Skip to content

Highlights, Challenges, and Visioning from Retired State Archaeologist Dennis Griffin

September 3, 2020

Dennis Griffin served as the State Archaeologist with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office for the last 18 years. He retired at the end of August and we took the opportunity to ask him what the highlights and challenges were of his time at the Oregon SHPO and also what he believes is the future of protecting Oregon’s archaeology sites.

What were some of the highlights of your time working at the Oregon SHPO?

When I first started at the Oregon SHPO, archaeologists wanting to conduct research using our records had to schedule an appointment to come into our office to access paper USGS maps to discover where all of our known archaeological sites were located and to get access to hard copy reports and site forms that were in our library. Since that time we have scanned over 32,000 reports and 43,000 site forms and they are all available to qualified researchers on-line when ever they need them. While the earlier process enabled our staff an opportunity to meet and get to know many of the archaeologists working in our state, on-line access to our data greatly improved ready access to this information which reduced damage to sites while saving time and expense in freeing up agency staff from having to travel to Salem to conduct project reviews.

A big highlight for me was seeing our office’s archaeological staff enlarged from that of a single archaeologist to a staff consisting of up to four archaeologists which allowed our office to increase our review and compliance of project related reports and issue state archaeology permits in a more timely manner, to increase our opportunity to reach out to the public to help them understand the history of our state and the importance of our archaeological resources, and to work with and encourage good cultural resource stewardship among state and federal agencies, and the public.

My job as the State Archaeologist at SHPO for the past 18 years provided me with the opportunity to work closely with each of our state’s nine federally-recognized tribes as they developed and expanded tribal cultural heritage departments and established their own tribal historic preservation office.  The opportunity to communicate and consult with each of the tribes in a wide variety of venues, such as the state’s government-to-government Culture Cluster and Intergovernmental Culture Resource Council (ICRC), and to collaborate on projects throughout the state has been a major reward to me.

Our office has taken a major step forward during the years that I have been fortunate to work at SHPO toward increasing public outreach opportunities and providing education regarding our state’s history and resources. These have included increased grant opportunities which provides funding for both public and private historic preservation work, the building of a strong community of Certified Local Governments and a very active Main Street Program, the development of heritage bulletins that increase awareness of cultural resources and historic cemeteries, and the coordinating of heritage workshops across the state, including SHPOlooza, an event we put together that provides an opportunity for archaeologists and archaeologically-oriented people in the state to get together to talk about what is working and what needs to be tweaked so that our office can better serve the public interest. These all have served as major highlights during my tenure.

What were some of the challenges?

One of the major challenges I have seen since starting at Oregon SHPO is being able to stay abreast of the many changes in archaeological technologies that are being developed and to be able to suggest and encourage their use as they relate to future projects. Remote sensing technologies have greatly expanded since I first started at SHPO and they offer us many new ways to try and incorporate non-destructive methods to identify the presence of archaeological sites and features without spending thousands of dollars, so that if a site is found to be within a project area and it can not be avoided, money can be spent where it will do the most good to mitigate any adverse effect that will occur to the site. The recognition of the importance of underwater archaeology in Oregon also has brought us a challenge to see where such technologies are best applicable. During my tenure our office has drafted state guidelines for both conducting field archaeology in Oregon and for reporting on such efforts so that the results will be applicable to other projects in the future. While the drafting of guidelines, where before there were none, is always a challenge, keeping such guidelines relevant to our discipline and and applicable to the projects that occur in Oregon will continue to be both an opportunity and a challenge for our office.

What do you envision for the future of protecting Oregon’s archaeological sites?

The future protection of archaeological sites in Oregon directly stem from the challenges that we now face. The most important thing that we as a state, and SHPO as an agency dedicated to historic preservation faces is the need for an increase in public education and stewardship. If the public does not recognize  the importance of archaeology,  the recognition and protection of archaeological sites in the future will not occur. I think that archaeology needs to be introduced into our classrooms so that people will learn about the importance of our history, and the archaeological sites that remain to provide evidence of our past. Only through such early education can we hope to combat the looting that continues to occur to sites across the state, and increase the awareness of archaeology to the public and the importance of site stewardship. I think our office can provide a leading voice to encourage such an increase in educational awareness through our future grant opportunities, workshops,  bulletins, meetings and public outreach. Only about 14% of Oregon has been archaeologically surveyed to date, and these lands are predominantly managed by federal agencies (e.g., USFS, BLM). The majority of lands that would have been most attractive to human use and settlement over the past 15,000+ year history are now under private ownership. Likewise the majority of major Native American sites are probably located on private land and have yet to be recognized as such. Through education and stewardship we may be able to identify more of the important sites that still exist in Oregon and gain their protection by encouraging the public to become site stewards by offering their protection of such sites.

On a different front, I see the future offering us much in the way of the development and use of new non-destructive technologies for site identification and protection. I look forward to seeing what will be developed in this regard.

What’s next???

For me, the first thing I hope to do is to learn to sleep in and enjoy some free time catching up on reading, music and some writing projects that have been on the back burner for far to long. I recently purchased a small van that is being converted to a camper and I will need to head back to the mid-west to pick it up and drive it back to Oregon, which means a road-trip is in my near future which I find both exciting and a bit scary given the pandemic. 

I have a number of personal projects focusing on Oregon history and archaeology that I hope to follow up on over the next couple of years which should put my van to good use crisscrossing across the state visiting archives, historical societies and tribal offices while I put my research and writing skills to work. I also hope to do a little consulting work which will provide me an opportunity to stay abreast of research that is occurring within Oregon, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. A number of years ago I formed a private consulting company called Cultural Horizons for when I would do consulting work in Alaska. I hope to be able to use this company to work on small projects in our region and continue finding opportunities to consult and work with the tribal nations in our state.

Thanks Dennis for all of your work helping to protect Oregon’s important archaeological resources!

Black Historic Places Matter

July 13, 2020

By: Kimberly Moreland, Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon Heritage Commission

The recent approval of the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation (MPD) of Portland’s African American Resources and the National Register nomination for Billy Webb Elk Lodge (Williams Avenue YWCA) marks a significant milestone towards more inclusive historic preservation efforts. Produced in partnership between the Bosco-Milligan Foundation: Architectural Heritage Center and the City of Portland’s Bureau of Sustainability, with assistance from the State Historic Preservation Office, the MPD represents a comprehensive architectural and cultural study of the African American community in Portland from 1851 to 1973. 

The late Cathy Galbraith, the founding director of the Bosco-Milligan: Architectural Heritage Center, in her seminal work, entitled the Cornerstone of Community: Buildings of Portland’s African American History, began an enormous effort of identifying African American historic buildings. Building on Galbraith’s work and others, the MPD serves as a National Register of Historic Places umbrella document that make it easier for individual property owners to list their property in the National Register.  

The MPD and National Register Nomination are preservation tools that provide an opportunity to connect Black history makers to the places where they lived, played, worshiped, and conducted business. In addition, preservation tools can provide a level of protection for Black historic properties that are experiencing deferred maintenance and/or threatened by real estate development pressures. Home Forward recently named their flagship affordable housing project after a Black woman named Louisa Matilda Thacker Flowers. As the new building was being constructed, her home built in 1885 and located at 1815 NE 1st in the Eliot Neighborhood was being deconstructed and demolished.

Born in Massachusetts, Louisa Matilda Thacker arrived in Portland in 1882 when she married Allen Ervin (A.E.) Flowers, a farmer and single father of Hattie Ann Flowers. Born in 1847 in Columbus Ohio, A.E. Flowers, arrived in Portland in 1865 as a cabin boy aboard the Brother Jonathon Ship. While docked in Portland, Allen jumps ship and began his life in Oregon. The Flowers were civic leaders and they had four sons (Lloyd, Elmer, Ralph and Ervin) and owned several homes in lower Albina, that was formerly part of the city of Albina, and what is now known as the Eliot Neighborhood.

Louisa Flowers was an active member of the Old Rose Club, an early Black women club.  Unprecedented for a Black woman at the time, Louisa is documented in the Morning Oregonian as purchasing land in 1901 and 1902. The couple owned acreage of farmland in Mount Scott in the Lents area and the farm became a gathering place for Portland’s small, black community.  In 1913, serving as president and secretary of the home ownership association, A.E Flowers, and E.D. Cannady, organized a lecture by Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute. Washington spoke to an audience of 500 people at the Gipsy Smith Auditorium, urging Black Portlanders to invest in farmland to take advantage of the influx of newcomers to Portland.

The Flowers’ remarkable legacy is just one example of the resiliency of Black history makers who thrived under the backdrop of Black exclusion laws that infamously adorned the Oregon constitution until 1926. Over years, due to many factors, many of the inventory of historic buildings that reveals the triumphs, struggles, culture, and religious and social life of Black Portlanders have disappeared. Black Historic Places Matter! Let us protect the remainder of Black historic places in Portland that quietly stand tall, waiting to cultivate a more restorative and inclusive understanding of Portland’s history.

Oregon’s First Registered Nurse

July 1, 2020

By: Bev Power, City of Medford Parks and Recreation

Mrs. Olivia Dyre Osborne graduated the Illinois Training School for Nurses in 1892 under her maiden name of Dyre.  She was one of 46 graduates that year, the largest class that had ever graduated the school. The graduation ceremony heralded Florence Nightingale as a model of high standards in nursing.

Later, Olivia and her husband John Osborne arrived in Medford from Chicago. It was through Olivia’s efforts that the state law governing the registration of nurses was passed. Subsequently, on October, 19, 1911 she became the first registered nurse in Oregon.  She served on the Board from 1911 to 1923 and was elected the first president, serving in that capacity until 1918.

During the early years much was accomplished, the curriculum was revised, and entrance requirements raised, thus all applicants had to be high school graduates. It was through state legislation that the period of training was raised from two years to three years, and all schools not meeting the new requirements were closed.

It was through Mrs. Osborne’s initiative that the nurses registration at Medford, Oregon was established, which she directed. She passed away in 1942 and is interred at the Medford Eastwood/I.O.O.F. Cemetery.

Information obtained via http://truwe.sohs.org/files/osborne.html

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Vote. For the Centennial, Oregon Heritage is sharing stories of notable women in Oregon’s history. For ideas on how to research women’s history in your community, visit Oregonheritage.org and refer to our Centennial Vote Planning Guide.

Reopening Heritage Organizations: Document, Document, Document

June 18, 2020

Last month, Oregon Heritage released a Reopening Conversation Tool to help heritage organizations create an informed process to begin their internal reopening conversations. Since then, we’ve participated in several networking conversations and a state-wide webinar on Oregon’s museum reopening guidelines that reinforced to us why documenting your processes during reopening is critical. Here’s what we learned:

  • Documentation unites staff and volunteers to the same expectations. It is best practice for a board to set and adopt policies. Reopening will require one voice and once interpretation of the guidelines that apply to your heritage organization. When that policy has been determined and approved, staff and volunteers can be trained in those procedures and act as one.  
  • Documentation helps you manage risk. On the June 8th museum reopening guidelines webinar, Seth Row, partner at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP shared the following advice with the Oregon museum community: “The best thing you can do is to follow the guidelines. Usually when we see claims for injuries, whether it’s employees or visitors, it’s not that the organization wasn’t trying to follow the guidelines. The problem was that they didn’t document what they did, what their policies were, what their implementation was. They had every intention of doing things correctly, but they didn’t actually document it. Then something bad happened, and that’s how you could potentially be held liable. You need to document what you’re doing and the good decisions that you’re making on how to implement them. Take pictures of your signage. Take pictures of your guidelines in action. Write things down after you make decisions. Then enforce your guidelines, enforce the social distancing, limiting to groups of 10, etc… Also, document any instances where enforcement didn’t happen or failed. Train your employees to do that, and track those best practices.”
  • Documentation will help you communicate externally. Once your internal team of board, staff, and volunteers are on the same page, trained, and ready to work with the public, setting expectations for visitors will create a better experience for everyone. 
    • Share a list of safety requirements visitors can expect upon arrival
    • Explain why you’re asking the public to take these actions during their visit
    • Communicate these expectations widely on your website, social media, newsletters, and on site
    • Focus your messaging on how the public can be involved in your organization, not just what they can’t do
  • Documentation will help you prepare for visitors who don’t want to comply. The question of how to respond to angry visitors, or visitors who don’t want to comply with things like wearing masks has come up frequently in our networking conversations. Ginger Savage, executive director at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center in Baker City and board member of the Cultural Advocacy Coalition shared the following advice: “We’re just handling it delicately. The nice thing is, we’ve talked to our insurance agent, and we know what our insurance agent has told us. When you say to people, ‘these are the restrictions being placed upon us by our insurance company,’ they have a tendency to stop and rethink a little bit, because most people recognize insurance as being a necessary part of business. And I will admit, it is tiring. It takes practice, and you just keep at it. We take turns. We also have a de-escalation process in place. As the manager, if words don’t work, then staff can always come and get me. We also have face coverings available for the public to take home.”

Reopening is tough and is happening in real time. By following this framework, a committee can work through an informed process to review guidelines, document a plan, and gain board approval, which will serve your organization in the long run.

Talent Historical Society- Making Local History Project

June 2, 2020

By: Debra Moon, Board Member at Talent Historical Society

A precious book is archived at the Talent Museum in Southern Oregon. It was made by a well-loved teacher, Genevieve Holdridge, and her third-grade students, chronicling Talent Elementary and the town of Talent through the years 1956-1966. Photographs, student letters, captions, and programs scrapbook-style, tell the story. Pages are devoted to Churches, Restaurants, Service Stations, City Government, as well as School Staff, Christmas Programs, Field Trips, and more. 

The treasured book is a ready-made social studies adventure and the inspiration for the Talent Historical Society (THS) project, “Making Local History,” funded by the Oregon Heritage Commission and by Jackson County Cultural Coalition. It entails making copies of the book available to second and third-grade students at Talent Elementary and to visitors at the Museum. In addition, the project includes a plan for curriculum lessons, a first unit about the students’ own school, then a second unit about the town from 1910 (date of incorporation) through 1960, the first fifty years. Also planned are two museum exhibits and open house events at the museum for students, their families, and the public.

What We Wished We’d Known Before Starting the Project:

Many pieces of our project proved to be more labor intensive and costly than we first estimated. In a major undertaking, the oversized pages had to be scanned and printed. Though we were not surprised by the cost of this part of the project, we were surprised by the time it took. We also decided to upgrade the type of paper on which it was printed. The long-lasting polymer paper that we finally chose was three times more costly than regular paper. Luckily, THS voted to give us $750 to use as discretionary funds to make up the difference.

Of course, we had no idea that just after the first quarter of our project, the world would go into pandemic mode! Our goals include a lot of outreach, and pandemics make that very hard. We got permission to divert some of our grant funds to post the “Flip Book” (Mrs. Holdridge’s special book) on a webpage of the Talent Historical Society website, along with the six curriculum lessons we developed to go with the book. Teachers and parents were notified that the lessons and images are available online. The local paper also carried the announcement, as did the THS quarterly newsletter. Open house events are not yet happening but will possibly be replaced by small viewings and/or YouTube presentations.   

What Brings Us Pride:

We have been able to stay on track with our timeline despite the pandemic—delivering the materials to the schools online. We came up with a fantastic idea for our exhibit panels. We wallpapered each of the three panels of the exhibit to go with the era of schools in Talent’s history: The first panel (1854 to 1887) is log cabin paper, the second is a wainscoting (1888-1899)  and the third is brick (1900 to 1960), for our beloved Brick School.

Our project is providing class sets of jacks and marbles to go with the “Then and Now” curriculum. We are proud that these pieces of the project are all ready for when school starts up again.

Our Historian, Jan Wright, our other Board Members, and our volunteers have worked as a team to make our goals a success, and we are very proud of this teamwork. Enthusiastic Second and Third-Grade Teachers at Talent Elementary School also bring us much pride. We have pride both in our heritage and our community today and are happy to help teachers by “Making Local History” resources available to them.

Saving a Historical Treasure: the Portland Zoo Railway

May 22, 2020

By: Dana Carstensen, President of Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway

There aren’t many opportunities where older generations can both relive and pass on a magical experience to a new generation.  In these times of great divide and unknown, being able to have a moment of bonding, nostalgia, and a sense of pride that you’ve created a positive lifelong childhood memory should not only be cherished but protected.  The Washington Park and Zoo Railway is one such treasure. 

As a “temp” worker at the Oregon Zoo, I’d come back every season as the conductor of the WP&ZRy because being the “Stationmaster” brought me joy.  Parents and grandparents were reliving their childhood as children all around burst with excitement to board the train that took them through a magical forest.  When the route was first shut down, I saw firsthand how much sadness and disappointment it brought our community.

I decided to get involved when I found out that there were funding issues between the governing entities and that plans were being made to turn it into a walking path. This regional treasure since 1958 was in danger, and I had to do something.

At first, I started an online petition, which caught the passion of tens of thousands. That led to passionate public testimonies given to the City of Portland Commissioners. Once impassioned, the Portland Commissioners put a stay on the plan until a transportation study relating to the WP&ZRy within the park was done. Next we started a 501c(3) nonprofit called the Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway. We successfully listed the Portland Zoo Railway Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. We felt this regional treasure deserved recognition in a national program as a way to honor and commemorate the importance of the Zoo Railway. This way, future generations could learn about the history and significance of the WP&ZRy.

Additionally, we got the Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to ask Oregon Metro to include repair costs, which they themselves estimated around $5 million in their $7 billion transportation bond measure. We found, helped copyright, and licensed the unpublished manuscript, “Miles of Smiles – Washington Park and Zoo Railroad – A Triumph of Soot, Noise and Laughter” by Edward M. Miller, otherwise known as the, “Father of the WP&ZRy.”    

If a temp can get this far, think of what you can do to save a historical treasure in your own community.

Heritage Traditions Find Opportunities in a Non-traditional Decision

May 7, 2020

By: Kyle Jansson, Oregon Heritage Commission coordinator from 2002-2016

Oregon’s Heritage Traditions are making a non-traditional decision this year – whether to cancel the event because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a decision with risks and with opportunities.

The risks are many: health scientists are not completely certain how this new Covid is transmitted. The ease with which it spreads has prompted shutdowns worldwide, with many to be fully in place through May. Even if the pandemic slows during the next month, health professionals expect there will be additional waves of it for the next couple of years, much like the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.

A vaccine may be developed in 18 months, and then it will take months and maybe even years to produce enough for everyone who wants it. A Seton Hall University study released this month found 72 percent of people would not feel comfortable attending sporting events until a vaccine is developed.

The New York Times reported recently that cities that went all in on social distancing in 1918 emerged stronger for it. Oregon Heritage Traditions not taking place this year, such as the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival in Astoria and the Pear Blossom Festival in Medford, are helping their communities do the same during this pandemic. Traditions by definition attract large groups and tourists. Not having an event this year reduces the number of people bringing Covid to your community.

A number of Traditions, including the Oregon State Fair, the Bend Pet Parade, the Portland Rose Festival, and the Pendleton Roundup, have a history of canceling their events during a war or major crisis. This year, even the Summer Olympics has been postponed for a year.

So what opportunities does this create for Oregon Heritage Traditions that decide to wait until 2021 to return? Let’s consider one event outside of Oregon – an ice cream social – that decided that its organizers would not take place this year. Event organizers could:

  • Sell certificates for $25 enabling people to get a free ice cream cone at the 2021 social. The social’s supporters may still want to contribute financially this year and this gives them a fun way to do that. Organizers could use the proceeds for planning and marketing next year’s events, or give a portion of them to one of the nonprofits helping people affected by Covid.
  • Reinforce its mission to the community by sharing how it contributes most years through support for nonprofits, scholarships, and other resources.
  • Update policies, consider format changes and make a much-needed reorganization.
  • Send previous sponsors – businesses that could be struggling – a thank you and an update on what plans are for the next year. It could post both to social media and its website.
  • Refurbish equipment.
  • Host some sort of virtual ice cream social this year with solo musicians, ice cream eating contests, or some other.

The decision to cancel an Oregon Heritage Tradition is not a tradition that you want to continue. But this year, it seems like the best choice.

The Oregon Heritage Commission has designated 24 events as Oregon Heritage Traditions. For a complete list, visit our website.

Disaster Preparation in the Middle of a Disaster

May 1, 2020

Since we are living it, we are taking a moment today to look at resilience and recovery. No matter the current situation, historic places and collections will play a critical role in recovery.

In 2018, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and The World Bank jointly published the position paper, Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery. The proposed CURE Framework emphasizes the need to integrate people-centered and place-based strategies and policies with culture as the foundation in order to achieve sustainable change.

“From cultural heritage to cultural and creative industries, from sustainable tourism to cultural institutions, culture enables and drives the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainable development. It is a crucial factor for social cohesion and poverty alleviation and supports issues such as education, urban development and gender equality to enable the full achievement of development outcomes. It has become clear that culture can no longer be a dividend of development, but is rather a prerequisite to its achievement” (pg 17).

Integrating culture into all phases of recovery from planning to implementation strengthens the community’s sense of belonging and livability of the environment. Broad inclusion of culture of the entire community can strengthen community ownership and address long standing inequities. The scope of the framework encompasses the entire city, not just the historic areas, so that all aspects of the city’s culture can be incorporated.

The following principles apply to cities and towns of all sizes using the CURE Framework.

Principle 1. Acknowledging the city as a “cultural construct” where built structures and open spaces are closely linked to the social fabric.

Principle 2. Starting the reconciliation process with the (re)construction of cultural landmarks and places of significance to local communities.

Principle 3. Fostering cultural expressions to offer appropriate ways to deal with post-crisis trauma and reconcile affected communities.

Principle 4. Prioritizing culture early in the planning process, starting with needs assessments and the implementation of emergency interventions that reflect community priorities.

Principle 5. Engaging communities and local governments in every step of the recovery process.

Principle 6. Using finance models that balance immediate/short-term needs with the medium/long-term development time frame of reconstruction plans.

Principle 7. Ensuring effective management of the reconstruction process by striking a balance between people’s needs and the recovery of a city’s historic character.

This approach requires raising awareness of the value of culture and encouraging the integration of cultural heritage, creativity, and diversity of cultural expressions into disaster resiliency strategies. Heritage plays a powerful role in identity and dignity through a community’s landmarks, historic collections, and intangible heritage.  

Oregon’s historic properties and downtowns and heritage organizations are necessary for full people-centered crisis recovery in every community. They should be included in all needs assessments, recovery strategy and policy planning, funding, and implementation for this and future recovery efforts.

Focus on Your Value!

April 27, 2020

By Kuri Gill, Oregon Heritage Outreach & Grants Coordinator

Today, we would have been headed home for the Oregon Heritage Conference: Harness the Power of Heritage. We would have met amazing people, been inspired by keynote speakers and excellence award winners, learned best practices, collected tips and maybe a bit of swag, and had a stack of notes. Typically, we leave a conference with all of this great information and we wonder where to begin.

Today in the face of uncertainty, you might also feel overwhelmed and not know where to begin.

Harness the Power of Heritage was our theme for a reason. When used responsibly, heritage can provide perspective about a situation, it can include untold stories, it can support frazzled parents and teachers, it can comfort, it can document the real story, it can reflect, it can honor, it can develop a special sense of place, and it can anchor and connect a community.

Three months ago, your mission, your power, was to do this important heritage work for Oregon’s communities. Today, this power is needed more than ever. It will be needed as we transition to a new way of living. It will be needed when we are past this entirely and looking back at it. Even in the face of essential, social, economic needs, your services are needed. This is where to begin and end. As you make your decisions about caring for your staff and volunteers, engaging your stakeholders, managing your resources, providing services, and reopening your doors, keep your value and mission in mind.

Once you internalize that…it is time to tell others!

Make sure you share your value with all of your stakeholders. Stay in the forefront of the minds of elected officials, donors, members, volunteers, tourism organizations, sponsors, and foundations. Here are two tools to help you develop your messages.

  1. Value of Heritage toolkit Look for value information and a story building process here!
  2. Value of History Statement, which is a national effort to provide a common language to help history organizations describe the value and relevance of their work. The Oregon Heritage Commission recently endorsed this statement.

Flax and the Oregon Landscape

April 21, 2020

Each year, Oregon Heritage highlights outstanding research done by students at Oregon universities through the Oregon Heritage Fellowship program. This year, three fellows were selected for their thoughtful inquiry of Oregon’s past. Enjoy a preview of original research here. Final papers will be published on the Oregon Heritage Fellowship web page in June.

By: Georgia Reid, 2020 Oregon Heritage Fellow, Undergraduate Student in Anthropology and Sociology at Lewis & Clark College

Just south of Canby stands what’s left of one of the last operational fiber-flax processing mills in Oregon, built in 1936. Rumor has it that it was the last to close its operations in 1962, though I still haven’t found any definitive records or evidence that say so. To my total surprise, when I visited to peer through the windows, late in 2019, fiber was still strung through the machines—sixty-year old threads weaving past and present in the old mill building.

Like those threads, fiber-flax has maintained a peculiar presence even through its absence in the Willamette Valley. Going back to its ancestral roots and traditions in the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, and Europe, the domesticated flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) has held something of a fairy tale quality.

Between 1865 and 1962, Oregon gained a reputation for growing high-quality fiber plants, causing what newspapers called “flax fever” to spread through the valley. A few prominent women with wealth and political ties especially propelled the industry’s development: they petitioned government sponsorship at multiple key junctures. This government funding was the only support to consistently keep the fiber-flax industry afloat throughout the decades. Fiber-flax, a labor-intensive crop at the time, was almost never profitable. Still, float parades, theatrical performances and dances were held in the streets of Salem, celebrating flax. Children dressed up as flax angels, women were crowned flax queens, and a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Angel was even crowned “Father of Flax”.

Woman posing while operating beaming machine, preparing warp yarn for the loom, circa early 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland Public Schools Collection

Trailing post-World War II industry collapse, multiple attempts at reviving commercial flax-to-linen production in Oregon and throughout North America have occurred since the mid-1990s. My research goal was to document and interpret this contemporary history.

I never expected to end up telling a ghost story—the sort of tale, we all know, where the reality of what’s present is thickly filled, even haunted, by the past. Social theorist Avery Gordon writes that a ghost “is often a case of inarticulate experiences…a case of modernity’s violence and wounds, and a case of the haunting reminder of the complex social relations in which we live” (Gordon 1997, 25). 

Flax straw, circa early 1930s, at a processing mill. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland Public Schools Collection

What Gordon means is that ghosts and haunting show where there is overlap between times, and especially where there is emotional overlap—where grief, hope, longing, remembrance thread past with present. The efforts to re-establish a regional economy of flax-to-linen production register a longing for the past to inform the future of fiber and clothing manufacturing as slightly less synthetic, globalized, and polluting of ecological relations.

As much as it has been my job to offer critique, something of the swaying fields of blue flax has captivated my imagination and my heart. How could we weave the best of the past into our lives today?