by Jacob Barrett
Second-round bidding closed on August 4, 2022, for the 390-acre site of the now-shuttered Mill Creek Correctional Institution (MCCI) owned by the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC). But a 98-year-old grandson of the land’s former owner claims it holds Native American grave sites, which would severely complicate development of the land in the southeast corner of Salem.
After moving from Indiana in 1852, William Baker staked a claim to more than 324 acres and purchased an additional 50 acres three years later with profits made off ranching off cattle. When he died in 1912, the land passed to his wife, Ida. Baker family lore holds that Ida befriend Native Americans and allowed them to secretly bury their dead on a part of the land. At the time it was common for Native American burial mounds to be desecrated. Ida Baker passed away in 1940, but her grandson, Melvin, claims the hidden burial mounds are on land the State acquired after her family lost it in a loan foreclosure.
In 1889 the State purchased the land for a reform school, the Oregon State Training School for Boys. After that relocated, the Oregon State Penitentiary began developing a farm annex in 19289, using forced prison labor to raise sheep, pigs, turkeys, rabbits, bees, and crops. By 1959 the State had expanded the farm to more than 2,089 acres.
The State farm annex shut down over two decades ago, leaving much of the land unused, except for MCCI, a minimum-security prison, which was housed in the former reform school on a 390-acre chunk of the land. That site includes an unused cemetery from another previous owner of some of the land, the Heron family.
The property has an assessed value of more than $25 million, but the State opened bidding at $7 million, after deciding to sell the property once Gov. Kate Brown (D) closed MCCI in 2021. A state archaeologist, John Pouley, said an agreement signed by DOC and the Oregon Historic Preservation Office outlined precautions taken to consult with historic groups and local tribes. DOC spokeswoman Betty Bernt said there was “no evidence of human remains at the archaeological site other than the [Heron family] cemetery,” in which 20 graves are still visible from 1864 to 1922. She did not say what research was done to reach that conclusion.
Old prisoner graves have been found on OSP land over several decades as the prison expanded buildings, but none was identified as Native American. DOC expects to announce a winning bidder 90-120 days after closing bids were due.
Source: Statesman Journal
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