A Rural Tradition

Union Main Street Circa 1900

Right from the start, volunteers played a central role in the history of Union. In 1862, homesteader Conrad Miller traveled to Vancouver to fetch fruit-tree seedlings. Returning home, he found three strangers using his cabin. These men had also filed land claims, and didn't want to abandon the work they'd already performed. The four men agreed to let a disinterested third-party settle the dispute. So the group recruited Fred Nodine, another of the region's homesteaders, to serve as a volunteer judge. After viewing evidence of a garden at Miller's homestead, Nodine decided in Miller's favor; the three losers settled nearby.

This type of anecdote, featuring a volunteer-based social model, is common among every group of American pioneers, from the Colonists, to the sodbusters of the Prairies, and the settlers of the Oregon Territory.

For the homesteader, working with your neighbors had several advantages. Obviously there was safety in numbers, but there were also many activities that required people to pool their labor: barn raising, harvesting, branding, and so on.

Union Town Profile

Population 1,950
Median Age 41 years
Median Income
Family $34,286
Household $28,529
Settled 1862
Incorporated 1878
Agriculture, forestry, tourism, light manufacturing

Union's pioneers understand that their very survival would depend on the good will of their neighbors during times of need. "Judge" Fred Nodine, J.A J. Chapman, and six other men were the first to file land claims in the vicinity. Shelter was everyone's immediate concern. They had to build log homes before winter weather arrived. According to oral history, "The raising of the first homes was done as a community project, all of the men combining their efforts to build first one house and then another all through the fall of 1882 and into the early winter." (The last of these pioneer shelters was burned down by one of several blazes in Union's early years.)

Those first log homes required intensive manual labor. After the Catherine Creek sawmill was built in 1864, the availability of lumber made construction work easier. Large buildings, particularly barns, still required community cooperation.

The settlers chose the name Union for patriotic reasons. It was the Civil War era, and sentiment ran strong. Among the original settlers, J. A. J. Chapman had some surveying experience, so he helped incoming settlers to stake out their land claims. (Chapman was also the area's first U.S. postmaster, appointed to the unpaid office May 8, 1863.) A professional surveyor arrived in 1864, and an official city plat was registered late that year. Shortly afterward, a 'company' was organized to build the first hotel in Union, a two-story structure that featured a large room intended as a public meeting place.

Around this time, Union held its first community Independence Day celebration in the warehouse of a flourmill, the only structure large enough. According to tradition, the county's first American flag was flown on this occasion. One of Union's oral histories states, "This flag was made by a Mrs. Hendershott and a Mrs. Lewis, a white linen sheet furnishing the material for the white stripes and stars the necessary blue cloth being taken from a blue riding habit owned by a minister's daughter in Union, and the red from a dress owned by Mrs. Hendershott."

During the past 140 years, Union has seen good and bad times. But the years have done little to change the cooperative attitude of the people. Neighbors still help each other out, and almost everybody shoulders a share of the civic burden.

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