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  • Ednold

Heppner 10/7/21

It was the end of September, the first week of fall, and the open road was calling me. But I was busy at the time and didn’t get that call. Open Road left me a voicemail but if you’ve ever left me a voicemail you know that I forgot my password years ago and I don’t listen to any of it. Fortunately, Open Road is like a pesky insurance salesman. He’s persistent, and when he called back a week later I answered. I notified Mrs. Ednold about the call I had received, we loaded up The Bucket, and we were on our way to Heppner. I think I had heard of Heppner before this trip, but I didn’t know anything about it other than their football team is really good. I didn’t know exactly where it was or what it was like. I’m sure lots of people have very good reasons for needing to go there, but I’d never had one. Now I did.

Heppner calls itself the Gateway to The Blues. When I first heard that, I assumed it referred to music: Maybe they had some big blues festival in Heppner or something. But Heppner is located on the western edge of the Blue Mountains, and that’s where the nickname came from, and I can attest that the scenery on the highways going to and from Heppner in all directions is pretty amazing. Though they don’t have a blues festival, Heppner does have the A Wee Bit O’Ireland festival around St. Patrick’s Day each year to celebrate the large Irish immigrant community that helped settle the town.

With a population of around 1,300, Heppner isn’t very big. But it’s an interesting place with plenty to see if you have a little time before a football game. My favorite things were the Talking Rocks. The people of Heppner have placed large rocks all over town that collectively tell you all about the town and its history. We saw our first talking rock across the street from the beautiful old courthouse building downtown. I sat down next to it and waited for the story about the Morrow County Courthouse. Unfortunately, this particular rock was very shy. Or maybe it just spoke too softly for me to hear. Anyway, after about 15 minutes I decided to just read the plaque attached to it. As we made our way around town I discovered that none of the rocks were talking, so I didn’t waste another 15 minutes at each one. It’s a unique idea for telling the story of the town to visitors as they take their own self-guided tour around town, and I’m surprised more towns don’t have something similar.

One of the Talking Rocks.

One thing we learned from the rocks is that Heppner was the site of the most deadly natural disaster in Oregon history: The Flood of 1903. Just three months after Morrow County officials had moved into their magnificent new courthouse, a flash flood leveled most of the rest of the town. Initially, the torrential rains caused Willow Creek to swell, but the flood waters were dammed by buildings built on the creek as well as debris from the flood. When that dam gave way, a wall of water possibly 50 feet high swept through the town and continued downstream to the north. A couple of quick-thinking survivors got on their horses and rode toward the town of Lexington 9 miles away to warn them. But the water beat them there and much of Lexington was destroyed too. The two then continued another 9 miles to Ione, overtaking the wall of water on their way, and alerted the Ionians. Sadly, though nobody in Lexington or Ione died in the flood, raw sewage from Heppner had contaminated many of the wells downstream and many people died from typhoid fever in the months that followed the flood. Due to its elevated location, the new courthouse survived the flood, but 247 people in Heppner, almost a quarter of the population, weren’t as lucky. It took 80 years, but finally in 1983 a dam was erected on Willow Creek to make sure there was not another flood.

Two Old Hags

After checking out the rocks we still had time for a bite before the game. During our tour we had spotted a sign for Two Old Hags and couldn’t resist giving the Hags a try. I may be going out on a limb to say that the Two Old Hags make the best pizza in Morrow County, but that limb is fat and sturdy. If you ever find yourself hungry in Heppner, go there. Both Hags, a mother-daughter team, were working but were even nice enough to stop long enough for me to snap their picture.

Heppner High School is located on the hillside on the northwest end of town, and it is an oddly unattractive building. There's a running track there, but the football team plays their home games at the county fairgrounds closer to downtown, so that’s where we went. There’s plenty of parking at the fairgrounds and along Hwy 74 to the south. For the third time this season we were at a field where there is only one grandstand, with no seating for the visitors on the opposite side, and the visiting team’s bench in front of the grandstand with the home team on the far sideline. I’m not sure what that’s about, but it’s a little strange. The grandstand is nice though, with wooden benches that have backs and a big roof. It may be a little small, but a lot of people watched from the perimeter of the field and many others climbed to the top of the rodeo grandstand on the opposite side to watch the action, so there was plenty of room for this game that wasn’t well-attended. There's a nice concession stand to the east of the stands, but it was closed on this night, so we were thankful The Hags had filled us up. The field is natural grass and there's no track to take up space between the players and the fans.

Morrow County Fairgrounds Football Grandstand

The Heppner Mustangs are the defending 2A state champions. Note to self: Never attend a game played by a defending champion unless it’s a playoff game. I had expected a huge crowd to support the champions, but few actually showed up. Besides the 8-to-10-student pep band and 5 cheerleaders, the Mustangs’ classmates had all stayed home. A lady who sat nearby explained that the Thursday night game combined with the opponent, Riverside, accounted for the small crowd, and we would have stayed away too if we had known what was about to happen.

You heard this story a few weeks ago so I wont go into too much detail, but the Heppner Mustangs and the Riverside Pirates should never have been on the same field together. By the middle of the second quarter the Mustangs were downing the ball purposely on each punt return - they would have returned each one for a touchdown. They were

attempting impossibly long field goals on first down just to keep from scoring. They were aiming their kickoffs out of bounds to keep from putting some pint-sized Pirate in the ER on the runback. The score was still 47-0 at halftime and 61-0 by the end.

Heppner had twice as many players and each of them were twice the size of their opponents, twice as fast, twice as skilled and 100 times more confident. Heppner has won four state championships over the years and early in this century went an entire decade without losing a league game. Barring another flood, they'll win another championship this year. Riverside obviously doesn’t have that kind of football culture and probably never will. It’s hard to see how either team benefited from this game, but both coaches and all the players should be commended for not letting things get any uglier than they were. Both teams were good sports about the slaughter that took place, and I hate to think that that attitude has probably been learned over many seasons of similar games. Enough said about the game.

We had a nice afternoon and evening in Heppner. We met a couple of Old Hags, everyone else was nice, and we saw one extremely impressive football team. And I’ve never been in a town that constantly pumps country music through speakers on the lampposts throughout town. If you don’t like country music you’re just out of luck, but it’s pretty cool to have a soundtrack as you walk around the town. My only suggestion to Heppner is to get those rocks fixed. It would be nice if those things would talk like they're supposed to so I don’t have to do any reading the next time I’m in town.

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