Subtopic : Pre-Industrial Period: 1870-1910: Pre-Industrial Communities: Madras
Themes: People and the Environment, Social Relations
Madras began as a town plat filed in 1902 by homesteader John Palmehn. Palmehn had come to the area in 1893. The town was incorporated in 1910, coinciding with construction of the Oregon Trunk Railway. According to legend, the town name was supposed to have been “Palmehn” but in the application process was misspelled as “Palmain.” Supposedly this was rejected by the Post Office as being too similar to “Palmer,” a name already chosen by another town. According to one version of the story, someone noticed a bolt of Madras pattern cloth and suggested that the town be called “Madras.” Others contend that the name was chosen because of the early settlers’ spiritual affinity with the city in India.
Madras and the surrounding area seceded from Crook County in 1914 to form Jefferson County. Culver became the first county seat. In a subsequent election, Madras was named county seat. Litigation followed the election, as the people of Culver were reluctant to surrender their position of importance in the county. A self-appointed group of citizens from Madras descended on the Culver courthouse, seizing public records, furniture, and other artifacts of county government. As Madras’s first mayor, Howard Turner, recounts the story, “some of the boys were rather jubilant, having imbibed a little too much and were in a belligerent mood.” The county attorney threatened to prosecute the mob, but the county sheriff sensibly barricaded himself in his office until the Madras boys carried off the records and the equipment of county government.
Madras in the Depression
During the 1930s, Madras made a brief appearance in print. Erskine Caldwell, novelist of the rural South, visited the town, and in Some American People wrote about Madras’s progress through the Great Depression:
At ten o’clock in the morning all the stores in the town of Madras that were going to open had opened. Half of them have been vacant and boarded shut for nearly a year; the hardware merchant and the dry-goods merchant couldn’t get by on just taking in each other’s washing.
Caldwell blamed Madras’s poor economy on dry farming, which he felt was inappropriate in the area. In fact, Madras was located in one of the most successful dry-farming areas in central Oregon. Dry farming declined, however, with the completion of the North Unit canal in 1946. Water from the Deschutes irrigated much of the Jefferson County farm land, including the former dry farming areas on Agency Plains. The dominant crops shifted from wheat to potatoes, clover seed, mint, and later to grass seed, garlic, and dill. These specialized products were very profitable, and they cemented Madras’s position as an agricultural market town.
© Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens, 2004.
Themes: People and the Environment,Social Relations
Regions: Central Oregon
Author: Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens
The establishment of Madras as a market town for regional goods coincided with the opening of the Oregon Trunk Railway in 1910.
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