Chips & Sawdust — Part One

What happened to the old Oregon?

Occasionally, there is a point in the history of a place that creates a before and after moment — an event that, in the aftermath, changes a place so significantly it renders it a totally different place from what it was before, forever. Like what the oil pipeline did to Alaska.  

Oregon had such a game-changing event as well, and it was not the spotted owl or the so-called timber wars. The event that created a sea change in Oregon from what it was, to what it became, was the recession of the early 1980s. It was Oregon’s “great recession,” and it changed Oregon forever by triggering a relentless mechanism of change through economic development. 

A visit to The Waterfront Tavern, on Fourth Street in Reedsport, on any weekday afternoon in 1974 was like walking right into a scene out of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion. You enter into a noisy, smoky, room full of mill workers and timber fallers, in sawdust spattered hickory shirts and short-legged frisco jeans and “cork” boots. The smell of sawdust, pitch and saw fuel almost, but not quite, overpowers the aroma of stale beer and cigarette smoke.

Reedsport, Oregon, in 1974, was a timber town. And so were Gardner, Lakeside, North Bend and Coos Bay. And Drain, Sutherlin and Yoncalla, and most of the rest of the small rural communities in western Oregon. Virtually every small town qualified as a timber town with at least one sawmill employing hundreds at high-wage jobs. Every one of those mills had crews of fallers out in the woods as well. More high paying jobs. And of course there were the service jobs that go with that, including restaurants, taverns, markets, banks, etc.

Reedsport and Florence were also fishing towns with commercial salmon fishing fleets employing hundreds of workers at high wages. You could still make a good living fishing for salmon in 1974, in your own boat, if you had the guts to go out over the Umpqua River Bar. The fishing fleets supported a fish processing industry with more good jobs. Forestry and fishing meant thousands of high wage jobs in rural Oregon and supported a unique way of life. Timber and fishing translated to flourishing local economies. 

My three partners and I had recently arrived from southern California after buying Sawyer Rapids Resort, a rundown, long-closed roadside attraction on the Umpqua River, halfway between Elkton and Scottsburg. 

Sawyer Rapids sat on eight acres of riverfront and included an old two-story building with a store and kitchen downstairs and living quarters upstairs. There were six ramshackle cabins and a boat ramp and enough flat ground for a campground. It was a great place to launch a drift boat or fish the banks below the rapids for Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead. I cut my fly-fishing teeth there on sea run cutthroat the locals called “harvest trout.” 

Many of my friends were loggers, mill workers, farmers and fishermen. I drank beer with them in the local tavern. I watched their kids play high school football on Friday nights. They took me elk hunting and salmon fishing. I had been welcomed into a lifestyle that felt good to me. But I had no way of knowing I was witnessing the end of a way of life, that I had arrived in Oregon just in time to be part of the end of an era. The very end of Oregon, the way it used to be.

That Oregon would be almost totally gone within a decade, replaced by a different place. The entire balance of power in Oregon would move on its axis. Forest products and agriculture were about to lose their dominance in the Oregon economy. The world of small town mills and taverns filled with loggers, mill workers and commercial fishermen was about to dissolve into dust. I had arrived at the tail end of an Oregon that would soon be no more. 

Oregon’s great recession would be triggered by events transpiring half a world away that generated a tsunami wave of change that would forever change its balance of power. By the end of the 1980s, natural resources would no longer control the economy. There would be a new sheriff in town. 

The great recession would be so severe as to force change in a hurry. Oregon officials would court and recruit companies and industries around the world. Urban communities in the Willamette Valley would grow, prosper and expand, while the economic viability of much of rural Oregon would be torn apart, never to fully recover. The new economy would dramatically change the demographics of the state, giving political power to an emerging, primarily urban, environmental movement. 

Before the 1980s, there was no organized state-sponsored economic development in Oregon, something we take for granted today. What emerged out of the wreckage of an economic crisis was a totally new Oregon, unrecognizable to my old pals at the Waterfront Tavern in Reedsport. And it did not come about as a result of court battles or political or environmental conflicts. It had nothing to do with spotted owls or marbled murrelets. No, the agent of change that came out of that great recession of the 1980s, to change Oregon forever, would be professional, state sponsored, lottery funded, economic development. 

To be continued …

Bob Warren retired in 2012 as the regional business development officer for Business Oregon for Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Benton Counties. Prior to that, he was senior policy advisor on forest policy for Gov. Barbara Roberts and district aid and natural resource advisor for Rep. Peter DeFazio. He is currently a member of the board of directors for McKenzie River Trust.