Pioneer Profiles – September 2016
With the move of Jacksonville’s City offices into Jackson County’s historic courthouse building on North 5th Street, it seems appropriate to focus this month’s Pioneer Profile on Silas J. Day, the County Judge who initiated the historic courthouse’s construction.
Day was described in the 1904 publication, Portrait and Biographical Record of Western Oregon, as “giving the best part of his life toward the upbuilding of this western commonwealth.” Day’s entry cited his versatile talents and adaptability at “turning his hand to whatever came his way…finding his way to the west as early as 1849, where he worked as a miner, agriculturist, and exponent of the law, being eminently successful in the greater part of his labor.”
Born of Irish stock in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in 1826, Day was one of 13 children. His father, Ishmael Day, was at various times manager of an iron furnace, custom house inspector, surveyor, horticulturist, and educator, and young Silas was educated in the private schools conducted by his father and uncle.
At age 20, Day enlisted in Company E of the Second United States Infantry to fight in the Mexican-American War. However, he saw little combat, spending most of his time in Tampico, Mexico, breaking mules. In 1849, Day was reassigned to Sugarville, California (near Long Beach) and then Camp Far West (45 miles north of Sacramento). When his enlistment had almost expired, he was granted a furlough, and he immediately joined the ranks of “gold rush” miners.
Day went to Scott’s Bar during “the excitement” then engaged in gold mining at Yreka. A trip for supplies, which he then sold for a tidy profit, gave him a grub stake for a short mining sojourn in Josephine County before moving back to Sacramento.
Sacramento, located at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, was subject to periodic flooding and its wooden structures were vulnerable to fire. To resolve these problems, the city set about raising the sidewalks and buildings and replacing wooden houses and shops with brick and stone. Seeing opportunities in the young town’s building spree, Day turned to brick manufacture. But by the fall of 1852, the “gold bug” had bitten again and Day went back to mining.
In the spring he was joined by his brother Edward, and together they came to Oregon and took up government land grants of 160 acres each along Butte Creek. These properties were home for the next four years.
During this period, Day was called back into military service, fighting with the Oregon Militia in the Rogue River Indian Wars. He was twice promoted, first becoming orderly sergeant and then being commissioned a first lieutenant.
Once peace was assured, Day again returned to mining, working a claim on Jackson Creek. He mined off and on until 1870, supplementing his income at various times by trading supplies, manufacturing bricks, and working in a Jacksonville butcher shop.
During this time, Day served on both the school board and the town council, but his career path took a decided shift when he was elected Jackson County Clerk in 1870. He was described as “so well maintaining the interests of the people,” that four years later he was elected County Judge—equivalent to a current County Commissioner—and was reelected to this position four years later.
During this second term, Day was instrumental in initiating the erection of the historic Jackson County Courthouse at a cost of $38,796.53—a sum deemed a “wise expenditure.” Prodded by Day, the Commissioners determined that they wanted a 2-story brick structure, 92 x 60 feet, with 14 foot ceilings. The cornerstone was laid on June 23, 1883. By August the brick walls were raised, by September the cupola was completed, and court convened for the first time on February 11, 1884. The courthouse was declared “the crowning glory of Jacksonville” and “one of the best buildings of its kind in the state.”
In 1874, Day was also appointed by the state legislature to the Board of Commissioners tasked with laying out the Southern Oregon Wagon Road. At the organizational meeting, his fellow commissioners elected him chairman. Under his leadership, the commission oversaw construction of what became a main source of east-west commerce, the road’s 343 miles connecting Baker, Grant, and Jackson counties.
When Day retired from politics, he opened a real estate and insurance office in Jacksonville, which he maintained until his death. He was also an “abstractor of land titles and notary public” and advertised his services for “legal papers of all kinds carefully drawn, especially those pertaining to the estates of deceased persons.”
At age 45, Day finally settled down, marrying Mary McGhee, a teacher at the Portland Academy and at Albany College. Mary was already 30 and considered an “old maid” when she met Day in Salem at a “strawberry festival” run by the Methodist ladies. Given the distance, most of their courtship was conducted by mail. Following their marriage, the couple made Day’s Jackson Creek property their home. They became proud parents of four children—Mary Louisa, Edward Melville, Silas Elmer, and Elsie Cordelia—although only Mary Louisa survived to adulthood.
Despite the demands of politics and married life, Day made time for civic and social activities. He is credited with founding the Jackson County chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellowship. It began with just 15 members, but quickly attracted many prominent local residents. Day founded many other chapters around the state as well, and in 1868 was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Oregon, which included what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and part of Montana. A tour of his circuit required a year and three days of travel on foot and horseback.
Day was also a prominent member of the Southern Oregon Pioneer Society. Elected Secretary in 1881, he held this position for the next 28 years. When Day died in 1909, the Society noted his passing as follows:
“There were few in the ranks of the pioneers of Southern Oregon more public-spirited and far-seeing than the late Judge Silas J. Day….By a long life of patient, earnest effort and generous self-sacrifice…he was responsible for many permanent improvements during his official career and transacted the public business entrusted to him in a manner that won the confidence and lasting esteem of the early settlers….”