Benton County's Watson House has a historic niche

PHILOMATH — Near the Luckiamute River in Kings Valley stands a modest white house. Architecture buffs may notice the small columns by the door or the two chimneys on the roof and realize the house is a fine example of classical revival, but most passersby probably are unaware that the building is one of the most historically significant structures in Benton County.

The Watson House on Hoskins Road was built in about 1852. The nearby barn dates back to about 1848. "To have both survive is so rare in Oregon," said Mary Gallagher, the collections manager at the Benton County Historic Society.

The house was built for James and Mary Watson, who came to Oregon from Illinois about 1848 and staked a land claim. According to records, the house cost "$2,400 in gold, besides the labor of three members of the family for six months."

In the book "Space, Style and Structure: Building in Northwest America," author Thomas Vaughan wrote that most materials for the house came from the site and included "white fir for interior work, red fir for exterior work, clay for bricks and 'mud' for mortar." Some materials, including plaster for some rooms, was purchased in Portland and brought back to the site by ox teams.

James Price and his wife, Rovia, moved into the Watson house in 1909 after their marriage.

In 1936, the Works Progress Administration interviewed James Price about the house, which already was recognized then as a spectacular example of a pioneer building. Price said:

"When I had occasion at one time to cut an opening for another door, I found the walls were of boards two inches thick, grooved on both edges, with narrow strips driven tightly into the grooves after the boards had been nailed to the frame vertically.

"Except for new roof and foundation, the house has had no repairs, and it's practically as when built."

The barn also has cultural significance. According to Price, "the whole frame is of hand-hewn timbers put together with wooden pins instead of nails."

A Gazette-Times article, circa 1959, noted that the barn featured a hand-hewn timber beam spanning 40 feet — without a support. The floor is a "threshing floor," where wheat was placed to have horses "tromp" over it and break up the grain from the chaff.

A Benton County Cultural and Historic Resource survey called the house "probably the oldest dwelling in Benton County still in use." That survey was done in 1942.

Rovia Price, well-known in the area for her Gazette-Times newspaper column about Kings Valley, lived in the house for more than 70 years.

The current occupants are Michael and Courtney Moore and their two young daughters, who moved into the house in 2001. Michael Moore is a descendant of the Price family, and his great-great-great-great grandfather was Nahum King, the founder of Kings Valley.

Living in a house that's more than 150 years old presents unique challenges, the Moores said. The windows, most of which are original, aren't exactly airtight. There are virtually no closets, and power outlets are limited to one per room.

"Most everything really is original, from the doors and the door handles and the handmade 3-inch long nails that were handmade to build the house," Courtney Moore said.

The buildings were added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2005, one of the steps the Moores have taken to try to commemorate and preserve the building.

"It will be a lifetime job, restoring the place and everything," Michael Moore said, "but it's coming along slowly."

Before the Moores moved in, the home was occupied by renters for more than a decade. They reported ghost sights. The Moores guess the ghost was Rovia, who Michael said was dismayed to move into an "old house" back in 1909.

The Moores love the place and hope to restore the house enough that the one of the girls will take it over someday.

"It's a beautiful house and living here is really a treat," Courtney Moore said. "I think it would be neat for family to live here for another 150 years."

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