Sisters, Oregon History

Long before the Sisters Country was settled, Paiute Indian wars were raging throughout eastern Oregon during the 1860s and 70s. Old survey maps showed Indian trails, some leading towards Warm Springs, some crossing the Cascade passes of McKenzie and Santiam. In time, some of these trails became wagon roads. Nineteenth century fur trappers and explorers have also traveled through the Sisters Country.

The forerunner of Sisters was Camp Polk, a short-lived military camp (from September 1865-May 1866). It was named after the Oregon county from which the camp’s commanding officer hailed and consisted of a group of cabins along the west bank of Squaw Creek , about three miles northeast of Sisters. Volunteer troops were on a mission to protect miners and settlers in the region, but were never engaged in battle and finally left. Following abandonment of the camp, the site was homesteaded in 1870 by Samuel M. Hindman who subsequently operated a store and post office. The post office at Camp Polk was moved to its present site in 1888, and the name was changed to Sisters after the Three Sisters mountains that dominate its western skyline.

Camp Polk was located adjacent to a wagon road which linked the Willamette Valley and Prineville. Taking advantage of its location at the intersection of the McKenzie and Santiam roads, Sisters soon grew to become a bustling little town. For years, Sisters was a supply station for sheepmen who passed through on their way to grazing pastures in the Cascades. Finally, in 1901, Sisters was formally established.

Contributing further to growth of Sisters was the lumber industry. Extensive tracks of pine forest prompted the siting of several sawmills in or near town. By 1930, Sisters was primarily known as a lumber-producing town and was incorporated in 1946. The population grew from less than 200 to nearly 500. Lumber production fell off, however, and in 1963 the last mill in Sisters was closed, the plant was dismantled and the population began to decline.

As highways in Central Oregon were improved, tourist-related travel increased. Sisters became known as the Gateway to the Cascades. The population stabilized as Sisters capitalized on the beauty of the area’s natural environment and the early development of Black Butte Ranch. By adopting a theme for the commercial sector and with the financial support of Brooks Resources, the Sisters City Council made the 1880’s style store front a part of its zoning ordinance in the early 1970’s. The Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1974.

Over several years the landscape of the retail area was transformed and today Sisters Oregon has become recognized as a unique place to shop with its many specialty stores and galleries. Less obvious are other changes. The old mill site north of town has become an industrial park with a number of commercial establishments and light industries. Many people, seeking elbow room and mountain vistas have chosen the Sisters Country as a place to live and play.

Sisters 1895

Sisters 1910
Sisters 1914

FivePine’s Cabins and Lodge rooms are named after historical Sisters figures:

Aitken– honoring Grace Cyrus-Aitken, an early Sisters Librarian who also ran the post office and a drug store.  Circa 1916.

Allen– honoring Hardy Allen, an early Sisters Businessman who owned both a hotel and blacksmith shop. Circa 1897.

Bailey– honoring Maida Rossiter-Bailey, a prominent Sisters Library Patron. The Old Library building on Spruce Street still carries her name to honor her many contributions. Circa 1918.

Buchanan– honoring E.P. Buchanan, homesteader.  He was a breeder of horses and liked the area for its fine grass. His high quality horses were purchased by the US Army, some being used in the Spanish-American War. Circa 1892.

Coe– honoring Urling C. Coe, frontier Doctor. The first licensed Doctor in the Bend area. Circa 1905.

Cobb– honoring Alfred Cobb, homesteader.  Alfred ran a blacksmith shop, offering wagon repair and horseshoeing to travelers. Circa 1885.

Dennis– honoring John W. Dennis who built the Sisters Hotel and also owned a blacksmith shop and livery barn. Circa 1912.

Eyerly- honoring Ray Eyerly, landscape artist. He sketched and painted area views with the exactness of a photographic lens. Circa 1962.

Ford- honoring R.A. Ford, establisher of the name “Cloverdale”.  After naming the Cloverdale ditch, the name began to stick and was formerly adopted in 1909. Ford was also superintendent of Crook County Schools. (Sisters was a part of Crook County at the time.)

Graham- honoring Ebenezer Graham, homesteader. Making his way from California, Graham filed a claim on land that is now the south section of Black Butte Ranch Resort. He built a home and a six bedroom traveler’s inn. Circa 1880.

Harrington- honoring E.M. “Mel” Harrington, early road builder. Once a scout for Custer, he moved his family to Sisters buying 240 acres of the Claypool Ranch, raising hay, alfalfa and oats. Later he partnered with a neighbor to build roads with the appearance of automobiles. Circa 1921.

Hitchcock- honoring Cecil Glenn “C.G.” Hitchcock, mill owner.  He owned a sawmill in La Pine and later rebuilt the mill in Sisters. The mill was sold several times ending up with Brooks Scanlon. Circa 1929.

Huntington- honoring Perit Huntington, homesteader/writer. A descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was a delegate to the first Republican convention in Oregon. He wrote funny newspaper articles about living and farming in Sisters. Circa 1913.

Leithauser- honoring Peter J. and Frank Leithauser, father and son, Sisters and Camp Sherman Store Owners. The Leithauser store was a major part of Sisters until 1977. Circa 1924.

McKay- honoring Thomas McKay, explorer. Having been given a charter by territorial legislature, McKay led a team of men looking for suitable wagon routes for crossing the Cascades Mountains. Circa 1845.

McKenzie– honoring Donald McKenzie, explorer. He was a member of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and explored the Willamette valley. The McKenzie River and McKenzie Pass were named after him. Circa 1859.

Ogden- honoring Peter Skene Ogden, explorer. Once a young clerk for John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, he later became a fur trapper. He was married twice to native American women. He also wrote a short book “Trails of American Indian Life and Character”. Circa 1820’s.

Shaw- honoring Frank L. Shaw who started the Sisters Fair. Shaw became the promoter of the Fair with the fairgrounds located on one corner of his farm land. The first fair was held in 1914 and ran for 3 days. Participants came from all over the country. Circa 1912.

Sorensen- honoring Christian N. Sorensen, owner of the first gas station in Sisters and homesteader. Noticing that more and more cars were coming to Sisters, he opened the first gas station on the southwest corner of Fir and Cascade Streets. Circa 1924.

Sparks- honoring Elijah H. “Lige” Sparks, first homesteader in Long Hollow Canyon. Sparks was a corporate member of the Black Butte Land and Livestock Company. He grazed cattle around the high mountain lake that now carries his name. Circa 1900.

Wilt- honoring John Wilt, homesteader. On a family wagon train from Kansas, John and his family rested on the Snake River and looked for gold. Heading on to Oregon, they reached Whychus Creek. Snow on the passes was too deep for travel so he and his brother built cabins and barns and became early homesteaders just a mile west of Sisters. Circa 1885.

Wilson- honoring Tillie Wilson, teacher and author. Graduating from high school with a teaching credential, Tillie moved to Sisters and married. After having children she took a teaching sabbatical but returned from 1923 to 1961. She was actively involved with the growth and civilizing of the rough logging/farming community. She later co-wrote a history of the area, “That was Yesterday.” Circa 1917.

Wyeth- honoring Nathaniel J. Wyeth, explorer. Leaving the Columbia River basin and following the Deschutes River south, Wyeth journaled of the steams and tributaries in uncharted country. He noted a chain of mountains, white with snow, which he called the Cascades. Circa 1834.

Geography

Whychus Creek runs through the southern half of town.

The Santiam Highway (U.S. Route 20) and the McKenzie Highway (Oregon Route 126) merge briefly to form Cascade Avenue, the main thoroughfare through downtown Sisters. On Cascade Avenue, there is a lot of pedestrian traffic and many specialty stores and galleries. East of Sisters the two highways split, with 126 heading to Redmond and 20 going to Bend. West of Sisters, the road splits once more, with the McKenzie Highway becoming Oregon Route 242 and running west over the McKenzie Pass (a summertime-only scenic route over the Cascades.) The Santiam Highway proceeds over the Santiam Pass.

~Donell