Oldest home in the county entices history buffs July 19

Layers of wallpaper, canvas and wood reveal a house that has seen many changes since 1848. The anonymous preservationist who bought the house plans to restore the property back into a residence.Squinting through the dusty window panes of Forest Grove’s Silas Beeks house Saturday, visitors could almost look past the fields and telephone poles and see the pioneer family that traveled the Oregon Trail to get here 150 years ago.

The Beeks house is the oldest in Washington County, and one of the few buildings left standing from the original 4,600 Donation Land Claims issued in the Willamette Valley in the 1850s. The house was recently purchased by an anonymous preservationist who plans to restore it to a residence.

Restore Oregon hosted a tour of the house last weekend to give the public a rare glimpse at an early pioneer home.

In 1847, Silas and Mary Beeks braved snow, rain, a measles outbreak and an Indian attack to travel from Ohio to Oregon with four wagons of possessions.

At the time, Oregon Donation Land Claims granted 640 acres to married couples, but the Beeks only got 570 because adjacent properties had crowded out some of the space. The current house sits on 1.68 acres.

The Beeks built the first section of their house, now the kitchen and dining room, from oak and Douglas fir. The rest was added between 1859 and 1861. They probably kept a personal garden in addition to wheat crops and they even added a race track for horses.

The late Gary Senko, who most recently owned the house, was represented at the event by his sister Susie Senko. Gary owned the home for 36 years and had plans to restore it, but fell ill before he could finish. Too old to care for the property herself, Susie sold it on condition that the buyer would commit to continuing the restoration.

In 1984, Archaeologist Melissa Darby prepared the home for the National Register of Historic Places, which recognizes a property as worthy of preservation, but does not have any legal impact on what the owner chooses to do with it.

In the application, Darby dated the construction of the home through materials such as brick, ceramics, glass and slate. Window panes, for example, can be dated by thickness, and nails by the type of NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: KATE STRINGER - Visitors sign in at the sold-out tour of the Silas Beeks pioneer house in Forest Grove. The house was built in 1848, the oldest in Washington County.

Through consulting and advocacy, Restore Oregon aims to not only help restore historic buildings but make them economically viable. Since the homes themselves rarely bring in much money as a tourist attraction, RO encourages owners to turn buildings into wineries, bed-and-breakfasts or farm-to-table restaurants.

RO Executive Director Peggy Moretti wants to give people a more vivid taste of history than they can get from a one-dimensional photograph or a textbook. She wants visitors to remember those who “literally carved out their lives with their own hands and dogged determination.”

Through a restored home, Moretti said, you can experience the place with all your senses. “You smell it, you feel how you relate to the space. You can look out the window with the old wavy glass that has the fields and imagine someone plowing with a horse back then.”

Those thoughts are common among visitors. “How different it must have been back then,” Hillsboro resident and historic preservationist Dianne Rider said Saturday. “But their lives were also similar: life, death, holidays, love, war. As much as you think things have changed, they haven’t.”

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