Biography of Melvin Fenwick

A true pioneer, a man of exemplary standing and life, possessed of capabilities and qualities of worth, the estimable gentleman of whom we now speak, is entitled to representation in the volume of Harney county’s history. His parents, Alexander and Nancy (Long) Fenwick, were natives to Kentucky, and his father crossed the plains to California in 1849. He was a blacksmith and carried his tools on a pack horse and wrought at his trade, shoeing horses, and so forth, all the way. In 1851 he returned via Panama, and with his wife and seven children he came in 1852 to Amador county, California. There our subject was born on May 18, 1855, being the ninth child. The family removed to Napa county in 1858, and in August, 1863, came thence to Lane county, Oregon. There the father remained until his death in 1883. It was in February of that year that Melvin came to the Harney valley. He entered land at his present home place four miles north from Burns, and has engaged in farming and raising stock there since that time, being favored with abundant success on account of his industry and perseverance. He now owns five hundred acres of land, well improved and skillfully tilled. He formerly handled hogs, but is now devoting his attention to cattle mostly. When Mr. Fenwick came here there was but one house where Burns now stands, and settlers were very few in the country. Bacon cost thirty-five cents per pound and flour ten cents. Mr. Fenwick put up the first barbed wire fence in the valley, the year being 1884 when this was done.

The marriage of Mr. Fenwick and Miss Jennie, daughter of Arthur and Mary Wallace, who were natives of Kentucky and came to Oregon in 1876, was solemnized on September 22, 1889. In political matters Mr. Fenwick was allied with the Democratic party, but at the time of McKinley’s election he voted for that worthy man and has since cast his vote with the Republican party. In 1872 and 1873 Mr. Fenwick enlisted to assist in quelling the Modocs, he being in Captain Roger’s Company E, of Oregon militia. Mr. Fenwick has quitted himself in all the various relations of the frontiersman in a commendable manner and he stands high among his fellows today and is a worthy citizen of our county.

It is not right to close this article without a special mention of one item that has had much bearing on the general history of the county of Harney and in which Mr. Fenwick took a leading part, though it cost him much effort and money to do so. Early in 1887 fifty-eight of the small farmers of the county banded together and formed a corporation known as the Harney Valley Dam and Ditch and Irrigation Company. The purpose was to divert the water from the Silvies river to irrigate their barren lands. Labor and money were freely expended by all these hard working men until the dam and ditches were all completed. At that juncture W. B. Todhunter, one of the cattle kings of Harney County, commenced suit against this company and secured injunctions stopping proceedings of their work and project. The shareholders were poor people and fifty of the fifty-eight threw up their shares and quit the field. Some men’s mettle is shown only the better when in the face of desperate opposition, and so in this case. Mr. Fenwick saw the crisis, the wonderful amount depending on the issue and so threw himself into the breach and fought, supported by the other seven, with such desperate and telling force and manifestation of right and demand for justice that after three years of severely contested litigation, Todhunter threw up his case and victory was gained for the common people once more. Twelve thousand dollars and more were spent in the fight of this unreasonable opposition to proper improvement, and it is with great pleasure that we can chronicle that this move and worthy stand on Mr. Fenwick’s part was entirely successful, and it has materially changed the history of Harney county, and it is the entering of the wedge that will allow Harney county to become one of the leading political divisions of the west, for the sullen and avaricious heel of monopoly can not and shall not forever stay the way of the chariot of progress and development. Mr. Fenwick is now and has been secretary of this company from its incipiency and he is a man of resolution and ability and has nobly cleared the way for further improvement and advancement.



Whitman, Marcus. An Illustrated history of Baker, Grant, Malheur and Harney Counties: with a brief outline of the early history of the state of Oregon. Chicago: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1902, 871 pgs.

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