By Morris R. Pike –
I don’t believe in ghosts … or I didn’t, but visiting the Pete French Round Barn south of Burns, Oregon made me wonder. There on that desolate ground Pete left a wonderfully impressive structure, which is testimony to the fortitude and creativity of Oregon’s early settlers.
I stood in the sharp shadows cast by the shake-covered roof. In addition to the barn swallows nesting in the rafters, it seemed that spirits still lingered there … whispering sounds lurked in the quiet.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Was that Pete asking?
“What brought this about?” was my thought whispered response.
“Working the land … nearly 200,000 acres, when I quit,” Pete bragged. “Herding cattle and such… All that required lotsa ranch-hands … we had to have a steady supply of horses and mules, too, Pete paused as if to check his facts. “Yep, the “P” Ranch owned thousands of head of cattle. Well, we produced about 300 horses and mule colts each year to take care of them… and we sold some.”
“Out here in the wind swept prairie … had to be tough,” I mouthed.
“It was… believe it dude,” Pete grunted, “Yeah… in the winter the livestock had to be fed and sheltered… that’s the easy part… the wild horses and stubborn mules had to be trained,” he paused, spit on the ground and continued, “to do that we ranchers had to invent novel ways to get the job done, and here she stands.”
“This is more like a cathedral than a barn,” I marveled eying the umbrella timbers supporting the roof’s peak.
Pete laughed, “Cathedral… hump… not likely… a rodeo tent maybe, but you’re right, she is a beauty.”
“When’d you build her?” I asked.
Pete stroked his chin. “Think it was about 1880 we started building…” he snorted and gestured toward the sage covered plains. “See any trees or rocks?”
“Pretty barren… looks like to me.”
“Yep, stones for that wall had to be carted from a volcanic deposit miles away. . . That wall’s 9 feet tall… this interior corral where we did the serious bronco busting is 60 feet in diameter… Figure it out… that’s a lot of rock and that’s a lot of hauling.”
“And the trees?”
“Yep, the outer chamber is 100 feet in diameter… juniper boards act as a wind break and helps to control the animals…. Lot of juniper… See that big log in the center?”
“Don’t see juniper that big any more… 30 inches in diameter… that’s big… most o’ what you see these days woulda been kindling for us… found that big ’n in a creek bed… those juniper are water hogs… let em grow and they’ll suck
the water right outta the ground … kill everything in sight.” French paused as if expecting me to argue with him.
I didn’t say anything… just gawked at the incredible engineering that went into the construction of the barn… “Magnificent,” I managed to say almost to myself.
“Yep,” Pete said shaking me out of my thought, “… I wasn’t all that old… 53 when a low down, sidewinder homesteader and I got into a range war with one another… the low life shot me dead.”
I stood there shocked looking into the shadows of the old barn.
“But don’t mind that… I still hang around here most days enjoying the smells still lingering in my barn and listening to the sounds you’ll find only in special places like this, you know, leather, hay and horses neighing, cowboys laughing… listen… it’s in the air…”
When I looked his way, Pete was gone.
It took me a while to recover… but not completely.
With ethereal words still filling my head, I took a final stroll around the inner circle of that haunted place. I was sure I’d been in the presence of a ghost. I stopped to look through one of the many knotholes in the boards of the barn’s outer wall. Framed by that hole and in the distance… I thought I could see horses and riders disappearing over the horizon.
Pete French’s Round Barn… I’ll go back someday… I hope he’s still there.
Photos by Morris R. Pike