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I Had the Coolest Grandparents 5/3/21

Football is over, at least for another 5 months or so. But I was tired of being cooped up in this house, so we packed our bags and hit the road one recent morning. We were on our way to Seneca. Seneca is a town of a couple hundred people located up in the Blue Mountains of southern Grant County between John Day and Burns. Back in the late 1800’s postmistress Minnie Southworth named the town for her brother-in-law, Seneca Smith, who was a judge in Portland. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a little strange? She didn’t name it for her husband, or brother, or mom or dad. She named it for her brother-in-law. What was that about?

There’s a reason we didn’t make this trip a few months ago: Seneca can get very cold in the winter. February 10, 1933 was the day the world’s first singing telegram was delivered in New York City, so you might think it was absolutely the most wonderful day ever. That opinion may spark a debate in Grant County, Oregon. On a day when it was 15º F in Eugene and

12º F in Salem, it was officially -54º F in Seneca. More than 88 years later that’s still a record for the state of Oregon. It would have been nice to have been able to interview someone who was there on that day back in 1933 to hear what it was like. But any surviving residents who were old enough to remember would be almost 100 years old or more by now. If I had tried to write this ten years ago I might have found someone, but I waited a little too long. So, my mom casually says “You know, my mom and dad were there that day”. What? My grandma and grandpa, who as far as I knew had never lived outside of the Willamette Valley, had somehow been in Seneca on the day the coldest temperature in Oregon history had been recorded? How? More importantly, why?

It’s starting to seem like my mom’s relatives showed up whenever and wherever something significant happened around the state, and I was getting a little suspicious that she’s maybe making up stories about fictitious ancestors. Neither of my grandparents had ever said anything about it to me. Perhaps it was an episode in their lives they’d tried hard to forget. They were three years into the great depression, in the final days of the Hoover administration. Banks all over the country were closing up. Hitler had just taken over as Chancellor in Germany. They’d somehow ended up in Seneca, which isn’t in the middle of nowhere but it's in the same zip code. And now the sun was on the fritz. They must have wondered what they had done to deserve all that. I never heard any mention of Seneca, or maybe that was one of the stories I was too cool to listen to at the time. But my mom had heard all about it from her parents and brothers and was able to give me the run-down. This was a place I had to see.

Out of solidarity with my grandparents, I decided we should go through some hard times of our own, so we took Highway 20 over the mountains instead of our usual route, Highway 22. Highway 20 up to Santiam Junction is possibly the worst mountain road ever constructed and is in a constant state of disrepair. Yet, for some reason, it also has the highest concentration of RVs and trailers of any road you will find anywhere. On the other hand, it does give you the opportunity to see Sweet Home. Oh, wait - that's that same hand. Anyway, we eventually did make it over the pass and kept rolling east.

It truly is a womens' world we are all living in. As if I needed a reminder of that, we came across more evidence on Highway 20 about a half hour east of Bend, at the town of Brothers. We had passed through Sisters about an hour before, so it was only natural to do a quick mental comparison of the two communities. The town of Sisters is a thriving little outpost in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It’s gussied itself up over the past 40 years in fake wild west fashion to trick visitors into thinking it’s some kind of authentic old-timey western place. But I remember Sisters when she wasn’t much more than the Gallery Restaurant, a couple gas stations, some run down houses and a few sorry-looking businesses, so I’m not feeling the whole fake-western vibe. It’s like if you had known (insert the hottie of your preferred age and sex here) when they were young and fat and had braces and pimples, bad B.O. and a perpetual case of scabies. You couldn’t really be attracted to them later when they were hot, could you? Well, ok, maybe that’s not a perfect analogy. Maybe you could. I couldn’t. Yuck!


But, back to my point: Everyone loves Sisters. She’s popular. She’s attractive. People plan entire trips around seeing her. She is a destination in herself. And Brothers? People drive THROUGH Brothers. There is a rest area there, so some people stop to take a dump. That’s it. Oh, and sagebrush. Lots of sagebrush. It’s not in the foothills, it’s in the desert. It’s ugly. Sisters wears make-up. Brothers walks around unshaven in his boxers and a beer-stained wife-beater. Sisters has a view of the snow-covered mountains and lots of tourists walking around. Brothers has… I think I already mentioned it has restrooms. Who’s responsible for naming these two places? What kind of men-hating witches thought it would be funny to attach those two labels to such dissimilar places? I, for one, fail to see the humor. Just one more sign that women have been running things for far too long.

Another 20 minutes or so down Highway 20 we went though Hampton, which consists of a single surviving business that caters to sage rat hunters. It’s big business in this part of the state where guided sage rat hunts are common. Later, I went to their website to try to schedule a trip. We couldn’t even get on the schedule because they are already booked up for the whole season. Sage rats aren’t really rats. They’re actually a type of squirrel, and look like cute little miniature prairie dogs. But they like to eat alfalfa and other crops and they also like to stand still a lot, so they make pretty good targets for people who like to shoot things. The hunts are popular because, unlike hunting deer or other big animals, you can just sit in a comfy chair with your .22, a case of ammo and another case of Miller High Life, and blast the little suckers all day long without breaking a sweat. And the farmers will thank you for it.

We continued east through the town of Burns and then headed north on Highway 395, and before long were passing the old Poison Creek Ranch, where I earned my spurs back in the day. As I slowed to see what I could see of the old place, I recounted to Mrs. Ednold the joys of walking the half mile driveway with Big Bro out to the highway on winter mornings to await the school bus and standing on the side of the road in the freezing cold. The driveway had two or three icy cattle guards and another couple of icy bridges to navigate, then once we got to the highway the best part was when a semi-truck would drive by at 60 miles an hour a few feet from where we stood. The frigid wake would instantly freeze any body parts that weren’t already numb and threaten to blow us backward into the ditch. I never tell my kids it was uphill through the snow in both directions, but if I’d known any better at the time I would have said it sucked. But I didn’t know. I thought that was normal.

The highway follows Poison Creek up into the hills to the north, and we headed toward the next place on the map, Trout Creek. There aren’t a whole lot of signs of civilization in that neck of the woods, and I assume one of the reasons people live in places like rural Harney and Grant counties is to escape all of the commotion and drama of more populated areas. So it’s ironic that, a few years ago, this particular section of Highway 395 made national news. On January 26, 2016, State Police and the FBI stopped a group of militants who’d been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns. The group were on their way to a rally in John Day when they were confronted by the police. It wasn’t exactly the final scene from Bonnie and Clyde, but it did end in shots being fired and one of the militants being killed. They all surrendered except for a guy named LaVoy Finicum, who took off running through the snow, apparently under the impression that he could outrun bullets. As it turned out, he couldn’t. I’m guessing Mensa meetings cause very few scheduling conflicts for militia members. It was probably just the type of thing residents in these parts came here to avoid, and it would be hard to find a more unlikely spot for a newsworthy occurrence.

Seneca School

Another half hour of driving through beautiful canyons and valleys and we had arrived. Seneca is a small town with a small, but apparently very good, K-8 school. Older students attend high school in John Day. Though today there are lots of ranches in the Seneca area, it really took off in the 1920’s as a lumber town. In the early 1920s, the Herrick Lumber Company built a huge lumber mill on the southern edge of Burns. A company town, Herrick, grew up around the mill and a railroad was built along the Silvies River to Seneca to transport the Ponderosa pines in the forest down to the mill. After a few years Herrick was bought out by the richer Hines Lumber Co. of Chicago, and the company town became known as Hines. Eventually another mill was opened in Seneca and, though the town was never technically a company town, Hines controlled pretty much everything in it until the timber industry started to slow down. The town was incorporated in 1970 and Hines closed both the mill and the railroad in the mid-1980’s.

The old bunkhouse

Besides the school, the other notable building in town is the big bunkhouse built by Hines in the 1930’s as their bachelor worker quarters. It currently serves a similar purpose for a private firefighting company, but earlier in this century it was a weird B&B place called the BearCat Lodge. Google it and enjoy the comedy as two loonies try to make a go of it as proprietors of a biker lodge in Eastern Oregon. To their great credit, the Senecans basically ran them out of town after they threatened to sell off to the Aryan Nations. It would make an awesome musical/comedy, and I can picture a triumphant mass of Seneca schoolchildren singing the finale.

With the exception that Seneca managed to outlive its lumber-mill days, it has a lot in common with Valsetz, which you may remember from my Silley story last year. Timber was responsible for their growth in the 1920’s and their mills both shut down in 1984. They were both located in basins within the mountains from which trees were extracted from the surrounding hillsides, and those basins caused both to have some pretty extreme weather. In the case of Valsetz, it was rain, but in Seneca the heavy cold air drops down to the bottom of the basin and just sits there, freezing everything for miles around. That basin, and the fact that its elevation is almost a mile above sea level, are conditions tailor-made for some record-setting coldness.

As small as Seneca is, it does have its own municipal golf course, Bear Valley Meadows. Built along the banks of the Silvies River 25 years ago and overseen by a volunteer “Golf Committee”, it’s what their website calls a "pasture-style" course. There’s no clubhouse, no golf pro, no pro shop. Nothing but the course and a small driving range. But I was intrigued by the opportunity to play a round on a treeless course without a single sand trap. Surely, I had found a course made especially for my meager skills! I stuffed my $7 greens fee into the slot in the lock box, grabbed my clubs, and headed to the #1 tee of what was to be the first and probably last playing of Ednold’s Mayday Bear Valley Open. This “Open” was open to anyone named Ednold, but I was the only one who showed up. Fine with me.

I paid before I played, as the gallery waited expectantly at the first tee

As I said, there were no trees or sand to contend with. The river is there, but it doesn’t really come into play for anyone who can hit the ball reasonably straight. With Mrs. Ednold as caddie, we walked the nine holes and got our steps in, chasing the little white ball, and even without bunkers or trees the course proved to be a challenge. I thought the 6” diameter cups would help, but they weren’t nearly big enough to make up for the lack of a green on the “greens”. And we thankfully never discovered what type of critters were responsible for the little (and sometimes big!) holes all over the place. “Pasture-style” sums it up perfectly, but I’m not complaining. It was fun and for once I had legitimate excuses for missing a five-foot putt or shanking my drive into the rough. It was ALL the rough! And, after a poor shot you can just look around you at the river running through the gorgeous pasture or glance up at the snow on the mountainsides and you don't feel bad at all.

I never did figure out when or if it was better to use my putter, my pitching wedge, or my 3 wood on those "greens", but I still played well enough to win the tournament, and at the end Mrs. Ednold presented me with the winner’s coveted Old Grey Hoodie. Take that Bear Valley Meadows! I put my clubs back in The Bucket and we continued our tour of Seneca. It’s a long drive to get there, and I probably wouldn’t have driven 6 hours just to play on the course, but it was fun and it’s pretty cool that this small town of ranchers and lumbermen have made the effort to build and maintain it.

The ceremonial donning of the Old Grey Hoodie

Much of the funding for the upkeep of the course comes from the proceeds of the annual Seneca Oyster Feed which we only missed by a few weeks. It sounds like fun and if one of these years they hold it on a different weekend than CPHC’s annual FA Cup party, maybe my brothers and I will enter their golf scramble. One of us has already won an Old Grey Hoodie on this course so we should have an advantage. But… Seneca? And oysters? I would never have guessed that combination. I don't have an answer yet as to why, but I'm working on it

As we took the few minutes to drive through the residential part of the town, we thought about my grandparents living in this place all those years ago and, yes, I did feel the irony of having played a round of golf near the spot they spent possibly the most miserable day of their lives. My grandfather worked in the timber industry but also did just about any other job he could find during the depression. Eventually, in 1932, his pursuit of work took him, his wife and two kids to Seneca where he worked on the railroad for Hines Lumber. My mom wasn’t around yet, but her brothers, aged 4 and 6 were, and the four of them lived in a tent-house. There weren’t yet enough houses for all of the workers in town, so the company set them up in a canvas tent fortified by wooden walls to a height of about 4’, so they were living under a canvas roof on that February day in 1933 when it was -54º F. With the mill shut down due to the weather, they moved a mattress in front of the small wood stove, gathered every blanket they could find, and all huddled together for warmth. Gramps got up every now and then to keep the fire going, but even that didn’t stop the milk on the shelf behind the stove from freezing solid. Inside, just a few feet from the stove! It was freezing! Though mom didn’t mention it, I suspect the outhouse didn’t get much use for a few days. I feel like such a weenie for complaining about waiting for that school bus.

As we were driving around we knew that, on one of those lots, my grandparents must have lived all those years ago. Of course, with nothing to go on, I had no idea which one it may have been. My suggestion that we borrow a tent from one of the residents and spend the night in it to really connect with my grandparents' plight didn't go over well with Mrs. Ednold, but we chose one of the lots at random and tried to imagine them, with their two small children, hunkered down beside the wood stove back in that winter of 1933 and thanked our lucky stars they survived it so that my mom, and I, could still happen. They were only in Seneca a year or so; long enough for my uncle to attend first grade there. But they were there when it counted. They made history. You think you're grandparents were cool? As Outkast put it:What's cooler than being cool? Ice cold!” Mine were so cool they were shakin' it like a Polaroid picture before anyone even knew what that was. Unfortunately, Outkast also nailed it when they said “nothing lasts forever”. My grandparents got divorced about 10 years later and now I have a little insight into why my grandma may have had enough by then.

It would take a special kind of person to live in Seneca. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s a beautiful spot at the confluence of a creek and a river surrounded by mountains. But the isolation along with the weather requires a hardiness that most people just don’t have. My grandparents and uncles had it. I sure don’t. You could excuse the people here if they all had bad attitudes and were a little impatient with a visitor’s silly questions. But they don’t, and they weren’t. They couldn’t have been nicer. Grandma must have picked up that attitude somewhere else. Just kidding, grandma! (kind of). And mom and I are both happy you stuck it out for a few more years.

Oh, the things you'll see in a parking lot in Burns

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