(Based on the book The Years of Harvest - A History of the Tule Lake Basin, by Stan Turner (with contributions from the 1981 historical research project of South Eugene High School); the Ave. Press, Eugene, Ore.; c1988)
The Klamath Project was established through the Newlands Reclamation Act, (Reclamation Act of 1902, Statutes at Large vol. 32, p.388; U.S.C. vol. 43, section 416.) The purpose of the Act was to "reclaim" desert land, by constructing federal irrigation projects and reservoirs so that it could be converted for agricultural use. The Act also reclaimed land by draining swamps and lakes. Reclaimed land was to be made available as homesteads to those, who under normal circumstances, would not be able to purchase farm acreage.
The law stipulated that money collected by the federal government from the sale of federal land in 16 western states was to be placed in a fund designated for irrigation projects. As a result of this law, the Klamath Project, an ambitious undertaking involving three lakes, two major rivers and an interconnecting network of man-made canals, was created.
In 1917, a decision was made to authorize the opening of 3,000 acres of land in the northern end to the Tule Lake Reclamation Project to homestead. Each was to be about 80 acres in size and served by an irrigation lateral canal. Existing leases of the land were cancelled and 35 homestead units were made available. (The offer was limited to Americans or foreigners with first naturalization papers. The offer to women were restricted to single women or married women not living with their husbands.) The Newlands Reclamation Act required "proving up" period for the homesteader to demonstrate that he/she was capable of farming and did not intent to turn around and sell the land. Title in the land did not vest until after the period, often spanning years.
Official notices were published in local papers in the west and nearly 180 applications were received. A drawing was held on April 25. Of the winners, 15 lived in Klamath Falls, 7 in Merrill, 5 in Malin, 3 in Weed, 1 in Hood River, 1 in Medford, 1 in Ashland, 1 in McMinville and 1 in Oroville.
In September of 1922, the second allotment of 175 units was opened to homesteading in the Tule Lake Reclamation Project. Those who could prove they had been honorably discharged from the armed services (targeted at World War I veterans) were allowed a preferential filing period of 90 days. The applicant had to be an American citizen or have completed naturalization papers. A further requirement was imposed on all homesteaders that they "establish, maintain and occupy a residence on his drawn land for a minimum one year period of 'proving up' before clear title was obtained."
Applications were sluggish. Each acre was assessed $90 for the Klamath Project construction fee and for an 80 acre farm, this meant the homesteader was obliged to pay the Reclamation Service $7200 over a 20 year period. With uncertain crop yield, expenses of equipment, land improvement and home building were a burden. There also were no requirements that the applicants have any farm experience or financial backing. The failure rate among homesteaders was much higher than expected.
Veterans organizations protested the high fee. Pre-1922 costs for construction had been assessed at $45 per acre. Now it was doubled. The Reclamation Service pointed out additional expenses they had assumed as well as requirements of construction of the "J" Canal system, not anticipated in the original plan that depended upon the old existing "D" Canal. After 54 homesteads were awarded, the allotment period was ended.
Marie and Karl Gentry were one of these homesteaders. He had been raised on a family farm in Kansas and had served in the military. Karl was working in construction and they had an infant son. There were no roads, telephones, electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. During the winter, the ground was knee deep in mud and one could travel by car only after the ground froze. During the fall, when crops had been harvested, dust storms blew. Water from shallow wells smelled of methane gas and discolored wash. Drinking water was obtained in Malin in large barrels.
Most farms had not been scraped and tilled for flood irrigation and land had to be leveled so water would flow evenly in the rows. Work was done with draft horses. Crops were experimented with based on what would be able to survive the climate and the market would buy. Potatoes were profitable, but there was a risk of frost kill. Onions, horseradish and cereal crops were grown.
In 1925, the veterans of the Tule Lake Basin formed an American Legion Post. One of the prime motives for creation was to give homesteaders a forum to voice their complains on the Reclamation Service construction cost issue. Klamath Falls attorney Joseph H. Carnahan lobbied for a reduction and finally got the service to reduce its construction fee to $45. In addition, the Legion and Carnahan met with officials of the Klamath Project and, based on Reclamation Service studies, set new requirements for homestead application. Each applicant had to have $2,000 in cash assets and clearly show farming ability. Veterans were still to receive 90 day filing preference.
In 1927, in preparation for the third homestead period, the Klamath Project announced assessment for construction costs would be $51 an acre. The American Legion and attorney Joseph Carnahan protested. In addition, the federally sponsored Land Bank refused to make loans on the Tule Lake lands until construction costs were lowered to $40. Carnahan advocated a $37.50 fee based on the original intent of the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 - to make land available to those who would not otherwise be able to purchase farm acreage. A compromise of $45 was finally reached by all parties.
In January, notifications were published that slightly more than 8,000 acres, or 145 homesteads would be available. Veterans had preferential right of entry, but an examining board would select the applicants on the basis of experience, character and capital, ($2,000 or equivalent in livestock, farming equipment or other assets.)
Of the 86 successful applicants, 53 were "soldier entrymen," 52 were from towns in the Klamath Project, 90 percent from Washington, Oregon or California.
In March 1928, notice was given that 9 homesteads were available in the Klamath Project. Qualifications were health, experience and 2,000 in capital assets. All were taken.
On February, 28 1929, homestead units were made available in Tule Lake Basin by the Klamath Project. There were 94 applicants. A tradition was started where qualified applicants names were placed in a fish bowl, (later pickle jar,) and drawn in the presence of those interested.
The fifth major homestead allotment notice was published in 1930, offering 24 farm units in the Tule Lake Basin. There were 162 applicants. The $2,000 asset stipulation was the most difficult to meet. Edgar M. Mitchell had been working for the Bureau of Reclamation dredging canals. Friend Frank Victorine of Malin, signed over $2,000 of milk cows to back him. Mitchell was successful in his application and farm, paying back Victorine within several years.
A lack of good roads and mud and mire in the winter led to the dangerous practice of driving vehicles on the roadbeds of the Southern Pacific and Great Northern railroads.
Public notice was issued in 1937 that 69 farm units, 5,100 acres east of the intersection of the Southern Pacific and Great Northern railroads, would be opened to homestead in the Tule Lake Basin. [The American Legion, local homesteaders and some officials of the Bureau of Reclamation had wanted to open 20,000 acres by reducing the area of the Tule Lake Sump, but engineers were concerned about flood control and the United States Biological Survey, (U.S. Fish and Wildlife,) were concerned about the impact on the bird refuge.]
New application procedures were added. The veterans preference was retained, but a rating system was applied to the requirements of farm experience, (2 years), capital ($2,000 in cash or assets,) industry and character, (letters of recommendation.) Minimum qualifications remained, but if the applicant exceeded them, he could earn higher rating points. Applicants were also interviewed by a member of the examining board and rated. If the number of individuals with equal ratings exceeded allotments, names would be drawn in the lottery.
Protests were voiced over the rating system, particularly the awarding of higher points to those with $10,000 or more in capital. (This violated one of the basic tenets of the Newlands Reclamation Act.) 1,308 applicants applied.
In 1946, A post-war homestead was offered in the Tule Lake Basin. The date was deferred a year when it was determined that over 500 sons of residents of the basin were in service in the military and most had not yet been discharged. Criteria for selection would include: proof of WWII military service, (male and female veterans to receive equal consideration); 2 years of farming experience; $2,000 minimum in assets; a certificate of health; and letters of character reference. Applicants had to currently own less than 160 acres of land; and successful homesteaders must farm the unit for 5 consecutive years.
After selection, names would be drawn equal to twice the number of homesteads available, listed in order. A second screening would take place. Anyone disqualified would move the list of names up one slot in position.
The notice of 86 available homesteads in the central-eastern section of the Tule Lake Basin was published August 1, 1946. Of the 2,150 applicants, 858 were rejected. About 200 appealed, but only 13 were reversed. 1,305 people were included in the drawing, assigned a number inserted into a gelatin capsule placed in a 3 gallon pickle jar.
The event was aired live throughout west coast radio hook-up. As numbers were drawn, they were matched to names and written on a blackboard. It was not until the 15th selection that a local was selected. The 48th was an ex-WAVE. The 69th was the son of a 1927 homesteader. Winners were geographically representative of the entire U.S. Ten of the original drawing and 1 from the alternate list were rejected in the second screening interviews for reasons varying from lack of experience to ownership of other land. Ten appealed and one was reversed.
In 1947, 44 additional units were opened to homestead. 4,066 made application, screened down to 2,757 with names drawn in March 1948. Again, one winner was a female veteran. Another 86 homesteads were opened in August of 1948, with a drawing in February 1949. 5,063 made application and only 63 were declared ineligible. The last unit consisted of 137 acres. Because of its alkali content, it was refused by 20 alternates until accepted by Ernest L. Tacker of Hemet - the last homesteader.
Some received parcels that had been under lease and gained acquisition with crops already growing. Some were littered with lava rock that had to be removed. Some units needed leveling. The Bureau of Reclamation made arrangements to sell homesteaders surplus equipment and buildings from the Japanese Internment Camp at Newell. Each was eligible to receive a 20x100 foot barracks for a $50 clean site deposit and under the stipulation the building would not be sold. The building could be dismantled or cut in half and moved.
Eventually the hardships of the lifestyle, isolation of the area and lack of management skills took its toll. A significant number of homesteaders left in the 1950's and 1960's. Those who remain have established deep roots, a strong sense of community and produced prosperous farms.
In 1947, Bob Lillard, a Tule Lake Homesteader, was hospitalized with several surgeries, a heart attack and the loss of a leg. During the ordeal, his main concern was his crops. Three neighboring homesteaders organized an armada of 11 combines and harvested his crop of barley in several hours. When asked why they did it, they replied: "It's the Tulelake way."
In 1948, 2,300 acres of land at the southern end of the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge was removed from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and opened for homesteading.
Otto Schaffner had been one of the last Tule Lake Basin homesteaders, in 1948-49, taking a northeastern plot of the basin that was high in alkali. After working gypsum into the ground for several years, he began to grow horseradish in 1954. In the late 1950's, Schaffner went into the horseradish processing business with the help of a University of California food technologist who developed a formula for a marketable sauce. The Tulelake Horseradish Co. was founded. Tulelake remains the major horseradish producing area in the United States.
At the conclusion of the 1948-1949 homestead allotment, more than 13,000 acres under Bureau of Reclamation control had not been released for homesteading. Instead it continued to be leased to basin farmers. This included the land known as "Frog Pond" and the "League of Nations" which had been under consideration for homesteading. Farmers protested in April stating the land was a substantial part of the crop economy of Tulelake and was reclaimed at their expense through construction charges levied on all homesteads. Nevertheless, it was decided to retain the lands in lease for agriculture as part of the Wildlife Refuge complex. This arrangement was authorized under the Kuchel Act.