(Long) Ever wonder how (timber) ghost towns happen?
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Wed Aug 8 10:18:05 EST 2001
>From The Oregonian, Aug. 6, 2001, p E1
A Ghost of a timber town
Sometimes, you really can't go home
Residents of Valsetz, a town closed by Boise Cascade in 1984, gather
By SARAH HUNSBERGER, The Oregonian
FALLS CITY - For one weekend a year, the people of one of Oregon's
last company-owned timber towns come as close as they'll ever get to a
Their real homes, down a curvy little gravel road southwest of Salem
in the mill town of Valsetz, were bulldozed and burned back in 1984,
along with the Boise Cascade veneer mill that was the town's lone
Boise Cascade owned everything in town and cleared it out because the
mill wasn't turning a profit. Close to 100 mill workers and their
families moved away.
But in the 17 years since Valsetz was planted over with seedling
firs, the town has not vanished in the minds of its residents. At the
annual town reunion last weekend, about 150 former residents pieced
together a temporary community among the fir trees of a park in Falls
City, the town nearest to where Valsetz once stood.
They brought fragments of the town they once shared: Someone dug up
the sports trophies from the old high school and lined them up on a
folding table. Some of the shiny plastic basketball players had
snapped off at the ankles, leaving nothing but feet atop the engraved
panels spelling out tournament wins.
Someone else sold memorabilia left from the old Valsetz Store: ink
pens, plastic windshield ice scrapers and travel mugs with spill-proof
lids, all etched with ^"Valsetz" on the side.
Women sat in plastic chairs and looked at black-and-white photographs
of themselves as little girls, posing in flowered dresses on one of
the old wooden-plank streets.
Diane Weatherspoon showed off three copper-colored tokens that
workers once used in place of cash in the company store. The name of
the former mill owner, Cobbs & Mitchell, was written on the back
instead of the United States of America.
The men at the reunion didn't look much like loggers and mill workers
any more. They came clean-shaven in khaki pants, white sneakers, stiff
baseball caps and sweet after-shave. Some sipped from cold cans of
light beer or Valsetz coffee mugs.
Some mill workers had gone on to do the same type of work for less
pay at non-union mills in Oregon or other parts of the Northwest. Many
retired when the town shut down. Other men quite the timber industry
and moved to the coast to buy salmon-fishing boats or crab boats. The
women went to work in nursing homes, state agencies and offices.
Chuck Palmer had come back for the first time after 27 straight years
of heavy construction work in Venezuela.
But the majority of the people of Valsetz hadn't strayed very far
from the Oregon woods, moving up the road from Valsetz to Falls City
or a little farther into Monmouth, Independence, Salem or Dallas, Ore.
Anecdotes from '50s and earlier
Most of the reunion were old-timers: They swapped stories about a
time when all the residents' electricity came straight from the mill.
Back then, the mill and the whole town ran on wood chips and sawdust
that were shoveled and burned to turn steam-powered generators, said
Edna Gergen Lippert, who lived there in the 1950s.
Don Denno, who came to Valsetz as a baby in 1922, told old friends
about the time his appendix burst and he had to ride the train to the
nearest doctor's office in Independence. The one-car passenger train,
called the "skunk" by the oldest residents and the "speeder" by those
who grew up in the 1950s, was the quickest way in and out of town and
was what delivered the mail every day.
Denno lives in the town and also in the nearby logging camps, where
people stayed in wooden houses that could be split in two and hauled
away in halves like modern-day manufactured homes when it was time to
move into a new stand of trees.
Dick Koloen joked about the Fishermen's Ball, better-known as
Fisherman's Brawl, the annual spring dance where loggers would get
drunk and fight with each other at night and then go fishing together
the next morning.
When Koloen was a child, he lived across the street from where the
dance was held, and he would run into the parking lot the next morning
to pick up coins that had fallen out of brawling loggers' pockets.
Ralph Thompson remembered when he used two-man saws to fell
old-growth trees. Thompson moved to Valsetz from Northern Idaho in
1946 after finishing service in World War II.
"A bunch of us guys just got out of the service, and we wanted to go
where we could make the most money," Thompson said.
At $1 for every 1,000 board-feet he cut, Thompson could earn $25 a
day cutting old-growth trees. He used the two-man hand saw until the
first chain saws came in 1949.
Thompson didn't retire until after he drove one of the bulldozers
that knocked down the mill in 1984. He said it was harder to watch the
mill burn than it was to watch the houses.
Heather Johnson Blackwell, who was an eighth-grader when the town was
torn down in 1984, remembered how confined she felt in a town where
everyone knew her - and also how much she cried when she had to leave.
"I remember hating Valsetz," she said. "Then I moved away... When
you're a kid, you always want to move up and get away from wherever
you grew up. And when you're an adult, you always want to go back."
COMMENT BY POSTER: Shortly before Valsetz was deconstructed, I
attended a truffle forage in the area. We found several truffle
species, including a kind of underground chanterelle-like fungus
called an Arcangeliella. The material I found had a camphor-like
aroma, reminiscent of Vick's vapor rub.
The area I hunted was cut down the following year. The fungi have not
been reported to my knowledge since. The 200-400-year-old Douglas fir,
similar to the old-growth redwoods along the northern California
coast, no longer stand.
When Valsetz went, it wasn't the only thing to go. It will take 8-16
generations for those trees to mature again. If they are allowed to
The Arcangeliella may never come back. No one has grown them, like
most of the estimated 3,000 species of mycorrhizal fungi found with
Daniel B. Wheeler
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