Polk County Historical Society

George Johnson Baskett was born in Kentucky on Feb. 25, 1817, and moved to Missouri in 1827.  He headed west in May of 1847.  He rode a saddle horse and was a helping hand for the wagon train.

When he came west, George was a 30-year-old bachelor.  Arriving at Dixie (now Rickreall) in late fall, Baskett wintered with Nathaniel Ford.  In 1846, Baskett met Elijah Bristow (born in 1788 in Virginia).  Bristow had first gone to Ft. Sutter in California from Illinois in 1845, and then came to visit George Shelley, near Dallas, in 1846. 

Baskett went with Bristow and Eugene Skinner to explore the middle fork of the Willamette River east of Eugene.  Bristow selected his homestead at Pleasant Hill.  In 1846 he sent for his family.  It took a year for the letter to reach them in Illinois and another year for them to make the trip to Oregon.

In 1848, Baskett went with Bristow to meet the family at the Barlow Pass on Mt. Hood.  At that time Baskett met his future wife, Catherine Simms Bristow (born in 1828).  Elijah Bristow died in 1878 and is buried at Pleasant Hill on land he donated for the cemetery.

Baskett went to the California gold rush in 1848-49 while Catherine attended school in Oregon City.  George and Catherine were married at Pleasant Hill in 1850 and settled on a 640-acre donation land claim about a mile north of Dixie (Rickreall).  .

Their first log cabin was at the public ford on the south side of the creek (Baskett Slough).  Here five of their eight children were born.  The cabin later was moved west and used as a barn until it was torn down in 1945.

Baskett loved horses and particularly horse racing.  In 1852 he took a year to ride horseback to Kentucky to buy three thoroughbred stallions, including the famous stallion, “Laplander,” and lead them back to Oregon.  This was the start of his dominance in horse racing in Oregon.

Baskett returned to Oregon with dried Osage oranges from Missouri in his saddle bags.  The ‘oranges’ or hedge apples are the green seed pods from the trees each containing hundreds of seeds.  The thorny Osage orange tree was used for hedge rows before barbed wire was invented in 1887.  Lewis and Clark discovered the Osage orange trees in Missouri and sent oranges to President Thomas Jefferson who planted the trees in Philadelphia and at his home at Monticello.  Baskett planted miles of hedges around his property.  The trees grow to 40 feet tall unless trimmed into hedges.

The oranges still fall from the trees Baskett planted on the Baskett homestead as well as along Rickreall Road.  The Osage orange trees are very useful.  Indians made bows from the hard wood.  The wood also was used for ox yokes. 

Baskett devoted a great deal of time and energy to both the Polk County and Oregon State Fairs.  He was particularly instrumental in organizing the Polk County Fair.  Probably part of his motivation was horse racing.  He served on the boards of directors of both the County and State Fairs.  He was president of the Polk County Fair in 1864 and became vice president of the Oregon State Fair in 1867.  He had a cabin at the State Fairgrounds where the family stayed during the fair each year.  Baskett ran his horses all over the area with great success.  His horses dominated northwest racing for several years.  Many of the purses accompanied with gambling stakes reached large amounts.

In the 1850s Baskett developed his farm with the construction of a 40-stall-barn, a one-mile racetrack and a large frame house with four fireplaces.  The eight-room house took three years to complete.  It had a separate “men’s room” which was the living area for the large crew of farm workers and jockeys.  Baskett employed a crew of Chinese to clear trees and work the farm.  He also planted a 40-acre apple orchard.  It was rumored that Baskett had done well during the gold rush.

Overall, Baskett did well and commanded the respect of his peers.  He was a man of energy, honest and businesslike.  He acquired a ranch in Wasco County to raise draft horses.  He drove herds of the large horses to Idaho and Montana to market them in the early 1880s.

George’s health began to fail at the end of the last horse drive he made to Idaho.  After he returned to Rickreall, he took the train to a hot springs in California in hopes of a cure.  His health continued to fail and he died in California in January of 1883.  His remains were returned to Portland on the “Queen of the Pacific” to be buried in the center of his race track.  Later his remains were moved to the City View Cemetery in Salem.

The Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge opened in 1965.

Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society.  The Society’s Library and Museum, located at the Polk County Fairgrounds at Rickreall, is open to the public from 12 to 4 p.m. each day, except Sunday, Monday and holidays.  Admission:  adults, $5.00; seniors (age 62+), $4.00; children ages 6-17, $1.00; children under age 6, centenarians and Society members, free.)

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