The lowdown on the Showdown at Brown Park

This year will mark the 17th time that the Gaston Lodge of the Knights of Pythias has sponsored the Wapato Showdown at Brown Park.

Nothing special about a 17th anniversary you say? Au contraire! Consider, if you will, that this also happens to be the centennial of both the Knights of Pythias Hall and the city of Gaston itself, at least by one Wapato Showdown 2014measure (you can read about the confusion here).

The Gaston Lodge of the Knights of Pythias actually goes back more than 100 years, to November 12, 1908, when 25 local men swore allegiance to a fraternal organization created in 1864, at the height of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln was so moved by the group’s efforts to unify mankind that he helped the Pythians become the first fraternal organization ever officially chartered by an act of Congress.

The Gaston lodge came along too late to heal the wounds of the Civil War, but it has been involved in nearly every charitable or civic-improvement effort in Gaston’s history. Proceeds from the Wapato Showdown go toward a number of such efforts.

Perhaps none of that matters to the hundreds of classic-car owners who proudly display their rides each year on the ballfields of Brown Park. This year’s event, set for Saturday, August 23, promises some extra treats, including a display of classic travel trailers and a salute to Gaston’s Centennial. The draw of the Showdown is its egalitarian nature, with everything American antiques to relatively recent foreign cars, all on equal footing to win one of the trophy sponsors’ prizes.

Harold “Gabe” Gabriel gets much of the credit for creating the Showdown back in 1997. A Pythian for much of his life and a car fanatic for even longer, he led the event until his death from a heart attack in 2000. His death was made even more tragic for the Pythians because several of the members also were long-time volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders, some of whom tried valiantly to save their friend’s life when the call for help came in.

Gabe’s time with the Showdown was brief, but his dream just keeps growing every year. Average number of entries has nearly doubled from the original 200 in 1997, and sponsors continue to line up to support the efforts of the Gaston Lodge of the Knights of Pythias.

Extreme heat, extreme heroism in Oregon’s woods

The following is an excerpt from Fire in a Small Town, Copyright 2013 Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

The people of Gaston had as much to lose as anyone, and townspeople rallied to help. “The call came for firefighters,” the News-Times reported, “and several of the fightenest young men recruited at Klinge’s Corner to be taken to the scene of action.” The truck that the department ordered was not yet ready, and would have been of almost no use anyway. Farmers and mill owners volunteered the use of their trucks to carry men into the forest. Early Saturday morning, August 19, young men from many of Gaston’s oldest and finest families gathered to wait for a truck to carry them into the battle raging in the Tillamook forest. Some were from families of longtime Gaston volunteers, including Kenneth Krahmer and Jack and Jimmie Koberstein. Others bore family names that would become synonymous with Gaston Fire for decades to come, such as William Begert and Einar Hedin.

Few had ever fought a fire themselves however, and as they stood there in the cool early morning air, watching smoke billowing high into the sky northwest of town, none of them could imagine what awaited them that day as they waited for that truck to take them to the inferno. Yet there they stood, waiting to serve.

They waited as the sun rose higher, bringing with it yet another blistering hot day. They waited, we learned in the August 24 edition of the News-Times, all day, their devotion never flagging. Late in the afternoon, however, they decided that their promised transportation was not going to come, so they slowly scattered to their homes. Yet despite the wasted time, nearly all returned the following Monday morning when the arrival of the truck was promised again. This time it came, and carried the sons of Gaston into one of the worst fires America had ever seen.

When they arrived on the front lines they were met by trained firefighters from Forest Grove and elsewhere, but even they were no match for the conflagration. The federal government sent resources, but even the largest contingent of public employees – members of the Civilian Conservation Corps – had little or no formal firefighting training. By the time the fire burned itself out in the rains of September, almost 315,000 acres of prime forest was gone. Miraculously, unlike the Yacolt burn, this one had not claimed dozens of lives; the one it did was that of an untrained member of the Civilian Conservation Corps sent in to do battle.

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A relic of war becomes a community center in Gaston


In 1947, the residents of Gaston wanted a community hall, but didn’t have the money to build one.

The good folks of Gaston caught a break, because in 1947 the United States government was dismantling the infrastructure created to support the military during World War II. Entire military bases sprang up almost overnight when the war broke out in 1941, including Camp Adair, a sprawling Army installation just north of Corvallis. Continue reading

Titans of the Oregon Territory trade 5-year-old girl

One of Oregon’s most famous clergymen needs help around the house. A nearby trapper has a six-year-old daughter who just isn’t earning her keep. A deal is struck, and suddenly the clergyman has a new six-year-old servant, contracted to work for him for 12 years, until she turns 18.

Sound far-fetched? It actually happened in what today is Forest Grove, although the contract had to be amended when it turned out that the little girl actually was only five, so the length of her servitude was extended to 13 years. Continue reading

Murder on the Orient Express

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback

Perhaps Forest Grove’s strangest encounter in post-war intrigue, however, involved two seemingly naïve Pacific University students who went to Vienna for a year to study abroad. Before long, their story involved an alleged international spy ring and murder on the Orient Express. The story begins in February 1950 in Budapest, when Robert Vogeler, ostensibly a mild-mannered vice president of International Telephone and Telegraph, was convicted by the Communist government of Hungary of spying for the United States and thrown into prison for 15 years. Perhaps by happenstance, Vogeler’s best friend, Navy Captain Eugene Karpe, also was living in Europe, serving as the Naval attaché to Romania. Karpe rushed to Vienna, where Vogeler had been living before his imprisonment, to comfort Vogeler’s wife. Karpe then jumped aboard the Orient Express and headed back to his native Louisiana. Continue reading

The Great Impostor and his Cherry Grove redemption

This is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon by Ken Bilderback with Kris Bilderback:

Here’s a look at one of Gaston’s mystery men, Ferdinand Waldo DeMara. Nothing Fred, as he was known by his neighbors in Cherry Grove, did while living in this neck of the woods was very interesting. The life he was trying to leave behind when he arrived in Gaston, however, was extremely interesting. Fred DeMara was welcomed to the area in 1968 when he was named pastor of the Cherry Grove Baptist Church. Continue reading

Captain McCan and his Forest Grove dream

A century ago, Charles McCan was one of Forest Grove’s most-famous citizens, although few people even knew his real first name; most knew him simply as “Captain” McCan. “Cyclone” McCan might have been a more apt moniker, given the way he took the town by storm.

First came the roar of the crowd, drowning out the pounding hooves of harness racers. Then came an even louder form of horsepower, as Forest Grove became one of the first cities on the West Coast to host motorcycle races. Continue reading

Why I’m voting ‘no’ on the Gaston Fire levy

The core group of volunteer and paid Gaston EMT-firefighters is almost unbelievably dedicated, which leads me to a question about the current levy structure.

Including grants, more than $1 million has been spent on apparatus (most rarely used for its intended purpose) in the past five years. More than half a million has been spent or allocated for station remodeling (including the planned 1,900 sf sleeping quarters, payable with reserves and future revenue from the current unexpired levy). Continue reading