Stone fort built to protect one horse

The old stone fort between John Day and Mt. Vernon was built for the horse named Mount Vernon. The Eagle/HEATHER SHEEDY

Many wonder at the small stone building just east of Mt. Vernon and the story began in 1863, when David Jenkins and his wife and daughter arrived in the John Day Valley.

The following year, Jenkins took up a homestead and built a house about two miles east of Mt. Vernon city center.

A dusty traveler stopped at the Jenkins house around 1876 to offer the weary sorrel mare he was riding in exchange for a fresh horse.

"This horse," confided the traveler with the oozy assurance of a snake-oil drummer, "has been bred to the best, the very best, trotting stallion in the whole bluegrass state of Kentucky. Her colt will be a champion, mark you. The only reason I'm willing to make this swap is because the mare is tired some and I've got to get where I'm going."

Sight unseen, David Jenkins took a chance and came up with a winner. The mare's chestnut-sorrel colt, which Jenkins named Mount Vernon in honor of the village where he traded, was born to run. It came into the world with a stiff breeze at its back, ballet slippers on its hooves, and invisible wings on its flanks. Watching the horse bound across the meadows in enormous strides that seemed more gliding than running, a local rancher who knew a bit of Greek mythology thought the sorrel should have been named Pegasus.

In 1879 when Mount Vernon was 3 years old, Jenkins heard rumors that some Indians planned to steal his horse. He hired two Scottish stonemasons to build a stronghold. With stone from a hillside behind the ranch, the masons constructed a shelter with walls more than a foot thick. For the roof, the only part of the barn which has been altered (now), the Scotsmen used clay dirt supported by poles. The attic reached from an entrance above the window at the north end of the structure, which was held up by hewn beams. Heavy doors guarded the openings. Each wall had two gun slots, but no shot was ever fired from within the barn or at it.

As Mount Vernon's fame as a trotting horse grew, Jenkins accepted challenges to trotting races from around the state. Horses arrived to compete against the 1,100-pound champion. Only once was the handsome chestnut sorrel beaten. That was at the old racetrack at the Dennis Lemons Ranch west of Mt. Vernon.

A man from Washington came with his pride, Black Hawk, and shrewdly waited until Jenkins had raced Mount Vernon in three winning races. Without giving his horse a rest, Jenkins entered the fourth race, and Mount Vernon performed gallantly, but was beaten by the fresh Black Hawk in the back stretch.

In 1893, when he was about 17, Mount Vernon was sold to a man from Portland, who bought the famed trotter for breeding purposes. By then, Mount Vernon had sired numerous colts. As late as 1918, some stallions from his lineage were seen around the John Day Valley. Genetically, the strains of Mount Vernon may still be alive.

After he was sold to the Portland breeder, there is a long gap in Mount Vernon's history - he was probably sold many times. Many years later, Bill Alsop, a rancher at Izee, spotted Mount Vernon in Athena. Battered, old and half-blind, he was the lead in an eight-horse team. There was no mistaking Mount Vernon - the "J" brand was outstanding on the horse's left shoulder.

As a young man, Alsop had watched Mount Vernon race and had been thrilled by the graceful and powerful trotter. He purchased Mount Vernon and took him home...turned loose on bunchgrass above the South Fork John Day River.

Mount Vernon's end came peacefully in 1917 when he was 41. His only testimonial left today is the stone barn, perhaps the only fortress in Oregon ever built to house an animal.

It is a bit ironic that the horse dwelling far outlasted the Jenkins home. But then, the horse outlived Jenkins by some years, too.

Carolyn Micnhimer of John Day is curator of Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum.

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