1938-1954: Byer Family Farm
Before a sewage treatment plant was built near Fernhill Wetlands, there were two family farms on the property now owned by Clean Water Services. The farms were constructed in 1937 as part of the New Deal rural resettlement program to help the nation recover from the Great Depression. Eight such farms in Washington County provided land, a new farmhouse, dairy barn, poultry house and outbuildings at easy terms to qualified families
That winter, Louise and Milton Byer were living in a tent in eastern Oregon with two young daughters and another on the way, working hard to help a friend move a house and fix it up so they would have a place to live rent-free for a while. Shortly after baby Leona was born, their luck changed when they were offered an 80 acre farm near Fern Hill Road in western Oregon. Nearly broke but skeptical, Milton took a long bus ride to Forest Grove to inspect the farm. After just one look at the flat land, rich soil and new buildings, he accepted the terms of $8,422.47 at 3 percent interest with 40 years to pay.
In her diary, Louise said, "It seems like something even beyond our dreams. The Lord has been good and heard my cry." Moving money came with the deal, and in three weeks they'd loaded two trucks with their livestock and household goods and headed to the fertile Tualatin Valley. The Byer's second child, Doris, was three years old for that trip and rode in the cattle truck with her older sister Joan and a dozen cows.
Interviewed 74 years later in May of 2012, Doris Byer Swope fondly remembered life on the farm, working to earn money to help her family, and walking to school from elementary through high school until she moved to Portland for college. Their farm house was near Poplar Lane, not far from the Dabbler's Marsh area of Fernhill Wetlands, and they raised pole beans, peas, flax, squash, strawberries and raspberries, as well as hay for their livestock.
"We had to work from a really young age, before we should have," Doris said. "We worked before and after school, chores and jobs. I liked feeding the chickens before school , and preferred farm chores to cooking and cleaning. I liked being with dad when he milked the cows. I hoed and twined beans. Us kids became expert at twining bean fields and could twine a half a field in one day. We had good food from the crops, cows and chickens."
Her mother, Louise, later wrote that she "did lots of canning of vegetables and fruits" and joined Milton in heavy jobs, like digging out a basement and moving the house over it. "This was a job not many would tackle and some said it couldn't be done to make the house fit, but in time it did get moved with the tractor for a dead man to hold it back and our team of horses to pull it on plank skids. It was quite an exciting time, but fitted nearly perfect. Milton and I spread the concrete for the floor and sure worked at that."
Doris recalled, "Our place was the meeting place. The kids would come down to the farm and spend the whole day in the summertime." Doris and her siblings played with children from the Cook, Miller, Warren, West and Sears families. Her younger brother Gary's playmate Jimmy, now Retired Brigadier General James Sehorn, rose to fame as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
During World War II, they had ration books for commodities in limited supply. The Byers were allotted extra gas to run the tractors and farm equipment, and although they were short on sugar for canning the fruit, Doris said, "We were fortunate that we had our own meat and plenty of fresh vegetables."
Of Fern Hill and the wetland, Doris remembers riding bikes up the hill and coasting down. "It was very pretty up there. I liked the freedom of being outside, free to roam. We kids built a raft and paddled out to the duck blinds. The lower bottom land flooded in winter, and one winter it froze over and we had a party out there with the neighbors."
Despite their hard work, the farm was not prosperous and Milton and Louise went to work in the canneries. By 1950 they had paid back the government and sold all but 10 acres to the City of Forest Grove. By 1954, they sold off the rest of the farm and built a home in nearby Cornelius, where they lived until Milton took a job in Seattle to work for Boeing.
Photos courtesy of the Byer Family. Story by Sheri Wantland, Clean Water Services, based on 2012 interviews with Doris Byer Swope.