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Ann Mehaffy – Baker City

“In the 70s, my former husband and I just stumbled on Eastern Oregon as we were traveling from Wyoming looking for a homestead. This was back in the days of ‘back to the land’ but we were very serious in terms of wanting to farm. We got as far as Boise and hadn’t seen anything so we contacted the United Farm Agency and they mentioned a couple of places in Eastern Oregon. We knew a little bit about Eastern Oregon, but not much. We came out and found the place of our dreams in Medical Springs. Bought it on the spot. It was that simple. It was an old 1889 homestead with a lot of acreage. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we jumped right in anyway. At that time, there were still some old pioneer people who had been born before the turn of the century. They taught us a lot; I learned to can and preserve everything. It was instrumental in cementing my love of gardening and producing my own food.

When our marriage dissolved, I ended up going down to New Mexico and spent 20 years down there before coming to Baker. I loved it there. I have three what I call ‘homes of my heart’ – Here, New Mexico and where I grew up, Beaumont, Texas. I decided to come back here for a pottery workshop with Mary Sue Rightmire. Because I had lived in Medical Springs and done most of my shopping in Union and La Grande, I didn’t know a lot of people in Baker. But I fell in love with this beautiful place. It was just a time where I wanted to have a garden and chickens again. I had no idea that I was primed to just fall in love again with the high desert here. I was here for the week of the workshop, but spent a whole day with a realtor just looking around. When I went home everybody in Santa Fe thought I had lost my mind. I sold my house, found a house here, and moved in the following April. I had no job, but I wasn’t worried about it. You know, I just knew that this was what I needed.

Later I realized that I had needed a place where I wasn’t lost in the shuffle, where people could know me and know my worth as a person. I could volunteer and I could help and I could help make a difference. That was an important feature of Baker. Within the first few weeks here someone came up to me and thanked me for moving here. Wow, that had never happened before. I felt like a tree that was transplanted and I just took root right away. I got involved with the community and volunteered, then became a part-time director at Crossroads. My next project was to find a place where I could have a good garden. When I found this house and started to dig in, I realized that my real bent was to find my sanctuary and my sense of place, and that I had lost it in New Mexico, even though New Mexico is a home to me.

Once I found this place I thought, ‘This is what I’d been looking for for a long time, I’ve found home.’ I can grow my own food. I can be a steward of the soil and just that feeling of – if I don’t do anything else, I’ve taken care of my place. I’ve been a good husband of the land. That changed my life a lot in terms of giving me a sense of place. I felt like I was kind of adrift a little bit. I was in my early 50s so it was probably not a coincidence that my sense of adventure and bold action was also parallel with my son growing up and being on his own. I realize now, that it was also a coming back to my own roots of who I am and who I was, even as a child.

I grew up in East Texas in the area between Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. It’s a very unusual spot. It’s kind of the antithesis really of the high desert out here; it’s very wet and rains all the time. It was a terrific place to grow up. But my sister and I were just not cut out to be these debutante ladies and, in fact, everybody in my family hit the road except my oldest brother. He stayed when everybody else moved. The great part of growing up there was the freedom and space of the acreage we lived on. My parents encouraged us to be bold and adventurous and find our way in the world. Parenting was different then and it was okay to be gone all day, just hanging out with friends. I can’t imagine parents today saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t come home until five o’clock. I don’t want to see you.’

Even as a kid I was interested in gardening. We had a couple of acres so the garden nursery was a regular thing and our parents would take us on Sunday afternoons. We could choose a pony pack of something and I almost always got vegetables. I would try growing vegetables even though I wasn’t necessarily successful. I think we all grow up, evolve, and become different people, but in many respects we remain the same person, just a real fantastic version of what we thought we would be. I know I decided when I was little that gardening was what I really wanted to do. My parents let us claim sections of the couple of acres that we lived on, to ‘homestead’, to have forts and a tree or two with boards so you could climb it. On my spot I created a little town with sticks and had stones delineating what part was mine and what part was my town. I would get a basket and skip along my little path to my personal town and pretend that I was getting groceries. I would put pine cones and stuff in my basket. So, fast forward to the 2000s, and one time I was taking my basket out to my backyard vegetable garden, and I had this flashback to that childhood memory. I thought, ‘Here I am. I’ve done a circle.’ Having that plot of land was key. As kids we were really just operating as banshees in a way, just off being wild. But I had my own land, my own spot.

My parents gave us a lot of encouragement. I think as parents sometimes you double down with your kids to give them what you didn’t get. And my mother grew up in a pretty stiff, regimented, and rigid household. So, she designated a place in our house that was our studio where we could all make art to our hearts content. That also played a big part in forming my take on the world. It gave me the desire and confidence to create art without being judgmental or caring too much if it was embraced by other people. I really felt I had something to say with an artistic voice that hadn’t been described to me necessarily, but I just sort of came by. I have a brother and sister who also make art and we all talk about this desire to make things with your hands and create things, to create something from nothing. And that’s a gift. I think most kids are born with that, you know, that sense of being able to make something, but for a lot of children that gets edited out. I feel very lucky that I never heard that I couldn’t do it. So I just do it. I don’t promote myself as a fantastic artist at all, but I do love to make art and to me that is the point. Because it’s really fun to create.

To end up having a place with room for a garden, an art studio and a place that is a sanctuary where I can do whatever I want was clearly my intent from the get-go. From the moment I was born.”

The art of Ann’s garden!