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Mary Burslie Davis, left, and Russel L. McDonald have been named Wasco County's pioneers of the year

Mary Bursile Davis and Russell L. McDonald have been selected the 2020 Wasco County Pioneer Woman and Man of the Year. For the second time in the 97 years, the annual May Pioneers luncheon did not take place. This year, it is because of the COVID-19 virus that is sweeping the United States and the world. The only other time this event was canceled was in 1944, during World War II.

Pioneer Man

Russell L. McDonald

Russell McDonald’s ancestors came from Nova Scotia via Wisconsin to the California gold fields and arrived in The Dalles in the 1880s. His father was born here in 1892; during the Depression, they moved to the family farm west of The Dalles on Chenoweth Creek. He was the fifth of six children, four boys and two girls. They attended the Chenowith grade school and he graduated from The Dalles High School in 1955. He takes great pleasure in seeing all of his classmates. He learned how to raise a garden from his dad, Lester, a skill he will use all his life; 4-H, FFA and the County Fair were a prominent part of growing up and working at the Bunn Truck Garden while in high school.

He attended Oregon State College for two years. He was very thrifty in his early years and decided it was a good idea to live in the sheep barns. In exchange for room and board, he was to look after the sheep. His mother and sister objected as it was dirty and a long ways away from campus. He ended up in one of the dorms. He has many good stories of traveling with his friend Keith Lepaloto.

After college, he spent a few months doing odd jobs including working on a farm and the post office. In a stroke of luck, he was hired on by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1960 just months prior to being drafted into the U.S. Army.

The military service was compulsory then and he was drafted for a two year tour of duty. It was off to boot camp followed by service at Fort Carson Colorado. Some of McDonald’s highlights were failing typing school twice, but he somehow still managed to become the company clerk. The U.S. Army taught him another skill, or at least a phrase he will use throughout his life: “Book Work.”

After being discharged from the Army in 1962 and officially a Vietnam veteran, McDonald went to work for the Union Pacific Railroad, where he worked until he retired as a conductor in 2004. He married the love of his life, Jeannie Thomas, in 1966. He met Jeannie while stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. Somehow he managed to convince her to move to Oregon, sight unseen. She was the only one of her siblings or cousins to actually move away from Pueblo, Colo. They have two sons and two granddaughters.

McDonald was an avid Oregon State University fan. His two sons, Thom and Jeff, both graduated from OSU; while they were there, he would attend basketball games and rarely missed the Far West Classic held in Portland. He was in Tempe, Arizona, when Oregon State crushed Norte Dame in the Fiesta Bowl in 2001, 41-9.  In 2006, he was there when OSU beat North Carolina to win the NCAA baseball championship in Omaha, Neb. He and his brother-in-law, Alvin Clark (Johnny’s Café), spent a week in Omaha watching more baseball than humanly possible. Return flights were full and it took them a week to get home. In retirement they traveled to Arizona and took in spring training baseball games. In 2007, the year following the National Championship, OSU somehow managed to qualify for the NCAA World Series again. McDonald wanted to go, but thought they wouldn’t last long; he was wrong as they swept through the World Series without losing a game (5-0), again defeating North Carolina for the championship. He also attended the National Rifle Championships one year.

He is very much an outdoors enthusiast, spending spare time hunting and fishing. One of the more memorable hunting stories was his first elk hunting trip.  He had never elk hunted but managed to borrow a rifle from his brother, a 30-30 lever action rifle with a peep sight. McDonald and his friend Ronnie spent days tracking deer, not knowing what an elk track looked like. On his first elk hunt, he managed to shoot a 6x6 bull elk.  He had no idea that all elk were not that big. He always looked forward to the annual elk hunting trips to the Blue Mountains with friends and family in elk camp.

McDonald is not your typical community leader. He is one of the behind-the-scenes people that loves the community he grew up in. When he had to work in Portland, he refused to move his family to the big city, opting to raise his family in the community he cherished. He was always willing to give a helping hand to community projects.

He is very family oriented. Growing up with six brothers and sisters, he has a big hand in organizing large family reunions that bring his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews back to Wasco County. This year’s reunion was planning on having over 50 people get together, but social distancing may delay the event.

He has a strong interest in history. He is the go to person who keeps track of his high school classmates for the reunions, 65th this year. He is past president of the Union Pacific Employee Club and keeps track of members for the annual UPR old time’s dinner. McDonald has been co-curator of the 300 picture board with Gary Conley for the Wasco County Pioneer Association since 2010.

The Wasco County Pioneer Association was formed in 1922 of members who had come to Oregon as pioneers.  More than 200 attended the first gathering at the auditorium. Quotes from The Dalles Weekly Chronicle of May 2, 1922, reported four “Honor members of the association are Mary Cushing who as a young woman came around Cape Horn and lived in Wasco county since 1853; John Crate, who lived here since babyhood in 1850; John Laughlin, who crossed the plains with his parents in 1853, when he was four years old; and George R. Snipes, who crossed the plains in 1853. These four people have resided continuously in the county longer than any others.”

The attendance exceeded expectations. “Pioneers from many counties, joyous in their anticipation of a happy reunion with old friends this afternoon, gathered in the city in scores during the day. They came by train, by automobile and in other conveyances, and groups of them were to be seen on every street corner.”

The meeting was called to order by the Old Fort Dalles Historical Society and “promises to become most important historical association east of the Cascades Mountains.” As predicted, The Wasco County Pioneer Association has continued the tradition of a joyful reunion of old friends meeting the first weekend of May ever since with a variety of activities including luncheons, parades, dinners and balls, except for 1944 and 2020. Anyone interested in Wasco County history is welcome to attend. In recent years, the agenda has been a joyful reunion exhibiting about 75 of the history picture boards and a buffet luncheon. 

We will resume next year so “See you at the Pioneers on May 1, 2021.” For further information about the Pioneers, call 541-296-8052.

Pioneer Woman

Mary Bursile Davis

Mary Burslie Davis was born in The Dalles in 1945, joining her older sister, Cynthia. Their parents, Art and Cora Burslie, had set out from North Dakota in 1943 destined for Portland to obtain work in the shipyards, but their journey was cut short when their car broke down in The Dalles. Finding the community to their liking, they chose to remain there and start their family.

Davis and her sister attended Thompson Elementary School and the family home on E. 10th St. became a gathering spot for all the neighborhood kids.  Fishing in the pond, eating homemade cookies and pies, riding bicycles, playing ball in 10th Street before it was paved and climbing up to the “D” on the hill behind Thompson Addition and sliding down that same hill on cardboard were among their favorite activities. They also participated in the Family Helpers Club, which held their meetings in the old chicken coop at the home of the Anthony family.

The Burslie family didn’t have indoor plumbing for years and according, to family lore, Cynthia would throw Davis' toys into the outhouse. Early favorite family memories included listening to “Big John and Little Sparky” on the radio together every Saturday morning. When the family finally obtained a black and white TV in the mid-'50s, they would attempt to watch Tennessee Ernie Ford every Saturday night but they mostly saw “snow” due to the poor TV reception. Later, Davis and her sister would run home from junior high every day to watch the Mickey Mouse Club and they were crushed when Annette Funicello didn’t respond to their fan letter. 

Davis attended The Dalles Junior High School, where in the seventh grade she met her first boyfriend, Dennis Davis, who would become her husband several decades later. Forever a fan of dancing, Davis danced with Dennis on Portland’s version of American Bandstand on KOIN-TV. Throughout her time at The Dalles High School, she was always social and active, winning many academic awards and promoting school spirit as a cheerleader. 

In 1962, Davis married Tom Mertz and they had three children, all born in The Dalles. They raised their family in the Madras area, where they became the owners of two small businesses, Big Five Foods and The Sound Cellar. Davis later went on to work as the receptionist at Brightwood Corporation where she greeted every person entering the building with her famously friendly smile.

In 1992, she married Dennis Davis, her junior high sweetheart, and in 2004, they made their way back to their hometown of The Dalles, where the two have been actively involved in the community. They stay in regular contact with their classmates from The Dalles High Class of 1963 and have taken lead roles in organizing class reunions. In 2006, Davis started volunteering her time as a docent at the Fort Dalles Museum and she has been a fixture there ever since.  In the early days, many museum visitors and many local school children were treated to her performance as Andrew the Anderson House Mouse. Davis has become an avid local historian and has enjoyed researching the colorful aspects of The Dalles history especially those pertaining to “places of negotiable affection.” In 2012, Davis got a group of friends together to form the Fort Dalles Floozies. Since that time, Madame Mary, Brothel Inspector Dennis and the rest of the Floozies have been adding unique flavor to community events and have been playfully welcoming each and every cruise ship that has docked in The Dalles.  Her dedication to volunteering has led to accolades spanning from Chamber of Commerce recognition to being chosen as a participant in the 2020 Dancing with the Gorge Stars event a competition that earned her the coveted mirror ball trophy.

Davis, who you will rarely meet without a hat, is proud of her Norwegian roots and has been passionately researching her family genealogy since 2000. She now has a room full of binders that contain countless photos, family trees, birth certificates, death certificates, and miscellaneous tidbits of information. She delights in learning the more scandalous stories of her ancestors including the fact that the obituary of her great-great-grandfather, Ole Livedalen, the first settler in Freeborn County, Minn., mentioned that “he died of a short illness, but enjoyed the veritable museum of family history that is Granny’s house. Long drunk.”  She has tracked down dozens of distant cousins and other relatives in North Dakota and Minnesota and even in Norway where she has traced her roots back to the 1600s.  Her immediate family now includes ten grandchildren and one great grandchild who have all enjoyed the veritable museum of family history that is Granny’s house.

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