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Little House on the Prairie ties to Tillamook

Little House Ties to Tillamook County, my Hometown

Imagine my surprise to discover the real Nellie Oleson of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in Tillamook. She taught for Tillamook School District and married Henry Frank Kirry, June 26, 1893 in Tillamook County and they moved to Bay City. To slightly cover her identity, Laura changed her last name in her books. Nellie’s real name was Nellie Owens. Nellie Winfield Owens Kirry is buried beside her brother Willie Owens and father, William Henry Owens at the Forest Grove Cemetery. While Nellie and Willie’s mom, Margaret H. Gibson Owens and Willie’s daughter, Lela M. Owens are buried in the Fairview Pioneer Cemetery in Tillamook.

I remember in a Tillamook High School class, teacher Dan Davy taking us up above the current Fairview Cemetery into the forest where under the overgrowth he showed us the oldest known cemetery in Tillamook. We dug through the overgrowth to find names and headstones of the pioneers. Little did I know at the time, the character Michael Landon’s TV Series “Little House on the Prairie” made famous through ‘Harriett Oleson’ was buried here. And now, the cemetery is beautifully maintained with new gravestones for this grandma and granddaughter.

There are just a handful of TV Series I hold in equal respect to the books. Michael Landon’s humor and Katherine MacGregor’s skillful acting brought out the foolish villain, one found themselves cheering for and laughing heartily. No such foolish woman existed in the books. But the question remains, was the real Owens family as villainous as Laura Ingalls Wilder makes them out to be? And how did this family forever impact Tillamook County?

When Nels and Harriett Oleson, better known in real life as William and Margaret Owens moved out west with Nellie and Willie, little did they know they would eventually end up in Tillamook, Oregon, after spending time in California. Before they left Walnut Grove, Minnesota, hard times would befall their neighbors. Frank Lester Bedal was the sixth of nine children, born to Lafayette and Clementia Bedal. Lafayette served as the first postmaster in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and did other jobs such as teaching and running a store, no doubt where he knew Mr. Owens from a neighboring store. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek” Mary and Laura bought a slate pencil from Mr. Beadle’s store and post office instead of going back to the Oleson’s (Owen’s) store where they were vexed by Nellie as they bought a slate.

In a sawmill accident, Lafayette died when son Frank was only five years old. Clementia was overwhelmed at the thought of raising nine children and several of them were farmed out to other families. At the age of six years old, Frank had a big decision to make. Leave with the Owens family as they headed out west or remain in Walnut Grove. Little did he know how his decision would forever change Tillamook County.

Six year old, Frank did move out west with the Owens family who eventually settled in South Prairie, just south of Tillamook. Frank helped Willie, who was eight years older and had gone blind from a firecracker explosion. Neighbor Charley Ray took an interest in Frank and offered him a job hauling cheese with a 4-mule team from South Prairie to Tillamook. It was during this job, Frank met his wife Eva Elma Nelson and together they bought some pasture and became dairy farmers.

Charley dropped by one day to announce the area Frank and Eva lived in was about to get its first post office, and they were looking for suggestions for the name for the town. Frank suggested the name ‘Cloverdale.’ According to the front page Sunday edition of the Headlight Herald on June 21, 1964, Frank was a “member of the Tillamook County Sherriff’s Posse, charter member of Cloverdale 100F, served two terms as county commissioner, past president of Tillamook Creamery Association, was chairman on the Cloverdale School Board for many years and helped lay the cornerstone of the present day courthouse.”

Officially, no documents can be found that William and Margaret Owens adopted Frank, but Frank no doubt adopted them as he took on the name Owens. Today, Frank and Eva Owens and buried by Charley Ray in the Nestucca Valley Community Cemetery.

Perhaps the real Nellie Owens had her moments antagonizing Laura in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. But it would seem the Owens family had a heart of gold, taking in six year old Frank as one of their family. Tillamook County would not be the same without them.

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