When you listen to old-timers tales of former noted Silvertonians, a frequent subject of conversation is James "Jim" Buff. He was born in Missouri on June 27, 1843, and crossed the plains to Oregon with his parents in 1852. They settled in the Waldo Hills area and then Jim lived in this community until his death in 1910. He put himself through college at Willamette University by working for farmers in the Silverton area, and then taught school for over 45 years after his graduation July 23, 1868.
In 1870, he was teaching at Bethany School, but in 1887, he was at Central Howell. Stories tell of him teaching at Glad Tidings near Molalla, at Tillamook, and near Portland. He kept his home in the Silverton area and regardless of where his school was, he walked to and from his home sometimes daily. He was considered an excellent teacher. When asked about his success as a teacher he said, "On the first day of school I gathered the students together and told them what I expected of them. If the boys were tough, I told them I could out run everyone of them, wrestle anyone to the ground, and whip any who disobeyed me." (Silverton Appeal Newspaper, Wednesday, April 26, 1989, pg.SA)
In a section called "Central Howell History" in a booklet named Stories By Oregon Pioneers (collected and told by Marion County School Children, c. 1944, pg. 18), they tell of some of his unique ways, "Jim Buff, one of the earliest teachers of Central Howell, was a character long to be remembered because of his unusual eccentricities.
He taught here about 1887. In those days it was usual for boys of 21 years of age to attend school. George and Joe Cavanaugh-boasted of their prowess so Buff agreed to fight the two of them provided he could choose the place. The top of a stile was the place chosen and he was able to topple them both to the ground when the word to start was given, which stopped the fight and the Cavanaugh's bragging.
One morning when Mr. Buff came to school, the boys had him locked out with the result that there was no school that day. Buff was the first on hand the next morning and when school was called to order, he reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a six-shooter, laid it on the desk with the statement that he expected to have law and order.
Mr. Buff was famed for his feats of walking. He lived in Silverton and taught at Tillamook Valley and walked home and back weekends. He started home after school Friday afternoons not stopping on the way and often trotting hours at a time. He offered to bet that he could reach Tillamook ahead of a man with a livery team and buggy.
It was nothing unusual for Buff to walk to Portland. Once when making the trip in the rain, his buckskin trousers began to stretch and he took out his knife and cut off a strip several times. On reaching Portland and standing around a fire, the pants began to shrink and kept shrinking until they were above his knees.
Buff's home was along Silver Creek in Silverton and he usually gathered drift wood for his fires. At one time, he was seen during a rain and when the creek was high, wading nearly to his armpits with a pike pole in one hand and an umbrella in the other, spearing driftwood with the one and protecting his head from the rain with the other.
At Fourth of July celebrations, marching through the streets as drum major, Buff was the zynosure of all eyes. His ridiculous costume sometimes consisted of a lady's hat, cape, hose and high-heeled shoes with knickerbocker pants and a lady's corset over all.
The Silverton Appeal article from April 26 is also quoted as saying, "One native woman remembers her father had him as a teacher at Glad Tidings School district near Molalla. He said Jim Buff walked back and forth each day and could tell just how many steps he had taken to get there. Jim always walked fast without any sign of fatigue.
One day a man saw Jim walking to town from Central Howell and he accompanied him in his horse and buggy. He offered Jim Buff a ride and the Indian got in. They traveled a short distance when Jim Buff said, "Take my boots and I'll walk the rest of the way. And I'll be in Silverton before you."
He handed the driver his leather boots and started across the pastures and wooded area. When the buggy got to Silverton, there stood Jim Buff waiting. He took his boots, slung them over his shoulder, and walked rapidly over the country back to his school. (Silverton Appeal, Apr. 26. 1989).
On June 27, 1875, Jim married Emma Pendleton and they lived in the Waldo Hills. Later they had a home along the creek in Silverton. They had four children: Myrtle (Opdike), Pearl (Speer), Otto, and June (McFadden.)
On January 31, 1909. he was stricken with paralysis. For several weeks, he lay in a perfectly helpless condition, unable to speak. He finally regained sufficient control of himself to be about the house, but he had lost complete control of his mind. In April, 1909, he was committed to the insane asylum. Shortly after his arrival at this institution he suffered a second stroke, from which he never recovered, and for several months prior to his death he was confined to the bed. He died August 30. 1910, and is buried in the Silverton Cemetery.
From the Strand Magazine, London, England. 1904: One of the curious characters of the Pacific Coast of the United States is James K. Buff. For the past twenty years he has been a teacher in the schools of Silverton, Oregon. He disapproves strongly of the prevailing fashions in men's and women's dress, and, to caricature them, wears a most extraordinary costume.
On his head he has a cap made of various materials used by milliners, an adorned with a buckle, a little silk American flag, etc. Wrong side foremost and laced up the front, over a white shirt, is worn a pink satin corset. A cloak of chiffon, fantastically bordered, hangs from his shoulders.
He wears baggy pantaloons of brilliant colour, fastened at the knee; also stockings of the gayest colours and most striking design, held in place by ornamental garters. He does not confine his remarkable costume to the quiet streets of his own town, for he has visited the Oregon State Fair at Salem.
The rain caused the colour of his bright-blue nether garments to run, and the chiffon cloak suffered considerably. He went barefooted and barelegged while it rained, but when it became fair again he put on bright plaid stockings, shoes, and another pair of brilliant pantaloons.
He is an excellent pedestrian, walking in bare feet and putting his shoes on when he reaches his destination. Though he is by no means insensible to the ridicule that his strange dress excites, he perseveres in his purpose of showing the absurdities of modern costume by caricature.