Footprints and Filberts

Bringing the untold history of Dorris Ranch to life

Nestled almost perfectly between Eugene and Springfield, Dorris Ranch is one of Willamalane Park and Recreation District’s most interesting urban parks, spanning almost 250 acres alongside the meandering Willamette River. 

With miles of trails and hundreds of shades of green; from moss, to needles, to oak leaves, to ferns, to lush grasses, Dorris Ranch is a popular recreation area for local residents. Most mornings, dog walkers and hikers can be found navigating their way through a maze of century-old filbert trees. During this time of day, before the cloud cover from the valley has had a chance to dissipate, fog silently glides between the neat rows of trees, revealing a scene that is as haunting as it is beautiful.

The filbert trees, more commonly known as hazelnut trees, are one of the most fascinating and unusual parts of the park. Although planted in meticulously neat rows, each tree is a tangled mess of gnarled branches that stretch every which way, dripping in moss and lichen. 

And it’s these trees that have placed Dorris Ranch on the National Register of Historic Places.

Not only is the ranch the country’s first commercial filbert orchard, but it is also one of the few living history farms in the U.S.

Throughout the park, there are few signs and placards showcasing pieces of the ranch’s history. Those pieces mainly tell the history of the filbert trees and the origin story of the ranch’s namesakes: George and Lulu Dorris. 

But the Dorrises’ story, although foundational to an entire industry as well as to the reputation of the ranch itself, is only one piece of the land’s rich and diverse history.

According to Colleen Nihen, executive director of the Oregon Hazelnut Industry, 99.6 percent of the hazelnuts grown in the U.S. today come from the Willamette Valley, where the Dorrises planted the first filbert trees more than one hundred years ago. 

“Dorris Ranch is where it all started,” Nihen says. “It was the first commercial orchard, and then everything took off from there.”

Nihen notes that hazelnuts are the 10th largest commodity in the state of Oregon. “So economically for the state and the country, hazelnuts are very important. And because most of the hazelnuts grown in the U.S. come from this region, that makes it even more important for Oregon, because we really represent all of America.”

In 1903, after years of trial and error with other failed crops, George and Lulu Dorris planted the first filbert trees on the Dorris Ranch property. Little did they know that they were eventually launching an entire industry. In fact, the Dorrises knew very little about farming at all.

“It’s so funny because we have this whole image of the farmer and the agriculturalist. But George was actually a lawyer,” says Jen Marsh, recreation and historical programs coordinator for Willamalane. Marsh, who is also in charge of curating the living history program at Dorris Ranch, has been uncovering and piecing together Dorris Ranch’s history for the last 15 years.

“Both him and Lulu came from very wealthy families in Eugene. So [Dorris Ranch] was kind of like their hobby,” Marsh says. “He by no means was the one out there in overalls digging holes. He was the one who was always experimenting with the plants, and doing things with them, and modifying them. But he had workers and farm hands who did the brunt of the labor.”

Eradicating misconceptions, including the misconstrued image of the Dorris family, has been among Marsh’s biggest challenges in developing a living history program at the ranch.

Part of this challenge comes from the pieces of missing history that have seemingly been glossed over by Willamalane.

The Donation Land Claim Act, enacted by Congress by 1850, is one of the missing pieces. While the act was intended to encourage homestead settlements in Oregon, there were a number of stipulations attached to it. These stipulations discriminated against nonwhite settlers, granting 320 acres of federal land to only white male settlers, while effectively stripping the land from indigenous people. 

It was this act that brought the first settlers to the land where Dorris Ranch now sits in 1852. One of the key players in getting this act to pass was Oregon Territory’s first congressional representative, Samuel R. Thurston, the son of George Thurston, the very first settler to own the land where Dorris Ranch is located today.

The Thurstons, like the Dorrises, were wealthy, influential white lawyers in the area. So for years after the Willamalane Park and Recreation District acquired Dorris Ranch in 1987, the history that the district focused on in signs scattered throughout the park and on Willamalane’s website don’t reflect the impact and stories of the indigenous people who were the original stewards of the land.

Marsh is trying to change that. 

“George and Lulu were just one little footprint on the land, but so many people have made these footprints over time,” she said. “And I think it’s important that we understand where we came from and how we got here.”

Today, the programming Marsh implements not only tells the origin story of the filbert orchard and of the first pioneers, but tells the story of the original people who lived and thrived off the land: the Kalapuya Tribe.

And Marsh isn’t the only one at Willamalane Park and Recreation District dedicated to preserving the history of the land’s original inhabitants.

Fraser MacDonald, the park district’s natural resource planner, has spent thousands of hours planning restoration projects aimed at restoring the only remaining habitats on the ranch property that would have existed before the Dorrises farmed and logged the land for the filbert orchards. 

“My understanding is that these remaining oak woodlands have likely not been logged or cut, or really dramatically disturbed since Native Americans occupied it,” says MacDonald, referring to the few remaining oak woodland habitats at Dorris Ranch. “Patches of oak would have gone all the way up the valley, and it would have been relatively open, they would have been burning fairly regularly. So you also wouldn’t have had this buildup of blackberry and shrubbery, it just would have been open and savanna, but of course, that’s all changed.”

And these habitats are increasingly rare, according to MacDonald. “Less than 3 percent of this type of oak woodland habitat is left in the Willamette Valley that existed pre-settlement.”

So although the habitat restoration projects MacDonald is initiating will ultimately benefit the 300 different species of plants, animals and insects that all depend on oak woodland habitats, this ecological restoration is fundamental in restoring the rich cultural history of the Kalapuya people.

The work that both Marsh and MacDonald are doing has not only been instrumental in preserving the full stories and history of the Willamette Valley and the people that have inhabited it, but they are also completely reshaping the narrative of how those stories should be told.

“We have to acknowledge our history,” Marsh says. “We have to acknowledge the fact that we weren’t the first ones here. We have to acknowledge that we are literally standing on the Kalapuya’s land. Without that, what history are we telling?”

Dorris Ranch is open 6 am to 10 pm at 205 Dorris Street in Springfield. Gate is automated and closes at dusk.