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Pete French Round Barn
For well over a century and a half, the large, arid, eastern half of Oregon has been a horse- and cattle-raising area. Large numbers of stock ranged freely over the largely unfenced chaparral in the nineteenth century. A few individuals ran these large herds, some of the managing foremen becoming near-legendary “cattle kings,” none more so than John William “Pete” French, who was the foreman working for Dr. Hugh James Glenn of Jacinto in Colusa County, California. French’s P Ranch spreads over nearly 200,000 acres on the west slope of Steens Mountain.
Several of the barns and buildings on the P Ranch survive, but none is more captivating than the large, freestanding round barn that French and his ranch hands built in 1883 or 1884 on a low rise in a sagebrush-dotted expanse of the Eastern Oregon rangeland, about 13 miles south of Malheur Lake and roughly 50 miles southeast of Burns. Not a barn in the usual sense, this is in fact a large enclosed corral for winter horse breaking. Originally one of three such barns on the P Ranch, it is the sole surviving round barn of a cattle- and horse-raising operation that once spread out in the Blitzen Valley of Harney County.
The barn was built specifically to provide covered space for training and exercising the ranch’s horses during the winter months. The French livestock operation in the 1880s and 1890s was so extensive that nearly 300 horse and mule colts were born each year, and while some were sold, most were trained for use on the sprawling ranch. During the bitter winter season, young horses and mules could be trained inside the barn for riding and freight hauling and mature horses could be exercised in the covered circular paddock.
Measuring roughly 100 feet in diameter, the barn is supported by 29 peeled juniper poles around the periphery. Fifteen feet inside this ring and enclosing the corral proper is a circular stone wall, one-and-a-half-feet thick and 64 feet in diameter, rising to about 9 feet. Two large gate openings and 14 large wood-framed windows measuring about 3 by 2 feet punctuate this inner stone wall. Further inside this masonry wall are 14 tall, peeled juniper poles, and at the center is a single massive 25-foot-tall central peeled juniper pole from which radiate 15 diagonal braces that support plate beams that, in turn, support 30 radiating center rafters. The encircling 14 posts also carry diagonal braces and plate beams, and a short circular wood frame rises from the stone corral wall to support the roof rafters. Aside from the juniper posts obtained locally, all other wood framing and walls are built with sawn Ponderosa pine dimensional lumber believed to have been hauled by French’s own freight wagons from a sawmill operated by A. H. Robie on Coffee Pot Creek near Fort Harney (formerly located east of Burns), more than 36 miles to the north, or perhaps hauled from the Fort Bidwell sawmill in California.
Vertical boards nailed to horizontal skirt boards just above the ground make up the outermost ring-wall, except for spaces left open between 9 of the outer posts on the east side. Wood battens cover the joints between the outer wall boards. Facing roughly northeast is a broad low gable in the roof over an opening aligned with one of the gates in the stone corral wall. The broad, low-pitched conical roof is covered with red cedar shingles; the roof has been reshingled three times, most recently in 2010.
French’s widespread acquisition of homestead claims, originally filed by his ranch hands, his control of water rights, and his fencing off of lands in the public domain angered small-scale farmers in Harney County. One of them, Ed Oliver, abruptly shot the unarmed 48-year-old cattleman dead; Oliver was acquitted in his trial for murder. After French’s untimely death, ownership of the barn and the P Ranch passed to the French-Glenn Livestock Company, on what was then called the Barton Lake Ranch. In the early 1920s, the barn was acquired by the Jenkins family, who used it for several decades for grain and equipment storage until the family gifted it to the Oregon Historical Society in 1969. The barn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Today, having been stabilized and restored under the auspices of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Pete French Round Barn is administered by the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department and is open to the public.
Even after more than a century and a quarter, because of its solid construction of juniper pole, wood frame, and stone, this unique horse-training Oregon barn remains a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the practically minded Pete French and his small group of Mexican and American vaqueros.
Allen, Crain. “French Round Barn.” Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 22, 2017. https://oregonencyclopedia.org.
French, Giles. Cattle Country of Peter French. Portland, OR: Binford and Mort, 1964.
Highberger, Mark. Untamed Land: The Death of Pete French and the End of the Old West. Wallowa, OR: Bear Creek Press, 2006.
Jackman, E. R., and R. A. Long. The Oregon Desert. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1964.
Jackson, Royal G. and Jennifer A. Lee. Harney County: An Historical Inventory. Burns, OR: Harney County Planning Commission and Harney County Historical Society, 1978.
Pinyerd, David, and Donald Peting. “Preservation of the Pete French Round Barn.” Cultural Resources Management 5 (1995): 30-32.
Simpson, Peter K. The Community of Cattlemen: A Social History of the Cattle Industry in Southeastern Oregon, 1869–1812. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1986.
Walton, Elizabeth, “Pete French Round Barn,” Harney County, Oregon. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1971. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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