Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

Oral Histories of the James Cant Ranch (John Day Valley, Oregon), 1982-1985

Biographical Note:

James Cant was born in Scotland in 1879, emigrating just before the turn of the century to South America, where he raised horses and mules. Cant arrived in northeast Oregon in 1905 where he found work at the Murray Ranch in the John Day Valley, a rural agricultural region already inhabited by numerous Scottish immigrants. By 1908 Cant had saved enough money to arrange for the emigration of his sweetheart, Elizabeth, who still resided in Scotland. The couple married shortly after Elizabeth's arrival in Oregon.

In 1910 James received a loan of $5,000 from the head of the Murray Ranch, which he used to purchase the first tract of property for what would become the Cant Ranch complex. The 700-acre purchase, located about eight miles northwest of the small community of Dayville, was made from Floyd Officer, an early settler of the region who originally homesteaded the land in 1890. Over time the Cants came to greatly expand the property and its infrastructure, using irrigation from the John Day River to cultivate wheat, alfalfa and orchard crops, and to raise sheep, cattle, hogs and chickens. The Cants likewise raised four children – James Jr., Charles, Christina and Lillian – in the large ranch home that they built in 1917. In 1919 the Cants dedicated the third floor of this home to the establishment of a local school. The first class of the Cant School consisted of ten pupils; its teacher, Ms. Stella Pigg, lived with the Cant family.

The Cant Ranch enjoyed heady success for the duration of its existence as a full-scale agricultural enterprise. At its zenith, the property encompassed 6,500 acres owned by the Cant family and another 4,500 leased from the Bureau of Land Management. In the latter decades of its operation, certain of the duties required by the ranch were assumed by James and Elizabeth's eldest son, James Cant Jr., and his wife Freda.

James Cant died in 1972 and Elizabeth passed away one year later. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was established shortly thereafter, in 1975. As part of its initial development plan, the monument proposed to purchase the Cant Ranch for use as a museum and interpretive site, providing visitors with a glimpse of the agricultural activities that had defined the John Day Valley for the entirety of the twentieth century. The Cant family agreed to this proposal and the ranch has been a key component of the monument ever since.

Royal G. Jackson was a faculty member in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University from 1970 until his retirement in 2004. Jackson taught courses in recreation resource management and nature-based tourism; his research interests included forest history, nature-based tourism, and protected area management. He pursued research projects in the western United States and in Costa Rica. As part of his research, Jackson conducted numerous oral history projects pertaining to the history of forestry, specifically, the Oregon State University College of Forestry and the Research Forests (McDonald and Dunn Forests); the Soap Creek Valley in Benton County, Oregon; Basques in Harney County, Oregon; the diversification of a resource-based economy in Deschutes County, Oregon, to include tourism; the Winema National Forest; the Battle of Little Bighorn from the perspective of the Northern Cheyenne descendants; and the environmental movement and ecotourism in Cost Rica. Jackson earned his BA in 1960 from the University of New Mexico, an MA in 1965 from Western New Mexico University, and his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 1971.

Return to Oral Histories of the James Cant Ranch (John Day Valley, Oregon) Home