Backing the Wrong Horse: The Epic Fall of Oregon’s ‘Millionaire Horse King’

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Originally from a New Era farm just outside of Canby, Old Bill Brown survived the decade-long Sheepshooters’ War that decimated the livelihood of many smaller producers, and even thrived.

By the early 20th century, he had amassed an empire consisting of more than 36,000 acres he owned outright, with an additional 100,000 acres he controlled through water rights. His prized herds of wild horses numbered as many as 10,000 — only a rough estimate because Bill kept no records — and he kept upwards of 30,000 sheep and other animals that formed a lucrative wool business.

Bill was an odd character, especially for the Wild West. He never drank. He never swore. He never lied. He hated tobacco. He often rode shirtless, like a “centaur,” and in socks, but though he owned thousands of horses, he preferred to walk most of the time. It was said that he thought nothing of a 30-mile hike after supper, and he regularly trekked the 20 miles that separated his two main ranches.

He was “one of the world’s worst bookkeepers,” according to one newspaper report. Most of his numbers on employees, stock and inventory were kept nowhere but in his own head. He often wrote and signed “checks” (in pencil, no less) on anything he might have handy — butcher paper, wrapping paper, tin can labels, scraps of newspaper and even bark chips.

Bill was so well-known for this habit that any bank in central or eastern Oregon would honor these crude I.O.U.s, even for amounts as high as $10,000 — an enormous fortune in those days.

He once spent $6,000 on hogs because he thought bacon and ham shouldn’t cost as much as it did on the range. His ranch hands quickly decided they didn’t care for herding pigs, so Bill and an employee butchered the lot all at once. Since they had no idea how to properly pack meat, the entire stock spoiled.

But he could spare such eccentricities. His annual income in those days, as near as anyone could tell, was $140,000 — a sum worth several million today. With his lands, animals and other operations, we would roughly estimate his net worth at somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million in today’s dollars.

In 1914, he built a fine new home on his main headquarters at the Buck Creek Ranch. It had eight bedrooms, an office, indoor plumbing, and a dining room table that sat 12. It was known as one of the most finely furnished homes in the western half of the country.

It was a home built for the wife and family that he, sadly, never had.

Old Bill was also widely known for his generosity and philanthropy. He paid his employees well and they were fiercely loyal to him.

A former schoolteacher in California (where he had earned $40 a month), he was a staunch supporter of education, and he gave generous gifts, never less than $5,000, to the College of Puget Sound, seminaries in Pendleton and San Francisco and several other educational institutions.

He gave $30,000 to Willamette University, and when his niece was accepted to the University of Oregon, he wrote U of O a check for $25,000 — probably on the back of a football program.

A devout Methodist, he would give money to any church that asked. Well, almost any church. One story tells of a Methodist minister to whom Bill had pledged a $1,000 gift.

But, the preacher made a grave mistake: He showed up to collect with a lit cigar in his teeth. Not a great idea when meeting a benefactor who despises tobacco and takes a low view of those who smoke it.

“Did he get the money? Nary a cent!” renowned journalist Addison Bennett recounted later for The Oregonian. “That cigar cost that congregation a cool million.”

At one time, he had a written will that left gifts of $500,000, each, for Willamette University and the Methodist Church. But these, as you’ll soon learn, were not to be.

Even at the height of his wealth and prosperity, Bill was known to spend much of his time on the range with his sheep, sleeping in the open air on the grass or a small bed of sheepskins.

“If a herder quits suddenly and another is not at hand, Bill takes the herd and follows it until he can find another,” Bennett wrote. “Sometimes two or more quit at once, and Bill has been under such circumstances known to have herded 6,000 or 7,000 sheep for days and weeks.”

Though the wealth of the “Potato King of Clackamas County” was, well, small potatoes compared to that of his brother, “The Millionaire Horse King,” George Henry Brown also cultivated a reputation as a strong advocate and benefactor of local education.

In 1927, 30 acres he offered to donate for the construction of the new Canby Union High School was so attractive it led to one of the most lopsided election results in Canby’s history. Asked to select between the George Brown tract and the original Oakley Hill location, district voters cast 450 ballots in favor of the former, with only 14, apparently very confused, residents opting for the other side.

Though the original building was torn down in 1992, George Brown’s donated land still serves as the home of the new, modern high school.

The “Bill Brown Empire,” as it was commonly known, was not to last. Bill was slow to adjust to the rise of the gas-powered automobile following the end of World War I, and he maintained his large herds and employees even after the market for horses as a means of transportation had all but disappeared.

The strange circumstances of George’s death, in 1930, serve as an eerie echo of the market factors that destroyed Bill’s fortune. On the morning of May 26, George was driving a team of horses near his New Era home, when he was accidentally run down by a truck that was trying to pass him.
George was thrown to the pavement, where he hit his head and fractured his skull.

The automobile’s effect on Bill’s empire were just as devastating as they had been on his poor brother, and the Great Depression, along with large-scale horse rustling, did away with the little financial reserves he had left. He filed for bankruptcy the year after George’s death.

In 1935, he was forced to mortgage his property and become a resident of the Methodist Old People’s Home in Salem — a charitable institution that he had helped start with a $10,000 gift 25 years earlier.
He died in 1941, 85 years old and completely penniless. But I think he would have been OK with that. Just listen to these words from one of his last interviews.

“I have had money — lots of it — and I have been without it, and I have found that money neither makes nor mars a man unless he regards it as an end in itself. I like to put my money where I believe it will accomplish something worthwhile.

“If a man makes money merely to spend on himself or for his own pleasure, it doesn’t really bring him permanent satisfaction. The money I have given away will go on doing good things long after I am gone.”

Old Bill was buried in the Brown family plot at Zion Memorial Cemetery in Canby, along with his parents and most of his brothers and sisters.

We have many more colorful stories to tell you from the history of the Canby School District, but it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.

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