History Preserved at Kirks Ferry Trading Post

Alexander Kirk and his wife Sarah were some of the earlier settlers crossing through the territory on the Oregon Trail.

Story and photos by Sandy Harris, EDN

As you cross the threshold into Kirks Ferry Trading Post in Brownsville, Oregon, you are taken back in time. The original log house — built in 1846 by Alexander and Sarah Kirk — stands frozen in time within the walls of a new establishment.

Alexander Kirk and his wife Sarah were some of the earlier settlers crossing through the territory on the Oregon Trail.

History shows the property and building were handed down through multiple generations. They finally ended up in the hands of the current owners, Greg and Shawn Hopla. Alexander Kirk was Hopla’s great grandfather. Hopla remembers living in the house until he was about 5 years old and returning each summer there after until he was about 16.

“Grandma would tell us to go play outside, ride our bikes, play at the river, just be careful. You didn’t have to worry too much about anything back then. I remember playing in the attic one time and I saw a log in the wall. I told my grandmother about it and she said, ‘Yes, this is a log house.'”

The History of the Old Post

Kirks Ferry Trading Post was a stopping place for pioneers traveling through Linn County. Alexander Kirk and his wife Sarah were some of the earlier settlers crossing through the territory on the Oregon Trail. They saw an opportunity by the Calapooia River.

Kirk purchased squatters rights from Isaac Courtney who was living on the land at the time. For the cost of a yoke of oxen and a log chain, all 640 acres was his. Kirk built and operated a small flat bottom ferry to carry travelers across the Calapooia River for 6 years, until 1953 or 1954 when the county put in the first covered bridge. The ferry was big enough for one team of horses and a wagon.

As you walk around the perimeter of the 30 x 40 foot log house, you can see and feel every detail of the building. Imagine the time it took to form just one log into a flat “board.” They were split, chiseled and cut dovetail fashion by hand and fit together with such precision. And not a nail was used. The craftmanship is amazing.

I put my hand on one of the dove-tailed corners of the cabin to get a feel for how thick the walls were. The logs were bigger than the width of my fingers spread wide. The technical name of the Kirk House is a “hand hewn log house.” The difference between a log cabin and a log house is the fact that the logs remain round on a cabin.

Kirks Ferry Trading Post was a vital part in the making of the historic town of Brownsville, now a mere 30-minute drive from Eugene. Alexander Kirk’s foresight of a need for the ferry not only afforded travelers a way to cross the river, it led the way for other developments that were needed, such as a store and school. This in turn led to an established town first known as Calapooia — then changed to Kirk’s Ferry — and finally officially named Brownsville.

Gold miners, travelling south to Eugene and further as far as California, would often stop at Kirks Ferry Trading Post.

In an undated interview with the original Kirk’s son, Mr. Leander Kirk, he stated,

“There is a little more that I should like to tell about the old Alexander Kirk House here in Brownsville.  It was run as an inn or tavern for many years. Anyone who wished to stop over at Brownsville could stay with Father. Some boarded there for weeks at a time.”

Gold miners, travelling south to Eugene and further as far as California, would often stop at Kirks Ferry Trading Post. Kirks Ferry was also a vital part in the early formation of the Linn County Government. Records indicate the first election in Linn County was held at the Kirk House in 1849. Even Z.F. Moody lived at the Kirk house for a time after his marriage, later becoming Governor of Oregon, serving his term from 1882-1887.

According to historical records at the Brownsville Museum, Kirks Ferry Trading Post is not only the oldest extant building in Linn County. It is also among the oldest in the state of Oregon. Records indicate,

“There are only two other buildings that exist in the county, being the Hugh Leeper Brown Barn [located a few miles up highway 228 from Brownsville] and the Montieth House in Albany.”

The Creation of the New Post

Current owners Greg and Shawna Hopla were concerned about preserving the log house after a storm damaged the roof of the building in 2002. They decided the best way to preserve it was to surround it with a new building. The years of planning and preparing began. The dream came to fruition with their opening on July 4, 2012.

Speaking with Hopla, he reminisced about the present and the past. He explained the trials he went through in building the new structure around the log house. The main thing they needed to do was get the structure up around the house. They would worry about the rest later.

“I rented a crane from a company just north of Roseburg. They had logs that were already stripped of bark and descent size. I have never done this before, I didn’t know what I was doing, out of trial and error, you learn things along the way.”

One thing he learned was that wind could threaten his project.

After a night of high winds, my wife Shawna came to me and said your building is leaning sideways! I called my engineer and he said the support structures need to be placed and it would be fine.”

Hopla laughed at the memory.

“It didn’t look fine at the time. The building is 100 x 120 feet long and was leaning sideways.”

Current owners Greg and Shawna Hopla were concerned about preserving the log house after a storm. They decided to surround it with a new building.

Once the new structure was up and protected from the elements, they discovered what was beneath the layers of siding. Over the years, rooms had been added onto the log house. Hopla has since taken down all of the exterior rooms, leaving only the original Kirk House intact. Hopla said it took him about two weeks to get the main house cleaned up.

Joni Nelson, a Brownsville historian, suggests that the original log house was exposed to the outside elements for only a few years, thereby preserving it so well to this day. The wood from the home’s extra rooms has been repurposed into the now-existing establishment. You can see it in the window casings and throughout the new building.

It took Hopla, his son, and several others three months to erect the new building in the dead of winter, from November until February.

A Personal Meaning

I asked Hopla what this means to him — why was it so important to do this. Hopla says,

“I did it because of my grandparents. I lived in the house until I was five. Back then, you could pretty much do what you wanted, ride your bike, play in the river, etc. I remember being a kid and telling my grandmother that I wanted to own this place when I grew up. When the time came, she called me and told me it was my turn.”

Getting that call meant everything to him.

“In all the years I was gone, all I could think about was coming back home.”

Nowadays the Kirks Ferry Trading Post is a restaurant and bar.

The establishment is very large, having 100 seats indoors and another 45 seats on the veranda.  The main structure of the building is supported by 30 logs, with smaller logs as cross beams.  Hopla owns a saw mill and was able to cut and split the logs to fit “lincoln log style.” He says,

“Each log is different, having its own character, so that was fun.”

The roof of the log house is open to expose the rafters. This allows visitors to see the original structure of the house.

Nowadays, a different kind of trading takes place at Kirks Ferry Trading Post. The place is being utilized as a restaurant and bar. You can dine at the new establishment while visiting the past. There are actual documents that you can view of the historical trading that took place. The history within this building is astounding.

The Hoplas have plans for future developments such as dinner shows and educational programs for children.

Kirks Ferry Trading Post is open: Monday, 3-10 pm; Wednesday, 6:30-10 pm; Thursday, 11 am-11 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am-2 am; Sunday 10 am-3pm and 5-10 pm. For more information, call the post at 541.466.5614 or visit them at 217 Bishop Way, Brownsville, Oregon, 97327.

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