Old West Takes On New West In Oregon -- Residents, Ideals Clash In Southeastern Town

FRENCHGLEN, Ore. - In the pre-dawn darkness, the cries of the sandhill cranes still float off the marsh, but when the sun rises over Steens Mountain it shines on a one-gas-pump town where all is not well.

In the three years since Missy and Lance Litchy bought the old Frenchglen Mercantile, bad blood has developed that recalls the conflict that led a homesteader to shoot the town's founder, Pete French, on the day after Christmas in 1897.

A century later, there has been plenty of unarmed skirmishing between the New West Litchys and the Old West residents of this tiny oasis in southeastern Oregon's sparsely populated sagebrush country.

The oldtimers say the Litchys never tried to fit in, to be good neighbors. The Litchys say they were treated as outsiders from the start.

The school board has cut off water from the community well for the Litchys' store-bar-restaurant-hostelry. Fist fights have erupted. But there have been no gunfights - yet.

"I was afraid something like that might happen," said Catherine Fine, who has lived in Frenchglen for 70 years and now works for the Litchys in the Mercantile. "You know when people get mad like that, who knows?"

Situated in one of the least populated places in the nation, Frenchglen is the old headquarters of Pete French's cattle empire. It is named for French and his partner and father-in-law, California wheat king Dr. Hugh Glenn.

The Mercantile was once French's company store. The historic Frenchglen Hotel, now owned by the state and run by a concessionaire, used to house ranch visitors, vacationing buckaroos and teamsters who hauled goods between Frenchglen and Winnemucca, Nev.

The school, a wildfire guard station, the post office and a few houses make up the rest of town, which claims only nine residents old enough to vote.

It's a far cry from Bend, where the Litchys lived before moving to Frenchglen. There the transition from Old West to New West has already happened, creating one of the fastest-growing regions in Oregon. Sawmills have given way to high-tech industry and a microbrewery. Ranches have turned into golf courses with condos. And towering above it all is the Mount Bachelor ski resort.

The Litchys came out of the middle of all that. After six years in the Navy, Lance was passing through Portland when he saw an ad in the paper and landed a job as an electrician at Mount Bachelor. Missy grew up in Portland and had her own advertising-design business in Bend.

Wanting to show off the remote buckaroo country she had loved as a vacationing child, Missy took Lance to an auction in remote Warner Valley. When they passed through Frenchglen, the guy behind the counter at the Mercantile told them it was for sale.

"We had a nice life in Bend, but this was more appealing," said Lance. "It was a good opportunity for me to be self-employed. And we knew we could have winters off over here."

They bought the store and neighboring house. In 1995, they moved in.

They got rid of the old canned goods and started selling Native American art. They opened a bar and restaurant, the Buckaroo Room, that pours fine wines and serves Martha Stewart-style entrees, and a bed-and-breakfast furnished with antiques, where you can find mango juice in the fridge.

Josh Warburton, a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management district manager who owns an RV park 3 miles up the road, traces the conflict to the moment, shortly thereafter, when the Litchys scheduled a champagne brunch that conflicted with his Labor Day pancake breakfast.

"They settled in and bulldozed their way through . . ," he said.

"There is no desire for locals who have been shunned to go in there. They used to frequent the Mercantile because they wanted to. It was a place to catch up on local doings and how the neighbors are doing. That atmosphere isn't there any more."

The post office and Postmistress Malena Konek - who had sold the Litchys the store and house and still holds the mortgage - were booted out of the store. Now folks go to a little trailer across the street to pick up their mail.

The school board, of which Warburton is a member, cut off the Litchys' water; their reasoning was that the Mercantile's increased water use might drain the town's well. So the Litchys dug their own.

The board complained to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission that drunks from The Buckeroo Room threatened the safety of children at the school across the street.

Then some of the people gathered for the annual Frenchglen Jamboree this year got in a fist fight in front of the Mercantile after an employee of the Litchys began taking pictures of a school-board member drinking a beer in the street.

A bigger fist fight developed later when some toughs drove in from Burns, the Harney County seat 70 miles away. Unsubstantiated rumors spread that the Litchys had called in the skinheads.

Missy Litchy sees it as a conflict between the Old West and the New West: drip coffee vs. espresso, cans of Bud vs. bottles of microbrew, RV parks vs. bed and breakfasts, hunters vs. bird watchers.

"Southeastern Oregon is on the cusp of real tourism. It's world class," said Lance Litchy. "As more people move to Oregon, there will be more people who want to visit."

"There is a definite handful of people who don't see the world that way," said his wife. "They don't like change. It's been offensive to them what we've done here."

But like the settlers who started chipping away at the edges of Pete French's cattle empire, they are determined to stay, though they close up the store in winter to follow the sun to Mexico.

The conflicts in Frenchglen are no surprise to William Kittredge, a retired University of Montana professor who grew up on a ranch in southeastern Oregon and wrote about the changes he saw around him in the book, "Who Owns the West."

"The old ways of doing things are under a lot of duress and are all probably going to change," he said. "The West is really involved in style wars, and a they've got to get over it. I am a living example of going from cowboy boots to Birkenstocks in one generation."

Catherine Fine is 75; she spent all her life in the old Frenchglen and now works for the new, in the Litchys' store and in their kitchen. She doesn't see why everybody can't just get along.

"Everybody has gotten in a frenzy about nothing," she said. "I think it would be over with if everybody would just get on with their own business."