A few weeks ago I phoned Salem resident Sybil Westenhouse to learn more about our family history. Although we had never met or talked before, Sybil was friendly, and pleased to talk about old Oregon and Salem. Sybil Westenhouse comes from an old Oregon farming family, but grew up in Salem. On the phone, I learned she attended Oregon State College and studied education just a few years after my own mom. After she retired from teaching, Sybil dove into the history of old Oregon, including researching classroom history projects. On the phone she told me about her connection with an older relative of mine who sparked her particular interest in researching our missionary descendants, William Willson and Chloe Clarke Willson. And although I had previously spent time in Willamette University Library Archives, the call led me to go in search of the Sybil Westenhouse collection also housed there.
The library at Willamette University is named after the popular Mark Hatfield, a 30-year United States Senator, and two term Oregon Governor – in fact, he was our governor when I was born. He had been both a student, and later a professor, at Willamette University. When I arrived at the Library Archives, I settled in to go through three boxes within Sybil’s collection about early Oregon and Salem. And while many of the details I have uncovered before, I did learn for the first time that William Willson, my great-great-great grandfather, operated a ferry across the Willamette at the end of Salem’s ferry street in the early 1850’s.
After finally pulling myself away from those carefully organized boxes, wheeling to my car in the (thank you!) handicapped parking, I watched students mill between classes. I had a flash of going back in time to honor the significance of the first teacher of the original Oregon Institute all those years ago. Chloe.
And with my few remaining minutes of the day, fortuitous intuition led me across the street to Willamette Heritage Center, to get a few more notes. This 5-acre site features several National Register of Historic Places including the Thomas Kay woolen mill, and the Jason Lee House. The Center also includes a research library and archives of Marion County history. And while I did learn a few more details about Willamette Falls – way back when, thanks to a wonderful curator, even more special was to encounter my great-great-great grandmother! Okay, the docent impersonating Chloe Willson Clarke, nonetheless! She was a bit surprised as I told her I was “her” great-great-great granddaughter!
A bit later, as I traveled over the Boone Bridge, just before Wilsonville, I felt particularly lucky to see Mt. Hood’s top visible to the north, just beyond the curve of the river that still awakens in my dreams.