Make the McKenzie Connection!

The legendary lies and tall tales of Reub Long

Part Two:

Legendary raconteur Reub Long, the “Sage of Fort Rock,” packed a whole lot into his 76 years living in central Oregon. Most of it — though by no means all — had to do with horses.

“The ranch I have and the things I’ve done were due to horses,” he wrote in his book. “I had workhorses for hire by contractors for freighting, haying, or construction jobs; I owned riding and pack horses for running dude outfits in the mountains; I raised riding horses to sell; I supplied bucking horses for rodeos; I broke horses for hire or just for fun; I caught wild horses and drove them in bands to the railroad; I bought and sold horses, hoping to make a profit; I kept horses for people short of pasture. A couple of times I rented horses and horse gear to movies. I am a horse-made man. There aren’t too many persons in Oregon so horse-diversified.”

Nor many so just plain diversified. As you may remember from Part One of this two-part series, by the time he was settling down on his ranch in the mid-1960s to take it easy and write his memoirs, Reub Long had worked at least a dozen different side hustles, from dairy farming to running a pool hall.

But none of those physical skills are what he’s most remembered for today; none of those things are keeping the memory of Reub Long alive. They’re not what’s bringing tourists to tiny Fort Rock to this day to ask about him at the Fort Rock General Store downtown, or in the nearby Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum gift shop.

Today, Reub is mostly remembered as a gifted teller of impromptu tall tales — as he wrote in his book, not exactly lying to people, but “baffling them a bit.”

IN ONE CASE, Reub baffled a group of businessmen from the Bend Chamber of Commerce when they came to his ranch and were looking over his collection of antiquities — Native American artifacts, fossils, stone utensils, animal bones. The businessmen were especially interested in a skull from Reub’s collection; it was from a mountain sheep. (It may have been the same skull Reub was posing within the photo that ran with Part One of this story.)

One of the businessmen commented on how thick the bone was between the sheep’s horns. “I suppose that is to enable them to fight, the way I’ve heard they did, without injuring themselves,” he said, according to Reub’s recollection.

Reub saw his opportunity. “Yes, that is part of the reason,” he said smoothly. “But those thick skulls are on the females too, and they don’t fight. The sheep grazed on mountainsides, too steep and rough for other animals. Often a mountain ledge will follow along for hundreds of feet, then pinch out … When they got into such a deal, they couldn’t back up without stepping off the ledge. These thick skulls saved them. They’d calmly hurl themselves off the ledge, head down, and they could land on the rocks below without harm.”

Clearly not quite buying it, one of the businessmen asked if Reub had witnessed this.

Sure he had, Reub said — sort of.

“I didn’t get to see him land,” he explained, “because when he was halfway down, he saw me and turned right around and went back up.”

LIKE MOST GOOD yarn spinners, Reub appreciated good high-quality lies as well. In his book, he passed on one particularly entertaining one from Jack Horton of the United States Forest Service.

It seems Jack was in charge of a guided Forest Service tour, and a physician from Philadelphia was in the group. The physician, a total greenhorn who’d never been out of an urban setting, was a problem almost immediately. He demanded a horse that bounced less, then a saddle that wasn’t so hard; he complained bitterly about the dust, wanting to be moved up to the front of the line; and he griped about the cold lunch that was served at noon.

That night, Jack found a nice grassy spot for the riders to unroll their sleeping bags. The doctor tried first one spot, then another; one was too rocky, another too steep, a third too close to a guy he didn’t like. Finally, he disappeared with the sleeping bag he’d been issued.

The next morning, he appeared by the fire, bleary-eyed, as Jack was cooking pancakes.

“Good morning, doctor,” Jack said. “How did you sleep?”

“Hardly at all,” the physician grumbled. “I guess it was that sleeping bag. I almost smothered to death and my feet froze.”

ANOTHER GREAT STORY comes to us by way of his co-author, Russ Jackman, but there are clues in the story that might lead the more suspicious among us to suspect that a young Reub Long might have had more of a prominent role in the event than he was willing to admit.

It’s the tale of a practical joke concocted by “a couple of high-spirited boys near Fort Rock” circa 1912, during the heyday of the homesteader era ... a time when, no doubt by sheer coincidence, Reub Long was a high-spirited boy living near Fort Rock.

It seems the homesteaders had discovered an ice cave in a bed of hardened lava near the edge of Fort Rock Valley, and had made a Sunday ritual of meeting there after church to socialize and have a nice community picnic.

As Russ describes it, this was a beautiful spot. There was a little patch of meadow suitable for picnicking, close by a cave from which ice could be harvested year-round — a real luxury in that pre-refrigeration age.

It was a picturesque spot, too. Here and there, all around, were small volcanic vents that had formed over the years when the area was more volcanically active, and they looked like miniature volcanoes — tall, steep lava cones with craters in the top of each one.

So the two boys, as Russ puts it, “happily concocted disaster.” They spent a week hunting up anything they could lug that would burn, preferably smokily, and tossing it into the top of the largest miniature volcano. Fence posts, dug-up juniper stumps, fistfuls of dry grass, sagebrush — anything.

Come Sunday, the ersatz volcano was about as full as they could stuff it, so one of them slipped around before the picnickers arrived with a can of kerosene and poured it liberally over everything. Then he headed for home, stashed the kerosene can, and headed off with his family to church as if everything was normal.

After church, as usual, the homesteader families gathered their supplies and headed for their favorite picnic spot, and soon everyone was having a great time swapping lies and enjoying cold iced drinks and playing horseshoes. The kids were running around playing and doing kid stuff … all except our two young reprobates, who were stealthily clambering up the far side of the largest mini-volcano, out of sight of the picnickers.

At the top, one of them struck a match, dropped it in the crater, paused to confirm it was taking effect, and scrambled away hastily so as not to get caught too near the scene of the “crime.”

If anyone had happened to be looking his way, he might have been swiftly busted. Thick black smoke immediately started pouring out of the top of the miniature volcano. But, luckily for our perpetrator, no one was.

For some time the picnickers carried on as usual. But then ….

“Suddenly a picnicker turned white, pointed a shaking finger at the black smoke, and dashed for his horse,” Russ writes. “All hell broke loose. The boys didn’t dare tell about it for forty years. Suppose, in a crisis like this, you took the horse and dashed away, leaving your wife and children with a buggy (and nothing to pull it). She might forgive you, but you’d know what she was thinking when she looked at you with contemplative eyes …. A whole book could be written about the things that happened. Some neighbors gained stature, and several marriages resulted. A few divorces, too.”

ANOTHER STORY REUB tells is most likely true, and is more applicable to American politics today than we might like to admit. It happened just across the California border in Modoc County, where the district judge had a little trouble keeping his thirst for whiskey under tight management.

“In this country that isn’t any great thing to hold against a man,” Reub recalls, “but it got so he was drunk while holding court, which didn’t add much to the dignity of the trial.”

Prompted by this obvious display of public inebriation, the local pro-prohibition party recruited and put forward a “dry” candidate to challenge “Judge Jim Beam” for his seat.

“Before the election, it was the custom of the Cattlemen’s Association to hold a big picnic on the courthouse lawn so voters could come out of the canyons and mountains and meet the candidates,” Reub writes. “The judge, against all reason, chose this time to get drunk.”

Standing before the gawping cattlemen and cowboys on the porch of the courthouse, swaying gently back and forth and slurring his words, the judge gave a speech that can only be described as — well, as Raymond Chandler used to say, let’s just take it straight from the neck of the bottle:

“Voters, my heart bleeds for you as you go to the polls next week to make the fateful cross on the ballot that will decide who will preside at your district court,” the judge thundered thickly. “It bleeds because you must decide between a drunkard and a damned fool. But as you stand in the booth, confronted by this dilemma, I hope you can remember one thing — a drunkard is sometimes sober.”

The following week, the drunk judge was re-elected by a large margin.

REUB’S MOST FAMOUS story is one which he presents in his book as a true story, and you can make of that claim what you will.

It seems he bought a ranch that had been a successful, going concern but had been vacant for a while. During that time, the rats had moved in, and the place was utterly infested with them. Reub could not seem to get rid of them.

“I tried poisoning, shooting, trapping — all the things I knew about,” he wrote. “The rats outsmarted me on every turn.”

Then one day while he was griping about his dilemma to a neighbor, the neighbor suggested what you might call a folk remedy — that is, if you were feeling charitable; if you weren’t, you might call the neighbor’s suggestion something else.

He said if Reub would just catch a full-grown rat, whitewash him, and turn him loose again, the other rats would think he was a ghost and would all leave.

“That didn’t seem to be the sort of thing a person could believe with all his heart,” Reub added dryly, “but the remedy was cheap and I was desperate.”

So Reub caught one of the rats, a nice big one, and alerted the neighbor. They brought the rat out to the road for the whitewashing, and soon a large group was assembled there: Reub and his two hired hands, the neighbor and his hired hands, and “a couple of other amateur rat specialists.”

“At that point, several technical points arose,” Reub wrote. “Such questions came up as whether the whitewash should go on with the grain of the hair, thereby getting a smooth, slick job, or whether against the grain, thereby being more thorough, but leaving him rough and unattractive. Should we let the whitewash dry before turning him loose? Should we mix white of egg, flour paste, or anything in the whitewash to make it sticky?”

While they were all there clustered around the rat and struggling with these scientific questions, a big, fancy red car pulled up to the group. The driver stopped and stuck his head out the window, trying to get a glimpse of what the fuss was about.

“What in hell is going on here?” he asked.

“I said carelessly, ‘Oh, we’re just whitewashing a rat,’” Reub wrote. “He said incredulously, ‘You’re what?’ — I said, as though it was an everyday occurrence and I was a little impatient with him, ‘Just whitewashing a rat.’”

The stranger said nothing more, and when Reub looked up again he was racing off into the distance … most likely, just as fast as his fancy red car would go.

(Sources: The Oregon Desert, a book by R.A. Long and E.R. Jackman published in 1964 by Caxton; Long, R.A. et al. The Oregon Desert. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1964; The Well-Traveled Casket, a book by Tom Nash published in 1992 by the U. of Utah Press; “Reub Long’s Oregon Desert,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Eric Cain and first aired Oct. 30, 2006.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, was published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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