It was shortly after one in the afternoon when we left Highway 206 near the Ajax Post Office.
To be honest, the Ajax Post Office isn't exactly a federally-franchised facility. Instead, it is a large regulation rural mailbox that sits next to an old steamer trunk (used for package delivery). The trunk sits on two concrete blocks, which help keep out what little moisture bothers to visit the area. All of the families in Ajax share the postal facility - hence the name.
The intersection also serves as the entry to a gravel track that leads to the Van Rietmann Ranch five miles away. This sprawling wheat and cattle operation is perched on a ridge overlooking the John Day River Canyon.
Rietmann, a gracious 80-year-old who has spent almost 60 years on the ranch, presides over a complex that includes several homes and numerous farm buildings. One home is occupied by his son Tom and family. Another is used by one of three hired men. The other two drive out each day from Condon.
The original farm house, built about 1908, hasn't had any permanent residents for about half a century, but it is used on occasion by visiting hunters who voluntarily added a few amenities, such as indoor plumbing and hot water, in exchange for use of the residence.
Aside from the occupants of the ranch, the nearest neighbors are 14 miles away.
It wasn't always that way. At one time, the Ajax School, which still stands about halfway between Highway 206 and the ranch, housed as many as 28 students. But that was in the mid to late '20s just before it closed. Now the three students from Ajax are bused 21 miles into Condon.
Van Rietmann himself arrived in Ajax in 1948 after graduating from OSU. His father had moved there in 1939. Both men initially "bached" on the farm, although they had a cook in the summer when the crews working the farm were large.
My visit to Ajax wasn't an accident. No sooner had the ink dried on my story about Joe McElligott (EO, Dec. 8) when I ran into John Rietmann at the Ione Christmas program. My daughter is superintendent/principal at Ione and we joined a standing-room only crowd for the production.
John, whom I have known through his service on both the Morrow County School Board and the Ione Board, suggested that if I thought the prairie outside of Ione was "the middle of nowhere," he could add another chapter.
After spending three years teaching in Lake Oswego and three years as a grain trader in Portland, John came back to farm in Eastern Oregon just over 20 years ago. He got his start from Van Rietmann and spent more than a year living at Ajax.
Van Rietmann is the first cousin of John's father and I was intrigued that he had played a part in helping John get his feet on the ground in farming. John advised me it was a family tradition and that brother Joe Rietmann had also started in Ajax.
Apparently the practice goes back at least to Uncle Bob, the brother of John's grandfather. Uncle Bob started farming in Ione and acquired a fair inventory of farm ground before he moved to Anaheim, Calif., where he purchased a number of orange groves - some at or near the current site of Disneyland. Uncle Bob subsequently, and not surprisingly, was able to then play a role in helping a number of family members get started, although they have since built successful operations in their own right.
John's purpose in visiting Ajax this day was to deliver a large poinsettia and to touch base as part of the holiday season. Since I have recently written a book about Oregon's rural education system and plan another on abandoned schools, the prospect of being able to photograph the Ajax School was reason enough to tag along.
John's wife, Kerry, and eighth-grade daughter Brenna, decided to join us and we set out from their home at Gooseberry (which can actually be found on Microsoft MapPoint) enroute to Ajax. John decided that the trip would be enhanced if we saw various other points of interest, ranging from the Valby Church to a wide assortment of seldom-used gravel roads that, near Valby, wind through the old Swedish settlement. Valby Church, which is still very much in operation, has no water, so parishioners bring both their Bibles and enough water for coffee and other uses around the church.
Eventually, we found our way to Condon, where we stopped for lunch at Country Flowers - a combination restaurant, extensive gift shop, and one of three locations for a Powell's Bookstore (the other two are Chicago and Portland).
It was 16 miles from Condon to Ajax and another five miles to the ranch. Both Van and his wife, Rose E., were at home when we arrived. Son Tom and his wife, Katie, were Christmas shopping in Portland. Katie grew up in downtown Berkeley, so the ranch offers a rather stark contrast to her roots. Occasional trips to the city are therefore welcomed.
The Rietmanns run a large feedlot operation and some mother cows in addition to the wheat acreage. The feedlot might be larger except that water is a problem on the ranch. In fact, the water used for both the residents and the livestock is piped more than four miles. Having drilled two or three wells to no avail, they opted for the piping project.
During our visit, we stayed pretty close to the house in deference to a farm tour because we didn't bring a lot of insulated clothing and the landscape offered no resistance to the cold wind sweeping across the barren fields.
This was not my first trip to the area in search of old schools. During one trip to the Klondike School in Sherman County, I headed east on Baseline Road toward what I thought would be a secret passage from Wasco to Arlington over the John Day River. Baseline Road, which follows the 45th parallel, does continue on through Gilliam County and into Morrow County but that doesn't guarantee river crossings. However, the map I had with me at the time showed the word "ferry" and I went in search of the crossing. Van Rietmann later congratulated me on finding the site of McDonald's Ferry but noted, unfortunately, the service was terminated somewhere around 1910.
Enroute back to Gooseberry, John decided to add further landscape to the tour. At the Ajax Post Office, we headed northeast for 17 miles toward Mikkalo and Clem before dropping down into Rock Canyon, through Olex, and even made a stop at the Pleasant Valley School, although by that time it was too dark for a good picture.
That will have to wait for another day.
George Murdock, superintendent of the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District, is an avid writer and a member of the East Oregonian's board of contributors. His column appears monthly. If you are a writer with opinions or insight into some aspect of life in Eastern Oregon and wish to join the board of contributors, apply, in writing of course, to Roger Harnack, managing editor.