The Last Company Town

In the absence of paternalistic leadership, can an isolated community survive?

The last company town of Oregon just ignored the 20th anniversary of the beginning of its end. Gilchrist, Oregon was founded in 1938 by the Gilchrist family on their timberlands in the central Cascades. The Gilchrist Timber Company thrived there, harvesting and milling ponderosa pine until its unexpected sale in 1991. The community has never recovered. I discovered Gilchrist while searching for a topic for my master’s project. I was looking for a small community whose story had not been told. Gilchrist is not only a struggling community, it is an example of the end of an era for western expansion in the United States. Over the last 150 years, company towns drove westward development. Created to facilitate the removal of natural resources from isolated regions, these unique communities began to collapse as resources were depleted and rural infrastructure matured. I set out to introduce myself to the remnants of the Gilchrist community and for three months I collected stories, hopes, and fears.

* * *

At 8:00 on a Tuesday morning Audrianna Lyn Straub stepped into her parent’s living room and put on a sweatshirt. She had curled her hair in preparation for her appearance in a video the student council was filming that afternoon. Audrianna has lived in Gilchrist her entire life and is about to become the first person from her family to go to college. Her academic accolades are impressive: 4.0 GPA; President of the Student Council; President of the Future Business Leaders of America chapter at the Gilchrist School; multiple sport athlete – track, basketball, volleyball, and cheerleading; and member of the National Honor’s Society.

Audrianna wants to be an elementary school teacher. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since second grade,” she said. “I briefly considered being the first female president, but I got over it.” This is her senior year at Gilchrist High School, and she is enrolled at Western Oregon University for this coming fall.

I was introduced to Audrianna by Principal Kevin McDaniel. I was looking for a high school student who exemplified dedication, and he suggested her as a perfect example. Audrianna’s parents, Karen and James Wible, Jr., are both Gilchrist graduates as well. The Wible family lives in a duplex adjacent to both the Gilchrist Inn and the State Police Outpost.

My first visit with Audrianna and her family was on a Sunday afternoon during my third trip to Gilchrist. I walked down the block from the hotel to the Wible’s house. The door was open to let in the warmish spring air, and I rapped on the screen door. I heard Karen Wible call for Audrianna, as another voice instructed me to come in. I walked into the living room and James Wible, Jr. turned off the television, which had been tuned to the Discovery Channel. I was offered a seat and I sat down on the sofa closest to the door, next to Mr. Wible. Audrianna sat across the room from me in an easy chair, and we began to visit.

Audrianna has always been studious. As we spoke, Mrs. Wible produced a binder filled with every award that Audrianna has ever received at school. There were notes on her progress as early as kindergarten, ending with awards for her 4.0 average in the most recent term of high school. This year hasn’t been tough on Audrianna scholastically, but she has been kept busy by her senior research paper and a multitude of scholarship applications. She chose to do research on bi-polar disorder in children, a subject that strikes close to home. Both of her younger brothers and her mother suffer from the condition.

As with most other members of the Gilchrist community, the Wible family has to make sacrifices to be able to survive. Once the Gilchrist Timber Company dissolved, jobs in the area became difficult to find. During the town’s heyday, every resident worked for the GTC in some capacity. The company’s sale brought increased mechanization and remote leadership, unconcerned with the community. When Mr. Wible was in high school, he was already working for Walker Range, the primary fire defense and forest maintenance firm in the area. After high school, Mr. Wible worked for Walker Range for a few years before supplementing his income by working for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). These days he works for ODOT full time, spending the winter in Gilchrist clearing roads and spreading the crushed rock that he travels around the state to produce during the summer months.

“It’s hard having my dad away so much,” Audrianna said. “For as long as I remember he’s always been gone doing something. When I was little and he was first hired at ODOT he was home but he was always asleep, because he worked nights. He’s always gone, but it’s just the way that things go I guess. I think it’s harder because I’m leaving soon too.”

Despite her natural abilities, Audrianna has been limited by growing up in Gilchrist. “The Gilchrist School is an incredible place, it really is, but every year more and more money is taken out of its budget,” she said. “There’s just not enough anymore. There aren’t enough programs, there aren’t enough teachers, there aren’t enough books, and sadly there aren’t enough students anymore. The high school is the smallest it has ever been. When I was little they offered classes like home economics and band. I’ve never been able to take an art class. I’ve never taken music. I never learned to sew at school or anything like that. They just don’t offer it, and it’s sad. They don’t even have a real Spanish class anymore. What more can you take from a place?”

Everyone is proud of Audrianna, but her decision to go to college is producing mixed emotions for both Audrianna and her family. “I feel guilty,” she said. “For a while my little brother Joey went through this phase when he would ask me probably once a week if I would go to school in Bend or go to school online. You know that commercial where the girl is in her pajamas and she’s like, ‘I’m not going to bed, I’m going to college.’ He thought that was the greatest thing in the world. So, I feel guilty, leaving everybody. But, it’s something you have to do for yourself. My mom’s not taking it too easily. High school is not enough; Gilchrist is not enough for me. I want to go and see what’s out there. I think Gilchrist is a great place to grow up; I just don’t want to stay here because I feel like I don’t have a choice. There’s not enough opportunity here.”

* * *

In 1991, the Gilchrist community, once employed entirely by the Gilchrist Timber Company, fell into a void of uncertainty and strife. When the paternalistic company was sold, jobs disappeared overnight, and since then there has been little development outside the roadside services indicative of contemporary rural America. Poverty continues to grip the region, increasingly so in the current economic downturn. Those who have jobs either work at the few remaining enterprises, or drive to nearby towns to do similar work.

The Gilchrist family has been in the timber industry for generations. Beginning six generations ago with Albert Gilchrist in New Hampshire, the company was passed down through the family, moving to different regions of the country as resources either waned, or taxation cut into profit margins. From New Hampshire to Michigan to Mississippi before landing in Oregon, the Gilchrist Timber Company had seen ups and downs.

Back in 1938, the Gilchrist family moved from Jasper County, Mississippi – about 90 miles southeast of Jackson – to a tract of land that Frank W. Gilchrist, Sr. had purchased years prior in speculation of the harvests available in the central Cascades. Taxes were lower in Oregon, and in contrast to the heavily tapped forests of southern pine, there was ample timber to be harvested.

As the United States attempted to spur itself out of the Great Depression, the Gilchrist Timber Company began considering a change in hometown. Shortly after Frank W. Gilchrist, Sr. moved the company to Mississippi in 1907, he purchased tracts of timber land in the undeveloped west, a forward thinking decision that would allow for the success of his company for generations. As the southern pine timber became increasingly scarce, Frank W.’s grandson, another Frank W., ventured into the mountains of central Oregon to evaluate the land’s potential. In 1937 it was decided that the company would move over 2,000 miles west, with many of the Mississippi workers and their families in tow.

By the late 1930s, company towns and logging villages had permeated the western landscape. The environment was harsh, and the resources were remote. Therefore, in order to guarantee a healthy, happy, and productive workforce, many mill and mine owners found that building towns to provide for the needs of their workers increased production and gave then additional authority over how their workers lived.

Company towns have a bad reputation. There are horror stories about tycoons who squeezed every last cent out of their employees, offering only script as payment – valid only in the company owned store with inflated prices.

Gilchrist was never one of these communities.

Gilchrist was a unique company town in a number of ways. While the company built and owned the retail spaces that became known as the Gilchrist Mall, the company acted only as a landlord. None of the businesses were owned by the company, nor did the company issue script. When the community was built, the company hired a Portland architect to design livable, aesthetically pleasing houses with every modern facility, from electricity to a sewer system. Business owners were guaranteed a monopoly because there simply wasn’t enough space for numerous businesses of the same type.

People loved living in Gilchrist, or hated it, mostly for the same reasons. The town was, and remains, very isolated. Rent was cheap, wages were good, and the town was in essence a fiefdom of the Gilchrist family. Frank R. Gilchrist monitored his employees, and regulated their lawn care practices. He was a Cadillac fan, and would buy a new one every year, according to James Wible. He drove them like pickup trucks, barreling down forest roads, driving so fast that he rolled one of his machines into a ditch. The curve on the forest road is still named after him.

The Gilchrist community was tight-knit in its heyday. James Anding, a longtime Gilchrist resident whose family followed the company from Mississippi, can remember when the streets were still dirt, and two groups of boys from opposing sides of town would meet regularly for team sports in the afternoons. There were dogs running free everywhere. When kids got into mischief, their parents often knew what their kids had been up to before they even returned home. Word passed quickly through the community.

The paternalism that the company demonstrated was omnipresent, but people respected each other, Anding told me, and the community thrived in servitude to the Gilchrist family. The Gilchrist family led a colony, and one that was content with its lifestyle. Things may have moved slowly, but that was fine with the residents. James Wible, Jr. said there were no drugs in the community. Entertainment came in the form of double features for only 50 cents. People had things to do, and people to do them with.

In those days, any mill worker’s child who decided to go to college was guaranteed work at the mill or in the forest surrounding the town during the summer months. The Gilchrist family company was paternalistic to the extreme, leading their workers through bad times and good. This paternalism is demonstrated by how much sway and interest the company had in its workers’ lives. Good workers were treated well, and poor workers were dismissed. “My family got a turkey at Thanksgiving, a ham at Christmas,” Anding told me. By 1991, Gilchrist was the only remaining company town in operation in Oregon as stated in Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest by Linda Carlson. That year, after Frank R. Gilchrist’s passing, the board of the Gilchrist Timber Company decided by vote that the company, its timberlands, mill and town would be sold. It was then that things began to fall apart for the Gilchrist family, their company, and their employees.

In 1991, the Gilchrist Timber Company was abruptly sold to a large corporation, Crown Pacific, based in Portland, Ore. Rumors of the sale had permeated the town to the point that the High School yearbook from 1991 had dedicated two pages to speculation. “Rumors fly around the community trying to predict the future…the community and its history are endangered as the question is again asked, what is going to happen?”

The next business day after purchasing the company, Crown fired all of the Gilchrist Timber Company’s employees, and the entire town was out of work overnight. The only hitch in the deal was that Crown did not want to purchase the town. The corporation simply didn’t have an interest in taking on the paternalistic nature of town ownership, and in order to further the plans to sell the mill and timberlands, the Ernst Brothers Corporation struck a deal with Crown to acquire the town on October 4, 1991. The Ernst brothers are part of the larger Gilchrist family, the sons of Mary Giles Ernst, daughter of Frank W. Gilchrist, Jr. Mary Giles was born in Mississippi and lives at the Gilchrist compound on the eastern bank of the mill pond to this day.

The Ernst Brothers Corporation was not originally created to take over ownership of the town. As the community began to stabilize over the next few years under Crown, the EBC began to sell off portions of the town to individuals, parcel by parcel. During 1995 the EBC began renovations on the many homes in town to prepare them for sale. It was then that the town lost its heritage as “brown town” with the installation of vinyl siding, metal roofs, new doors, and energy efficient windows. The EBC also formed a homeowners association that would take over town maintenance once 80% of the units were owned by individuals. The first home was sold in December 1996, and the Ernst Brothers Corporation turned over control to the home owners association in September 1997.

Crown Pacific invested heavily in the Gilchrist mill, and then went on to extract merchantable timber as quickly as possible before declaring bankruptcy in 2003. Swaths of old growth ponderosa pine were harvested heavily. Consequently, the timberlands now established as the Gilchrist State Forest are comprised almost entirely of 20-30 year-old growth, according to state forest manager John Pellissier.

The mill is still in operation today, but under yet another corporation, Interfor Pacific. The Canadian company also has no vested interest in the community itself, owning just the mill. Crown Pacific’s timberlands were seized by its creditors, Cascade Timberlands, and were sold to the state in 2010 establishing the Gilchrist State Forest. Shifts at the mill are highly mechanized these days, and thus employment is low. In the end, the people of Gilchrist have yet to recover from the loss of the Gilchrist Timber Company. There had not been any form of local government, because there was no need for one. Since the collapse of the family empire, no one has stepped in to lead the community, and it continues to struggle to move forward.

Unless some form of large scale development is introduced, providing necessary jobs to the community, Gilchrist is on a path to increased hardship. Whether or not this community can be saved will be determined by the economic opportunities available to residents. Without a primary industry providing hundreds of jobs and leadership, the town does not have the employment rate or direction to support families or growth.

* * *

My first trip to Gilchrist was well into March, but winter was still holding on. On Thursday morning, I bundled up and left the Gilchrist Inn. The wind was blowing steady waves of snow, falling from the sky and swirling up off the ground, as I walked past the length of the school grounds to the mall, or what was left of it. Amid vacant storefronts a few businesses still exist: a computer store displaying refurbished desktops; a closed – but fully equipped – restaurant; a gas station with rusting cars piled along the side of the highway; a bank branch; a video rental store; a yarn supply store open only two days a week and by appointment; a county library open for select hours three days a week; a post office; and a market on the southwest corner. I walked in to the market and ordered a cup of coffee and a “breakfast sandwich” definitely not made to order. Still, at this hour of the morning, the small market seemed to be the most happening place around.

Everyone who drives by stares hard at anyone they see; perhaps they’re only staring at me because I’m a stranger.

The market’s rounded corner is comprised of windows with dining tables lining the arc. Directly across the highway is the entrance to the mill. Occasionally there are trucks, either laden with logs or bare, their extensions flipped up onto themselves to ease their travel over the Cascades. Things seem pretty slow and there’s still a healthy coat of snow on the ground.

Both Michael and Tina Manis are behind the counter this morning. Together, they own the market and are originally from Bend. White aprons with sporadic stains hang from both of their necks, and their warm smiles and friendly conversation greet every customer as the two proprietors bustle around the grill. Six years ago they purchased the store and moved to the area full time. Many of the businesses still in existence are owned by people who moved into town during the last decade, capitalizing on the low property values and taxes.

“Business is good. Not booming, but good,” Michael said. Knowing his customer’s names is something that Michael focuses on. Not only is it a sales tactic, but he says it’s a basic human function. People like to be recognized, and that helps business. “I want people to feel comfortable and come back, not once but every time they need something.”

I’ve only seen four cars to this point, while pickup trucks are everywhere. Men in bright orange coats and vests jump out of their trucks and walk inside, all of them clad in work boots; key rings hang from their hips and jingle in harmony with the market’s doorbell. It’s 11:00 and it must be lunch for the mill workers; pods of trucks flow in and out of the mill road. After fifteen minutes I am alone again. The rush has passed.

An old church visible across the side-street from the store has been converted into an office building, while a cross still adorns the diminutive steeple. Tina heard the other day that there are 450 people left in this community, but in terms of “old-timers,” many have passed away over the last few years.

Nearly all of the houses are no longer uniform “Gilchrist brown.” Twenty years of individual ownership has led to personalization. The Gilchrist Inn has also been given a new façade. Owned and operated by Marlene Reid, the building was originally designed as a temporary housing facility for engineers and other professionals who were passing through town. The only buildings still clad in Gilchrist brown are the mall, the theatre, and the Gilchrist/Ernst family compound on the west side of the highway and the banks of the mill pond.

After an hour of waiting for something exciting to happen, I abandoned my warm seat in the market and took a walk around town. I went up to the school to try and meet with the principal, but it was spring break, and there was no one in the office. In fact that was the case for most everywhere I went. As I walked, I came upon closed signs, and found myself peering through windows. There was once a bowling alley with two lanes and a bar here in town, closed. The theatre is closed, as is the restaurant and the car wash. On that particular snowy day in late March, Gilchrist looked deserted.

In an hour of walking around, I saw only two vehicles that weren’t screaming down the highway. At the end of Michigan Street, which runs one block east parallel to Highway 97, I arrived at a cul-de-sac and had to abruptly turn on my heels. Two large dogs had caught wind of me, and were sprinting toward me. A flicker of fear got the best of me, and I anxiously listened for the ominous click of claws on pavement closing in from behind, not even allowing myself to look back until I had walked swiftly past three houses.

It seems as though this place is dying. Perhaps it has more to do with the kids not being around than anything else, but there just doesn’t seem to be much going on.

The silence is ghostly as the flurries float down in the breeze and drifts burry the football field at the top of the hill.

* * *

On my second trip to Gilchrist, I entered the school through the main double doors and walked into the office. It’s a small space with a small staff, and there are often students present to answer the phone behind the white counter that faces the entrance. “Gilchrist School, student speaking,” they answer. To the left is a more formal receptionist, Tanna King; to the right, a door leading to Principal McDaniel’s office. Kevin McDaniel has been the principal of the Gilchrist School for three years, but his personal history there goes back to 1983. His first teaching position out of college was at the Gilchrist School. Back then, Gilchrist was referred to as the “brown town,” and several teachers lived on campus in a small apartment building between the music wing and the technology classroom. One of the staff members still lives in the dilapidated building, but the other four units are vacant.

“I’m from Northeast Oregon, so this position gets me a little bit closer to home, and I was interested in working at a smaller school,” McDaniel said. “I’m the announcer at basketball games. It’s slower-paced than larger school systems. There isn’t the same kind of pressure as there is in the larger districts.”

McDaniel is in his early 50s, and passionate about his work. Dressed appropriately in layers, a striped blue polo shirt pokes out from underneath his black fleece vest as we sit drinking coffee and talking in his small office. The office is cluttered with stacks of documents covering nearly every surface and small boxes of books piled in the corner. In a state divided by state university allegiance, McDaniel proudly displays his diploma, pennants and other doodads celebrating his education at the University of Oregon.

Gilchrist is a resilient place according to McDaniel. The economy has slowed considerably, but he remains proud of the community because it has found a way to persevere in the face of difficult times. In 1983 enrollment at the school was over 500, but these days there are just over 200 students on campus: 95 elementary students and 118 secondary students, 14 of whom are seniors. As a long standing member of the Klamath County School District, the Gilchrist School serves a large area around Gilchrist proper, from Diamond Lake Junction in the south to just south of La Pine in the north. Most of the student population is spread out these days, with few being tied to the mill or Gilchrist in general. For the most part, the houses within town are owned by retirees or snow-birds. Athletic director James Anding estimates that there are a total of ten children within the entire student population that live with their families in town.

According to McDaniel, dropouts fall into the typical categories: dysfunctional families and substance abuse being the two major contributing factors. Additionally, the Gilchrist School has a large mobile population. A direct result of the economic downturn, the state calculated mobility rate for Gilchrist stands at 25%. The region’s stagnant economy is forcing parents and families to move in order to find work or cheaper housing outside the district.

When talking about the population as a whole, I was surprised to discover how many of the students are truly impoverished. “The poverty here is unbelievable,” McDaniel said. “We have kids who have never seen the doctor or dentist.” 73% of the students qualify for assisted lunch programs. One of the major programs that he takes pride in as an administrator is the health center on campus. Open three days a week, with a half-day on Wednesdays, the facility has the appearance of a typical doctor’s office. Examination rooms, doctor work space, and medical machinery are all present in the sterile space decorated with artwork by elementary students. The facility was originally a teacher’s home, and now provides much needed healthcare services to the student population. Once a year, the Dental Foundation of Oregon’s Tooth Taxi comes through town giving many students access to a dentist; this would otherwise be impossible based on the financial straits of their families.

The Gilchrist School, its athletic fields and playground occupy nearly half the area of Gilchrist proper, and unsurprisingly the school is one of the largest employers in the town with 14 teachers and 32 total staff members.

The bell rings, McDaniel moves over to his computer and pulls up the surveillance camera monitors. There are 2 cameras in the elementary school and a total of 16 on campus. “This camera system has been a godsend,” McDaniel said. “It has really cut down on property damage from vandalism.” Additional cameras will soon be placed around the school’s perimeter in response to increased pressure from the state as a result of a recent kidnapping incident in the Portland area.

Close to 50% of the student population participates in sports, but with increasing budget constraints sports are the only extra-curricular activity that the school still provides. Art, music, and theatre programs have been cut in addition newspaper classes. Up until the 1990s, these programs were still in place and reasonably well funded. A music room still exists on the campus, but is void of instruments and sound. The chalk boards with musical staffs, blank. The large room is being used as a remote classroom for Spanish instruction; a handful of high school students stare at a video projection of a woman at an overhead-projector many miles away.

Despite the facility’s limitations, there are ample examples of academic excellence for such a tiny school. While showing me the surveillance camera system, McDaniel stumbled upon a scene he thought was worth my seeing. “The Matheletes” were taking a photo on the stairs to the gymnasium, celebrating their recent success at a competition in Bend. The team consists mostly of upperclassmen, but there were at least two sophomores and one freshman who McDaniel pointed out in the group. Led by math teacher Devin Harris, the team won third place in the state for the 2010/2011 school year. The Future Business Leaders of America is also a strong program at the school. 29 Grizzlies travelled to the FBLA state competition in 2011.

Shortly after we returned to his office, McDaniel and I left again to take a walking tour of the grounds. There have been a number of building and expansion projects over the years, and only a few of the central school buildings are original to the 1939 construction. The gymnasium is the most impressive room on campus. Lined with wood paneling, the high ceilings are constructed with large timbers indicative of the mill’s early prominence. The gymnasium sports all of its original glory with the exception of a repainted grizzly at center court, which was McDaniel’s first improvement project, and an expanded scorer’s table.

Decreasing enrollment has led to empty spaces. In the elementary school wing there are several vacant classrooms, which are now used primarily for storage. The technology lab has a very well-equipped woodshop that is seldom used. The bare concrete floors are devoid of sawdust, while the tool bench along the far wall collects its own variety of dust. McDaniel informed me that should a student be interested in woodworking, the facility is still available to them. The other half of the technology lab houses 22 computers and an area for basic robotics construction. This room is where most technology instruction is conducted.

All of the school’s basketball and football games are broadcast live on the local radio station by Gil Ernst. In terms of athletic history, Gilchrist won a number of state championships in track and cross country back in the 1970s. When the football program began in 1973, resources began to dwindle for other athletic programs. While track is still a sport on campus, the cross country team has long been defunct.

As we walked around the school, it became even clearer how much McDaniel loves his work. We lined up in file behind a class of kindergarteners on their way to lunch. He spoke with every student that we came into contact with. This year, the elementary school students held a fundraiser to pay for a new rock climbing wall in the elementary recreation room, a miniature gym stashed within the building. One of the most successful programs implemented recently was the attendance-for-pizza campaign, or “bribe” as McDaniel called it. According to McDaniel, the program helps to promote attendance by creating a small amount of positive peer pressure. Students encourage other students to come to school in order to win the pizza party given to the class with the highest attendance percentage each month. Mrs. Heidii Fettinger’s kindergarten class took the prize in March with 92.39% attendance.

Five of the teachers at the school are alumni, and four of the staff members have children that are currently students. It’s obvious that the school is still a point of pride for many of the people involved with its daily operations. Despite shrinking attendance, and in contrast to rumors in town, there are no plans for the school to close. “I didn’t come back here to be the last principal of this school,” McDaniel said emphatically. “This is a place where people see growth and excitement happening. It promotes hope and is very central to the community.”

* * *

It was a beautiful Saturday morning in early April when I made my third trip to Gilchrist. When I arrived, I went directly to Mike and Tina’s. The counter was buzzing. Students and their families from around the region clogged the line, seeking fried foods not available at the track meet’s meager grill. Spirits were high, and business was good as I left the proprietors to make my way up the hill.

I came to the throwing area first. It was just over the hill from the health center. I began walking toward the center of the field, scanning the scene for anyone I knew.

James Anding was chatting with another coach at the far corner of the javelin range perimeter. My presence interrupted their conversation, and the rival coach added as a farewell, “…and thanks again for letting us switch that lineup.”

“No problem,” Anding replied. Anding was dressed in Gilchrist colors from head to toe. Wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, his regular attire of a hoodie and gym shorts finally matched his surroundings. He was humble, competitive, proud, stressed, collected, and busy, so our conversation was brief. Audrianna was only 100 yards away; I had passed her on my way to Anding and as I walked up she recognized me.

We walked around the field for a few minutes. According to Anding, this may have been the largest track meet ever held in Gilchrist. There were so many people on the field, the setting felt familiar to me, and promising. After watching a few boys throw in the shot put event, we turned to the girls long jump. Audrianna was already finished for the day, having not qualified for the final heats, but planned to stay on the field for the meet’s duration. We talked for a little while about my project, her life, and her Mary Giles Ernst story.

Audrianna was in middle school at the time, and she had qualified for a weeklong trip to Washington, DC, that her family was unable to afford. After numerous fundraisers, there still wasn’t enough. One day a voice came over the intercom, ordering Audrianna to the principal’s office. “I thought I was in trouble,” she said. In the office, Audrianna was met by her teary eyed mother with excellent news. As it turned out, she was headed to Washington after all.

Mary Giles Ernst, the last remaining matriarch of the Gilchrist/Ernst family, had come to the rescue for a girl she had never met. She sent a check to the principal for the $1,600 balance of Audrianna’s trip. Both of Audrianna’s parents are members of the greater Gilchrist Timber Company family having grown up in Gilchrist. Both had family members that worked for either the GTC, Walker Range, or both. Even though the Gilchrist family was no longer in control of the town, Mary Giles Ernst continued the family’s tradition of paternalism, making sure that Audrianna, a bright young resident, was able to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to her.

* * *

The Gilchrist/Crescent Community Action Team was formed during the Clinton administration as part of a larger federal program designed to help facilitate growth and development in small rural communities. The only semblance of government in the community to this day, the CAT is designed as an outlet for Klamath County leadership to receive input from the area’s constituents. The current CAT board includes representatives from Gilchrist and the neighboring town of Crescent. At 26, I was the youngest person in the room by at least 20 years. The team conducts their meetings in the old church that was converted to office space, directly across the street from the south end of the Gilchrist Mall.

The March quarterly meeting kicked off a few minutes after 8:00 AM, with President Barbara Sullivan seated at the head of the conference table. Barbara has been the President of the CAT for four years now, and appears well suited to her position with her conservative style and short silver bob haircut.

I sipped at my coffee as the lights were dimmed for Discover Klamath’s presentation, the marketing arm of the county’s tourism bureau, paid for by hotel taxes. The numbers were impressive. Much of the presentation was geared toward establishing who the ideal tourists are, and how to bring them in. Once talk moved to more practical issues about the actual filming for commercial spots, the room began to turn on the presenters. It seems that a few weeks prior, a film crew started out of Klamath Falls, and as a result of weather conditions never made it to the Northern area of the county.

“If you can make it to Crater Lake, you can make it up here,” board member Terri Anderson remarked with perceivable anger and disgust.

It was clear through the body language and the comments made by the board members that they felt they were getting ripped off. County Commissioner Cheryl Hukill, sitting to my right in a bright pink pantsuit, did her best to stem the tide, but the Discover Klamath people wrapped up their presentation and departed quickly, sparking some of the board members to comment that they hadn’t had all of their questions answered.

The remaining minutes of the meeting were dedicated to previous agenda items: An ODOT highway beautification project, plans for the new Gilchrist State Forest being designed and marketed as an ATV mecca, the complicated status of hiring a new consultant to review plans for a sewer system in Crescent, and finally a surprise announcement from the National Forrest Service representative that the ranger station in Crescent was scheduled to be revamped beginning either late this year or early next. The plans will allow for additional retail or law enforcement space, perhaps introducing the Klamath County Sheriff’s department to the region. Today, there is only one deputy stationed in the area. Nearly all policing for the community is conducted by the State Police from their longstanding outpost in Gilchrist.

After the meeting adjourned, Bruce Hall – owner of Big Pines RV Park – explained the sewer issue to me. Crescent is unable to attract new business development because there is no sewer system for the community. Unlike Gilchrist, there were no architects working for Crescent, and the community has never had a cohesive development plan. The Community Action Team has been struggling with this issue since its creation. Hall was in charge of the sewer project subcommittee a few years ago and spent thousands of team dollars on consultants then. He told me that no progress has been made because the state requirement code continues to change. The community is struggling to put together a plan that will serve the expansion needs of the future, within a limited budget.

There are two primary hopes for economic development in the area: the Gilchrist State Forest and the Crescent Creek Resort. Unfortunately no one knows how many jobs either of these opportunities will actually create for the community, and both are dependent upon a healthy tourism industry. “I hope that our tourism improves,” Barbara Sullivan said. “I hope that we’re in a space and time where everyone will be able to take vacations without having to pay $10/gallon for gas. That is my hope. That’s what we’re all about! The recreation in our area is great with hunting, fishing, skiing, hiking, and the general outdoor lifestyle. That’s what we are banking on, that people will come and stay and recreate and enjoy the central Oregon lifestyle.”

The Crescent Creek Resort development could be the best thing to happen to Gilchrist since the end of the Gilchrist Timber Company. Cascade Timberlands, a division of Fidelity Investments, acquired the timberlands around Gilchrist after the collapse of Crown Pacific and first submitted plans for the resort in 2008. The proposed resort would be built to the west of Gilchrist and cover 5,500 acres surrounding Crescent Creek. At the time of issuance, the development permits were established with a two year approval window in addition to three one-year extensions.

According to Nancy Cravin, Vice President of Operations for Cascade Timberlands, the development is on hold because of the struggling residential home market. Ms. Cravin said that there is not a specific percentage point in terms of market growth that would spur immediate development. Rather, Cascade Timberlands is waiting for a general upswing in the economy. “It certainly would have a huge impact on the community,” according to Bill Adams, Klamath County Planning Director. “The fundamental question is whether or not the resort will get off the ground in the first place.”

“People are really hoping the resort will go in,” James Anding said. However, from his perspective the proposed resort has pros and cons. “That’s where I like to hunt and fish,” he said. “It’s a beautiful wilderness area out there, but it would definitely help the community economically. I like living in Gilchrist because there’s nobody out here. That’s one reason I live out here. I can walk out my back door and walk for miles and miles and not see anyone. But for the community, the resort would really help. It’s the biggest hope people have of something coming in. I can’t see anything else. There’s great opportunity here but the way the economy is people are struggling everywhere. It would definitely change the area but that’s okay. Change is just change; it’s not necessarily good or bad.”

No one disputes that the Crescent Creek Resort would introduce capital into the community, but there is a question as to what that capital would support. Battles will ensue over everything from construction positions to competition within an already strapped small business environment. The resort as planned would consist of two golf courses; 1,965 single-family residences; 785 overnight lodging units; and a lodge with pro-shop, restaurant, and conference room facilities. The resort would in itself increase commerce in the area, but could threaten the existence of the current institutions in town, not that there are many left. Another major concern for the region as a whole is the amount of water the development would need. The region is already struggling to support its water needs all along the Little Deschutes River. The combination of two golf courses in constant need of upkeep and the sheer size of the development, in terms of how many people will be introduced to the ecosystem, may place impossible strain on the water table.

On the other side of the Gilchrist community, the 43,000 acre Gilchrist State Forest was chartered along the eastern border of town in the spring of 2010. The forest acquisition is the first continuous parcel of its scale to be added to the Oregon Depart of Forestry’s holdings since 1948. As a result of Crown Pacific’s aggressive harvesting of the land in the 1990s, much of the forest is around 20 years old, and is therefore not a profit yielding forest at this time. John Pellissier, a Management Unit Forester in the Oregon Department of Forestry, is in charge of the managing the land. “As far as our plans for the forest go, we’re in the gathering intel state,” Pellissier said. “We need to see what we have out there, how it’s growing, and then come up with an actual plan.”

Pellissier is in charge of managing the Gilchrist State Forest in order for it to achieve three goals: to protect open space and wildlife habitats from small scale development, to provide recreation opportunities, and to turn a profit; the latter of which will not truly be realized for a number of years. “We want to go in and create a structure that will allow the forest to stay healthy and grow for 20-40 years,” Pellissier said. “Then it will be in a similar condition as other forest land that we have where we can go in and selectively remove volume creating an all-aged structure and generate millions of dollars for Klamath County. That’s the ultimate goal.”

While recreation is a priority for the Gilchrist State Forest, it does not command as much emphasis as making the land profitable. Within the larger state management plan, the forest will supply the public with “dispersed recreation opportunities.” In simple terms the phrase means that there are no facilities or designated campgrounds developed on the land. “It’s a self maintaining condition,” Pellissier explained. While the area will allow for recreation activities, the forestry department will not actively build anything to facilitate use without a significant push from the community.

“When I first started talking to the community they didn’t really know ODF very well and they wanted us groom a trail for sledding, snowmobiling and cross country skiing,” Pellissier said. “We’re not going to do that. I can give them a road system, but to build a trail system, a user group has to go in and actually groom it or prepare it. We’re not going to go out there and start building trails everywhere. We’re going to monitor the use, and build infrastructure as needed. We want to fill a niche.”

* * *

All of a sudden, the highway erupted. A black Accord coupe flashed by followed by a semi and a patrol car, so close to the rig that he may well have been drafting. As if as an afterthought, Trooper Joseph Smith spotted me and altered his course to pick me up. As he slammed on his brakes he gesticulated to me wildly. I ran toward the car and he instructed me to throw all the stuff in the passenger seat into the back. My coffee sloshed everywhere as I hurried into the car. Before I could even fasten my safety belt we were screaming back onto the highway northbound, fishtailing on the fine gravel. As we gained speed I tried to introduce myself, but my words were unintelligible to Smith over the roar of the road.

“Sorry that we had to start out this way,” he yelled in my direction as he pushed the cruiser up to 120 mph. “I’m hard of hearing and can’t hear very well when there’s a lot of wind noise.”

Swiftly passing the semi, the Accord came back into view. Smith reached over and flipped a switch. “I’ll tell you what all these buttons do later,” he said. Obediently the car pulled to the side of the road and Smith brought the cruiser to a stop and began to gather his necessary implements. Unable to find his remote microphone, he sorted through the items in the backseat, and even bent down to look underneath the patrol car before I suggested that the black plastic box he was looking for might be the one already clipped to his left shoulder. He sheepishly muttered a thank you.

After a brief conversation with the driver, he returned to the car with two licenses, one from California, the other from Washington. “5261,” he spoke into the receiver, his voice smooth and somewhat hushed. He read their names to the dispatcher in the phonetic alphabet and waited. A voice crackled back over the loudspeaker. “5261,” Smith repeated.

“California license suspended. Washington license valid,” the dispatcher’s voice said.

Smith went back and forth from the patrol car to the stopped vehicle. As it turned out the two men didn’t have insurance, a valid license, or own the car they were driving. He issued three citations and called in a tow truck: driving without a license, driving without insurance, and making an illegal pass.

According to Smith, troopers have only begun to tow in this patrol area over the last 2-3 years. Previously they weren’t able to because of restrictions based on their status as an outpost. Since they’ve been able to tow, he has seen a marked increase in drivers carrying insurance and valid licenses.

I sat in the car and scribbled times and details for the next forty-five minutes while Smith stood outside and explained the situation to the violators. Even though the driver’s license was suspended, Oregon troopers are unable to enforce California law, and the only recourse Smith had was to impound the vehicle to keep the man from driving.

Once the tow truck drove away with the men and their borrowed car, Trooper Smith and I returned to the outpost for some coffee and an interview. The Gilchrist State Patrol Outpost was established in 1947 with three troopers assigned to the post, Bill Hazelwood, Jim Ayers and Faye Holly. The Gilchrist Timber Company provided the building, and allowed troopers to rent company housing otherwise limited to mill workers.

It took a number of calls to various State Police departments around the state to finally pin down a trooper who fit what I was looking for. At the beginning of April 2011, the Gilchrist outpost was changed from the Klamath Falls headquarters to the Bend district for the first time in nine years. After nearly a decade of having call sign 3961, Senior Trooper Joe Smith had to tape an index card to his steering wheel to remind him that he is now identified 5261.

According to Smith, the State Police in the Gilchrist area have always blended into the community. Staff numbers have ebbed and flowed, with the high point being between 2000-2002 when there was a Sergeant, five Troopers and a Game Warden assigned to the outpost.

Trooper Smith has been a member of the Gilchrist community for most of his life. Standing at about six feet tall, Smith is barrel chested with closely cropped pewter hair, wire rimmed glasses, and hearing aids in both ears. His family has been in the area since the era of homesteading. His grandparents staked their claim in 1916 and by the following year had built their first cabin.

“Probably half the kids in my class wanted to be troopers,” Smith said. However, to be a state trooper you have to be 21 years old, so once he had graduated from Gilchrist High School, he went to work in the surrounding forest under his father. The next 23 years found Smith in a variety of industries, from mining for gold to machine work assembling pumps for use on the Alaska Pipeline. “I’m pretty proud of that one,” he said.

Years later, after raising two children, Smith signed up to go on a ride along with then Sergeant Brown. Encouraged to follow his childhood dream by his wife, an EMT, he agreed to spend a day exploring the life of a trooper. After sitting in the patrol car he decided that it was time for a career change.

When he was hired in 1997, Smith was the only trooper of his class who requested a position at the Gilchrist post, and was immediately given his preference. “Living out here is a lifestyle I enjoy, but it’s an obstacle for some people,” he said. With the closest supermarket or movie theatre over thirty minutes away, living in the Gilchrist community requires a certain type of person.

“It is tough to enforce your family and friends,” Smith acknowledged, but he is certainly content with his fourth profession. “We’re pretty tough in our office,” he said, and for the most part, crimes committed in the area are driven by poverty. According to Smith most of the arrests made by the outpost are people who receive state welfare, average between 18-45 years old, are usually unemployed and are attempting to receive disability support; but to him poverty is not an excuse for crime, and he rarely sees crimes committed purely out of desperation. “I think they’re trying to get something for nothing. There are responsible people who get jobs no matter what the economy is like,” he said, such as himself.

Smith’s hard line on criminals is supported by his fond memories of what life used to be like in this small community. “Everybody worked together in those days. We worked six days a week as a logger, and on those Sundays you either spent time with your family or played softball,” he said. These days Smith says the community is not as close, and the kids are not as respectful as previous generations were.

The Gilchrist outpost is tiny. Less than twenty yards away from the eastern shoulder of Highway 97, the small white washed building is marked by a 40 ft flagpole dedicated to two troopers who lost their lives during a when their patrol car collided with a semi on Labor Day 1997. Inside, the walls are covered in photographs of wildfires, freak accidents, and drug busts. Contraband confiscated from poachers sixty years ago still sits wedged in between desks. Bobcat skins, walrus tusks and bucks shot out of season gather dust in the tiny office on the side of the sleepy highway.

“The best part about this job is helping people,” Smith said, and he maintains that the use of physical force is always a last resort. “The most valuable tools you have are your mouth and brain. If you talk to people positively, allowing them to understand that you can see their side, you can diffuse most situations.” He has only used a physical takedown maneuver once in 13 years on the job, but he has used pepper spray at least three times to subdue suspects.

Before setting back out on patrol, Smith ran through a few safety issues with me. “If everything goes wrong, save yourself,” he told me. He gave me a radio code that he promised would send the cavalry and tried to reassure me of the improbability of such a situation. “Have you ever fired a shotgun?” he asked. I replied that I had but had missed the skeet so completely that my friends had recommended I put it down. He suppressed a scowl and quickly showed me where the safety switch was and how to use the pump action before setting the gun back in-between the front seats. An hour or two later I glanced at the weapon while waiting for him to return to the cruiser and realized that the safety was still disengaged, and hesitantly clicked it back into position.

At 10:06, as we were riding south through the 40 mph speed zone in Crescent, a car headed north sped by us at 53 mph. Smith quickly whipped the cruiser into a u-turn and pulled over the two door import from California. He went up to the car and collected their licenses, both valid, before returning to the cruiser to call for backup. He believed there were narcotics in the car. “I can’t tell you all the reasons why [I suspect this vehicle], but there are a number of tiny red flags popping up,” Smith said. Within five minutes another trooper was on the scene, separating the two Hispanic suspects, while Smith began to search the car. Before exiting the cruiser, he asked me to be sure he didn’t crush his hat when he returned, and I took the liberty of straightening the pin on the front which had wriggled clockwise from center.

Ten minutes passed as Smith rummaged through the vehicle. In this time a third trooper arrived on the scene to further assist in the search. They checked under the hood, laid on the ground flashing their Maglites around the undercarriage, emptied all of the bags in the trunk, and did not identify any narcotics. The search continued until 10:40, but even after completion, the suspects were not released. Further questioning continued until it was determined that the passenger was allegedly wanted for outstanding warrants in Washington County. The suspect was placed under arrest at 10:55, and the driver was given a warning and released.

“You’re lucky!” Smith told me. “Not many ride-along’s get to see me take someone to jail.”

Immediately after the driver left the scene, Smith realized he had not returned the man’s registration. We quickly pursued the driver north for about 2 miles, catching up to him just past Gilchrist, before turning south and beginning our 2 hour trek to the nearest jail in the county seat, Klamath Falls.

“This guy’s been pretty good,” Smith said of our prisoner. “Usually, they go through three stages during the ride.” First the prisoners ask for Smith to loosen their handcuffs, then they begin to get irate, demanding him to loosen their restraints. After that tactic doesn’t work, many resort to becoming emotional, begging him to loosen their cuffs before collecting themselves and restarting the cycle. Our prisoner did not go through any of these stages, and in fact made not so much as a peep from the time he was cuffed in Crescent until we arrived at the Klamath County Jail two hours later.

We pulled up to a security gate where Smith identified himself and his quarry. The gate slowly rolled up, and we drove into the admittance area. He placed all of his weapons into a locker before opening the rear door of the cruiser and escorting his prisoner through the security doors.

The secure area for admitting prisoners was manned by three deputies. One of them conducted a search of the prisoner and confiscated his personal effects as Smith struggled to file the appropriate paperwork. After sifting through a stack of faxes from Washington County, it was still unclear that all three of the warrants applied to this particular prisoner. The aliases were not clearly linked, and Smith struggled with which name should be used as the prisoner’s primary identification. After nearly half an hour on the phone, he finally made sense of the faxes and filed the paperwork with the jail.

During this time, I paced back and forth in the small sterile and chilly space, answering occasional questions from the deputies who were vaguely interested in my presence. The deputies’ raucous conversation contributed to Smith’s difficulties on the phone. Their discussion of pornography forced Smith to regularly ask his contact to repeat what they had said to determine the appropriate procedure. After the prisoner’s effects were confiscated, his cuffs were removed revealing reddened indentations 1/8” deep on both wrists which he massaged gently with a grimace. Asking for water and struggling to communicate, he became visibly uncomfortable with his predicament, but at the same time did not seem unfamiliar with the situation or his treatment. I felt guilty and powerless to be in a position of fully understanding his pleas for water, and not doing anything about it. I didn’t open my mouth to tell the deputies the meaning of his words. Instead I continued to pace, contemplating my growling stomach, and the disgusting and stereotypical nature of the overweight deputies’ conversation.

Smith left content to leave further identification research to the Sheriff’s department, and we set off back through the security doors and returned to the cruiser. A sign across the exit asked, “Did you forget something?” and I was curious if this referred to weapons or compassion.

Smith told me that there are rumors that the Gilchrist State Police Outpost will be closed soon. My day with him made clear that his job now consists of enforcing traffic rules on vehicles that are simply passing through. None of the traffic stops we made were local drivers. Losing the outpost would be another blow to Gilchrist’s virility. Can Gilchrist be called a town without troopers, restaurants, families with children, local government, or jobs?

For the next two hours Smith and I talked about family, logging, the Southeast, race relations, and cars. Smith has received three speeding tickets over the years, despite having invested in a radar detector at an early age. Based on his actions throughout the day, he still loves to drive fast. From the first moments of our day through to the drive back to Gilchrist from the county lockup, he regularly passed slow moving vehicles and averaged five to ten miles-per-hour over the posted limits. For a short time, he was issued a white Camaro cruiser. He told me that he loved to drive it as a cop, but would never buy one as a civilian, for fear of always exceeding the speed limit. “I had to use the cruise control all the time,” he said.

Trooper Smith is a passionate defender of his community and its citizens. Despite his occasional bumbling nature, his concern truly lies in the safety of the people who live in and pass through his patrol area. He takes pride in his work, and plans to spend at least the next ten years on the job, far past the usual age of retirement. “I want to go out and accomplish something every day,” Smith said. A goal easily achieved patrolling his 6,500 square mile district.

* * *

Is Gilchrist dying?

The answer depends on who you ask. Many people in Gilchrist are unwilling to even conceptualize the possibility of things getting worse. Others blindly refute the idea and continue working to bring about development. Both James Anding and Kevin McDaniel have told me, “You know it’s getting bad when the bars start closing.” The Gilchrist Restaurant and Lounge folded in January 2011. The fact remains that for traffic passing by on Highway 97, there is little to see. The remnants of town are just a blip on the map surrounded by state and national forest.

Barbara Sullivan believes the current slump is linked to the national economic slowdown, not a warning bell for the end. “I don’t believe that Gilchrist is dying,” Sullivan said. Sullivan moved to the area in the late 90s, with the intention of eventually retiring. “Business owners in our area have to be able to set aside funds for the downtime. It’s part of the lifestyle here. A lot of businesses come up here and they don’t realize that is a major priority. They have to have the capital to function several months out of the year on little or no occupancy or traffic. Having said that, the community has been used to having a lot of traffic flow, either with the mill or with tourism. Right now, the economy is so bad that the people who weren’t ready for the downturn have had to close their doors or find a different way of managing their business.”

While seasonal patterns are understandable, serious development is needed to increase the number of people spending time in the community. A tourism community cannot thrive when there are no visitors for 3-6 months each year. Unless something can be done to attract more attention, more small businesses will close as a result of increasing downtimes and dwindling savings.

The old-timers find it difficult to watch the community struggle. The community was healthy for so many years that the current climate is taking a toll on them. For many years after the collapse of the Gilchrist Timber Company, Gil Ernst attempted to fill his uncle’s shoes by leading the community. He was part of the group that chartered the Community Action Team and was the only non-elected official on two larger regional planning boards. Eventually he stepped down from all these positions, and began to distance himself from the town’s leadership. “The area needs a jump start,” Ernst said. “I do believe it will turn around, I just don’t know how yet.” If Cascade Timberlands is successful in building the Crescent Creek Resort, perhaps the remnants of this company town will be able to regain a level of prosperity absent for the past twenty years, but without a strong outside investment, things may only become worse.

For the younger generation of Gilchrist residents, the situation is bleak. They have seen their parents struggle to find work, and they have seen the community fade since their childhood. The lack of opportunities in the Gilchrist community is forcing their best and brightest to leave. “I have to leave here in order to be successful, at least for now,” Audrianna Straub said. “I think it’s kind of a sinking ship. It might take a while, but I don’t think Gilchrist is going to come back around, which is sad. I hope it will turn around. I’ve lived here my entire life, I’d never want to see it become a ghost town but it’s becoming that way more and more. I don’t know what would have to happen differently.”

Neither does anyone else.


Few stories cannot be told by harnessing the power of motion pictures to evoke emotion. From my day job to my sole proprietorship, video is my preferred medium.


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