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Walking to Forest Grove with Rutherford B. Hayes

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

When Rutherford B. Hayes decided to become the first American President to visit the West Coast, he chose Forest Grove as one of the cities he wanted to see, in large part because of the great legacy of education that Tabitha Brown had helped to create.

Unfortunately, he chose a travel planner as inept as Tabitha’s. After four leisurely days in Portland, Hayes was scheduled for an evening appearance in Vancouver, Washington, just about six miles north. His travel planners, however, squeezed in his visit to Forest Grove for his last day in Portland. The 30 mile detour to the west was lengthy back in 1880 under the best of conditions, and the conditions on Saturday, October 2, were far from ideal.

Befitting a visit by the President, a special train was assembled for the jaunt to Forest Grove. The train chugged along smoothly for more than 20 miles, but just seven miles short of its destination the train encountered a major problem: a damaged trestle over Dairy Creek and a ravine. A story in the October 4 edition of The Oregonian explains what happened next. President Rutherford B. Hayes, the First Lady, Lucy, their son Rutherford P. Hayes and the rest of the party disembarked and scrambled down the side of the ravine. The President of the United States and his entourage then made their way through thick brush and weeds, across the creek on “a weak foot bridge” and up the other side of the ravine. To entertain themselves, the reporter wrote, a chorus led by Lucy Hayes sang songs of the day. They walked under warm, cloudy skies for two miles until they stopped, exhausted and hungry. A group of Civil War veterans travelling with the President formed a foraging party and found an orchard, where they picked apples for a Presidential snack. By now hastily assembled railroad crews had repaired the trestle, and the train was able to cross and catch up to the hikers. After a brief stop in Cornelius, the train arrived in Forest Grove to be met by a fleet of carriages. Now too short on time to visit Pacific University, the President was taken to the home of E.R. Merriman, who had served with Hayes in the Civil War. When he finally spoke, 52 of the 310 words in his speech were devoted to complaining about the bridge that delayed his arrival and lamenting the fact that “our intercourse must be short.” Continue reading

A case for teaching rural history

I live in rural Oregon. There is a lot of anger in rural Oregon. On social media, nearly any subject is likely to arouse anger, even rage. Guns, grazing rights, immigrant labor, hunting, logging restrictions, labor laws, farming practices, education, all enrage some people. Nearly always, people bemoan the loss of rural heritage at the hands of urban elites. They feel forgotten and neglected.

Book cover

The heritage of rural Oregon too often is forgotten, but usually not in the way the angriest people tend to think. The history they expound on social media typically is inaccurate, or at the very least, lacking in context. I don’t say that as criticism, however.

I think back to my college history classes, some of which dealt exclusively with urban history. I also learned about the Oregon Trail and Wild West shootouts. Yet as I began to research our books about rural Oregon, I realized that I had been taught little if anything about the everyday lives of people in areas such as where I live. I went online and found dozens of books about Portland history, many of which I already had read. I found almost as many that included tales of rural Oregon, but most focused on specific topics such as logging or on unusual events such as crimes. Very few offer any real context of rural societal norms or economics.

I also found diaries of early settlers, some very interesting and informative, but also written from a very narrow perspective. Some regale us with tales of bravery and kindness while omitting the story of their buying or selling young girls for indentured servitude, sexual and otherwise, for example.

The most common criticisms I hear about the books we write are that we rely heavily on newspaper archives and that we use too many specific examples to make a point. Recently someone asked me why I use “20 examples when one would do.” Continue reading

Current events: Sorry, but this is everything I know about science

A pebble can change the course of nature, and history. I’m not talking about the Ripple Effect, however. I choose to call this Current Events.
Here’s an example.

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

The Tualatin River drains much of the east side of Oregon’s Coast Range mountains. In other words, it drains a lot of water.

Its headwaters cascade down the mountains with incredible force, creating rapids and waterfalls. Then the Tualatin hits flat land near Gaston, and becomes a meandering, and flood-prone, stream.

Indigenous people accepted this reality, but since the first American settlers arrived on the scene, “taming” the Tualatin has been a top priority, but every effort has failed. I’ve read hundreds of pages of engineers dissecting these failures, but my mind always wanders back to a week I spent in Gold Beach, Oregon, about 25 years ago.

I spent a late-summer vacation to hike in the wilderness around the Rogue, Illinois, and Chetco rivers. The Illinois nearly kicked my ass, but that’s a story for another day.Each night I returned to a beachfront hotel in Gold Beach, where I became enchanted by a small stream, no more than nine inches wide, that came from a hill and cut across the flat beach into the Pacific. Sometimes it was what I believe is called a rill taking the path of least resistance, in this case a straight channel into the ocean. Other times it meandered, winding 10 to 20 feet from side to side.

On my last day of vacation, I took a cup of coffee down to the beach to watch this rill. I was debating what hike I should take that day, but my thoughts were consumed by the previous day’s hike along the Illinois River, one that nearly kicked my ass when I thought that I had become disoriented in the wilderness. Continue reading

Thanksgiving can mean being thankful (and hopeful) that times have changed

Walking to Forest Grove

Walking to Forest Grove

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2013 by Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

The events of November 1930 seemed out of place in Forest Grove. Just about midnight on November 20, with Thanksgiving just one week away, neighbors in the small farming community of Hillside saw flames coming from the farm of Clifford Thompson, who had moved to the town of Banks and was now ready to rent out his vacant farmhouse and barns. By the time Vandervelden arrived, the house had been consumed by fire, and flames were coming from a barn a good distance from the home. Turning their hoses on the barn, firefighters managed to save it with relatively little damage. It didn’t take Vandervelden long to answer the two questions this fire posed: How did the vacant house catch on fire, and how did the fire spread to the barn? The answer was obvious, because the remains of the house reeked of gasoline, and the inside of the barn was covered with accelerants that for some reason had not ignited. In reality, Vandervelden would have guessed that this was arson even without those clues.

On Thanksgiving Day, the News-Times laid out the story and came to a startling conclusion. It seems that a few weeks before the fire at the Thompson place, flames had consumed another nearby vacant farmhouse and barn. Although he suspected arson, Vandervelden didn’t find enough clues at the earlier fire to confirm it in that case. But then a few days after the Thompson house fire, crews were called to another raging middle-of-the-night barn fire in the same area. This time the farmhouse was occupied by its owner, Karl Schaefer, and was untouched. The fire, however, consumed not one but two of his large barns, which also were occupied, one with horses and one with cattle. This time Vandervelden was certain that arson was the cause. First, someone had released the livestock into the field. Second, the rubble smelled of gasoline. Third, Schaefer had a pretty good hunch about why he was targeted; he had just rented much of his acreage to Japanese berry farmers and he knew that some neighbors were unhappy with him for doing so. Vandervelden called in veteran Washington County Sheriff John Connell, but Connell dismissed Schaefer’s concerns.

But when the News-Times talked to Clifford Thompson about this latest fire, he told the reporter that he, too, had just rented the farm to Japanese berry farmers. The vacant farm in the first of the arsons had been for rent, although the owner said he had not found a tenant at the time of the fire. Still, the News-Times uncovered racial animosity in the Hillside area, not far from where in 1923 the Ku Klux Klan had held its state convention, which featured a 70-foot-tall cross, illuminated by electric lights instead of flames. The recent influx of Japanese farmers had rekindled animosity, and the editors concluded that racism was indeed the cause of the arson spree. By now Connell agreed, but there’s no record that any arrest was ever made. Regardless, the string of Hillside arsons ended at three, and the Japanese farmers went on growing berries, at least for 10 years, when they were sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor was attacked at the start of World War II.

Pacific University’s Boxer: Both mascot and mystery

What’s a “Boxer”? A dog? A pugilist? Certainly, either answer is correct, unless you’re talking about Pacific University, in which case “Boxer” is a qilin. He’s also a mascot and a mystery.

Boxer Toss

Scene from the recently released video of a 1968 Boxer Toss.

Boxer has been missing since 1969 after a “Boxer Toss” at the height of anxiety over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Even those legendary “tosses” have faded into legend and myth for most people, at least until University Archivist Eva Guggemos unearthed a grainy 16-milimeter film from 1968 which features then-Pacific student, now Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax.

Ken and Kris Bilderback have documented Boxer’s history in cooperation with the university, Mayor Truax and others.

Here’s a link to a video the Bilderbacks produced with the Metropolitan Area Communications Commission and Tualatin Valley Community Television.

A story with additional information will appear in this week’s News-Times.





Racial bias in policing. I’m glad that debate was settled 40 years ago!

Forty years ago, I got a lesson in biased policing while I was a student in a criminal law class at Ohlone College near San Jose.

The professor, a retired San Francisco officer, was talking about the use of discretion. He used as an example failure to signal before changing lanes. He pointed out that it would foolish to make a stop every time you witness such an offense and asked for examples of when you should and shouldn’t ignore it.

Most students offered similar examples. “If you see someone a half mile ahead of you on a nearly deserted freeway change lanes without signaling, who cares?” “You should pull them over if they cut someone off,” etc. (All dialogue here is paraphrased, but the consensus was “no harm, no foul.”.)

But then one earnest young white cop said he pulls people over when they are chicano, the term in widespread use at the time. The reason, he explained, is that almost every chicano he encountered was up to no good. Their offenses included drugs, theft, assault, and traffic violations. Half the people he gave tickets to were chicano, he said, because they are lousy drivers. Continue reading

My paean to the Fourth of July

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974, Copyright 2010 Ken Bilderback.

The Michigan of my memory was a dingy place. I remember the black, crusty snow along the curbs in late winter. I remember walking home from junior high school in dank weather, terrified of the beatings I might face from the neighborhood bullies. The beatings in reality didn’t happen all that often, but 40 years later I still have physical and emotional scars from those that did.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

I remember finding safety in the cold, musty basement of my parents’ house, huddled with my cat, Bandit, and surrounded by piles of books, magazines and newspapers “collected” over the years by my hoarder mother. I remember huddling down there painfully aware that my paranoid schizophrenic father might erupt again at any moment. When he did erupt he would lock himself in his bedroom and curse and stomp his feet and his tirade would resonate through the heating vents suspended from the ceiling of the basement as I buried myself in a National Geographic, dreaming of far off cities.

My first memory of my father, in fact my first memory of anything, happened when I was a toddler. When I was young, my father would leave on long, unexplained trips. I know now he was looking for jobs and someplace to start over, but back then I didn’t know what he was searching for. I just knew he was gone, and that was good enough for me. So my life’s first memory is my mother telling me he was coming home that night from one of those trips. I screamed in terror. That’s my first memory of my life.

My safe little corner of the basement was dominated by my electric train set, mounted on a table with an ever-changing cityscape, often modeled on a picture from those National Geographics. I built the towns with discarded 2×4 blocks I scrounged from construction sites in our area of suburban Detroit, which was growing like wildfire in the 1960s, fueled by lower-middle-class whites fleeing the city. One 2×4 block was good enough for a gas station, but it might take two for the fire station, three for city hall and four or five for the hospital and school. One little wooden block was special and was a centerpiece of any scene. I had carefully drawn windows and doors on this block, along with a crude drawing of a man smiling and waving by the front door, standing under the sign identifying the business as “Kenny’s Builders.” Kenny was the general contractor for all the buildings in town, which, I remember now, included only commercial buildings and never any homes. Despite all his imagination, apparently Kenny didn’t know how to build a home. When my father would hurl coffee mugs at my beloved Bandit or sit in his bedroom cursing at the misery of knowing in his heart that I was not his son, I would imagine the train pulling out of my safe little imaginary town, headed to an even safer imaginary city that existed only in my mind.

But the Michigan of my memory also was the launching pad for what has been a happy life. Without the hours spent huddled in the safety of that unhealthy basement building imaginary towns and reading books and magazines about faraway places, I might never have overcome my fears. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t overcome my fears; I just decided my fear of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown.

At 17 I found myself sprung from high school a year early after being skipped from the middle of ninth grade to the middle of tenth. The last two years of high school had been comparatively happy times, filled with friends stuffed into my 1967 Camaro enjoying the heyday of Motown and Detroit rock ‘n’ roll. The bullies of the past already had become the pathetic losers I always knew they had buried not so deep inside of them.

Yet even those happy years carry memories of a psychotic father and dark, damp seemingly endless winters. When it came time to start my freshman year as one of the first men at the previously all-female Marygrove College in Detroit, I wondered if being one of a handful of boys in a sea of girls was worth the trade-off of being so close to my parents’ house just 18 miles up Van Dyke Avenue. I pictured making my way up through those 18 miles of black, crusty snow every Christmas for the next four years and wondered if college really was worth it. I showed up for orientation at the beautiful campus with its happy, friendly staff and faculty, but I didn’t show up for classes on the first day.

Instead of starting college, I worked seven nights a week at a little family owned pizzeria. I did all kinds of jobs around the place, but my favorite was delivering pies in my Camaro to places Domino’s wouldn’t go, especially the apartment of the big, laughing black guy who would tip me $20 for a $4 pizza. The tips sometimes came on the condition I take the cash from the mouth or panties of one of the writhing, half-naked black women who always surrounded him, but I had no problem with that.

After all, in those days gas was less than $1 a gallon and you could get a cheap hotel room for $3 or $4. I figured I could get a long way from Detroit on the tips I was making. Of course his largesse was balanced by the white folks who tipped 25 cents for my efforts, so the winter of 1973-74 was a long one before I had enough money stashed away for my escape.

When I did, I drove my Camaro to Ann Arbor and left the keys with my brother, who was in school there. I went to the Greyhound bus station and bought an Ameripass, a Greyhound Bus promotion that allowed unlimited travel anywhere in the United States for a set period of time. Had Greyhound offered a 30-year pass I would have coveted it, but I couldn’t afford even the 60-day pass, so I settled for 30 days.

I looked at the route map that came with the pass and plotted out a rough course. From Detroit I would head to the Florida Keys, then to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, across the South to San Diego, up the Coast to San Francisco and … Well, that’s about as far as I got in planning. Mostly I just wanted to get to the bus station and get started.

In the early 1970s, bus travel was waning as a mode of middle-class travel. It was no surprise then that when I got to the Detroit station and looked around the crowded waiting room most of the faces were black and ran the gamut from obviously dirt poor to only relatively affluent. The white faces, by contrast, seemed to fall pretty neatly into two groups: Young college-age travelers and older, sad-looking poor people. Many of the black faces looked happy to be going to wherever it was they were going, as did some of the college-aged white faces. I don’t think any of the other faces were quite as wide-eyed as mine was, however, as I eagerly waited for the bus that would take me down Interstate 75 to Florida.

There must have been something else showing in my eyes that day, too, because I was startled when a couple and their young daughter approached me. “Are you going all the way to Cincinnati?” one of the parents asked. When I said I was the father drifted off and the mother asked me if I would watch over their daughter, who looked to be about 10 or 12 and who was traveling alone to visit her grandmother in Ohio. The family was dark-skinned, although probably not as dark as I thought they were at the time. In the subsequent 40 years I’ve learned to appreciate the many subtle tones of skin color more than I did then. Back then they were black. All that set this family apart from the other black faces were the matching head scarves worn by the mother and daughter. So why, I wondered, did they approach me instead of one of the many black people in the room? Why would they approach me, the one person at the station who was almost as frightened as their little daughter?

I must have muttered that I would watch the girl because the mother handed me a slip of paper with the grandmother’s contact information and assured me that she would be waiting in Cincinnati when we got there. Either I forgot to ask the little girl’s name or missed it in my confused state, but I boarded the bus with the little girl and sat next to her protectively as my adventure began. She sat tall in the seat next to me with her hands folded on the lap of her clean and ironed dress. The ride through the length of Ohio is a long one, and relatively boring. The little girl said little if anything until we got to Dayton. “Is this Cincinnati?” she politely asked. I assured her it wasn’t, but then looking at the map and Dayton’s proximity to Cincinnati I found myself worried that maybe the two towns shared a bus station and felt compelled to check with the driver, who rolled his eyes and assured me that Cincinnati was still an hour away.

So we rolled on down I-75 out of Dayton. I didn’t know then that in a few years I would be living there, going to the University of Dayton and working as a journalist at the Dayton Daily News. In a few short years I would be able to drive this route with my eyes closed, but on this trip I never closed my eyes, nervously watching for our approach into Cincinnati. A sense of fear had started to grip me. I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid for the little girl, wanting to make sure she got to her grandmother safely. In fact my fear for myself already had almost disappeared, replaced with a sense of myself as the protector, not as potential prey.

When we arrived at the Cincinnati bus station my fears were realized, if only briefly. “Do you see your grandmother?” I asked my little friend. She did not. So here I was, responsible for a little girl in a strange city, a little girl who had slipped her tiny hand into mine as we stood in the depot. My mind raced and I dug out the slip of paper with the grandmother’s phone number and dug out change for the pay phone. What if she’s not home, I wondered, and I have to call the police? Would they arrest me? I had just turned 18. Would that make a difference? But fortunately I never had to call either the grandmother or the police, because the little girl’s eyes lit up at the sight of her grandparents entering the station from across the lobby. The grandparents stood out in a crowd far more than the little girl’s parents had in Detroit. The old man stayed at the other side of the lobby as the grandmother came and embraced the child. She, too, wore a long scarf draped around her head, and she covered her mouth with one of the dangling ends when she spoke to me in an accent her daughter in Detroit did not have, saying nothing more than “Thank you” and that her daughter had called her to tell her I would be watching over the little girl. She happily fussed over her granddaughter and kept repeating “Yes, yes, yes.” The grandfather made a gesture that I interpreted to be some sort of religious blessing. Then this strange family was gone. Relieved of my responsibility, my adventure could begin in earnest.

My excitement was earnest now, too. I flushed with a sense of pride and strength. Not that I had fought off attackers or saved her from a burning bus or anything, but what I had done I had done on my own. I had made it through the first leg of my journey protecting not only myself but someone else. I even had received what I took to be a blessing from some unknown but surely exotic religion. As I look back I think about that man’s blessing not only because he gave me one but also because it pains me to remember that I never received a blessing from my own father. Not when I finished school a year early, not when I embarked upon this adventure, nor when I graduated from college or launched a successful career. This blessing from a strange old man I didn’t even know would have to suffice for now. From the vantage point of age, I also realize one of the reasons I was proud of being this child’s protector: I had just accomplished something my father never would have done.

So I had left Detroit dreaming of an adventure full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, although I doubt I really imagined it would actually turn out that way. It did, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This happy memory would do for now, and I was off to Florida.