Wait For It… Justice Aaron E. Wait, Namesake of Canby’s Wait Park, Led a Colorful Life

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If the city of Canby were a wheel, then Wait Park would be the hub. The city revolves around it.

It is the host of many of the city’s most popular and well-known events from the Canby Independence Day Celebration (once known as General Canby Days) to Light Up the Night, which draws thousands to downtown Canby each year to help ring in the holiday season.

Today marks the start of a new series on Canby Then, looking at the history of the city’s parks. They play a much more important role than you may realize.

They are the places children play, yes, but one day, those children grow up, and the lives they lead and the futures they build are shaped in no small part by the dreams that first began to take shape on the playgrounds of their youth.

Wait is the city’s oldest park. Though it was not officially deeded to Canby until 1967, its history goes back much farther than that. The property that would one day become Wait Park was part of the original 1870 plat for the city of Canby, filed 150 years ago.

It was part of the original donation land claim of Canby founding father Philander Lee, the Oregon Trail Pioneer who grew amazing whiskers, but also apples, which he shipped by train and sold to miners during the California Gold Rush.

Just to the north was the claim of Aaron Emmons Wait, whose descendants would eventually own the land and donate it to the city, and after whom the park is named.

Wait is a fascinating and influential figure in early Oregon history. It’s well-known that he was the first chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, but he was so much more than that!

Aaron Wait was born in Whately, Mass., on the day after Christmas in 1813. His father was a soldier in the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until 1815), and was killed in action shortly after Aaron was born.

He was raised by his uncle and grandfather. At the age of 14, he became an apprentice broom maker in Hatfield, and put the money he earned toward his own education. At age 20, he moved to Long Island, N.Y., where he taught country winter schools, and was an assistant teacher in Erasmus Hall — though, he would later confess, he “never really liked teaching.”

He eventually returned to Massachusetts before moving west in 1837 and settling in Centerville, Mich. There, he befriended Judge Columbia Lancaster, who would also be influential in the early governance of both Oregon and Washington state.

Young Aaron had taken an interest in political matters since he was a boy, a biographer once noted, and “had always been a Democrat.” During the presidential campaign of 1844, he edited a Democratic paper in Michigan, and afterward, held the office of military secretary in the cabinet of Gov. John L. Barry.

In the spring of 1847, Wait headed to the Oregon Country in a wagon train of 40 ox-drawn wagons. His party included Judge Lancaster and Lancaster’s small family. They arrived safely in the mid-September of that year.

“Watchful care was exercised; and no serious accident nor difficulty occurred on the journey,” Wait’s biographer noted. “Otherwise than being tiresome, the journey was not an unpleasant one.”

The one colorful episode history preserves involved the spectacles Wait wore for nearsightedness. Native Americans who noticed the strange facial adornments asked what they were for, and Wait said they allowed him to see “a long way off.”

The natives avoided him after that. They had misunderstood his explanation to mean that the spectacles made it so he could see “anything, anywhere.”

Once in Oregon, he set up a law practice in Oregon City and entered into an agreement with Oregon’s first governor, George Abernethy, to edit the fledgling Oregon Spectator.

The Spectator was the first American newspaper west of the Rocky Mountains, and would soon become the main paper of the region used by politicians for public debate of the leading topics of the day.

It had little competition. Before the Spectator, the only newspapers circulated in the Territory were tiny pamphlets printed in San Francisco and Monterey, which were delivered by ship at random intervals, and, bizarrely, a paper based in Honolulu, Hawaii — which, at the time, was commonly known as “the Sandwich Islands,” for reasons that are much less hilarious than you might guess.

Some folks also received letters and papers from the “States” once a year by immigrants coming down the Oregon Trail.

When the Cayuse War broke out — sparked by the massacre of missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, whom Philander Lee and his family had met on their own journey to Oregon — Wait was appointed first assistant commissary under Gen. Joel Palmer.

While in that capacity, Wait was tasked with securing provisions for the troops in the field — no easy task. Legend has it that someone told him, “Go to ‘God Almighty’ Smith. He is able to give, but won’t; but you try him.”

Alvin Thompson “God Almighty” Smith was an accomplished carpenter on the Tualatin Plains, which we now know as the city of Forest Grove. He was, in the words of one historian, “a serious man who did serious work.”

He was a devout Christian from his boyhood days. His nickname had been bestowed on him by the Indians, who heard his frequent prayers to “God Almighty.”

And, as one of his contemporaries, Dolly Hinman, would recall: “Mr. Smith was a very stern man, keeping the Sabbath from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, and woe betide anyone who did not do likewise.”

Obviously, Aaron Wait had his work cut out for him. He arrived at Mr. Smith’s late in the day, and made his errand known. Never one to make quick decisions, Mr. Smith said, “You must stay with me all night; and we will talk it over.”

Well, Old Man Smith must have heard a still, small voice during his prayers that night, because he did indeed agree to furnish equipment for the soldiers in the field, and rendered other aid.

He even accompanied Wait to another settler’s ranch near the foothills, where the two men procured a drove of hogs for the war department and its hungry soldiers.

“God Almighty” Smith’s home still stands on Elm Street in modern-day Forest Grove. It is the second oldest building in the city and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The house fell into disrepair, and was even home to a meth lab in 2005, but was saved through the heroic fundraising efforts of the Friends of Historic Forest Grove, which raised $175,000 to purchase and restore the property.

Their efforts included — and I’m not kidding — a sexy calendar featuring the members of the group in various nude poses. We’re told it was quite tasteful. The name of the calendar, of course, was “History Buffs.”

God only knows what Alvin Smith would have thought about that.

We have more to tell you about the adventures of Justice Aaron E. Wait, and the Canby park that bears his name, but it will have to “wait” till next time, on Canby Then.

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