It all happened quite by accident. In the spring of 1804 there was a quite a party in St. Louis to celebrate the formal transfer of the Louisiana Territory from France to United States. Among the local revelers was a drifter by the name of Jedidiah Durning. Durning had been wandering about the frontier town and joined the party. He couldn’t have known what an adventure was in store when he spilled beer on John Ordway, a young soldier from New Hampshire, who was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. (It’s a little known fact that the Lewis and Clark expedition started out as the Lewis, Clark, Williams, and Derry expedition. A fight between Lewis and Clark, and Williams and Derry caused Williams-Derry to break off on their own. The Williams-Derry expedition took a different route and were never heard from again.)
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After a few drunken punches Durning and Ordway couldn’t help but start laughing, and a friendship was born. Ordway and Durning had a few more, and soon Durning was part of the expedition.
Hung over, bruised but brimming with excitement the expedition set out the next day for points west. Durning played a minor role, carrying kayaks, running from bears, and generally adding to what Lewis called “a faire funny atmosfere with his anticks.” Durning ruffled some feathers when he actively campaigned against Clark’s advice to set up camp on the south side of the Columbia River. On November 24, 1805 the group (except for Durning) voted to settle on the south side, calling their camp Fort Clatsop. Durning had suggested the name Camp Durning, which was also voted down.
In spite of his being on the wrong side of the vote, Durning’s greatest days lay ahead, but only by chance. After running out of tobacco and whiskey and enduring weeks of endless rain, the expedition decided to head back to civilization. Nobody in the party was more ready to “quit this mossy, mustey, and forlorn land” than Durning. But after a night of partying, in which the last of the whiskey was drained, Durning fell into a deep sleep. He awoke almost a day later to find himself alone. He slapped his head. The expedition had returned home without him.
While some men might have ached with despair and tried to catch up, Durning found that he felt oddly happy, almost giddy. He started working with the natives, building up Fort Clatsop and settling into a new life. The rest is history.
In 1810 Durning took the principles of blacksmithing (in which he trained in his early years) and applied them to thinking. When, on April 1st of that year he fashioned a sign out of bark with the words “Jedidiah Durning, Ye Olde Thought Smithe,” Durning had created the world’s first think tank. As the years unfolded Durning’s experiment caught on, and he and his son, Zeddidiah Durning, would produce some of the regions finest thinking on sustainability. Some of their work might seem quaint today, but at the time, it was truly revolutionary.
Take for example Durning’s work on horses which he created after several of his horses had “left the barn” (a turn of speech invented by Durning). His pamphlet, “Horse Shift,” revolutionized equine storage in the Northwest. No more would locals keep their “barn door open” when threshing hops. Other work followed. Durning measured what mattered for Northwest residents, when he created the first index quantifying the impact of animals on early urban life in his book “Cow in the City.”
Today Durning’s great-great-great grandson Alan has built on Jedidiah’s legacy, guiding Sightline into its third century.