You may have read in the newspapers last week that there was a fire in an abandoned house here in Cottage Grove. What the reports failed to mention is that the house was almost 150 years old and was built by an early settler to Cottage Grove, Alex Cooley, and his family. What burned was not just an abandoned house but a little part of Cottage Grove’s early history.
As luck would have it, I had a chance to meet Alex’s grandson several years ago. Clair Cooley was probably in his 90’s when we met and he was full of stories about being a young boy living in this area. I also have a copy of a document he wrote about his family’s history as well as other reports written by students at the UO. Using those and bit-and-pieces found on the internet, I’ve put together a brief history — a tribute to the little house that burned.
The story of Alex Cooley and his house is intertwined with that of his family — especially his brother John and John’s house just down the road (which still exists today).
The Early Years
Alexander Cooley was born in Virginia on January 10, 1835. He was 18 years old when he came across the Oregon Trail with his mother, Chrischana, his two brothers, George and John, and his sister, Flora. As Clair wrote: “Stories vary as to what happened to Martin [Alex’s dad], but we do know that he left, which made quite a burden on Chrischana.” *
He continues …
Chrischana’s “three brothers had been out to Oregon and they returned to urge her to join a wagon train and come west with them. She must have been some strong woman to gather all the equipment, … assemble the required food, get her children enthused, join a wagon train then spend six months or so crossing the “playuns” as grand father used to say. I would liked to have known her.“
Once in the valley the family “got their claims and started homesteading.” George settled in the Brownsville area, however he continued to support his family in Cottage Grove until the land was paid off. The rest of the Cooley family lived together in a log cabin on their land claim until Alex married Eliza Shields in 1865. Eliza had crossed the plains with her parents when she was 9 years old, in 1851.
Afterwards, the family began constructing two homes, one for Alex and Eliza to the north, the other for John and the rest of the family to the south. John never married so his mother lived with him until she died.
Both the John and Alex Cooley houses were built circa 1868, and were nearly identical, at least from the outside. Eliza’s brothers were carpenters, and it was thought that her youngest brother, Zachariah Shields at age 14 had a hand in the building of both Cooley homes.
Alex and Eliza had four children, George, Currin, John Robert, and Juda. However, Eliza died in 1877 (at age 35), making Alex a 42-year-old widow with four young children to raise (although I would assume that the family, including Alex’s mother, Chrischana, helped).
It is unclear how long Alex Cooley actually lived in the “Alex Cooley” house. A report by the UO students (written in 1972) notes that he sold it after Eliza’s death. Clair thinks he may have sold the house to Clair’s father (Alex’s son) Currin, because Currin and his wife, Mrytle Hambrick, lived there from 1898 to 1904, and Clair’s sisters were born there.
Even though he wasn’t living in the little house, Alex was still farming in the area. The Bohemia Nugget (Cottage Grove’s newspaper at the time) reported on July 05, 1901, when Alex was 66 years old:
Mr. Alex Cooley had quite an exciting runaway while mowing hay Monday. When the horses became frightened and started to run, Mr. Cooley, in order to keep from being thrown in front of the sickle, fell off the mower behind. Considerable damage was done to the machine, and the team was injured quite badly.
When Clair was a young boy, he and his family lived with John and Alex for a couple years in John’s house. He remembers:
“About 1913 the two older brothers, John and Alex, were getting up in years and needed some help in living so Currin and Myrtle agreed to move in with their family to take care of them for an expected three weeks. I don’t know why, but we lived there for three years. “
“When I was there we had no electricity, of course, the kids my age were not allowed to carry kerosene (sometimes called coal oil) lamps. We could have a candle up stairs but only for emergencies. Of course, we didn’t have to go downstairs to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
All old timers were very fire conscious. One time I fell down a few steps. Grandfather heard me fall and hollered: “Did he have a lamp in his hand?“
Alex and John continued to live together, and Clair’s Aunt Juda and her husband Virgil White moved in and took care of the two men. Alex died on December 26, 1922 at the age of 87.
“When Grandfather died (I was a teenager) the mortuary took him downtown, processed him, then brought him back in his coffin and put him in the north living room for a wake. They had shaved off his big beard and dressed him in a shroud. It made him look a lot younger, he was a pretty good looking guy. We don’t know of any church affiliation he had ever had, but to him card playing was a sin and he never allowed any cards to be played in his house, or Uncle John’s house. So irreverently the boys got out the cards and played in the other sitting room while the old gentleman was in his coffin in the other room. They had learned to play in the card rooms downtown.“
Portrait and Biographical record of Willamette Valley Oregon: Containing original sketches of many well known citizens of the past and present. 1903, page 1520.
“The John Cooley House” a report written by Sandra Trubow and Richard Philips for Architecture 401 “Vernacular Building”, UO. Spring 1972.
“The John Cooley House” personal memories penned by Clair Cooley, October 1995.