I look out my window on a gorgeous spring morning in Corvallis to see pink magnolias blooming, hummingbirds whizzing by, and the streets littered with smiling families and college students. Families carry their baskets home from the saturday market. Today, Corvallis is home to over 50,000 people and is named in the top 10 best college towns in the PAC-12, but it didn’t always look this way. Before, it was just a long stretch of land connecting the Willamette River and Mary’s River and was the end of the road for many settlers along the Oregon Trail.
Long before I arrived in Corvallis, the Kalapuya Native Americans made a home here. The Kalapuya were not simply one tribal entity, in fact they were considered more of an ethnic group composed of twelve or so subdivisions that spoke in relatively three different languages (North, Central and South). Like many of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the Kalapuya practiced slavery (LCC 2018). It was considered to be a form of wealth and power. Slaves lived with the families who owned them and worked side-by-side to perform daily tasks. Slaves were free to marry, but their freedom could only be bought by enough accumulation of property or through sufficient payment to their owner. Wealth, power and the social class were very important aspects to the Kalapuya. In addition, special Shamans were believed to possess supernatural predictive or healing powers. Robert Boyd, UC Davis Anthropologist, estimates the total population is believed to be as high as 15,000 until around the 1830s when white Euro-Americans explored the area. Between 1830 and 1833 a devastating malaria outbreak took the lives of 90% of the original Kalapuya Native Americans. Malaria, smallpox, and other diseases that traveled along with the white settlers were said to have dropped the total population of the Kalapuya down to 600 people. Just like that, the history of the Kalapuya was diminished and we are we left with very little to reminisce and study about their life.
Immediately, the white settlers began taking control of the land. According to Dr. Stacey L. Smith at Oregon State University, the first official claims to the land in this area were two 640 acre parcels. The first one at the junction of the Willamette and Mary’s River claimed by Joseph C. Avery, the other by William F. Dixon. Joseph Avery was born in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania in 1817, but emigrated to Oregon in 1845 with his wife Martha Marsh and the rest of his family. He built a store on his claim and by 1849 he surveyed the site of a new town, Marysville which he later named Corvallis, a latin compound meaning “heart of the valley”. Corvallis quickly attracted a flood of immigrants seeking donation land claims in the early 1850s. Avery sold town lots, built several commercial buildings, and established Corvallis’ first post office. Avery was largely responsible for the white settlement and the early growth of Corvallis. Many of us are already familiar with this name from the beautiful Avery Park, located just off of Oregon State and in the heart of Corvallis.
For a short period of time, the town served as the capital of Oregon Territory in 1855, however Salem eventually won a year later. In 1860 the population stood at 531, but continued to grow through the rest of the century. In 1868, legislature designated Corvallis College to become the state’s new agricultural college under the provisions of of the 1862 federal Morrill Land Grant Act. This was the initial birth of the school that I have been fortunate enough to attend, Oregon State University. Avery was appointed to the Board of Commissioners and was responsible for selecting federal lands and established acreage for experimental agriculture. Avery selected and bought thirty-five acres for the “College Farm”. Avery even donated some of his personal funds for the land on which OSU currently still resides ( Smith 2017).
While Avery contributed much to the establishment of Corvallis and Oregon State University, some controversy continues to exist. This controversy stems from Avery’s allegations that he ran an extreme pro-slavery newspaper, The Occidental Messenger. According to Dr. Smith, Avery’s relationship to the newspaper is confusing because his name never appeared as an editor or publisher (Smith 10). However, several sources including local historians, editors of the Democratic Standard, and the Oregon Agrus, and many more concur that Avery was the primary source behind the arguments and content, but stayed far behind the scenes. Evidence does however exist to argue that Avery did not personally hold pro slavery views; even his worst enemies testify that he did not (Smith 16). We can conclude from evidence that Avery held some stake in controlling the Messenger, weather as an owner, publisher, or secret editor, but we cannot prove that he condoned the publication of these extremist views (16). One of the things that we can truly treasure about history is the mystery behind every story – we never truly will know the truth and we are all open to our own interpretations of the birth and growth of this great little community that we call home.
Despite Avery’s aid in the growth of Corvallis agriculture and politics, commerce on the Willamette River was enhanced when the Army Corps of Engineers completed a canal at Willamette Falls, a project that enabled shippers to pass up and down the river without portaging goods around the falls. As Corvallis agriculture was expanding, merchants sought a railroad to provide competition with river transportation. In 1880 Henry Villard completed a railroad from Portland to Corvallis on the West side of the river. This train still runs through Corvallis – I walk by it everyday and hear it every night. By the late 19th century, Corvallis had become a significant agriculture center. Warehouses with grain, fruit, and vegetables covered the perimeter of the River waiting harvest and shipment.
Corvallis began to grow rapidly once again in the 1900s when automobiles appeared in the city. Suddenly, the streets were being paved, sewer systems were being developed, and the population had grown to over 7,500 in the 1920s. The school began to face issues in the face of the Great Depression and the Pearl Harbor attacks when population growth slowed to 10 percent. The Pearl Harbor attack triggered research projects and trainings on campus and hundreds of veterans arrived to attend college on the GI Bill (Robbins 2018). Things took a turn for the better when the Postwar housing boom hit. This growth in economics and population added to Oregon’s lumber production. The college received University status in 1960 when it was renamed Oregon State University.
Hewlett-Packard, one of the world’s leading technology companies, opened a large plant northeast of Corvallis in 1976. They employed about six thousand workers and contractors and are attributed with the significant growth of Corvallis. As of 2015, only some two thousand employees work at the Corvallis site. The enrollment of OSU reached 15,509 in 1970 but sky-rocked at the turn of the 21st century pushing Corvallis city population over 56,000 in 2015.
Corvallis has outstanded several extremes of economic, political, and social growth and degradation from the Kalapuya Indians, Joseph Avery and the agriculture empire. Three years ago when I first got out of my car from a 14 hour drive from California, I saw a small town, a village of brick buildings, and thousands of college students. I knew very little about the town and much less about the history of the small town. I can tell you this, as my years in this town are coming to an abrupt end, I am very grateful to have experienced the profound history this town has to offer. The great thing about history, is that we all get to contribute to the story that will live on forever.