Folklore Fieldwork in Wheeler County

by Vanessa Cutz (OFN intern and Folklore MA ’16) and Josh Ehlers (OFN Assistant Folklorist and Folklore BA ’13)

Riki Saltzman, Josh Ehlers, and Vanessa Cutz joined folklorist Joseph O’Connell in his survey of Wheeler County over the first weekend of May. We drove through the Ochoco National Forest to get to Mitchell, a small town along Highway 26 that once thrived through the logging industry. While the town now sits quietly amidst the rim rock, juniper, and sagebrush, it anticipates a potential tourist boom now that Travel Oregon has named the nearby Painted Hills one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon.

Joe scheduled four interviews for the weekend, the first with Betty Woodward, a water witcher, and, as we found out, painter, quilter, knitter, and state champion bowler. Water witching, sometimes called divining, is the practice of finding underground water by using a forked willow branch, or in Betty Woodward’s case, two metal rods. She described how she picks up her rods and holds them loosely in her hands; her elbows are bent so that the rods point outwards from her chest. Then, she clears her mind and says, “Show me if there’s water here.” Walking across the lot, she doesn’t stop until the rods cross completely, indicating the center of the water source. After marking the spot, Mrs. Woodward stands with her rods out and counts until the rods cross again, allowing her to estimate the depth and the gallons of water present. She told us, “It’s rewarding—I’m not real sure of myself until it’s drilled. I give a lot of thanks to God for this gift—it really is a gift.” Mrs. Woodward says she has never failed to find water this way; She has had several encounters with well diggers who didn’t believe her until they dug the spot that she marked and found the amount of water she estimated—exactly the distance down she had indicated.

On Saturday afternoon, we drove out through the Painted Hills National Monument to find Betty Jo Norton, a local resident renowned for her quilting.

As we drove, the dry land gave way to a green oasis where a creek flowed through a small valley. As we stepped out of the car, we stood in amazement at the lush property—the trees stood tall and thick, beautiful yellow roses lined the front lawn, and birds sang in the treetops. Mrs. Norton came out to greet us, bringing us into her cozy living room where she had a pile of quilts folded on her couch.

She showed us quilt after quilt of intricate hand appliqué with sunbonnet Sue, bunnies, and elk. She said she uses patterns but she always tries to make each quilt her own by adding appliqué, embroidery, or using paper piecing. At 86, she continues to take classes and attend quilting camps in Prineville and Tillamook. Mrs. Norton told us that she enjoys “talking with all the people and seeing the different colors; you’re always learning something.”

Traditions of hospitality are strong in the town of Mitchell and its residents, and we experienced this first hand in the homes we visited and at the Lions’ Club Community Dinner and Pie Auction. In a beautiful display of redistribution of community wealth into a college scholarship fund, we witnessed minced meat, apple, lemon chiffon, and apricot pies go for upwards of $80 each.

The auctioneer soon spied us for the visitors that we were, and our folklore group became a running joke for not bidding enough on these prized pies. Not only did the auctioneer thank us for being such good sports, but the local townswoman who outbid us for the final pie also gifted us with that apricot-filled confection at the end of the evening.

Our final visit the next morning was with gear maker Roger Pachanek and his son, Joe Pachanek, who trains border collies as stock dogs for ranchers.

Our fieldwork over the weekend gave us a glimpse into the traditions that Mitchell inhabitants do daily to hold their lives together, keep their hands busy, and their faces smiling.

Photos by Riki Saltzman


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