written by Lee Lewis Husk and James Sinks | illustrations by Brendan Loscar
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Oregon’s collective conscience moved beyond a backwater timber state north of California to a kick-ass place known for its progressive ideas, tough pioneering spirit, recreational abundance, and some of the best damn eating and drinking anywhere.
1859 culled these and other defining moments for this bold piece of, essentially, the pop history of our state.
Oregon Country Fair: Countercultural convergence
The news was met by many with disbelief. From its birth in 1970 as a Renaissance fair along the Long Tom River in Veneta, the eclectic Oregon Country Fair had been an sanctuary for all things from the tiedyed, psychedelic peace-loving Sixties counterculture. But in 1997, under pressure from law enforcement, leaders of the nonprofit fair enacted a series of reforms to clamp down on the most controversial throwback: drug use. It was a move that was not universally welcomed among the legions in the so-called “fair family.” How would no tolerance jive in a place that embraced tolerance? Would it impair the vibe of the irreverent, freewheeling bazaar of the bizarre? Or, some feared aloud, would it cause the event to disappear into the haze of history? Two decades later, the answer reawakens the second weekend of every July. Take a stroll down the wooded paths that wind among booths of handcrafters, jugglers, mouth-watering organic fare, impromptu parades (sometimes with kazoos), occasionally topless women, and gallons of body paint—and the place still feels like a time machine. Eighteen stages offer entertainment from puppet shows to bluegrass, and the rumbling never subsides in the drum tower. Bring your own drum. More than 10,000 people walk through the gates daily during the fair’s annual threeday run, and walk out grinning, if a little dusty. The 280-acre event welcomes visitors of all ages, from children’s stages to bubble magic. As far as the eye can see and ear can hear, there is a swirl of color and sound. And maybe a little smoke. It is still, as the signs declare, a normal-free zone.
Jack Meissner: Unrepeated ski trek from Mt. Hood to Crater Lake
Despite today’s proliferation of extreme and ultra-distance athletes, only one person, John Richard “Jack” Meissner, has completed the 300-mile trek from Mt. Hood to Crater Lake on skis. And that was in 1948—long before high-tech clothing and equipment made skiing relatively safe and comfortable. The 28-year-old WWII vet and trapper started his epic journey from Timberline Lodge on February 18 with a 45-pound pack, map and compass. He survived heavy snowfall, freezing temperatures, icy conditions, glacial runoff and equipment failures. Close to his destination, he fell into a ditch but eventually got himself out to finish at Crater Lake Lodge on April 8.
Meek’s Cutoff: A begrudging yet prosperous journey
The Oregon Trail was not for the faint of heart. Meek’s Cutoff Trail took it up a notch–and through a notch—into inhospitable backcountry.
The year was 1845. Covered wagons were creaking west by the hundreds on the overland trail from Missouri toward the Willamette Valley. Rumors of hostile American Indians and the promise of a shortcut convinced 1,200 people—in about 200 wagons and with thousands of head of livestock—to veer west at the Snake River near present-day Vale toward the Deschutes River.
The trouble was their guide, Stephen Meek, a trapper, either did not know the shortcut route or had forgotten it from earlier forays. The emigrants, who had paid Meek $5 a wagon, braved treacherous, steep, and rocky terrain along the Malheur River and into the high desert of southeastern Oregon.
It wasn’t easy to move the equivalent of a small city through the arid landscape without even so much as a path, an endeavor that required logistics, backbreaking road building and perseverance.
The party zigzagged westward for weeks without sufficient provisions, navigating dry creekbeds, and with growing resentment toward their guide. An estimated twenty-four people died.
They reached the rushing Deschutes River after forty days, followed by Meek’s disappearance amid death threats. The road hewn by Meek’s party opened a new path for wagons and—coupled with rumors that children found gold nuggets along the way—it set the stage for the settlement of the Central Oregon and the Harney basins.
Alek Skarlotos: An American hero
In a world full of cowards who kill and terrorize innocents, Roseburg-born Alek Skarlatos is a bona fide American hero. On August 21, 2015, he and other passengers overpowered and subdued a heavily armed gunman on a Paris-bound train from Amsterdam. Their bravery saved lives and cast them into an international spotlight. Skarlatos and fellow travelers, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler, received France’s highest honor from French President François Hollande. Skarlatos, an Oregon Army National Guardsman, also received the Soldier’s Medal from President Barack Obama. The attention landed him a spot on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” too.
Acosia Red Elk: World-champion jingle dress dancer
A descendent of legendary Chief Joseph and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Acosia Red Elk has danced her way to eight World Championship jingle dress dance titles and, in doing so, showcased her culture and contemporized a native ritual for the twenty-first century. Jingle dress dancers compete at powwows wearing colorful regalia festooned with dozens of metal cones that jingle as the dancer moves. Red Elk is celebrated for her graceful movements and intricate footwork.
Henry Weinhard: Beer pioneer
As the city of Portland prepared to open the Skidmore Fountain in 1887, beer magnate Henry Weinhard proposed something audacious. He would pay to run hoses to his largest tanks in the Brewery Blocks, and then the fountain could debut filled with a frothy cascade of free suds on its first day of operation.
City leaders declined the offer, in part because of suggestions that horses might get hopped up—and imagine the mayhem with drunk horses wandering about. Still, the suggestion became the stuff of legend and it was Weinhard, a German immigrant and entrepreneur, whose acumen and flair helped put the young city of Portland on the international map.
Weinhard arrived stateside in 1852 armed with a kettle, a recipe and his wits. He made his way to Portland a few years later, lured by a promising combination of scant taverns and a thirsty, growing population of trappers, lumberjacks, laborers and soldiers.
By the mid-1860s, he’d engineered a merger with an existing brewery, and leapt to the top of the local beer market.
When Weinhard proposed filling the fountain, his brewery was churning out some 100,000 barrels of beer annually, and much of it was shipped out of the state. Ever since, save for the forgettable dark years of Prohibition, Oregon has been synonymous with good suds.
DOC HAY: An unexpected, rural practitioner
Oregon was not exactly a hospitable place for Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, even though Chinese laborers did much of the region’s railroad construction, gold mining and fish canning. Discrimination was rampant, capped with the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882.
Against that backdrop, an unassuming herbalist named Ing Hay decided, in 1887, to go into business. And not in Portland’s Chinatown—in rural John Day.
The Kam Wah Chung & Co. general store and herbal apothecary, which Hay opened with a business partner, flourished. It became the cornerstone of a small Chinese community in Eastern Oregon, thanks to the healing expertise Hay, who was better known as “Doc” Hay.
The clinic first catered to Chinese, but his success made him a legend with many settlers of European descent, while also increasingly unpopular with some competing traditional doctors.
Western medicine proved largely ineffective in dealing with septic infections, but Hay and his herbal cocktails would have people back on their feet in days. And when a deadly Spanish Flu epidemic swept through the country in 1919, killing thousands, none of his patients perished.
While he became a folk hero, competing doctors tried to have him prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. He had no such thing, but the jurors in Grant County would not convict him.
The shop remained in business for sixty years, and he never reunited with his wife and children, who were left behind in China. His business partner died in 1940, and Hay died in 1952.
The original business site of Kam Wah Chung, which means “golden flower of prosperity,” has been restored as a state Heritage Site. It is open May through October as a museum filled with herbs and artifacts.
Fire Lookouts: Repurposed for off-season adventure
The towers were built high above forests with 360-degree views to spot the first wisps of smoke from a wildfire. Today Oregon’s fire lookouts stand tall among adventurers seeking an overnighter in the backcountry. The U.S. Forest Service offers twenty lookouts for rent, including six in winter months (Pickett Butte, Hager Mountain, Clear Lake Butte, Flag Point, Fivemile Butte and Warner Mountain). Some lookouts may still be equipped with a “firefinder” instrument—invented in 1911 by Oregon forester William Bushnell Osborne, Jr. Except for Montana, Oregon has the highest number of rental lookouts.
Abigail Scott Duniway: Tireless advocate for women’s suffrage
To Abigail Scott Duniway, quitting was never an option.
Duniway, dubbed “Oregon’s Mother of Equal Suffrage,” saw five attempts fizzle that would have allowed women to venture into the voting booth—in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1910. After a lifetime of overcoming adversity, she shrugged off those setbacks.
As her family trekked the Oregon Trail when she was a teenager, her mother and youngest sister died. After marrying, her husband was injured in a farming accident, requiring her to become the sole breadwinner for her family. She taught school and ran a hat shop, which opened her eyes to how women were often dismissed and disregarded.
She began publishing a weekly newspaper, New Northwest, in 1871 and used it as a platform to call for equal rights. She helped create the Oregon State Women Suffrage Association, and her advocacy across the Northwest helped women earn the right to vote in Idaho in 1896 and in Washington in 1910.
In Oregon, she clashed mightily with her brother about suffrage. But unlike a family feud played out across a dining room table, theirs was highly public. She was the editor of her newspaper. Harvey W. Scott, her brother, edited The Oregonian.
Her persistence paid off in 1912. Oregon was the seventh state to approve suffrage.
As for Duniway, she became the first woman to register to vote in Multnomah County.
NIKE: World leader in athletic wear
Two native Oregonians flew the wings of the Greek goddess Nike into the stratosphere, transforming a novel idea into a successful multinational, multibillion-dollar company. Divine inspiration struck when Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon track coach, used his wife’s waffle iron to fuse a rubber sole to a nylon upper for a lighter running shoe. In 1964, he and track athlete Phil Knight founded Blue Ribbon Sports, changing the name to Nike in 1971. With ongoing innovation and the marketing genius of Knight, half of the U.S. athletic shoe market bore the “swoosh” logo by 1980. Today, the Beaverton-based company is the world leader in athletic footwear and apparel with an annual revenue of $30 billion.
Esperanza Spalding: A jazzy trail blazer
The 2011 nominees for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist were a chart-topping musical lot, including R&B crooner Drake, folk rock band Mumford and Sons, and teen fave Justin Beiber.
The judges surprised them all by making an unconventional choice—a jazzy, talented, Oregon choice.
Eschewing the pop music charts and the likely wail of disappointed middle school girls, voters instead crowned a little-known Portland-born prodigy with a cloud of hair, a voice described as a daydream and an almost too-good-tobe- true artistic résumé.
Esperanza Spalding, who has won three Grammys since, is the first jazz musician to earn the Best New Artist statuette.
Spalding, 31, grew up with a single mom in Portland’s King neighborhood—not exactly a jazz fusion hotbed— where she taught herself violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at age 5.
She picked up guitar at age 8, and played oboe and clarinet before gravitating to the double bass in high school. She played her first gig in Portland at age 15, at a blues club. She croons in three languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese.
She earned college music scholarships and released her first album in 2006. Her 2008 follow up was the best selling jazz album worldwide that year.
Since winning the Grammy in 2011, she sang at the Academy Awards, toured internationally, released additional albums, and donated some proceeds from her 2012 tour to help combat human trafficking.
She also performed at the White House and the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in 2009.
1979 Paris Wine Olympics: Eyrie Vineyards pinot noir launched an industry
It stunned the wine world. David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir placed in the top ten of more than 300 international entries in the 1979 Wine Olympics held in Paris—a remarkable feat for a young vintner in a region just getting its legs.
In a rematch the following year, sponsored by French winemaker Robert Drouhin, French burgundies were matched against American pinot noirs. The Eyrie wine placed a close second to a 1959 Domaine Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny. Impressed, Drouhin later joined Lett and other wine pioneers in the Dundee Hills of the Willamette Valley. Lett’s gutsy move helped launch Oregon’s wine industry, now the country’s third largest and a mecca for wine tourists.
Tom McCall: Father of Oregon Beach Bill
A clever land-grab in 1966 by a Cannon Beach motel owner almost sunk public ownership of Oregon beaches, but the motelier was outmaneuvered by Gov.Tom McCall. Until then, most Oregonians assumed beach access was a birthright.
Legislation signed by Gov. Oswald West in 1913 turned all wet-sand beaches into a public highway. At that time, William Hay had fenced the dry sands along his property, setting off a titanic fight between coastal developers and the public. McCall staged a media event in Seaside, graphically demonstrating how much beach would be lost if Hay won. The public outcry led to the 1967 Beach Bill, granting the public free and uninterrupted use of the beaches.
Oregon decathletes: Vaulting into world champs
Often called the world’s greatest athletes, four champion decathletes (and one heptathlete) have called Oregon home. La Pine’s Ashton Eaton is the top decathlete of all time—Olympic gold medalist in 2012, two world titles and world-record point holder. Two others preceded him: Corvallis native Dave Johnson won a bronze decathlon medal in the 1992 Olympics, and Dan O’Brien of Klamath Falls racked up three consecutive world titles, Olympic gold in 1996 and remains the fourth-ranked all-time decathlete in the world (Eaton is first). Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Ashton Eaton’s wife, is the Canadian record holder, an Olympian and University of Oregon graduate. Promising new decathlete Dakotah Keys of Sweet Home won three consecutive Pac-12 decathlon titles as a U of O Duck.
Ken Kesey: Oregon novelist, psychedelic Pied Piper of the ’60s and damn fine wrestler
Ken Kesey’s in-your-face escapades with drugs and his fictionalized railings on establishment abuse of the individual altered the thinking of ’60s-era hippies, musicians and a generation that challenged America’s traditional values on sex, war and civil rights. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) was his first and most famous novel, followed by Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) only enhanced Kesey’s mystique. At the time of his death in 2001, The New York Times called him “the Pied Piper of the psychedelic era.” More conventionally, he was a husband and father, outdoorsman and farmer, and an outstanding high school and collegiate wrestler.