinshop, the hardware store of Joseph Wright, and some adjoining smaller buildings. Firemen and citizens fought together to prevent the fire from spreading to the band hall, theatre, and buildings across the street. At one point panic ensued when a rumor spread that a large amount of powder was stored in the cellar of a burning building, but in fact it was no more than a few boxes of cartridges. Uninsured losses amounted to $15,000.

Heavy snowfall in the winter of 1889-90 resulted in a prosperous 1890. Crops were excellent and prices were good. In spring, the Union Electric Power and Light Company was formed, and within a few months there were lightbulbs in homes and street lamps.

It was about this time that Billy went down to Jackson County, in the southwestern part of Oregon, where his name appeared on the 1890 assessment rolls. He may have gone there to do some gold-mining. He was taxed in Eden precinct, near Phoenix. His taxable property there included merchandise and implements valued at $30, upon which he paid a tax of $1. He owned no real property there, but still owned his orchard in Union, along with block 3 of Hannah's Addition which he had purchased in 1882 for $175.

Times were hard in the 1890s. There was financial panic throughout the United States in 1893. Many banks failed. Farmers couldn't pay their bills, but creditors were lenient. In Union, the winter of 1893-94 had one of the heaviest snowfalls in the memory of white settlers, blockading travel by road or rail. A long dry spell followed. In the 12 months beginning 15 August 1894, rainfall was 12" less than average. As a result, crops were short in 1895, though fruit was abundant. Despite their own troubles, the people of Union shipped over five carloads of grain and provisions and one carload of lumber to drought-stricken Nebraska. And hard times continued.

Nevertheless, someone prospered, because it was during this period that a large Victorian home was built on property adjacent to Billy's and facing his orchard. This beautiful home is still standing, and in recent years was opened as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

In 1892 and 1894, Billy mortgaged block 13 of Lewis' Addition for a total of $275. Those mortgages would not be satisfied until 1908, several years after his death. In 1897, he mortgaged block 8 for $125. Five years later, on 15 August 1902, he satisfied that mortgage the day after he sold block 3 of Hannah's Addition for $125.

Billy frequently made purchases from the general merchandise store of Townley, Gale & Company, as well as that of Joseph Wright, rebuilt since the fire of 1887. He often bought ten cents' worth of tobacco, and occasionally cigars. On 2 January 1900, he bought a suit for $9 and a pair of shoes for $2.75 at Townley, Gale. On 30 September 1902, he bought two suits of underwear for $6 and two pair of socks for $.70 from Wright's.

By 1902, Billy was raising poultry as well as fruit. His large, flowing script appears in the 1902 Official Register of Electors for Union county. The elegance of his signature and the apparent ease with which he wrote it suggests he had practiced his penmanship conscientiously.

That year, Billy lost another cousin who had shared the journey west. Edward W., son of J.E. Davis, died March 20 at the age of 40, leaving three young children.

Kate Comes to Oregon

The Eastern Oregon Republican, a weekly newspaper, printed the following item on 15 August 1903: "Mrs. Pettis, of Iowa, sister of William Effner, arrived this week on a visit and may remain permanently." In the next column, an advertisement announced the arrival of a circus: "August 31 CAMPBELL BROS.' STEAM CALLIOPE plays ahead of the big parade that takes place at 10 a.m., followed by three brass bands, a drum corps and a line of elegantly designed wagons and cages of wild animals rarely exhibited. The parade will be a swell affair, free to the vast crowd of people that throng our streets—an interesting sight never before witnessed in this city."

Kate Efner Pettis was 62 years old when she arrived in Union. I imagine she traveled from the midwest by train, surely a hot and dusty trip at that time of year.

Kate's half-brother Billy would turn 50 in late November. I don't know the state of his health when Kate arrived, or whether they were able to attend the parade and circus. But by the time of his birthday, he was ill with diabetes and under the care of Dr. C. E. Saunders, M.D. Dr. Saunders examined Billy on November 21 and did a urinalysis that day and each of the next three days. He made two house calls to see Billy on Saturday, November 28, two more Sunday, and three Monday, but to no avail. The use of insulin to treat diabetes was almost 20 years away.

On Tuesday, 1 December 1903, Billy died. The funeral took place from his home the following afternoon. The service was performed by Reverend Barton of the Presbyterian church. He was buried in Union Cemetery at the southeast edge of town. The cemetery lies at the bottom of a hill. It is still well-kept.

Kate was Billy's only heir and was appointed administratrix of his estate, valued at $1,581.75. In addition to the real property, there were tools and supplies, cordwood, household furniture and stoves, and 18 dozen chickens. Billy had $45 in his account at First National Bank in Union, and he was due $186 from J.H. Eirath for his apple crop that year. Kate sold eggs and several dozen hens and roosters to pay the funeral expenses and claims against the estate. The cost of the casket was $40; hearse and carriages, $14; two teams for the funeral, $4; and grave digging, $6.

It appears that Kate remained in Union until the spring of 1908, when she sold blocks 8 and 13 of Lewis' Addition and satisfied Billy's mortgages of 1892 and 1894.

Billy's gravestone was erected in late October 1907, not long before Kate left. It is a tall obelisk, engraved thus:

DEC. 1, 1903

I talked for awhile with Marvin Gilkison, the clerk at Union Cemetery. He looked up the location of Billy's grave and walked me to block 18, lot 9, pointing out other interesting gravestones as we walked. When I wondered aloud about locating records to see whether Billy had been a Mason, Marvin suggested I see postmaster Ralph Patterson.

It took about two minutes to get from cemetery to post office. When I walked in, the postmaster looked up and said, "Well, you must be T.K." So it is in the small town of
Union, Oregon.

While no journal has been found detailing Billy's life, nor any personal correspondence, we can assume that the life of the town was his life to a great extent. We are all inextricably involved with the place we live in: climate, politics, economy, social events, the lay of the land. These are the things we can know about Billy's life. The rest we can only imagine.


1 Davis, Lewis J., Our Kinsmen: A Family History (Portland, OR, 1936), p. 25. (Note: Lewis J. Davis, another son of J.E. Davis, was almost 11 years old on that westward journey in 1876.)

2 An Illustrated History of Union and Wallowa Counties (Western Historical Publishing Co., 1902), p. 142.

3 Davis, p. 27.

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Blog Archive


Our Family in Books: A Bibliography

  • My Ancestors in Books (a library of resources and notes pertaining to Reverend Samuel Stone, Major General Robert Sedgwick, Elder John Crandall, and other early Americans in the forest where my family tree was grown)
  • The Zahnisers: A History of the Family in America by Kate M. Zahniser and Charles Reed Zahniser (Mercer, Pa. 1906)
  • History of St. James Lutheran Church [full title: A little of this and a little of that in the 141 year (1861-2002) History of St. James Lutheran Church, Reynolds Indiana] by Harold B. Dodge, published at Reynolds, Indiana, 2002; 170 pages.
  • Lisbon, North Dakota 1880-2005 Quasuicentennial, published at Lisbon, North Dakota in 2005; 391 pages.
  • The Paschen and Redd Families of Cass County, Indiana by Alfred Paschen, c. 2005 (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD); 322 pages.
  • Sheldon Community History: Sheldon Centennial 1881-1981, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 1981; 376 pages.
  • Sheldon, North Dakota 1881-2006 - 125th Anniversary: The Queen of the Prairie, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 2006; 498 pages.
  • A Standard History of White County, Indiana, written under the supervision of W.H. Hamelle, c. 1915 (The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York).
  • The Roots of Coventry, Connecticut by Betty Brook Messier and Janet Sutherland Aronson, c. 1987 (Coventry 275th Anniversary Committee, Coventry, CT); 206 pages.
  • "Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island and His Descendants" by John Cortland Crandall; New Woodstock, New York, 1949; 797 pages.
  • "The Descendants of Robert Burdick of Rhode Island." Nellie (Willard) Johnson, Pd.B.: H & L Creations, LLC.

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