Oral History Project
“. . . the sawmills were among the major employers in the area. During those years, Shirley worked at the Lane County Bank – the only bank in town. With all the mills on the same payroll schedule, she recalls each payday the line to enter the bank stretched all the way down the street.”
The Oral History Project interviews descendants of Oregon pioneers to discover stories passed down to them of days gone by. Shirley (Bonney) Merz has a family history whose migration to Oregon was done primarily by covered wagon. Depending on weather, the 2,000-mile journey entailed five months of travel, 10 to 15 miles per day.
Perry R. Edmiston of Virginia was Shirley’s great grandfather. He enlisted in the Confederate army during the civil war. Along with others from Smyth County, he was assigned to Company D of the 48th Infantry. They became known as the Smyth Rifle Greys or the Lee County Guards. At 23 years old, Perry was discharged. Perhaps feeling adventurous, he was the first in the family to seek Oregon homestead. He eventually obtained property in Thurston, before returning to Virginia, where he married Sarah Jennie Dutton. Their plan was to one day settle on the Thurston property. During their journey to Oregon, near Idaho, Sarah gave birth to John D. Edmiston. John D. later became Shirley’s maternal grandfather. In Thurston they established a farm, raised grain, vegetables, eggs ($.19 /dozen) and fruit to sell in Eugene. The Thurston property remains in the family to this day.
Shirley’s father, Ralph Battee Bonney, was born in Eugene in 1907 to Henry Curtis Bonney and Blanch Battee Wise of Ohio. Census records show Henry worked as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Shirley recalls hearing the Battee family were originally from France. She was told her great grandfather had been a furniture maker in Eugene. To her knowledge, the Bonney’s came from California as well as the mid-west.
Shirley’s mother Maude Edmiston, was a school teacher for 6 years prior to marrying Ralph Bonney. In 1931, she gave birth to Shirley., but became ill shortly after. Shirley was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Thurston. John Dutton and Rena (Calvert) Edmiston raised Shirley on their filbert hazelnut farm. Hazelnuts (sometimes referred to as filberts) were and continue to be an important crop for Oregon, becoming the official state nut in 1989. Today, Oregon’s filbert hazelnut orchards produce 99 percent of the country’s commercial hazelnut harvest.
While Shirley lived in Thurston, her father Ralph worked in Alaska delivering mail by dog sled for the postal service in the 1930’s. His route included areas south of Mt. McKinley to the Yukon River. Mail carriers at the time traversed steep, snow-covered summits with dangerous terrain and windy conditions. Their routes were on trails, between mail cabins and destinations often far and few between. Depending on conditions, a carrier’s daily route with his dog sled could range from 20 to 30 miles a day.
Ralph later became a logger and miner until 1944 when he enlisted in the Army during World War II. He served in the Aleutians, Pacific, European and African regions. Following his discharge, he lived in Florence and on the McKenzie River. He married Shirley’s stepmother, Vonda (Bonnie) Kirby in 1947.
With the exception of a year of schooling in Florence, Shirley attended schools in Springfield. She recalls having good teachers at Thurston Elementary, where she enjoyed performing in various theatrical programs. She embraced farm life, and at 14, as a 4-H member, won a blue ribbon for raising her hog. She graduated from Springfield High School in 1950 before moving to Florence.
Florence sawmills were among the major employers in the area. During those years, Shirley worked at the Lane County Bank – the only bank in town. With all mills on the same payroll schedule, every payday the bank’s entrance line stretched far down the street. She also worked at the courthouse and for the City’s Police Department, performing duties similar to today’s 911 operators.
I listened as Shirley fondly recalled meeting Bob Merz in 1950. She said he didn’t present a favorable first impression, but in time they became friends and were married a year later. They started their family in 1952 which grew to 5 children, all of whom were raised in Florence and attended Siuslaw schools. Together with Bob, they operated the Merz Logging and Construction Company for 40 years. Besides logging, it became a successful road building, and property development business. Projects included Little Woahink, Siltcoos Lake Dam, and the Sea Lion Caves parking area. They also worked on the Enchanted Valley roads, homesites, and many miles of roads around Western Lane County. Bob was an equipment operator for Champion International and Jensen Drilling before retiring in 1987. With his logging experience he served on the Lane County Planning Commission and the Siuslaw School Board for 9 years. Both Bob and Shirley were active in the Community Theatre, when performances were first staged above the Kyle Building. Performances then moved to the former VFW Hall, until a building was constructed on Airport Road.
Shirley admits to always having a keen interest in politics. For years she was active in various campaigns, and contributed to developing the party’s platform. She was involved in civic planning including the committee to zone the area south of the Siuslaw Bridge to Honeyman Park. She served as a Dunes City Council member for 6 years, and Mayor for 2 years. For 10 years she volunteered with Florence Food Share, serving as a Board member, then President for 1 year. Shirley was also a member of the Western Lane Community Foundation for 3 years. Her mother-in-law had been among several of its founding donors. She also worked for a short time at the Shorewood Senior Living complex and ushered in its first two residents.
One can describe Shirley Merz as a visionary – she saw and understood the importance, significance, and value of community participation. Her contribution to the history of Florence is evidence of her efforts to make a difference. Her many achievements are nothing short of inspirational. Whether attributed to her pioneer roots or her forward thinking, Shirley Merz has helped build the town we love and call home. It was a privilege to uncover a bit of her history.