Oscar Osborne was born near Knoxville Tennessee in 1857 and grew up on his father’s plantation. In 1861 when Oscar was just four years old, the Civil War sparked off and burned a path down to the Osborne plantation. The war would rage until 1865, and during that time the South became a battleground. Once the Union soldiers were marching up the street, and when little Oscar saw the troops he mistook them for local soldiers and gave them a salute, wishing the Confederate general good luck with the war. Immediately the Union officer snatched young Oscar off the fence and slung him into the line of enemy soldiers. Much to young Oscar’s dismay, the Union troops continued marching with him as an eight-year-old prisoner of war. As he started to march one of the colored workers went running after the brigade: “You bring that boy back here!” he yelled and the Union soldiers let Oscar go back to his home. A memory that would follow Oscar for his whole life, and one of his favorite stories.
By 1879 the South was still trying to recover financially as well as socially; the Osborne plantation didn’t weather the conflict well, and Oscar wondered about his future. Oscar’s older brothers John and Wilbur had gone west to stake land claims and try their luck in the new frontiers being opened up. Gathering up what he thought he would need, and as much money as he could find, Oscar boarded a train headed across the country to San Francisco. From there he transferred onto “The Queen of the Pacific” on its maiden voyage north to Portland Oregon. For a while he worked in the area as a logger to earn some money, and as soon as spring came he was headed east towards a meeting with his brother John in the Lewiston, Idaho area. Together, they pooled their money and invested in a string of pack horses and headed towards the Grand Coulee.
Oscar and John Osborne arrived in Washington Territory in 1882. They rented a cross-cut saw from Wild Goose Bill, who lived up on the Hartline Plateau where the town of Wilbur now sits and had somewhat of a general store for pioneers. Bill Condon was an enterprising man. The brothers cut down trees from the area with the cross-cut saw, hauled them by horseback and built a small log cabin with a sod roof. It was a very basic but sturdy structure, with a stone fireplace that was used for heating, eating and lighting. The brothers spent most of their time on horseback looking for land they could acquire, and both had already filed separate land claims.
The area John and Oscar choose was situated at the very north end of the Grand Coulee. The land the brothers decided on was full of wide-open fields of luxuriant bunch grass that looked like wheat when it matured. They harvested this grass and sold it to anyone they could. It was hard work but eventually they were able to buy a few cows and get their cattle ranch started. The following year John Osborne was riding near Northrup Canyon when he spotted a lone figure sitting in the shade and when he rode closer he saw that it was their younger brother Charlie “Buck” Osborne from Tennessee. John was surprised to see his younger sibling, he had heard that Charlie might be in the area but didn’t know when or where to expect him. Charlie moved in with Oscar and John. Pretty soon John decided to try his luck in Colfax and sold his land off to the remaining Osborne Brothers. Oscar obtained land by various land grant acts and slowly started to ingest abandoned lands into his cattle empire. When Charlie was old enough, he took out a land grant and that land also became part of the Osborne Ranch. It wasn’t long before Oscar and his brother owned and worked the entire range between the coulee walls a few miles south of the Columbia River and north of Barker Canyon. Oscar ran things from the original log cabin while a new two-story house was built. Charlie was a minor holder as far as the ranch was concerned and was more of a second in command under his older brother Oscar. He spent most of his nights outside under the stars chasing herds of cattle or rounding up errant cows. At first the cattle business was slow because there was no one around to sell the cattle to, but in less than five years, the Osborne Brothers had established a market in Ellensburg and Seattle and were starting to become known around the coulee and beyond for their beef.
Having been in the area longer than most, Oscar became somewhat of a community figure, with people looking up to him and coming to him for advice and help. One problem the community was having in the years prior to the1900s was horse theft. Stealing horses was a big deal because horses were vital equipment to the ranchers, especially a well-trained work horse. The cattlemen’s horses were so attuned they would chase down errant cows and maintain the herd almost by themselves. Sometimes riders were known to lay back and take a nap while their horse roamed among the cattle. Charlie’s favorite horse was named Buffalo, and he spent long days and sleepless nights on the open range with his mount. Oscar always rode a black horse he named Tommy, in fact; he had several black horses in succession over the years and they were all named Tommy. One day Oscar was at the ranch when a friend of his rode up on horseback and called out to him. He had just come from the south where he saw a man selling what looked to be Oscar’s prized horse. Oscar made out for the stable and sure enough, no black horse, Tommy was missing. Theft wasn’t surprising, it happened around the coulee, mostly a cow would go missing, or a sack of wheat or flour. There was a couple down by the Columbia River a few miles to the north, Texas Jack and his woman, living down in Rattlesnake Canyon. “Gather a posse” Oscar instructed his friend as he saddled up a horse and rode north towards the river.
Oscar rode alone and armed towards Rattlesnake Canyon, which at the time was known as Dillman Canyon after the brothers Len and Sam. Texas Jack lived in a dug out with his half-breed wife. Everyone knew they were bad and suspected of cattle killing and looting unoccupied farms. When Oscar arrived at Rattlesnake Canyon Texas Jack was not there, so Oscar found a place just off the trail and waited. It wasn’t long before he heard a noise coming down the trail and sure enough it was Texas Jack riding double on a beat-up old nag with his half-breed wife behind him. By the time the pose had formed and organized, Oscar was already on his way back with Texas Jack, and they all met by a stand of pine trees. Everyone was surprised to see that Oscar had already apprehended the outlaw.
At the time, Steamboat Rock was a community of ranchers living on farms where the nearest neighbor might be miles away. There was no law, there were no jails, and the people had to regulate themselves and ensure their own safety and well-being. Since there were no police, it was also a place for outlaws to hide out, and the citizens were on their own to deal with these criminals. Some cultures considered horse theft a capital offense; to the people of that day and age, it wasn’t strange to kill a fellow over stealing horses. And that is what the gathered ranchers decided to do, hang Texas Jack. There would be no trial or last wishes, just a rope, tree and pioneer justice. Before he was caught all the men talked about what they would do with the pole cat when they caught him, but now they all stood around the pine tree no one could muster the strength to hang a man. Instead, they gave Texas Jack a warning: if they ever saw him around these parts again, he would hang without question. That very night Texas Jack and his partner known only as “Woman” left the coulee never to be seen by the Osbornes or Steamboat Rock community again.
As Oscar’s notoriety grew, so did his wealth. Oscar was always a southern gentleman and liked the styles of the South to reflect in how he held himself and where he lived. He had leased land down by the river which contained a small peach orchard, in the spring the blossoms and bees would light up the blue sky like a slice of Tennessee. There was a two-story house on the land at one time with a nice kept up yard. Oscar was a talented blacksmith and people would travel from all over to have him repair or create metal items for them. Oscar had a small forge and you could hear him hammering the steel or iron into shape on a warm summer night. Sparks would fly around like the tiny fireflies of his native Tennessee.
One day in early 1896 Oscar Osborne met and wed a southern belle from his home state of Tennessee. Her name was Lillie Scheibner and she lived in Wilbur. One day Lillie was down in Northrup Canyon visiting her brother Charles Scheibner and Oscar happened to stop over on business. While waiting for Charles, the two started talking about the South and hit it off immediately. After Oscar and Lillie were married, a huge two-story plantation-style mansion was constructed for the newly-weds, the lumber to make the home came from the Scheibner Sawmill in Northrup Canyon, and the furnishings were all imported from the South. Southern hospitality was the rule of both Osborne homes, and even the yard and landscaping reflected southern aesthetics with verandas, orchards and flower gardens. In the southern mansion Lillie gave birth to three children: Floyd, Joanna and the youngest Thomas. All three of Oscar and Lillie’s children would eventually attend the Steamboat Rock school. As the family grew, so did Oscars ranch. It became a lush land with water piped in from a spring in the west coulee wall to orchards and gardens. The Osborne’s land looked like a southern plantation in the coulee.
In 1917, Oscar received payment from Grant County to build a road down the steep hill to the Columbia River. The road they made approached the river from the south and ran down to a ferry landing. Oscar moved his family down to the two-story house near the river while he worked on building the ferry. For a brief amount of time it was known as the Osborne Ferry but soon after its construction it was sold. The ferry was created to move cattle across the Columbia River to range on the reservation. By 1919 the aging Osborne Brothers sold their ranch and Oscar and family settled on their property by the river. In his sixties now, Oscar was looking forward to the simple life with his family on the banks of the Columbia River. It didn’t last long because four years later the people he sold the farm to defaulted and the ranch once more fell into the hands of the Osborne Brothers, who were reluctant to take it back at their age. Once more Oscar and Charlie were united on the old ranch, along with sister Hattie.
1919 was the year a great drought started in the coulee, plus the end of World War One compounded the problem as the coulee faced the crisis the rest of the agriculture country was facing. During the war, farmers were subsidized to grow larger crops, and with the event of the industrial revolution mechanized farming had replaced pre-industrial-age farming. Crops could be harvested quicker, meaning that farms could expand and grow more product, and with the war there was a demand to feed everyone, including a larger military and allies overseas. When the war was over there was suddenly a surplus of crops being produced, and prices dropped dramatically. This was felt in the coulee and when the localized drought hit about the same time it proved catastrophic to most families and there was no choice but to leave. The Osbornes stayed in the coulee during this time, and the tough times that followed. Oscar started to suffer from cataracts and ended up blind in one eye and with limited sight in the other. The Osbornes’ youngest son Thomas, now an educated and experienced man, stepped up and started running the ranch with the aid of his crippled father. In 1927 Oscar’s sister Hattie, whom he had sent for years earlier, passed away in the old southern-style mansion. The next year Charlie became ill and had to have an operation. He moved into a log cabin on Oscar’s property down by the river to recuperate and Thomas spent time traveling between his ‘Uncle Buck’ and the Osborne Ranch. In 1929 the Great Depression struck, and it too had a profound effect on the Grand Coulee as the nearby bank in Coulee City, collapsed taking everyone’s hard-earned money with it. The Osborne Ranch, once a misplaced majestic southern mansion surrounded by rose gardens and blooming orchards now looked more like an old worn-down homestead, its majesty lost to the harshness of the local economic crash. Times were tough.
By the 1930s the county road running by the Osborne Ranch was graded and graveled and used by people driving cars more and more, a trend that started in the coulee around the 1920s. One day in 1933 a car pulled up and a couple men got out followed by their wives. They were Mr and Mrs. Jack Riordan and Mr and Mrs. Arthur Brantner of Seattle and they bought a five-acre tract of land along the county road close to the Osborne’s ranch. Oscar and Thomas watched with amazement as more and more people showed up and started squatting on his property along the county road. The Great Depression was at its meanest, and people were desperate for work, desperate enough to camp outside in the winter in hopes of getting on at the Grand Coulee Dam. This was part of the first wave of people into the coulee seeking work, and more would come.
Inspired with the idea of forming a city, Thomas soon partitioned off some of his land into parcels he then put up for sale. Soon a new highway was running down the coulee, and Oscar Osborne’s land slowly changed into the city of Osborne as more and more people came seeking work at the Grand Coulee Dam. Thomas named the town after his family, but in the memory of his father who settled the land fifty years earlier. In 1935 an Artesian well was discovered on Oscar’s property and soon he supplied water for the whole town of Osborne. Oscar Osborne passed away in August 1946 at the age of 89, after spending 65 years in the coulee.
In 1948 when the clearing for the equalizing reservoir began Thomas Osborne tried to move the city to higher ground along the newest highway, SR155. The move couldn’t save the town as many people either moved to Electric City or Coulee City, and eventually the land was flooded and named Osborne Bay in memory of the city that was named after the man who captured Texas Jack and helped tame the Grand Coulee.
Images from the classic 1904 “An Illustrated History of the Big Ben County Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties” by Arthur P. Rose (is that a pen name?)