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Van Brimmer legacy, a century old, is one of vision, faith, sweat and smarts
by Kehn Gibson, Staff Writer, The Tri-County Courier, 2/12/04  Photos by Pat Ratliff

Joe Fotheringham pointed at a small farmhouse standing a hundred yards distant, the winter wind whipping his dark blue windbreaker.

“I was born there in 1924,” he said, paying the cold wind little attention. “Four years later my brother was born, but he was born in the hospital.”

Joe flashed a glance at his brother Walt, a grin tickling the corners of his mouth. Walt smiled too, but remained quiet.


Joe Fotheringham

The Fotheringham brothers had agreed to tell some of the history of the Van Brimmer Ditch Company, one of the earliest irrigation efforts undertaken in the Klamath Basin. We stood on their father’s place, a fourth-generation farm lying east of Merrill Pit Road and north of Lower Klamath Lake Road.

The Fotheringham farm is inextricable linked to the Van Brimmer Ditch Company. And the parallels between Joe and Walt Fotheringham and the Van Brimmer brothers, Dan and Clint, are significant.

In 1864, the Van Brimmers had built a ranch between Lower Klamath Lake and Sheepy Ridge. Its location, and its stout construction, made the ranch a headquarters for the U.S. Army in 1873 as they prepared to do battle in the Modoc War.

Walt Fotheringham

In 1880 the Van Brimmers moved north. It may never be known where they got the idea, but within a year the Van Brimmers began the necessary work to bring water to more than 4,000 acres of land on the west side of the Lost River.

Using a tool called a spirit level, the brothers determined that a branch of Lower Klamath Lake called White Lake was 28 feet higher than the land lying north and west of the present town of Merrill.

Using a spirit level is exacting work, says engineer Doug Adkins of Klamath Falls.

A long, 10-inch bubble was trapped in a tube filled with liquid, Adkins explained, similar to modern levels. The tool was mounted on a tripod and leveled, and then sightings were made on a rod marked in feet and inches.

“In those days, under those conditions, it probably took them two months to go five miles,” Adkins said. “To get it right, it would take someone with a knowledge of and deep respect for the tolerances of their equipment.”

The Van Brimmers got it right, and in 1882 began digging their ditch. It was backbreaking work.

Using slide scoops and fresnos, heavy implements that look like oversized snow shovels, they dug a ditch five miles long and 12 feet wide. Where the ditch cut through the hill dividing Lower Klamath Lake from the Lost River Basin, the ditch narrowed to six feet wide and was nearly 20 feet deep.

This deep, narrow cut traversed the Fotheringham farm. Part of the cut can still be seen looking south across Lower Klamath Lake Road from the farm.

On Sept. 13, 1883, the brothers filed a water claim in Siskiyou County. A year later, on Sept. 20, 1884, they filed a similar claim in Klamath County. These claims are the earliest filed water claims in the Klamath Basin.

Two years later, in 1886, the ditch was completed. The same year, on June 1, the brothers signed a contract with J. Frank Adams to deliver water to the east side of Lost River via a flume that crossed the river near the present day Country Boy Meats shop on Highway 39, north of Merrill.

The coming of water to the Lost River Basin was worth far more than the annual $1 per acre fee the Van Brimmers charged.

Yet there are some that said the Van Brimmers took advantage of their vision by purchasing acres of the barren land prior to filing for their water right in 1883. The same accusation was made against Adams.

The business acumen of the Van Brimmers was noted with acidity by a soldier stationed at the Van Brimmer Ranch during the Modoc War.

After paying 50˘ for an egg, the soldier wrote in a letter home that, “I spent a considerable amount of time studying human villainy with the Van Brimmers as a model.”

Joe Fotheringham believes whatever profit the ditch brought the Van Brimmers was earned.

“The land was worthless for dryland farming because it was so alkaline,” said Joe Fotheringham. “With water a man could work the ground, and it became productive.”

Families whose names are the fabric of the Klamath Basin’s history began to arrive and flourish. In 1894 the first survey of what would become the town of Merrill was completed.

In 1902, the U.S. Reclamation Service came to the Klamath Basin seeking to develop the Klamath Project. As the agency began to acquire the infrastructure and water rights of private irrigation companies, it became clear the planned federal project would irreparably damage the 20-year-old water right of the Van Brimmer Ditch Company.

The Project would dewater Lower Klamath Lake, the source of the company’s water. The Van Brimmers again demonstrated remarkable vision, and incorporated their company on May 29, 1903.

One share of stock was issued for each acre owned and irrigated, and 5,000 shares were issued. A month later, on June 30, the first meeting of the stockholders was held in Merrill.

Stock Certificate No. 1 was issued to George Offield, who was also elected to serve on the Company’s first Board of Directors.

In 1909, the Reclamation Service entered into a contract with the Company that is unique in the Basin.

Rather than hold the Company’s water right in trust, Reclamation agreed to guarantee water delivery from the Project in exchange for the Company’s relinquishing its established water right to Lower Klamath Lake. This contract, as did several others over the years, also held the Company harmless for the costs of improving and maintaining the canals of the Project.

The foresight of the original shareholders of the Van Brimmer Ditch Company is staggering. While the Klamath Project remains deeply in debt because of massive improvements and access to Project revenues from outside interests, the Van Brimmer Ditch Company has never been in debt.

Gary Orem, Van Bremmer Ditch Company
This week the Company will mark its 100th annual meeting of its shareholders. Joe Fotheringham says he’ll be there.

In 1911 Joe’s father, Joseph L. Fotheringham, came to the Klamath Basin to farm his uncle’s property. According to Joe, his father soon bought 170 acres of land from George Offield.


Walt and Joe

“He was a little bitty guy, maybe 105 pounds,” Joe recalled.

“He had a ‘37 Chevy pickup,” Walt said. “He would climb into it and rev it up wide open and then pop the clutch.”

Joe and Walt chuckled before Walt offered a possible explanation for Offield’s habit.

“He went from horse and buggy to cars, you know,” Walt said.

Joe and Walt began school in White City before that town faded into the dust of lost hopes. In their day, they only missed school at harvest time, when all the children worked the fields.

Thirty years ago, Joe and Walt began filling the old Van Brimmer Ditch where it crossed their pasture. Sunup to sundown, working by hand, the same style and schedule kept by the Van Brimmers more than 120 years ago.

Standing there now, his hands and attitude forged in hard work, Joe gazes at his leveled pasture.

When he speaks it comes with intrinsic understanding of the Van Brimmers.

“They had vision, but they also had the tenacity to get the thing done,” Joe said. “My Dad had that tenacity, and so did most of the people who came here.

"If they didn’t, they didn’t last long.”





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