Mitchell is “…a small town populated with a singularly independent breed for whom conformity is a virtue only in one’s neighbor,” according to Tom Fitzgerald, lifelong resident of the area.
Settlers began to arrive in the Mitchell area in 1862 when James C. Biffle, the first recorded settler in the Wheeler County area, staked his claim to some land near Twickenham. This was the year the Federal Homestead Act was passed and, in 1863, Christian Meyer and “Alkali” Frank Hewot began Wheeler County’s first orchard and garden when they staked their claim near Bridge Creek five miles northwest of Mitchell. Gold had been discovered on Canyon Creek in ’61 in Grant County, and The Dalles-Canyon City Military Road was incorporated, the route winding through the narrow county where Mitchell was later located.
The first home on the present site of Mitchell was built by I. N. Sargent in ’67. The Mitchell community, located on Highway 26 just 47 miles east of Prineville, was begun to ’73 when William Warren “Broadie” Johnson requested the government establish a post office and asked that the settlement on Bridge Creek, with a population of 50 hardy souls, be named after a friend of his, Senator John Hipple Mitchell. According to Broadie’s great-granddaughter, Betty Jean Goodman Brown, the blacksmith was given the nickname because of his stature and physical appearance, a fact that undoubtedly ensured no opposition to his suggestion for a name for the new settlement.
Mitchell, being located in a narrow canyon, in a region prone to torrential rain producing thunder storms and flash floods, was doomed to be devastated by floodwaters. The first recorded flood was in 1884 when Bridge Creek, swollen by a torrential downpour from a sudden thunderstorm, reached a reported thirty feet deep and 300 feet wide. Nancy Wilson and her three children were caught by the flood five miles below town and all were killed; the body of one of the children was never recovered. Later floods, in 1904 and in 1956, did considerable damage to the town, and two lives were lost in ’04.
The small town also suffered from three major fires – in ‘81, ’96, and in ’99. All three times, the residents banded together to rebuild the town, determined to keep their settlement going.
The first school in Wheeler County was established just east of Mitchell in 1872 and was moved into town two years later. In ’23, a new school was built, and it burned in ’83, being replaced with the current school the next year. In ’75, R. E. Edmunson built a store and the small town began to grow, with the requisite saloons, two hotels, a flour mill, livery stable, and churches. There were also two newspapers, The Sentinel and The News.
Land holdings grew on the small creeks feeding the waterway through Mitchell, and soon there were families on West Branch, Gable, Keyes, Johnson, and Nelson Creeks. All roads led to Mitchell and the town did a lively trade. The town itself was platted in ’85 and Mitchell was incorporated in ’93 with the Mitchell State Bank opening in 1918.
There was a growth in the lumber industry in the early 1900s for the building of homes and businesses, and mills were built to accommodate the increase in the demand for lumber. With the development of the road leading to Prineville and to John Day, Mitchell enjoyed the booming logging industry.
Following the two world wars, many of the young people of the area migrated to larger cities and better paying jobs. Too, the privately owned timber began to dwindle and the smaller landowners couldn’t compete with the large corporate mills and government timber claims, so many of the small mills were either closed or moved to more lucrative area. The population of the county dropped to less than half of the 3,313 folks that were listed in ’50.
Mechanization of farms decreased the necessity of large farm crews and fewer people were needed to run the ranches. Between the closing of the mills and the smaller crews on the farms and ranches, the population of the area decreased, the school size dwindled, and so did the population of the little city of Mitchell, which has held fairly steady at around 175 for the past several years. There aren’t many opportunities for employment, and many of those who move to the area are retired and are looking for a rural atmosphere in which to spend their ‘golden years.” The residents of the small town long to remain in Mitchell to retain a way of life fast disappearing in this age of technology and fast-paced living.
Tourism helps the local economy with the Painted Hills National Park drawing thousands of visitors each year. Hunters passing through the town rely on businesses to provide them with meals, groceries, tires and hardware, or gas. Mitchell is a welcome sight for travelers on Highway 26 and is a destination for many who have ties to the little town that, despite floods and fires, clings to its site in a narrow canyon on Bridge Creek in Wheeler County.
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