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Road Trip Reveals Uncertainty On Eve Of Sesquicentennial

Oregon turns 150 years old Saturday with its economy in lousy shape.  In honor of the Sesquicentennial, we sent correspondent Chris Lehman on a 150-mile tour of Oregon’s heartland to see what people are thinking about as the state marks a century and a half.

These aren’t just any old 150 miles.  I’m following a route designed by Marion County tourism officials.  They’re sending people on a path that includes all 20 incorporated towns in the county.  The tour ends at the state capitol in Salem.

It begins here.

Idanha, OR
Oregon Turns 150 In A Recession: Audio Slideshow

Here is Idanha. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of town along Highway 22 in the Cascade foothills.  Officially the population is 228.  But Mayor Karen Clark thinks it’s slipped to much lower than that.

Karen Clark:  “Idanha is a lumber mill town that has been in transition since the late 90’s.”

The problem is, no one’s sure what the town is transitioning to.  Everyone around Idanha knows what the town has transitioned from.  

About a half-dozen mills have closed, and the mayor says there are fewer than a dozen jobs left in town. Clark isn’t too sure why the tourism gurus back in Salem would send history buffs all the way out to Idanha.

Karen Clark:  “Basically there isn’t anything really historic here because it’s either all fell down or been torn down.”

Let’s head up the highway now to our next stop: Sublimity.  This is sort of a bedroom community for Salem.  The problem is, people are building fewer bedrooms these days. 

And that’s a problem when you run an old-fashioned hardware store like Matt Rauch does in downtown Sublimity.  He depends heavily on local builders.

Matt Rauch:  “They’re not busy so we’re not busy.  It trickles down in a hurry when things slow down.”

Rauch says sales are off 40 percent from this time last year. But small towns like Sublimity have seen bad times before in the state’s 150 years.  And Rauch isn’t sure how long it will take before business picks up again.

Chris Lehman:“Can you hang on here?”

Matt Rauch:  “Oh, I think so.  Yeah we will.  We run a pretty lean crew here and run a pretty tight ship so I think we’ll be okay.”

Aumsville, OR
Oregon Turns 150 In A Recession: Audio Slideshow

Rauch is on the front lines of the recession.  But the economic downturn seems a world away just down the road in Aumsville, where skateboarders are catching some air on this sunny winter afternoon.

Locals claim this skatepark is one of the top skateboarding destinations in the country.  Today, it’s a hangout for local school kids like seventh-grader Mattija Weeks, who’s doing tricks with his skateboard that would make most parents cringe. 

Mattija Weeks: “You grab the back of your board, like behind you like this, and just do a 360.  And just try to land it back on the board right away.”

Chris Lehman:  “How long did it take you to learn how to do that?”

Mattija Weeks:  “A long time, like almost a year.”

Weeks doesn’t have class today because it’s a teacher in-service day.  But he could be getting even more time off in the near future.  

His school district is one of dozens around the state that is threatening the drastic step of closing early this year due to funding cuts.  Weeks and his friend Devon Klepper aren’t quite sure what to make of it all.

Devon Klepper:  “If we got no school, then we got the skate park, everyday.”

Mattija Weeks:  “Well if you got no school then you can’t get a good job.  It’d be a bum.  But then you’d have to time to practice this.  You could live your life doing this.”

Making a living with your skateboard isn’t for everyone, of course.  So let’s head up the highway to the next town on our tour of Marion County.  

Woodburn, OR
Oregon Turns 150 In A Recession: Audio Slideshow


When you walk along Front Street in downtown Woodburn, you can’t help but notice the abundance of shops catering to the Hispanic community.  

I stepped into one called El Palacio, and 11-year-old Jessica Bilerrel eagerly showed me what I could buy:

Jessica Bilerrel:  “We sell especially women’s clothes. We have baby pants, these kinds for seven dollars.”

Okay, so it’s nothing I’m in the market for.  But Jessica just exudes optimism and so does her mother Socorro.  

The store had been open for less than a week when I stopped in.  I asked Socorro if she knew she was starting a business in the middle of a recession.

Soccoro Bilerrel:  “(answer in Spanish)”

Jessica Bilerrel, translating:  “Yes, we do know that but we are trying to lift up the economy and not go down.”

And that brings us to the final stop on our tour. 

Salem, OR
Oregon Turns 150 In A Recession: Audio Slideshow

Sen. Peter Courtney:  “The Senate will please come to order.  The clerk will please call the roll.”

Reading clerk:  “Atkinson, Atkinson.  Bates, Bates….”

Salem is not only the largest city in Marion County.  It’s also home to state government.

Lawmakers here are scrambling for ways to kick start Oregon’s economy.

And they’re making painful cuts that affect every single community in Marion County and beyond.

They hope the economic outlook for Oregon is a little better by the time the state’s 151st birthday rolls around next February.


Website for Oregon Sesquicentennial

Website for Tour of Marion County