Local Herstory

A Roseburg optometrist’s family ties reach all the way back to pioneer days.

Story by Jim Hays, Photos by Robin Loznak

 

Bonnie Gauer wasn’t born in Roseburg, but that’s about the only thing about her that doesn’t have a deep connection with the Umpqua Valley and Douglas County.

How deep? All the way back to the days when Oregon was a brand-new state and the modern boundaries of Douglas County had just been settled. When kids attended school in log cabins and city namesake Aaron Rose’s hotel was the social center of town.

Gauer is a descendant of George Jewell Callahan, one of the county’s pioneer ranchers. The Callahan Ranch near Melrose is home to Gauer and her husband, Larry, and their daughter, Gilli.

Gauer herself was born in Coos Bay, but attended primary, middle and high school in Roseburg, is an alumna of the University of Oregon, was a teacher and coach for 10 years at Joseph Lane Middle School and today is an optometrist and owner of Umpqua Optical Labs, near Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg. Larry Gauer, a master mechanic, is the longtime head of fleet maintenance for Douglas County Fire District 2. Gilli, 20, is a sophomore at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

The Gauers’ spread is a “century” ranch, part of an Oregon Farm Bureau program to honor farms and ranches in the state that have been worked by members of one family for at least 100 years. The designation has been extended to nearly 1,200 properties in the state. The Gauers have horses, run about 100 head of cattle on their ranch, sell fresh fruit and vegetables at local farmers’ markets and also have on their property one of the state’s few remaining coal mines.

The Callahan name is a permanent part of the Umpqua Valley. The name has been given to a creek, a road and a mountainous area west of Melrose. All were part of a trail the Callahans used in the 19th century to drive their cattle to Coos Bay.

George Callahan arrived in the Umpqua Valley in 1864 at age 36 from Arkansas to take over a land grant he had acquired in a trade. It was his second trip to the Pacific coast. During the California gold rush, Callahan had been a young college student who joined a group that went west in an unsuccessful effort at prospecting.

On his arrival in Oregon with his wife and children, Callahan was reunited with Thomas Brown, a classmate when both were students at the University of Missouri. Brown was working his land claim near the Umpqua Forks, which later became known as the Curry Ranch. The two families would become intertwined.  

Gauer, born Bonnie Brown, is kin to the Callahans through her great-grandfather, who married Mary Callahan, one of 11 children of George Callahan. Gauer’s grandfather, Clarence Brown, became a dentist in Coos Bay and his son, Clarence Jr. — Gauer’s father, nicknamed “Sonny” — spent much time as a child at the Callahan ranch as therapy for childhood asthma, under the care of Nannie Callahan Dunn, another of George Callahan’s daughters.

 Optometrist Bonnie Gauer with a friend on her family's property.

Optometrist Bonnie Gauer with a friend on her family's property.

Nannie had taken took over the ranch at age 25 after her father’s death in 1897. She married Frank Dunn in 1917. When she died childless in 1952, she left the ranch to Sonny.
“Nan was a lady to admire,” Gauer says. “If there was something she thought she could do for the community, she got involved. And she did everything. She ran the ranch by herself for nearly 20 years. She was a pioneer woman with that kind of spirit.”  

Gauer isn’t without that same can-do spirit.

After graduating from the University of Oregon with an English degree and earning teaching certifications, she returned to her hometown and joined the faculty at JoLane, where she also coached track and volleyball.

When Measure 5, the property tax limitation initiative approved by voters in 1990, cut deeply into school district budgets and left Gauer looking for another way to make a living, she went back to school. This time, it was to Pacific University, where she earned a master’s in optometry, which opened up a new career for her.

Why optometry? 

“I was going to go back to my original plan of premed in college, but it was a question of how much more education I was going to have to do,” she says. 

It was then, in the early 1990s, that she came to be mentored by William Allen, a longtime Roseburg optometrist and husband of Lois Allen, then the city’s mayor.

“I knew Dr. Allen growing up,” Gauer recalls. “A woman at Melrose Church told him I was looking at going back to school. Dr. Allen asked to me to come down and see what he does. He was looking to retire in five or six years and wanted someone to take over his practice.”  

Gauer hadn’t considered optometry as a career, but under Allen’s tutelage, it started to feel like a good fit. Allen started sending Gauer books on optometry and when he died — during Gauer’s first year at Pacific — Allen’s wife gave Gauer his collection on optometry.

She graduated from Pacific in 1993, did residencies at veterans hospitals and military bases and worked for specialists in Seattle and Eugene, all the while earning additional professional certifications and maintaining her home in the Roseburg area.

She became one of five Oregon optometrists to achieve “diplomate” status with the American Board of Optometry, is an adjunct professor at Pacific and served a term as president of the Oregon Optometric Association.

In 2013, she opened her own practice in Roseburg, not only offering eye examinations and prescriptions but also grinding lenses and making glasses and contacts for her own patients and others. Umpqua Optical Labs has six employees in its “little brown building” near Mercy.

“Vision is so important for people,” Gauer says. “When you can help someone see better, or fit them with glasses for the first time, it really opens the whole world to them. It’s life-changing for them — and for me, too.”