Moyer House History
The elegant old Moyer House has spent more than 100 years overseeing the life and development of one of Oregon’s oldest pioneer communities.
John M. Moyer, born in 1829, came west with his friend, George F. Colbert, in 1852. The two young men, both carpenters by trade, began building houses in the area around Brownsville, and Moyer soon had a job building a house on Blakely Avenue for Hugh L. Brown, after whom Brownsville was later named. In 1857 John Moyer married Mr. Brown’s daughter, Elizabeth, and in time the two bought a farm and some lots in Brownsville. Later, Moyer owned, or had interests in, a sash and door factory, the Brownsville Woolen Mills and the Bank of Brownsville. He was also the town’s first mayor, and served on the school committee.
Because of their business and civic involvements, the Moyers entertained frequently, so eventually felt the need for a new house. The property they selected covered seven acres, extending toward the Calapooia River and Brownsville’s present City Park.
Using plans he had drawn himself, lumber milled in his sash and door factory, and with the help of his longtime friend, George Colbert, J.M. Moyer built his elaborate new house in 1881, with extreme attention to detail.
The Italianate style house replaced the Moyers’ smaller home nearby. Moyer did much of the work himself, and is said to have handpicked all the lumber for its construction. The house also boasted wooden Venetian blinds, with the slats produced in Moyer’s sawmill.
Twelve-foot ceilings, a while Italian marble fireplace and carved walnut banisters decorated the inside, while elaborate trims and heavily bracketed cornices adorned the Italianate exterior. Landscapes and scenes in oil were painted on walls and window transoms. On the ceilings of several rooms were floral designs, said to have been painted by an itinerant Italian artist, while great medallions made of wood were constructed to hold the light fixtures.
An Account of the building of the Moyers House
John and Elizabeth Moyer lived together in the house until his death in 1900.
"Mr. Moyer is completing one of the most artistically arranged residences in the state," exclaimed an 1882 Albany newspaper. John and Elizabeth Moyer started planning their Brownsville mansion as early as 1878, but construction did not begin until t he spring of 1881. Although the house was inspired by contemporary Italianate Villa style architecture, it was original in its conception and is still considered one of the finest of its type in Linn and Benton counties.
The Italianate house replaced the Moyer’s smaller dwelling located on the same site. Three original outbuildings, later demolished, remained south of the new house; at the rear, a more recent carriage house built in the late 1920s still stands. Eight acres surrounded the house, including an orchard and Moyer’s sash and door factory. "Moyer Hill," south of the house, was often used for recreation, and provided an elevated stage from which the Brownsville Brass Band performed. A 100,000 gallon reservoir on the hill supplied the house, planing mill, and eventually the whole town with water.
Much of the two-story frame structure’s lumber and wood detailing was thought to have come from Moyer’s planing mill. No expense was spared in the exterior details such as the delicate jigsaw corner boards, decorative frieze boards, and massive eave brackets. Smooth-matched wood siding, used to simulate stone, covered the front and sides of the house while less expensive shiplap siding covered the back. A cupola perched on top of the building provided a glass observatory. Wooden cresting with corner finials finished off the roof’s edge. The house is painted in the original warm earth tones which accentuate the bay windows and ornate wood trim.
Perhaps the most unique features of the house’s interior are the hand-painted landscapes, floral designs and stenciling. Some of the paintings on panels above the bay windows and transoms may depict wildlife and landscapes the Moyers experienced in their travels. Many of the ten foot ceilings are decorated with delicate floral designs and stenciled patterns, and ornate plaster
medallions hold light fixtures. A house outside Peoria, Oregon, several miles west of Brownsville, had similar paintings that were reported to have cost $1200 in 1874; this type of interior detailing was a costly venture. The ornate fireplace in the living room was originally "faux" painted to resemble marble. Fine woodworking which can be seen throughout the house includes diagonal wainscoting and a finely curved walnut banister and newel post. The stairway leads to two bedrooms, a sitting room, and an attic space. An arched doorway once decorated by stained glass opens to the second story balcony. Evidence of a narrow stairway which led to the cupola can still be seen on the upstairs hall ceiling and wall boards. The cupola was a favorite place to relax on warm summer nights when the windows were opened and the town could be viewed from overstuffed horsehair furniture.
After Elizabeth Moyer died in 1921 the house was sold to the local bank president, Harry Thompson. During and after the Thompson’s residency alterations occurred in the house. The kitchen and dining room were enlarged, doorways were widened, a new doorway connected the music room to the dining room and the back roof was raised to accommodate a bathroom and boarder/maid room. In the following years many people owned or rented the house and much of the original detailing was covered or destroyed. It wasn’t until 1963 when the Linn County Historical Society bought the house that some of the original details were uncovered.
With a grant from the Hill Foundation and private donations the house was acquired, starting the time-consuming process of restoration. Many old families donated and loaned furnishings which decorate the house. The Seth Thomas clock, the hat and umbrella stand, and the south parlor bedroom set are the only furniture displayed which belonged to the Moyers.
The house now belongs to Linn County and is designated as a museum, under the care of the Parks Department and a devoted group of volunteers, the Linn County Museum Friends. Other important support comes from donations and fund raising events.
The Moyer House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a lasting reminder of an early period of prosperity in Linn County.
John M. and Elizabeth Brown Moyer were early settlers in Linn County. Both the Moyer and the Brown families contributed significantly to the development of Brownsville. The Browns migrated to Oregon from Tennessee in 1846, and were one of the earliest pioneering families in Linn County. The City of Brownsville was named for Hugh L. Brown, father of Elizabeth Moyer.
John M. Moyer came west from Ohio in a rapid three month journey, reaching the Oregon territory in August of 1852. Moyer quickly found his carpentry skills in demand in the growing Calapooia valley community. He met Elizabeth Brown while helping her father build his house. Elizabeth and John were married in 1857 and set up housekeeping in a sparsely furnished box house on 160 acres near town, and started farming.
After the town of Brownsville began to prosper, the Moyer family moved into town and John Moyer resumed his trade as a carpenter. In April of 1863 he purchased a sash and door factory, improving it with new machinery and developing it into a profitable business. He ran the mill until 1875 when poor health forced him to rent out the business. Moyer was also an early organizer of the Linn Woolen Mills, later called the Eagle Woolen Mills.
The Eagle Mill was struck by financial problems, and was again reorganized in October, 1875, as the Brownsville Woolen Mill. Under Moyer’s management as president, the mill became a very successful enterprise. An 1881 Albany newspaper reported that the "Brownsville Woolen Mills sold last year $110,000.00 worth of goods. The Company employs about 35 hands, who receive an average of $2.00 per day." The article appeared the same year that John and Elizabeth built their elegant new house; the mill probably provided the financial backing for their grand effort. John Moyer remained active in business and civic affairs until cancer took his life in July, 1904, at the age of 75.
The site chosen in 1846 for the town of Brownsville was ideal, located in the fertile farmlands of the Calapooia Valley. The Cascade Range to the east contained rich timber resources needed for building and the Calapooia River, which bisected the town, provided a water power source necessary for industry. Originally Brownsville was called Kirk’s Ferry or Calapooia, but in May, 1856, the town officially changed its name in honor of Hugh L. Brown, who was credited with establishing the town’s first general merchandise store.
Although the rich agricultural land and timber production played an important role in Brownsville’s development, it was the established woolen mill industry which put Brownsville on the map. The woolen mill ran from 1862 until 1955 when a disastrous fire put the mill out of business. The plant was known for the excellent quality of its woolen products and won first prize for blankets at the New Orleans World’s Fair.
A narrow gauge railroad reached Brownsville in 1881, further stimulating the growth of the small valley community. The first brick building was constructed in 1903 from local clay and can still be seen at the north end of Main Street. By 1904 Brownsville boasted of "an opera house, seating 500; an electric light plant; a live newspaper; Wells Fargo and Co.’s Express; W.U. Telegraph; also telephone service and mail daily." The town also prided itself on have no saloons and a population of 1200.
Brownsville’s population has fluctuated little over the past 100 years and much of its historic character can still be seen. For over 35 years, the city of Brownsville has promoted a community-wide effort to preserve structures that played an important role in the town’s early development.
Restoration and rehabilitation have brought many of these historic buildings back to life, enhancing the unique sense of place and price which surrounds one of Linn County’s oldest settlements.
Quote of the Day
"If only we'd stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time." ~ Edith Wharton She traveled extensively by motorcar, helped untiringly with refugees in Paris during the first World War, and actually only returned once again in her lifetime to the United States to accept the Pulitzer prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence.