- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

ELGIN, Ore. — Sam Horrell’s childhood was spent in a little log shack, cutting firewood with a crosscut saw and poaching wild meat for the dinner table.Now he is master of all he surveys as the unofficial governor of “Sammyville,” an imagined city that is little more than a jumble of beat-up trailers, rusted tin homes and even a house of straw about six miles from the nearest real town, Elgin.

It may not hold a place on modern maps, but the 100-acre property boasts legendary status in the wilds of the Blue Mountains. Don’t go there, some residents warn newcomers. Sammy doesn’t like strangers, and you might never come back.

Though Mr. Horrell’s perpetually strapped-on six-shooter may scare away some visitors, his wide smile more often welcomes them. His money — much of it buried underground in coffee cans — has helped build a church and feed the hungry.

It all has led to a small measure of fame for the once-reclusive 73-year-old. Reporters ignore the warnings and chase him for interviews. He has even inspired a movie.

“I don’t know why some are scared of me. The sheriff department, city police — they all know I always got my gun, and if they need somebody, I’m here to help,” Mr. Horrell said.

That has been Vicki Weaver’s perception as well.

“Sam’s always had this reputation as being kind of ornery or whatnot, but when you know him, he’s a wonderful man and would give you the shirt off his back,” said Mrs. Weaver, Elgin’s city clerk. “I don’t know how that reputation got started.”

Some blame Mr. Horrell’s ancestors.

In a region where blood runs deep, Mr. Horrell’s predecessors in the late 1800s were gunmen and accused rustlers in Texas, accounting for half of the historic Horrell-Higgins feud, which started over cattle thefts. They also lived for a time in New Mexico, where the clan engaged in a bloody battle known as “the Horrell War.”

Many of the brothers died in the fighting. A few of the survivors — including Sam’s grandfather, John Horrell — brought the family’s outlaw spirit to Oregon.

“When Pa was a kid, he wanted to ride with Jesse James’ gang,” Mr. Horrell said, though Jesse James was dead and his brother, Frank James, was pushing 60. “But they wouldn’t let Pa ride with them. Said he was too young.”

His father grew up, got married, and in 1930, Sam was born. He was one of three sons.

The family’s only income came from firewood sold for about $6 a month. The paltry income was enough to buy coffee, sugar, salt. Nearly everything else came from the land. The living might have been easier in town, but that didn’t fit his father’s reclusive nature, Mr. Horrell said.

“He was a loner, and that was the way he wanted it. Weren’t nobody living above us, nobody around,” he said.

As soon as Mr. Horrell was old enough, he took a job with the local lumber mill. He used the money to begin buying property, picking up parcels of land at tax auctions and foreclosures. “I only ever had one debt at a time. Whenever any property come up and I had enough saved up for a payment, I’d buy it,” he said.

His first purchase was 20 acres of land for $21, on what is now the corner of Sammyville. It was where he built the family a new home.

Of the legend surrounding his property, Mr. Horrell said, “That rumor has always been around: If you go out to Sammyville, you don’t come back. Don’t go out to the Horrell place. Not sure how it got started.”

Locals would be wiser to be wary of Mr. Horrell’s shrewd business sense, said Union County Sheriff Stephen Oliver.

“He’s probably got 29 rentals in Elgin alone, not counting the ones in Sammyville,” Sheriff Oliver said. “I know he’s got more money than anyone around there, but I’ve seen him and his wife [Annabelle] driving around to pick up beer cans and bottles for the deposit.”

Much of that money is hidden away in coffee cans, buried under rich mountain soil: Mr. Horrell’s savings accounts. “Have I ever lost one? Well, I tell people if they can find them, I’ll split with them,” he said.

The money isn’t left to rot, however. Sam and Annabelle became charter members of the Elgin Historical Society, underlining their support with a hefty donation. They ran the Elgin Food Bank for years, Sheriff Oliver said.

Mr. Horrell donated the time, labor and money to lay the foundation for the local Seventh-day Adventist Church, where he and Annabelle are members. Mrs. Horrell spends her time volunteering to help senior citizens with their taxes.

Mrs. Horrell has maintained his thrifty-living ways, most often wearing beat-up overalls and a ragged jacket. His cleft palate and eternally loose dentures can make it tough for visitors to understand every word. But Mr. Horrell’s most distinctive feature hangs on his hip — a long-barreled six-shot Ruger pistol.

Shooting practice started young. Mr. Horrell was sitting at the Elgin Opera House watching his first movie when the excitement got the best of him, according to local lore. He pulled out the gun, yelled a warning to John Wayne and shot the image of an actor sneaking up behind the film’s hero.

Today, the entrance to Mr. Horrell’s kingdom is marked with a kelly green sign reading “SAMMYViLLE.”

The Horrells’ house is modest at best. A plywood ceiling tops the living room. The walls are decorated with clippings of newspaper articles that mention Sam or Annabelle. The furniture is worn, and a dog named Rusty releases a low growl whenever a truck drives by.

Rentals in Sammyville top out at $300, said Mrs. Horrell, and that gets a resident a three-bedroom home of sorts.

Residents regularly stop by the Horrells’ house to drop off rent money or to ask permission to throw a mattress on his burn pile. Piles of rusted metal and rows of old cars fill the spaces between homes.

The setting inspired a movie named “Sammyville.” The 1999 low-budget flick never made it to most screens, but Mr. Horrell didn’t mind. He simply enjoyed the attention while it lasted.

After the movie’s limited run, some Grande Ronde Valley residents wandered up to the village for a look. Reporters from papers across the nation began calling. But with the notoriety, the mystique of Sammyville may be fading.

“There isn’t as much interest as there used to be,” the sheriff said. “We’re still out there a lot for domestic-violence calls, and sometimes somebody just wants to go out there to meet Sam, so we’ll take them out and introduce them. But it’s pretty tame these days.”

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