Photo courtesy O'Brien Memorial Library

One Book At A Time

The McKenzie River community slowly recovers

In 2020 residents of Blue River, a small unincorporated community along the McKenzie River, had to evacuate the area due to a wildfire. The Holiday Farm Fire destroyed most homes and properties, including one key public building, the O’Brien Memorial Library. However, three years later, with the help of the community and volunteers, Blue River is slowly being rebuilt, with the library at the center of development.

“We are committed to the community and want to see it come back,” says Connie Richardson, president of the library board. Richardson has been part of the community since 1969 and has been checking out books at O’Brien since 1970, when she would fire watch over the summer. However, she didn’t start volunteering until 2015, when she retired as an elementary school teacher.

The night of the fire, Richardson recalls being awakened to a call to leave the premises and head west towards Springfield. “At around midnight, there was a loud bang on our door, and they’re saying to evacuate now, level three,” Richardson said. However, as they took the main road, Hwy 126, it became apparent that the fire had moved ahead of them, blocking their way. They had to remain on the highway while firefighters cleared a path.

“It was almost unthinkable, all of a sudden we had to get out,” says Betsy Gabriel, a resident of Blue River. She says the only warning they had gotten before evacuating was an alert of high winds. But like Richardson and others, they realized the threat was imminent. Gabriel got word two hours later that she had lost her home.

The Holiday Farm Fire destroyed most of the houses, businesses and service facilities of the community. These included the fire station, the local clinic, the post office and the library, all run by volunteers.

O’Brien Memorial has a long history in Blue River. Frances O’Brien started it in 1928. She would lend the books from her house with an honor system of no due dates or fines. Getting most of the literature from the state library at the time, she would continue this method up until the 1970s. The collection would expand to a three-room cabinet that was donated by neighbors who lived across the street. Eventually, the Lions Club would build a 24-by-32-foot space for the library. Before passing away in 1995, O’Brien donated the land and $30,000 to keep the library preserved, and it remained there until the fire in 2020.

Many of the facilities being rebuilt in Blue River are getting help from donations from state grants and aid from the McKenzie Community Land Trust, an organization helping those who have lost homes and businesses from the Holiday Fire.

“Our project areas include the entire McKenzie corridor,”  says Brandi Ferguson, interim executive director at MCLT, “but our first projects are Blue River because that’s the highest need after the fire.”

Ferguson has been working with the MCLT for more than a year now, developing affordable housing for those who lost their homes. She says they were able to get about $1.4 million to help rebuild the fire station and clinic. The trust was also able to raise $1.1 million this year and purchased two acres to start building six houses in Blue River.

“It’s grant writing and also connecting with people that want to invest in our programs and projects,” Ferguson says.

As phase one begins for the library, building the base foundation, O’Brien Library is hoping to be complete by fall 2024. The new library will be bigger, with about 2,500 square feet, including a larger children’s section, community room and electric fireplace. The library will also feature an outdoor Native American class that will teach children about the Indigenous plants of the area. 

Most of the books have been donated by organizations such as Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, Lane Library League. Some of the books even come from the Library of Congress.

“Every community has its history, and there’s so much history on McKenzie River, but Blue River itself is a part of that long history with the O’Brien Library,” Richardson says. 

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This story has been updated.

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