Celebrating the Basin’s pioneers
— Winnie Heiney Duncan
"For many years, Winnie Heiney Duncan, working with her late husband, Bob, routinely drove potato trucks during the fall harvest season. She still owns the family homestead. Her husband, a World War II veteran, had his name drawn Dec. 19, 1946, his birthday. "
TULELAKE — There’s good reason why Tulelake Basin farmers and ranchers take the spotlight during the annual Tulelake-Butte Valley Fair.
Without them, there wouldn’t be a fair.
The role of Tulelake Basin pioneers, including homesteaders and others who developed former lake beds into productive farmlands, was again celebrated Saturday with a Pioneer’s Day gathering at The Honker Community Center across from the fairgrounds entrance.
It’s a chance for longtime residents to get together, visit, swap stories and watch the parade.
For people like Winnie Heiney Duncan, it’s a time to remember what the region was like in an era when the Basin was only lightly settled.
“It was awesome. It was different,” remembered the 79-year-old Duncan during the gathering. “Just lots to do. But we had fun, too.”
Winnie Towne, who was raised in Klamath Falls where she lived with her grandparents, Dewey and Emma Diess, grew up faster than expected.
On Dec. 19, 1946, her fiancé, Robert Roy “Bob” (Heiney), who served in the Army during World War II, had his name pulled out of a pickle jar for a Tulelake-area homestead. It was his 21st birthday.
10 days later
Instead of completing her education at Southern Oregon College of Education — now Southern Oregon University — she and (Heiney) married 10 days later and prepared to begin life as farmers. They moved onto their 105-acre homestead the following spring.
Heiney'’s name had been the 86th and final name for that year’s drawing, but he ended up picking 76th when 10 others failed to meet qualifications.
Quality of the land
“Since he had farmed in the area — his parents lived here — he knew the quality of the land,” she said of why he selected a homestead just two miles west of his parents, Roy Clarence and Katherine “Kate” -----. “They were a big help because they lived just down the road and because they had machinery that we used.”
The family grew potatoes, with Winnie driving truck during harvest season and raising their two children, Janice and Richard. Like other homesteaders, they were given half of a barracks from the vacated Japanese American Internment Camp at Newell.
“Today, looking at it, you wouldn’t know it was a Japanese interment home,” she said. “Before you knew it, it was a good place to live.”
They played and worked hard. They nicknamed themselves, “Agricolae uxorum,” or farmer’s wives.
“The men played poker once a week. We couldn’t afford to go (to town) so we created our card games,” she remembers. “We had fun. We raised kids. They skated on the frozen canals. When grain harvest time came we would all get together at noon and fix the meals for when the men came in from the fields. We shared not only the food, but the equipment.”
Winnie downplays the hard times, but they existed.
“You always had to be thinking about the pocketbook. In lean years you had to be careful.”
Her husband died in July 1998. Three years later she and her family suffered through the 2001 Klamath Basin water crisis, when irrigation water was shut off — “Nothing but weeds that year.”
The original, and a second homestead are still in the family and farmed by Lawrence Bagg. The high cost of planting potatoes led to growing mint, but the land is being transitioned to alfalfa, which often has three or four cuttings a year. The lessons of 2001 continue. If irrigation water is cut off again, they expect at least one cutting.
<Winnie Heiney Duncan and her husband, Charles, enjoy the annual Pioneer’s Day gathering at the 57th annual Tulelake-Butte Valley Fair Saturday.
In 2002, Winnie married Charles Duncan, a Malin area farmer. Like her, Duncan had lost his spouse. Since then, they’ve been traveling, playing duplicate bridge and enjoying friends and family.
Does she think about homesteading days?
“Yes,” she said, referring to the pioneer gathering. “Especially days like today, when it’s all brought back.”