as told to Megan Oliver | photos by Ezra Marcos
My family opened this hardware store in downtown Oakland with the Chenoweth family in 1887, just nine years after the town was incorporated. Sole ownership eventually shifted to my great-grandfather, and my family has run Stearns Hardware through good and tough times ever since.
The now defunct train depot at the edge of downtown is one token of Oakland’s history. Construction of the Oregon and California Railroad in 1872 spurred a relocation of the town from its original site a few miles away. The train line came in handy in the early 1900s as Oakland became the leading shipper of the broad-breasted bronze turkey, a cross of a European domestic turkey and a wild turkey. Situated in the agriculturally productive Umpqua Valley and near a thriving timber industry, the town continued to be fruitful in one way or another throughout most of the 1900s.
Transportation planners’ decision to build I-5 a couple of miles away in 1967, around the same time as the train depot closure, and later the collapse of the timber industry were all major blows to Oakland. Listed on the state and national register of historic cities, Oakland’s many historic buildings are now a window into a different era. Though we are only three minutes off I-5, we don’t have as much natural traffic as towns located directly on the corridor. Tourists who do find us are always glad they did, enjoying our antique shops and historic home tours. Tolly’s Grill & Soda Fountain serves up great sandwiches, sundaes and hospitality. Triple Oak Vineyard has the distinction of growing its vines within city limits.
Raised in Oakland, I attended Umpqua Community College twenty minutes away in Roseburg and worked in building supplies before working under my father and uncle at the store and taking over completely in 1996. Stearns Hardware is the only mercantile in town, so I get to interact with most of Oakland’s 920 residents.
My wife, Anne, who is an accountant in nearby Sutherlin, and I raised our two boys here. I taught them to fish and hunt—two of the main activities in the area. Deer and elk hunting, plus the pheasant preserve, are the primary game around Oakland. The Umpqua River is just twelve miles away and has excellent steelhead fishing. In the winter, snowmobiling day trips to Diamond Lake (a two-hour drive) are a favorite pastime.
Young people pretty well have to leave Oakland to make a life these days. My son Brent still lives nearby and works at the store part time, but Alan relocated elsewhere for work. Though our school system is top notch—I know many families who moved to the area specifically for our schools—the population as a whole is aging, and unemployment was as high as 15 percent recently.
I see the potential for this town to find a new way to thrive, as have many generations of Stearnses before me. Oakland offers a lot for people who love the outdoors and what many call a “quaint” small-town atmosphere. I hope people come see it for themselves.