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.