How It All Started
In 1889, J. Frank Adams acquired from Benjamin Van Brimmer 152 acres of land at the north side of Lost River, near Stone Bridge. Two years later, on April 20, 1891, Adams and his wife Fannie sold the land to Nathan and Nancy Merrill for $3,000. In 1894, the Merrill’s hire Antone Castel to survey 80 acres of their land for a town site. An ambitious plan resulted, including two major thoroughfares for a business district , one running north and south and the other paralleling Lost River. His map included neatly arranged residential streets and sites were designated for a school and park. Nathan and Nancy Merrill “dedicated the streets and avenues of Merrill for use of the public forever,” as recorded at the Klamath County Court House on May 28, 1894.
One of the principal crops in the Lost River Valley and Tule Lake Basin was wheat, but it was costly to haul to Klamath Falls. In 1894 the Thomas Martin flour mill was completed at the Merrill town site. Nathan Merrill’s real estate transactions in developing his own town were done with wisdom and care. He realized that a permanent community was dependent upon healthy economic base. He actively recruited businesses to locate at the town site and offered free land to some of the earliest establishments. The first residence constructed was built by Frank Brandon, who managed the mill. His mother, brother and two sisters soon joined him.
In 1894 James O’Farrel moved his general store and James Stoby his blacksmith shop from Gale, a community located 3 miles to the north of Merrill.
In May 18th, 1903, Merrill was officially incorporated in Klamath County, Oregon. Its first board of directors included Frank Brandon, George Tory, H. E. Smith, W.P. Rhodes and George Offield. Offield was later elected mayor and served for 20 years. By 1904, the Merrill School District reported a total enrollment of 58 students, 13 of whom were on the honor roll.
In 1905, the significant development of the town of Merrill was noted in the Klamath Republican: “…greatly pleased and surprised at the flourishing condition of the metropolis of the southern part of the county. The town of Merrill has had a wonderful growth the past summer. The number of new buildings and the grade and quality of them is equal if not superior to those of any town in the county. Merrill now has three good-sized hotels and they are crowded all the time. One drawback, which the town has had since its birth, has been the lack of good water. This, however, has now been remedied by the residents digging a deep well, which has resulted in a beautiful supply of pure cold water. The town sports an electric light and water system. Many of the ranchers living in the surrounding country are building residents in town and intend moving there for the winter.”
In 1906, the Klamath Republican reported: “Merrill now has two general merchandise stores stocked with everything the citizen can wish for his home, one furniture store where the home can be furnished from top to bottom at prices that compare favorably with those of the metropolitan cities, three well equipped hotels doing an excellent business-so much that they are not sufficient for the needs of the town, an up-to-date restaurant building is now being fitted up with lodging rooms in connection, two cigar an confectionery stores, two blacksmith shops, one drug store, one butcher shop, the only creamery in the county, two livery barns and a big feed barn under course of construction, four saloons, bank, doctor, newspaper, very large and fine opera house, harness shop, shoe repair shop, millinery store, flouring mill of 50-barrel daily capacity, a real estate firm and is represented by most of the leading fraternal societies as well as churches. A large capacity brick yard was recently established and a large brick bank building is to be constructed.”
By 1909, Merrill was known as the “Flour City” because of the large business done by its mill. With a population of nearly 300 people, it was the second largest town in the Klamath Basin. On April 1, 1911, a major fire swept the city. It destroyed the Martin Brothers’ general merchandise store, Mascot Livery Stable and Ritter’s Shoe Shop. New buildings were constructed to replace those lost. The next project is acquiring cinders at the Lava Beds and hauling them by barge across Tule Lake and up Lost River. When the boats reached Merrill, they were tied up at the city’s dock and the cinders were loaded aboard wagons to be spread on all of the towns streets.
The next eight years saw the Tule Lake Basin continue to grow wit homesteaders moving onto land reclaimed from Tule Lake and a new community known as Malin founded.
Then in 1920, Merrill was struck by its second major fire. Lost were the Merrill Opera House, Frazier Pool Hall, Harelode Restaurant and the old Murphy building. Damages were incurred by the Anderson store, bank, garage and furniture store. The city again bounced back in 1921, yet a third major fire struck. Destroyed were Dewey’s confectionery store, Offield and Ratliff’s meat market, Murray’s barber shop, city hall, fire house, Wright’s new pharmacy. Damaged were the post office and Riverside Hotel.
Merrill was rebuilt for the next three decades. By the 1930’s, improvements to the city’s volunteer fire department, under the leadership of Ben Faus resulted in respect from other communities of the Klamath Basin.
Two railroads aided Merrill’s economic growth as they were completed in the early 1930’s: Southern Pacific and Great Northern (today Burlington Northern).
On November 29, 1949, the elementary school burned down. It had been buit out of brick in 1911 and for many years housed classes for grades 1-12. Later, a new high school was constructed on Front Street, servicing elementary level students. In tradition of rebirth, begun in 1911 with Merrill’s first major fire, the school was soon rebuilt and new building was dedicated on January 25, 1951.
The 1950’s were bright and prosperous for Merrilll. It’s population rose to nearly 1,000, and its businesses were well patronized. However, by the 1960’s growth leveled off and a number of Merrill’s retail outlets began to disappear. The shopping centers of Klamath Falls had luredmany residents away from local businesses that were not able to offer the variety of goods found in larger stores. Other changes also took place. The students of Merrill and Malin attend Lost River High School and declining enrollement and reorganization of the scholl district saw the closure of Merrill’s Junior high school.
Today, as the Tule Lake Basin’s oldest town, Merrill has an air of maturity and wisdom. Its quiet tree-lined streets are unpretentious. The pace of life is slow but not backward. Its role as a town is much broader now. Though its business community is smaller than it once was, it remains viable. The town is a comfortable home to many older residents who are content to stay rather than cope with the frenzy of larger cities, and it has become a bedroom community for commuters to outlying areas, including Klamath Falls. In many ways it matches the style of town founded by Nathan and Nancy Merrill back in 1894.