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Once Upon A Time In Philomath

Pete Springer/OPB

How do former timber communities deal with change? How do they recover when change divides a town?

Once upon a time, in the Willamette Valley town of Philomath, families lived off the felling and sawing of logs. Young men skipped college, sometimes high school, for good jobs in the woods and mills. They took pride in the tough work and the community they built on the bank of Mary’s River. Some players in the timber industry got rich, a few very rich.

The 1950s were the heyday. In ‘53 the annual Frolic and Rodeo began. Long log trucks paraded down Main Street every Fourth of July. In ‘59, wealthy Philomath timber baron Rex Clemens and his wife Ethel decided all the town’s children needed a chance to go to college. They set up a foundation to grant scholarships to every graduate of Philomath schools. It became an expectation of the community, considered by some, eventually, almost a right.

In 2002, that changed.

The adminstrators of the foundation, nephews of Rex and Ethel, were unhappy with a cultural shift they felt was transforming the town, particularly the schools. The spotted owl had slowed logging and “urban immigrants,” people with different values than the traditional timber community, had moved in to town - from far away California as well as nearby Corvallis. After months of wrenching public debate, the Clemens Foundation trustees added criteria to the scholarship to emphasis traditional values. The national media swooped in on the story. A local boy turned filmmaker documented the painful community divisions in Clearcut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon.

Later, the foundation suspended grants to Oregon State University, the one time ag college down the road. Earlier this month, the foundation again narrowed the scholarship criteria to make only second generation Philomath students attending a small handful of schools eligible.

The latest decision again generated debate in Philomath, as some high school seniors faced an abrupt change of plans. We visit Philomath to see how a community recovers from a divide such as the one spawned in 2002; how the “natives,” as Mayor Chris Nusbaum calls them, are getting along with the urban immigrants; and how much of the change Philomath has faced resonates in other former timber towns across Oregon.

If you are from Philomath, how do you remember the Clemens Foundation conflict? If you live elsewhere, has your community seen a shift in “culture” as it grows? How was it handled? What issues have triggered conflict? How do they get resolved?

Photo credit: Peter Richardson, Bicoastal Films

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