Oregon Offtrack: Willamina

Real Estate Agent with Bella Casa Real Estate Group

Foster Church, writes Oregon Offtrack, a special segment for the Oregonian.  

Below is the story he wrote about the Willamina/Sheridan area:

Oregon Offtrack: Willamina

by Foster Church, Special to The Oregonian Friday January 16, 2009, 8:00 AM

Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

A view of Coyote Joe's, a restaurant that anchors a corner of the downtown area of Willamina, as seen through the front of the Galloping Goose, a train car that used to run through the town.

Millworkers, crab puffs and waterfalls

Willamina sits at the conjunction of Oregon's past, present and future. It's an old timber town, the prototype of towns around the country that get hit hard when mills close and prosper when they open. It's still thick with the flavor of the mills, and it has managed to hang on to two or three of them.

To get there, take Oregon 18 past McMinnville and veer off on a branch of 18 that loops past Sheridan. Velvety green fields roll to the horizon and bunch up in forested hills. The land here is some of the finest in Oregon, and the rich loam of freshly plowed fields looks like you would grow a couple of inches if you stepped in it.

The town got its start in the 1870s with the building of a grist mill and a sawmill. In 1907, a brick plant was built to take advantage of deposits of clay in the vicinity. The plant operated until 1974, and it's said to have produced much of the cream-colored brick in Portland's downtown.

The Willamina Museum of Local History occupies one of the oldest buildings in the city, originally the town's first church. It's packed with local artifacts and lore. Gary Brooks, a local dentist, may be there when you visit. When he's not pulling teeth, he creates miniature buildings and sometimes entire factories at a 1:87 scale, which is the scale for model railroads. Some of them -- including a model of the old brick plant -- are on display, and he will explain how he crafts these remarkable works of concentration and patience.

At some time during its economic heyday, the town got the enviable nickname "The Little Town With the Big Payroll," the result of jobs there in lumber and brick. After many ups and downs, the town can still boast that the local mills -- a sawmill and a veneer plant -- as well as the Spirit Mountain Casino a few miles away issue hundreds of weekly paychecks.

Willamina's main street still looks like a place where millworkers can buy everyday necessities and stop for a late afternoon beer. There's a bar, a couple of antiques shops, a market and a well-stocked hardware store all housed in plain, flat buildings.

In 2003, sisters Katie Vinson and Meredith Kendall, born and raised on a farm near Willamina, bought the hotel and named it Wildwood. At night, it's an amber lantern in the shadows. On the second floor are six small hotel rooms with bath. A restaurant and a backroom bar take up the downstairs. Rooms at the Sheridan Country Inn a few miles away are larger and more comfortable, but there's something to be said for being in the middle of things.

Friday nights, the thump and jive from the bar echoes upstairs when the weekly jam sessions begin at 8 p.m. On one night, it was an impromptu rock trio, Joi Bailey-Saucy, Michael Beckley and Steve Hudson. Bailey-Saucy divides her time singing various gigs and working with her husband, Matt, on their business, Willamina Portable Sawmill.

"I have been known to be covered in sawdust," she says, then dust myself off and get up there and sing."

If nightlife is your thing, you also could visit Benny Huie's Restaurant and Lounge in Sheridan, five miles away. It's a Chinese restaurant grafted onto a scruffy bar that's heavy with the vibes of millworkers blowing off steam.

When the jukebox plays Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," pool players chime in with their own riff on the song. "I'm Tree Fallin'!" they howl.

Foster Church/Special to The Oregonian

Pheasant Falls is one of a pair of dramatic waterfalls reached by a milelong hike near Willamina. Nearby is Niagara Falls, named for Niagara Point.

If the bar is rowdy, its bar food is refined. Crab puffs brought in from the restaurant are worth a stop on the way to the coast.

Waking up in the hotel on a gray morning after a night of crab puffs and downstairs music, try filling a Thermos with coffee and picking up a local map at a kiosk near the hotel. The map is a guide to the local forest scene and also gives directions to a scenic backdoor route to Pacific City on the Oregon coast, but be sure to look over the map with a local who can explain it and add some tips.

One of the finest attractions in this vicinity is Niagara Falls, named for the local Niagara Point and not the thunderous falls in upstate New York on the Canadian border. This is a gorgeous trip past hills where clouds catch in the trees and into deep forest.

Dirt roads, though steep and pitted, are well-maintained. A word to the wise: Signage on these roads is inscribed on unassuming white sticks, and you'll miss important turnoffs if you don't keep a sharp eye out for them.

At the trailhead, pick your way down a milelong trail along a stream through dense forest to two 100-foot-plus waterfalls, Niagara and Pheasant Creek. Niagara is the most impressive, plunging 115 feet over a basalt escarpment. Like crab puffs at Benny Huie's and the music jam in Willamina, it's both hidden and in plain sight.

-- Foster Church, whose Offtrack stories appear monthly, can be reached at 503-246-7428 or atmailto:%20fosterchurch@qwest.net

If you go

Getting there: Willamina is about 60 miles from Portland. Take Oregon 99 West and then Oregon 18. A local loop of Oregon 18 leads to Sheridan and Willamina.

Where to stay: Wildwood Hotel, 150 Main St., rates from $55 to $65; reservations: 971-241-3173. Sheridan Country Inn, 1330 Main St., Sheridan, 503-843-3151, rates from $59 to $155.

Where to eat: Wildwood Hotel restaurant, 503-876-7100; closed Monday-Tuesday, open Wednesday-Sunday for dinner and Friday for lunch and Sunday for breakfast. Coyote Joe's Restaurant, 142 Main St., 503-876-3003; open 5 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Visit: Willamina Museum of Local History, 188 D St., open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and by appointment; 503-876-7853 or 503-876-4664; tour Niagara and other nearby waterfalls. Brochure, "Willamina Recreation," available in a kiosk across the street from Wildwood Hotel.

More info: Yamhill Valley Visitors Association, yamhillvalley.org


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