To Shell and Back: How a Canby-Area Pioneer Family Built a Nutty Legacy in Oregon

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Kentucky native Samuel K. Barlow’s land west of Canby eventually became the property of his son, William, who, in turn, sold 800 acres of his vast holdings to form the town of Barlow.

Initially the largest and most prosperous of the “ABC” sister cities, a train station was established in Barlow when the O&C Railroad was built in 1870.

It remained the main stop in the area until the explosion of fertile farmlands in Canby fueled an economic and population boom — necessitating an expanded station to accommodate the crops and cattle being exported down to the Southern Pacific Railroad route.

Barlow’s post office was established in February 1871 and would serve the area more than a hundred years, closing its doors on January 3, 1975. The town was incorporated in 1903 as Barlow, named not after the famous Samuel Barlow, but his son William, who lived there and started a sawmill, a gristmill, the post office and the Barlow Bank and Land Development Company.

The late 1800s was Barlow’s heyday, as the city was home to more than 40 families and boasted a school, a bank, two churches, two hotels, two general stores, three saloons, a feed store and livery stable and a newspaper. Downtown Barlow had wooden sidewalks and white picket fences.

But while Canby thrived, thanks to a higher and drier location that was less likely to flood, Barlow stagnated and declined. By the early 20th century, Barlow was little more than a ghost town. It did not start attracting many new residents until after World War II.

William Barlow and his wife, Martha Ann, bought more land and established a large plantation spanning, at its peak, more than 1,400 acres on the rich, moist bottomland that stretches between the Molalla and Pudding rivers.

The couple built a Southern-style mansion, which hosted the newly formed First Oregon Volunteer Cavalry Regiment in 1861, while the unit was headed east to serve in the Snake River country that became part of Idaho Territory two years later. It burned down in 1883.

Two years later, he built a grand, new home in the Victorian Italiante style, which was popular in the mid- to late 19th century. The house passed to William’s daughter Mary in 1896, and it was sold out of the family in 1906.

William died at 81 years old in 1904. The Barlow Fountain, built to honor the contributions of William Barlow and his family, was dedicated by Mary Barlow in 1904.

Still standing to this day, having been beautifully restored by the late Virginia L. Miller, who lived there and operated it as a private museum until her passing in 2004, the William Barlow House is the oldest residential structure in the Canby area.

The Barlow House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 15, 1977, and remains a prominent landmark of Canby to this day.

We have one last story to tell you about this remarkable family and property, and it concerns the iconic twin rows of black walnut trees that framed the historic house for well over a century. It is also a story about how one person’s will can shape the face of the future or, at least, the face of the landscape.

The walnut trees are Martha Ann Barlow’s contribution to history, and they have roots that burrow throughout the Willamette Valley.

A Southern belle from Virginia, Martha Ann traveled the Oregon Trail west in 1850, and married widower William Barlow two years later. Barlow had just bought his father’s 640-acre donation land claim, where he built for his bride a Southern-style plantation mansion that later burned down.

But even with her 18-room Southern mansion, Martha Ann was still homesick. She pined for the wide, tree-lined avenues of her childhood home and talked of them longingly.

Finally, William resolved to plant Martha Ann an Oregon version — his only condition being that the trees be the black walnuts of his youth in Indiana — for he, too, was not immune to the pangs of childhood nostalgia.

But first, William had to get some nuts to plant. He couldn’t just mosey down to the corner feed store, much less boot up the desktop and order a Prime Day delivery on

Amazon was still at least 150 years from taking over the world, and black walnuts, native to the eastern United States, weren’t found anywhere near Oregon.

William finally tracked down a friend who was going east and agreed to bring him a sack of walnuts, a task that turned out to be more complicated than he would have ever imagined.

When the friend’s return to Oregon was delayed, he entrusted the walnuts to Samuel Royal Thurston, a native of Monmouth, Maine, who became the first delegate from the Oregon Territory to serve in the United States Congress.

Sadly, Thurston never made it home to Oregon. He caught fever somewhere near Panama and died at sea. Burial at sea was common and the sailors were all for it, but the captain decided Thurston was important enough to make an exception. They landed at San Francisco, where Thurston was buried.

The sack of walnuts, still in his possession, seemed doomed. Then again, one would be unwise to ever underestimate the power of a woman’s persuasion. Martha Ann wanted those nuts — and she would not be denied.

So William, on a business trip to San Francisco, managed to locate Sam Oakley, who had nursed Thurston during his illness. Oakley led William to the nuts, which had been stored with Thurston’s other belongings. The freight and storage bill came to $65, quite a hefty price tag in those days.

Here’s where the story diverges a bit. Some versions say William was appalled by the price tag and flatly refused to pay. He came home empty-handed, only to return immediately upon seeing the reaction of Martha Ann. Other retellings say he coughed up the dough on the first trip and that Martha was just as astounded at the cost as William had been.

Whichever is true, the walnuts finally arrived in Oregon. And on this everyone agrees: It was a day of celebration.

William cut open the bag and rolled them out onto the floor at Martha Ann’s feet, where they cracked a few to eat — finding the meat to be “preciously good, reminding the partakers of childhood’s happy days in their far-away Eastern homes,” according to his later memoirs — and counted the bounty: 665 black walnuts and 100 butternuts (a close relative in the walnut family).

These they put in a box of sand and fertilizer, which William buried under the manure pile. That spring of 1854, 750 seedlings were brought forth, their long roots tangled and bursting through the box.

The new trees were planted in a bed to get started and were ready for transplanting that fall. One hundred of them were planted on the Barlow property in 1859 — the birth year of Oregon.

Martha Ann finally got her tree-lined avenue. And what a grand sight it was — 50 trees stretching down each side of the 450-foot-long carriage drive. But she wasn’t the only one to benefit from those hard-won walnuts.

The Barlows gave seedlings to friends and relatives and sold the extras at $1.50 apiece, ultimately realizing a profit nearly 10 times their initial investment. A later crop was sold to farmers in eastern Oregon, becoming an orchard that supplied the Portland market with “good, well-filled nuts” for decades to come.

Now, almost 150 years later, those huge, old walnuts dot the valley, most of them from that first bag of walnuts. Some are documented, including one on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway and another on Sauvie Island.

Unfortunately, the development of the railroad and highway led to the removal of most of Martha Ann’s avenue of trees. One, with a trunk almost four feet in diameter and a spread of 240 feet, was just too beautiful to destroy.

Ben Holladay, the roguish iron baron who also happened to be president of the Oregon & California Railroad when it was being built through Canby and Barlow, couldn’t bear to see it go.

Nor would he sell it, not even for the obscene price of $50 one man offered him — the equivalent of more than $1,500 today. It took two flat railcars and two dozen men to do it, but Holladay moved the gigantic tree more than 20 miles to his home in Holladay’s Addition in what’s now inner Northeast Portland.

Today, the tree-lined avenue is no more, most of the 14 trees that had survived the highway and railroad construction being taken down some years ago due to disease. But their towering memory remains, forever framing and paying tribute to a legacy that was born through the will of one woman — and the grand home she built in Clackamas County.

This is the second in a two-part series exploring the history and legacy of the Barlow family. See here for how it all began.

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