The 258-acre property not only is the Lane County area's flagship living history museum but also an American Indian campsite, national historic landmark and the first commercial filbert — also known as hazelnut — farm in the United States.
EUGENE — Most people who frequent the Willamalane Park and Recreation District's historic Dorris Ranch probably don't realize how much it takes to preserve and improve it. The 258-acre property not only is the Lane County area's flagship living history museum but also an American Indian campsite, national historic landmark and the first commercial filbert — also known as hazelnut — farm in the United States.
All most visitors know is how much they enjoy walking through the ranch's acres of nut orchards to the banks of the Willamette River, watching the birds and animals that live in its woods and meadows, participating in pioneer history demonstrations or scaring themselves silly during the annual Halloween haunted hay ride.
That's the way it should be, but behind the scenes, of course, it doesn't happen by accident. It takes a lot of bureaucratic planning — goals, inventories, maps, plans, public comment, regulations, budgets and multitudes of meetings — to manage now for the public good what started out in 1892 as the Dorris family's farm.
But there are some rewards. MIG Inc., an environmental planning company with offices nationwide, including in Portland and Eugene, recently received the Award of Excellence from the Oregon chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architecture for its work on the Dorris Ranch Living History Farm Master Plan Update. And, the Willamalane park district has an updated blueprint for enhancing the well-loved 118-year-old Dorris Ranch.
"It's respectful and sensitive to the wonderful history, landscape and habitats at Dorris Ranch," Willamalane superintendent Bob Keefer said of the plan. "This isn't an award they give every year — it's only given when somebody does something really outstanding."
What people will see in the future because of the updated plan is completion of a 4-mile paved bicycle and pedestrian path that's under construction now between Clearwater Park and Quarry Butte and later will continue along the Middle Fork of the Willamette River to its terminus at the Dorris farm, Keefer said. The first phase should be finished sometime next winter, and the rest within the next two years.
"One of the other priorities set in the plan is investing heavily back into maintenance — painting and fixing — using money from the hazelnut harvest," he said. "Down the road, we also will have to replace parts of the 75 acres of orchards, some of which are more than 100 years old."
The third goal for the next few years is restoration of the Dorris house, its surrounding gardens and concrete swimming pool fed by a hand-dug channel, for use as an agricultural and historical interpretive center as well as rental space for events and meetings, Keefer said. "We also want to make better use of the barn, improve the living history village and offer community garden space."
The earliest residents of what is now the Dorris Ranch were the Kalapuya Indians, as well as two other regularly migrating Native American groups, the Molallas and the Klamath, which lived in the area until 1855, when the Kalapuyas ceded the land along the Willamette River to the U.S. government.
According to the historical account included in the plan update, during the homesteading period, 320 acres of land — including what is now the Dorris Ranch — belonged to William and Eliza Masterson, who had come from Kentucky with their children and filed their claim in 1852. For the next 40 years, the land changed ownership 13 times, until George and Lulu Dorris bought it, for $4,000, from George and Marietta Thurston.
The couple built the Dorris House in 1899, the same year they decided that hop-growing was not productive enough and turned to asparagus, artichokes, okra, peaches, plums, figs, grapes, strawberries, walnuts and cherries. Dates differ between 1903 and 1905 as the year they planted their first filbert trees, becoming the first commercial filbert farm in the country.
Lulu Dorris gave birth to several children, but none lived past infancy. But in 1925, the couple's nephew, Ben Dorris, joined the farm as a partner. He and his wife, Klysta, nicknamed Kay, had four children — John, George, Mary and Benjamin — all of whom grew up on the farm.
Son George, now nearly 80, has lived for decades in New York City, where he co-edits a dance history journal with his partner, Jack Armstrong — the couple married in Canada when gay marriage became legal there — and both men also write for other dance publications.
Interviewed three years ago, George Dorris vividly remembered his upbringing on the Dorris Ranch.
"We moved to the farm in 1935, when I was 5," he said then. "It was a wonderful place — it was absolutely bucolic in summer. There were endless places to walk, up the hill, around the orchards, to the river."
The river also helped him escape the summer heat when he was supposed to be pruning the filbert trees, Dorris said.
"I'm afraid I was bone lazy, and I'd sneak off from my chores and go swimming," he said.
Later, though, his father provided the kids with a safer and much more convenient swimming spot, when he built a large concrete pool near the farmhouse, filled from the river from an irrigation canal that ran through it and emptied back into the river.
Dorris remembered the house as "very simple" and not entirely comfortable, at least at first. "When we moved there, the only heat was a wood stove in the kitchen, and the fireplace," he said. "The house was extensively remodeled in 1940, when the porch was enclosed and central heating was added."
Decades later, in 1972, when Willamalane purchased the Dorris farm, everyone in the family supported the idea, "because we all loved the place, and we liked the notion that other people would be able to enjoy it, too," Dorris said.
That fits with park superintendent Keefer's view of the importance of the Dorris Ranch to the people of the Eugene-Springfield area.
"What we know is that the public yearns for the ability to have close-by access to nature," Keefer said. "The Dorris Ranch provides nature, agriculture and history for the people who come here."
He estimates that at least 30,000 visitors come each year to participate in organized programs, and the number probably tops 50,000 if casual walkers and picnickers are counted.
From the professional point of view, the opportunity to be steward of such a richly historic property comes along only rarely, Keefer said. For the public, "Having the Dorris Ranch helps people get their spirits renewed. It helps them feel better about the places where we live."