From An Illustrated History of Umatilla County by Colonel William Parsons and of Morrow County by W. S. Schiach, 1902.
The history of Lexington is the history of a very interesting experiment in town building. Its inception was practically concomitant with the erection of Morrow County, and the animating purpose of its founder was to build a town which should contest with Heppner for the honor of being the seat of government of the new political division. The land upon which the town was built was the homestead of William Penland, the sheep king of the county, and a man of great resourcefulness and energy, backed by vast wealth. Although the place was but little over a year old when the contest came to its focus of settlement, so rapid had been its growth that it was a most formidable rival of the pioneer town. The prize was won by Heppner by only a narrow majority, so narrow indeed that it was and still is a matter of doubt in many minds as to whether Lexington was legitimately beaten or not. But as this matter has been fully treated elsewhere, further discussion is unnecessary here.
The initial building of the place was, as it so often is in agricultural towns, a blacksmith shop, and to Jack McRay belongs the distinction of having first wrought at the anvil in Lexington. He was succeeded as village smith by William Estes, now a resident of Heppner. The first general merchandise store was opened by Homer McFarland for E. B. McFarland, his uncle, but before its establishment, a hardware and tin shop had been started by Oscar Tibbett, who later sold to T.W. Halley, the building erected for its accommodation being the second in the town. It stood on the site of the present Hotel Barnett. Shortly after the hardware came the eating-house of Mrs. Rusk, opened in a building that belonged to William Penland, but which was sold by him to Mrs. Summers, who for many years has been its proprietress. About this time, also, a saloon was started by William Plinn.
The first residence, except temporary log structures, was built by the Barnett Brothers. The pioneer church of the town was Congregational in name, and though Rev. E. R. Beach was one of the prime movers in raising funds for the erection of this building, the great credit is also due to the people of the town and to the Congregational church Building Society, for its existence at the early date. From them the means were secured. The town was also blessed early in its history with an important manufacturing establishment, the grist mill of Rice & Davis. As nearly as can be ascertained there were in the town in the fall of 1886 the hardware store and tin shop of T. W. Halley; the general stores of McFarland & Company and Davis & Workman; the groceries of William Blair and W. B. McAllister; the implement store of N. A. Thompson; the drug store of W. W. Harris, postmaster, with E. Finton's jewelry store in connection; a meat market, run by Cooley & Hodson; the millinery store of Mrs. T. W. Halley; Dave Letsinger, Jack McRay and William Estes, blacksmiths; the saloon of Henry Keat; the livery stable of Reaney & Son; a feed yard belonging to"Tex" Croft; the furniture store of E.T. Carr; the Palace restaurant; the Allen & Tibbett hotels; Joe Gibson's barber shop, and a newspaper, the Bunchgrass Blade. There were also two halls, the Armory, in which school was maintained, and a large hall over McFarland's store. Almost unbounded prosperity prevailed at this time and money was abundant, but clouds of misfortune were gathering thick around the prosperous little city.
That same fall came the fire demon in his all destroying wrath and before anything could be done to effectually stay his ravages, the three principal business blocks were in ashes. Defeated in it principal object- to become the county seat- and now almost completely destroyed by fire, the town was hardly equal to the task of recovering from the severe shock. Little insurance had been carried by the businessmen in the burnt district so that it was impossible, or thought unwise in many instances, to attempt to rebuild. Joseph Cannon and James Bradley were convicted of having set the town on fire and sentenced to five years each in the state penitentiary, but what their object may have been in the commission of this terrible crime is a matter upon which there seems to be little agreement. The writer has been told by some that the burning of the town was probably a result of feeling engendered by the bitter political contest of the previous spring, but others that personal jealousy was the cause, while still others have intimated their belief that the fire was the outcome of an accident.
But the town showed considerable recuperative vitality, and with the advent of the railroad in the fall of 1888 improved somewhat. Before it had time to fully recover itself, however, there came an era of short crops, followed by the financial panic of 1893 and the distress ensuing thereupon. The result I that the town has not even to this day fully recovered itself and regained the financial footing and business development it had when little over a year old. Its business establishments at presser are Nichols & Veach's general merchandise store, Mrs. Summers' hotel, John White's blacksmith shop, David Porter's confectionery, the fifty-barrel flour mill of Joseph Burgoyne, Mrs. Penland's warehouse, operated and managed by William McMillan, the Barnett Hotel, J.M. White's livery stable and the postoffice of Mrs. J. McAllister. The old Congregational church still stands, and last year the Methodist Episcopal church, South, put up a fine temple of worship and parsonage. An excellent school building crowns a convenient and not too precipitous hill in the town, and in it three teachers labor during the greater part of each year. Though the school is already inferior to none in Morrow county, it is the intention to improve it still further next year by the addition of a tenth grade. The United Artisans have a flourishing lodge in Lexington. The town is tributary to some very good farming land in Clark's canyon, Spring valley, Social Ridge and other places, in fact most of the land in the vicinity and for miles in every direction is of more or less value for stock raising and agriculture purposes. It is said, too, that by expending a few hundreds of doll
The town is tributary to some very good farming land in Clark's canyon, Spring valley, Social Ridge and other places, in fact most of the land in the vicinity and for miles in every direction is of more or less value for stock raining and agriculture purposes. It is said, too, that by expending a few hundreds of dollars in the construction an improvement of roads, not a little of the trade which is not building up Ione might be directed toward Lexington. It is quite possible that an effort with that for its object may be made in the future.
A word about the site of the town is now in order. It is built on a large, level tract in the Willow Creek basin, and though here, as elsewhere in Morrow County an eastern Oregon generally, hill lands are in evidence, there is plenty of room for growth in all directions without excavating residence sites on the steep hill sides. One great convenience is that within easy reach of the town is the finest grove in the county, so that naturally Lexington is a favorite place for Fourth of July celebrations, and all gatherings of the kind are uniformly successful and well attended.