Hope floats, children don’t. We can fix this.

On September 15, 2012, I stood on the banks of Henry Hagg Lake as EMTs treated eight children who had nearly drowned just moments earlier. One child had slipped under water, and the other seven had succumbed while trying to rescue their sibling.

In my role as volunteer Public Information Officer, part of my job involved observing the scene, helping to control the crowd, and gathering statements from witnesses and from the Good Samaritans who had rescued the children.

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Me and La Raza … tell me again, who was failing to assimilate?

I saw a tirade on Facebook today about how Hispanics refuse to assimilate into America. I remember a time 40 years ago, when I wanted desperately to assimilate into a part of California dominated with names such as San Francisco, San Jose, Paseo Padre, Mission Tierra and Cam Del Campo.

I realized that I was the outsider, a white-bread kid from Detroit. Here’s an excerpt from my book Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974:

The World’s Fair bus turned out to be very uncomfortable. All Greyhound buses are uncomfortable, but the hard-backed plastic 1970s-vintage bucket swivel seats on this one made it worse than most. I vaguely remember some guy telling me about the great acid I could score in Haight-Asbury, but for the most part my trip up the California Coast was memorable only for the scenery and this bus.

Somewhere before San Jose we were put back onto a regular bus, and I acquired a seat mate. He looked Mexican to me, but he told me he was Chicano, a word I never had heard before. He told me a lot of things about Chicanos and Chicanas, and told me about La Raza. He told me I could crash with his family in San Jose if I needed a place to stay. I declined and he playfully teased me about being afraid to meet his family because they were Chicano.

I’m sure I was not afraid, but I didn’t realize then that I was experiencing the first phase of a deja vu experience. I didn’t know that a couple of years later I would be enrolled at a community college near San Jose and that I would meet my second Chicano friend, who also would invite me to a La Raza meeting. When I hesitated he danced around pointing his finger at me and taunted me for being afraid. To prove him wrong I went to the meeting with this college friend and found the experience very odd. Not frightening, because everyone went out of their way to be friendly to me. I just felt very alone in a world that was changing very quickly for me and that I didn’t really understand.

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World War I and I have a gun. Any questions?

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

World War I broke out in Europe. Back home in Oregon, this happened:

Patriotic fever swept the area. The Army needed snipers, and the area around Forest Grove was well-known for expert riflemen, dating back to the hunters and fur traders who first settled the region. One of the best marksmen, in fact, was the son of one of the most important Mountain Man pioneers, Almoran Hill. When World War I broke out, Frank Hill was living on his late father’s farm near Gaston, across the road from the school and cemetery that bore the family’s name, and Frank Hill immediately tried to enlist in the Army as a sniper. The Hills were one of the area’s best known and respected families, yet the recruiters refused to allow Frank Hill to enlist. The Hillsboro Independent reported that Frank believed that his full beard had caused the recruiter to reject him, so he went home to Gaston and reappeared at the recruiting office clean-shaven, hoping that “the whiskerless face would help.” Alas, it did not, and again Frank Hill, despite his expert marksmanship, was rejected. The Independent reporter offered a possible problem with the enlistment that couldn’t be fixed with a razor; eager recruit Frank Hill was 71 years old.

“Another Pennoyer baby!”

Let’s all hail Sylvester Pennoyer, “one of the most popular men in this country,” a man for whom couples all over the U.S. are naming their babies. At least that was The Oregonian’s message in 1893, in a story about how more and more couples were naming their baby boys Pennoyer, after Oregon’s rising star governor.

pennoyerPennoyer was no slouch. A Harvard Law School grad, he rose to become Oregon governor despite being a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, and despite the fact that he strongly supported slavery in a (mostly) abolitionist part of the country.

He was elected Governor in 1886 under the slogan “Keep the Mongolians Out,” at a time that Oregon pioneers were terrified that the Chinese laborers that they had brought to build the railroads would take over the state. That never happened, but the headline above did. The Oregonian loved old Sly Pennoyer.

Seghers Road leads to a fascinating past

Just north of Gaston along Highway 47, near the turnoff for Hagg Lake, motorists pass Seghers Road.

Today the only real activity along the short dirt road is at Williams Fuel, supplier of firewood, rock and barkdust. A little more than a century ago, however, all the action was at the other end of the road, at Old Highway 47, in a tiny Catholic enclave named for one of the Northwest’s most famous priests, Father Charles John Seghers. Continue reading

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