Thanks to Angela Barker for this post on David Benac’s time as Resident Scholar!
David Benac, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Western Michigan University, recently completed a term as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries. While here, Benac used the Gerald W. Williams Collection and conducted a series of oral history interviews to further his research on timber company towns of Oregon.
In his Resident Scholar presentation, “Log Rolling, Ax Throwing, and the Owl,” Benac spoke of three types of company-owned saw mill towns: those that are gone and forgotten; those that are gone but not forgotten; and those that continue to carry on. In doing so, he revealed fascinating details about a way of life that has largely disappeared.
In establishing a framework for his talk, Benac suggested that the dual notions of heritage (defined by Benac as “the historical legacies that individuals or communities select and use to understand contemporary society”) and nostalgia (“an enchantment with distance that cannot be bridged”) have played a large part in how these towns were remembered by residents after they moved on, and how the towns are viewed today.
He also pointed out that company-owned saw mill towns were either intentionally built by timber companies or grew up organically around mills. Towns that were planned and built by timber companies were usually carefully designed to be aesthetically pleasing and often included outdoor recreation, swimming, camping, and social organizations for the benefit of residents and employees. It was believed that these positive social outlets would make employees happier and therefore better workers.
Benac’s research reveals intriguing insight into communities like Gilchrist, Westfir, and Powers – three Oregon mill towns that have carried on, in one form or another. Gilchrist, a model company town built in the 1930s, was paternalistic in design, and sought to control many of the activities of its residents. In 1997 the town was sold into new private ownership. The mill in Westfir shut down in 1984 and its office was eventually converted into a bed and breakfast. Today the community is known for including Oregon’s largest existing covered bridge, and is a hiking and biking destination. Powers was built to log cedar and provided very few opportunities for the women who lived there. Of the women who were employed at Powers, most worked in the cookhouse, lacking many other options. Dining was an important social function in mill towns like Powers – workers went home, cleaned up, and dressed nicely for dinner at the cookhouse.
Gone and largely forgotten are the towns of Pondosa and Wauna, whereas the communities of Kinzua, Wendling and Bridal Veil might be more aptly described as gone but not forgotten. The latter three towns have not been forgotten because, Benac argues, there is still a strong sense of attachment to them by former residents. Benac found mixed opinions in his research on remembrances of Kinzua, some hated it while others loved it. Wendling, on the other hand, is fondly remembered for having the best food. In 1988 a community picnic was organized for former residents and, that same year, the Wendling Conveyor newsletter (and subsequent social media presence) was founded to publish the memories of the people who once lived in the mill town.
Another community, Valsetz, was described by Benac as having been seen as a “surrogate” for the lumber industry in the minds of many people. In 1984, the town was demolished by the Boise Cascade Company, an event that was extensively covered in the news. Press coverage of the town’s elimination tended to frame the story as a visual metaphor for the decline of timber in Oregon.
The community of Vernonia followed a different path. In 1956 the town’s mill shut down, and in response the town founded an annual logging show as a means to keep its community alive. The show still exists, with amateur local loggers competing in a variety of events to this day. Over time, the logging show became an increasingly important way for townspeople to connect with what they had lost. However, attendance gradually declined and today the goal of the show is primarily to bring in tourism dollars. Benac found that there is now less community involvement in the event from the people who have a connection to the town’s past, because the shows do not represent the town that they had once known.
Benac’s research was sponsored by the OSU Libraries Resident Scholar Program. Now in its eighth year, the program awards stipends of up to $2,500 per month to researchers interested in traveling to Corvallis and conducting work in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center. For more information on the program, please see http://scarc.library.oregonstate.ed/residentscholar.html