Wheeler County was formed by the legislature from parts of Grant, Gilliam and Crook Counties February 17, 1899 and was named after Henry H. Wheeler. The new county consisted of 1713 square miles with an estimated 46 townships, a population of 2,500 and taxable property of one million dollars. Wheeler County is as rugged and uneven as any Oregon county. The terrain varies widely from sagebrush, juniper and rimrock to stands of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir. Two national forests lie within county boundaries with a large expanse of BLM all totaling in excess of 300,000 publicly owned acres, nearly a third of the total land mass.
The area is probably best known as one of the most outstanding deposits of prehistoric fossils on the North American continent. Also, the John Day River bisects the county north and south and is fast becoming a destination for white water rafters and Bass and Steelhead fishermen. The river boasts of providing the state record Small Mouth Bass. The three towns: Fossil, the county seat, Pop. 500+/-; Spray, Pop. 160+/-; Mitchell, Pop. 150+/- are fairly evenly spaced apart at 30 to 50 miles and are each uniquely located geographically to the county. Fossil is the gateway to the county from the north. Spray sits at the 'east gate' and is the jumping off spot to the John Day River and Umatilla National Forest. Mitchell provides a strategic base to the Ochoco National Forest via Highway 26, including Painted Hills National Monument.
Outside of the county's historic cattle industry, the only existing industry in the county pulled out in the late 70's thus cutting the county's population in half to around 1,500+/-. However, population is on the rise slightly. The quiet solitude and respect of privacy in the area has been the major draw while at the same time being within a two hour drive of Bend and Interstate 84 has increased demand for rural properties.
Like Gilliam County to the north, we have seen some employment opportunities made available by the development of Columbia Ridge, seven miles south of Arlington. We have nearly a dozen individuals employed there. Government and schools provide the bulk of employment for the remainder of the working population.
Map of Wheeler County
Fossil was founded in 1876 by Thomas B. Hoover, an early settler who operated the first post office. The town's name was chosen by Hoover due to the abundance of fossils found in the area. The community was an early center of commerce and today boasts a 100-year-old mercantile and several other historic buildings. Fossil is the Wheeler County seat and the community offers public fossil digging beds behind the high school right in town.
Fossil is home to the historic Wheeler County Courthouse, the Fossil Museum with its pioneer and rock artifacts, the one room Pine Creek Schoolhouse Museum, the county fairgrounds, two city parks and several downtown businesses. For more information visit www.cityoffossil.org.
Mitchell was established in the 1860's as a stage shop along the Dalles Military Road, a former Oregon Senator. With a current population of approximately 175 it is the gateway to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument which is comprised of the Sheep Rock Unit in Dayville, Oregon (about 35 miles east of Mitchell), the Painted Hills Unit (located 9 miles northwest o Mitchell) and the Clarno Unit about 8 miles west of Fossil, Oregon (Fossil is about 40 miles northwest of Mitchell). The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is one of North America's most significant paleontological research areas. Mitchell is flanked by three new wilderness areas.
The Ochoco Divide of the Ochoco Mountains is located 16 miles west of Mitchell, in the Ochoco National Forest. The Ochoco Mountains have towering evergreen forests and various snow parks offering great opportunities for cross-country skiing, sledding and snowmobiling. In early summer this region is great for morel mushroom hunting and hiking. For more information visit www.mitchelloregon.us.
Spray is one of those out of the way, "don't blink, you'll miss it" kind of places. Spray is actually a beautiful little hamlet within earshot of the famed John Day River. One of the main features is the popular public boat launch in the middle of town and the Spray Pioneer Museum is also worth a stop for those into local history and points of interest. Spray is equidistant from all three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. When in Spray, you'll see a post office, a motel, two stores and other small business. There is a K-12 school with less than 100 students, a preschool and a dormitory (boarding house) that usually houses up to 6 exchange students.
Due to the relatively low elevation the area receives about 13.88 inches of rainfall per year and can be quite mild in the winter when higher terrain is buried under snow and colder temperatures. If you're looking for Spray on the map, it is in south central Wheeler County along Highway 19/207 which divides the town north to south.
A lazy stretch of the mighty John Day River flows through Service Creek which is well known for the Stagecoach house for which it is famous. It was used in the 1920's as a boarding house, and is situated on a view-packed parcel of land across Service Creek from the old livery barn. Today it has six rooms, four baths, and a lodge area catering to individuals, families, and groups. The down-home hospitality continues at the store, restaurant, and raft rental businesses adjacent to the original Service Creek post office.
Hungry for steak? Relax and dine at the restaurant for a mouth-watering hand cut New York steak, burgers, locally grown produce and homemade soups and desserts. This is also where you can pit your luck on the wilder stretches of the John Day in a whitewater raft. The rental shop is located conveniently next to the store and the shuttle will transport your vehicle from your put in spot to your take out destination. Guided fishing, rafting, and eco-tour trips are also available.
Highways 19/207 is part of the route known as The Journey Through Time Scenic Byway offering many places to pull over for camera buffs and wildlife watchers. Perhaps the most popular destinations are all three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument along the route.