Former Oregon Lumber Town Tries To Reinvent Itself

Mountain bikers on a trail in Oakridge, Ore. i i

hide captionSome 350 miles of trails have earned Oakridge, Ore., the self-proclaimed title of "Mountain Biking Capital of the Northwest."

State of the Re: Union
Mountain bikers on a trail in Oakridge, Ore.

Some 350 miles of trails have earned Oakridge, Ore., the self-proclaimed title of "Mountain Biking Capital of the Northwest."

State of the Re: Union

NPR, along with the Public Radio Exchange, has launched a new show called State of the Re:Union. State of the Re:Union has been traveling the country, visiting cities and towns to explore the idea of community.

For decades after World War II, the small town of Oakridge in the southern Cascade mountains of Oregon was a booming lumber town. But by the early 1990s, the lumber industry had collapsed, and Oakridge has struggled ever since, losing families and businesses.

State Of The Re: Union

Sign for Oakridge, Oregon. Population: 3,320
State of the Re: Union

Now, residents like Randy Dreiling are trying to reinvent the place as a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Dreiling owns Oregon Adventures, which offers mountain bike tours. Some 350 miles of trails have earned Oakridge the self-proclaimed title of "Mountain Biking Capital of the Northwest."

"Mountain biking is just a piece of the pie. It's not the end all be all, but it's what we got. And it's been good to us," he says. "Anybody that's being honest to themselves can see the amount of people mountain biking is bringing to town — more and more every year."

But not everyone is on board with the change in focus. Oakridge is home to old-timers like Eddie Roberts, who made his living off the old-growth lumber that once abounded here. There were a lot of economic factors at play, but the death knell for lumber came in 1990 when the federal government listed the spotted owl as a threatened species and declared much of its habitat in the national forests off-limits to loggers.

"That spotted owl could care less where he lives," Roberts says. "I've seen him out on the fence post, out in the farmer's field, down in the valley."

Roberts sees the mostly younger newcomers in Oakridge as an extension of the folks who moved to the town in the 1960s. Many came from the college town of Eugene, about 50 miles away.

"We called Eugene 'the hippies' town.' There was a mess of them. And we've got 'em yet today," he says. "They're members of the Sierra Club; they're in our politics today, and they don't want any timber logged."

Boom Times

To understand that kind of bitterness, you have to go back and remember what Oakridge was like in the logging boom times, before the main street was filled with shuttered and abandoned buildings, the poverty and unemployment rates soared and the population declined. It was a time when the Pope and Talbot Mill was running multiple shifts, and the joint was jumpin'.

"We had car dealerships and we had clothing stores," longtime resident Sharon Baker says. "And at that time, you couldn't find a place here to rent. The town was alive."

"[We had] more taverns than churches," resident Steve Marcoux adds. "It was kind of like the Wild West there for a while, you know. You go to any tavern, and you're bound to see a fight during those days."

After the collapse of the industry, Marcoux clung to logging as long as he could. But for the last seven years, each weekday morning, he has driven from his cramped apartment to work in an ice cream factory in Eugene.

Marcoux's gray-streaked hair reaches the middle of his back. The 57-year-old has added some weight to his lumberjack frame, but he still yearns for his days in the woods.

"I don't like my job right now so much," he says. "I work at 4:30 and start making ice cream. I get off at 1:30, home at 2:30, relax for about three or four hours and go to bed by 7:30 or 8 o'clock, and do it over again."

But Marcoux says he makes a decent salary and finds himself in a better position than many Oakridge residents.

A Magnet For The Unemployed

About 1,600 people — nearly half the town's population — come to the Oakridge food bank each month to pick up free supplies.

Just outside the food box, as it's called, Cameron Nelson navigates a cart full of groceries with her four scrambling young children. She's a stay-at-home mom, and her husband is an out-of-work painter's assistant.

"If it weren't for this food box, it would make it difficult," she says. "It fills in the gaps."

Five years ago, Cameron and her family relocated to Oakridge for its natural beauty. Many retirees have been attracted by the area's bucolic life, as well. But Oakridge has also proved a magnet for other reasons.

Shelly Miller, coordinator for the Oakridge Westfir Family Resource Center, says out-of work people have been steered toward her town because it's more than 35 miles from an employment center, and they don't have to look for work every week to justify continuing to get their unemployment and welfare checks.

"It was said, 'Go up to Oakridge. The rent's cheap. You can't look for a job; there are no jobs. And you get food stamps, and so you can live pretty good there,' " she says. "So as our stronger families had to leave because they'd lost their mill job — they'd moved on to either retraining or whatever — then what was left was pretty poor."

Miller barely keeps her own head above water economically. But hard times aside, she says she can feel something exciting percolating in the town.

"We still have a lot of very strong people who have lived here for 70 years, and they're not so happy with some of the change," she says. "But I see that their children may leave in their 20s, but they come back in their 30s to raise their children, and that shows, I think, a lot.

"So I think it's going to change and be for the better. A lot of people are buying the houses and fixing them up, so the neighborhood is starting to look a little bit better."

Common Ground

Down on Route 58, East Coast transplants Greg Spoon and Becky Chamberlin opened the Trailhead Cafe seven years ago to cater to mountain bikers, but now it attracts a cross section of the community. Spoon and Chamberlin say it took a while to gain acceptance.

Greg Spoon, Becky Chamberlin and their son, Jasper

hide captionGreg Spoon and Becky Chamberlin, with their son Jasper, opened the Trailhead Cafe seven years ago.

State of the Re: Union

"The old paradigm is the logger's paradigm, which is: 'Locals only. We don't want people coming, moving here. This is our area,' " Spoon says. "But the logging stopped, and that idea still stuck."

"In the last few years, there's definitely been this very exciting growth that's been happening here," Chamberlin says. "I felt very alone for a long time, and now it's like, look at these other [places]. Maybe our job to inspire other people to do something and do something positive here, create something here, is finally paying off because now there are flower shops and bakeries and a pub and a beautiful massage practice."

Recently a retiring forest ranger wrote a letter to the community. In it, he noted that a lot of former loggers have now bought mountain bikes, and the mountain bikers — who want to keep the trails maintained — have bought chainsaws.

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