The Mother of Oregon–Tabitha Moffett Brown
By Naomi Inman
A couple weeks ago “my three boys” and I (hubby and two sons) enjoyed the Concourse d’ Elegance car show at Pacific University. As we enjoyed the beautiful campus and automotive history, I remembered the very inauspicious beginnings of the gem of Forest Grove. And it all started with a very little, very poor, very old lady named Tabitha Moffett Brown.
Way back in the days of Madagascar 2 the funniest character to me was the old lady, Nana, who runs across the zany beasts on her African Safari tour and proclaims, “I’m not gonna stay out in the open and get attacked by more animals. I’m too old to die!” And off she goes to build a camp for her stranded party.
“Too old to die.” You have to love that! That little clip rolled through my mind when I delighted in the life of Tabitha Moffat Brown–the “Mother of Oregon.”
After all, I often take in a few orphans of my own…two, three, or four teenage boys for a night…and feed them pizza! If you are ever tempted to believe you are “too old” to live out your dreams, then meet the incredible Mrs. Brown—who wore the most perfect shade of lipstick with her lace bonnet. She was too old to let her dream die because she knew others depended on it.
She was 66, and a tiny wisp of a widow, when Tabitha braved the Oregon Trail and 2,000 miles, from April through December, from Missouri to Oregon. On that trail she took in many an orphans weary glance and set her heart on opening an orphanage in Oregon. I think she walked every remaining mile with those faces in her memory. Tabitha arrived in Salem on Christmas Day, having lost everything she owned on the trip except a six-cent picayune discovered in her glove. Which six-cents she spent on three sewing needles, with which she made rugged leather gloves, which she sold to loggers and farmhands, which eventually earned her thirty dollars.
Those thirty dollars she turned into a vision for an orphanage in Forest Grove and supervised thirty boarders, doing all her own work (except laundry) which included mixing 3,500 pounds of flour into bread. She probably did all of this without prescription drugs.
Wouldn’t you know that by age 71, she had 40 children enrolled at Tualatin Academy—which excelled so much that the legislature declared it Pacific University just 3 years later, in 1854. She even saved money to buy cattle and property and left the university an endowment before her death at age 78. In her little white bonnet trimmed with pillow lace, Tabitha Moffet Brown did more in twelve elderly years than I can believe. She blew a kiss to Oregon men and women and left her indelible imprint on, what I like to call, the Lipstick Revolution—extraordinary women for extraordinary times.