Who Was Hugh?

Take yourself downstairs, beneath the Old St. Francis hotel, to our brewery there, currently headed up by Mike “Curly” White.

Old St. Francis Stairway to BreweryLooking closely at this photo to the right, you can just make out a man’s face, peering through the window at left from the side of a fermentation tank. Who is that guy? It’s Hugh O’Kane (1854–1930), namesake of our O’Kanes Pub.

Yes, but who was he? His story is remarkable, and includes references to boxing in South Africa, imprisonment in Cuba, wrestling in Arabia, owning a Kentucky Derby-winning horse, the KKK and more….

Born in 1854, at Bushmills, County Antrim, Ireland, Hugh O’Kane grew up virtually around the corner from the Bushmills Distillery. From a young age, he yearned for adventure, leading him on a succession of globe-trekking episodes that generated a cache of tales he recounted the rest of his days with great humor and an ever-expanding number of details.

Easy to listen to, but perhaps not always to be believed, his stories told of a 12-year-old lad who left home as a stowaway to New York. He became a boxer in Cape Town, later engaging in the smuggling arms and munitions into Cuba for the rebels, who were endeavoring to overthrow Spanish rule. Captured, he was imprisoned in the Morro Castle for nine months.

Then, in the 1870s, when the Western U.S. was being won, O’Kane said he struck up a friendship with Doc Holladay in Tombstone, witnessed Calamity Jane eliminate a bad man, and passed through Montana when Custer was making his last stand. He knew Sitting Bull and other chiefs of that time personally. During this time, too, he amassed a fortune of $50,000 in Leadville and then lost it in three days at Denver’s gambling tables.

On later trips abroad, he reveled in the sunsets at Constantinople, wrestled with Arabs in the bazaar for the price of food, and operated a donkey train to the pyramids in Egypt. A true horse lover, he was part owner of the champion named Spokane that won the 1889 Kentucky Derby by a nose.

Hugh O'Kane Beer TankPersonable, funny and self-deprecating, O’Kane, was also a sharp businessman, a pioneering merchant, civic leader and aldermen. O’Kane’s initial venture in Bend was The Office saloon, which he opened in 1904, prior to the city’s official establishment. It stood at the corner of Bond and Oregon streets for only about a year before it burned. O’Kane quickly had the site cleared and built a hotel and bar in its place. It, too, burned. Finally in 1916, the Irishman erected the O’Kane Building, the largest and finest business building in town at the time. It still stands today, at same intersection he had first developed in 1904.

“O’Kane,” one longtime Bend resident recalled, “was a businessman if there ever was one. He ran his saloon 24 hours a day, having three shifts of barkeepers and lookout men. He had noticed that when sheepherders or cowboys came to town they spent some of their money in restaurants, lodging houses and stores, so he added a line of bunks and a restaurant to his saloon so that when a man come in with his year’s pay he could eat, sleep, drink and spend his money in the various gambling games and never have to leave the establishment ‘til he was broke….”

O’Kane was one of the most recognized and respected people in the region. Along with Maurice Cashman and Fr. Luke Sheehan (namesake of our Fr. Luke’s Foundation Room), O’Kane spearheaded successful efforts to establish St. Charles Hospital (Bend’s first) in 1917, and three years later, construction of a new, beautiful St. Francis Church.

A parochial school, the one component still missing from the St. Francis Parish, had  met with a disturbing obstacle: The re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the KKK made frightening advances around the country, fueled by xenophobia and Red Scare accusations that plagued the US in the wake of the Russian Revolution and World War I. Whereas African Americans had previously been the chief focus of the KKK’s wrath, in the 1920s, all persons not white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were at risk. In Oregon, the Klan’s main thrust was the suppression of Catholic influence and elimination of parochial schools.

A local “klavern” focused its violence and persecution on the St. Francis parishioners. The Klan burned crosses on top of Pilot Butte, marched in robes around the church, and committed acts of vandalism and desecration at the church and hospital.

In hopes of bringing an end to this reign of terror and destruction, Fr. Luke agreed to attend a Klan meeting at the Liberty Theater in Bend. Acting as security for their beloved priest, parish leaders such as Cashman and O’Kane, as well as a few strapping Irish sheepherders, took front-row seats. The KKK allowed Fr. Luke eight minutes to talk from the stage. In that short time, Fr. Luke brought about a tenuous calm, which led to the start of a period of healing. In the weeks and months following this unlikely gathering, persecution of Bend’s Catholics diminished dramatically and the KKK’s presence dissipated.

With the shackles of the KKK cast aside, the remaining hurdle impacting the St. Francis School’s development was money. With a parting gift, Hugh O’Kane greatly aided the cause by leaving a substantial sum to the parish upon his passing in 1930. Maurice Cashman and Fr. Luke continued the effort, which became even more difficult with the onslaught of the Great Depression.

O'Kanes PubThe dream was finally realized in 1936. The school opened its doors in the fall of that year, and after 64 years of commission, relocated to a newer building in 2000. The original property was sold to McMenamins and, in late 2004, became our Old St. Francis School hotel, a site we think Hugh O’Kane would have appreciated and enjoyed (especially the brewery).

The next time you visit the hotel grounds in Central Oregon, head to O’Kanes Pub to hoist a pint of McMenamins ale, made onsite in the brewery now overseen (at least metaphorically, in artistic representation) by the inimitable Hugh O’Kane.

1 Comment

  1. Cara on January 14, 2024 at 12:59 pm

    Love this story and love Hugh O’Kanes whisky bar

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