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Oregon Trails: The Model Town

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GILCHRIST, Ore. – A big part of the growth of Southern Oregon was the development of the timber industry in our area. In the early 20th century, several large timber companies bought thousands of acres of timberland and built mills, railroads and towns.

Company towns have been a part of the American landscape for nearly 200 years. In Oregon, of the handful that flourished throughout the 20th century most were timber towns. And none was likely more successful and better planned than Gilchrist. It still straddles Highway 97 in northern Klamath County, about 45 miles south of Bend. It was built in the late 1930′s by Frank Gilchrist after years of successful timber operations in the south. When Gilchrist was built, it was a planned community with amenities many larger cities did not have, including what may be the first enclosed shopping mall in the country.

Gilchrist was one of the last lumber company towns built in Oregon and was planned from the beginning. For those who lived there, it may have seemed like the ideal place to grow up, with a wide variety of services, paved streets and manicured lawns. Pay was good for the company’s workers and those who had businesses in town and houses were rented cheaply. According to Driscoll in his new book, “Gilchrist, Oregon: The Model Company Town”, in the early 70′s Gilchrist timber company charged $29 a month rent for a one-bedroom house to $85 a month for the four bedroom homes. That rent had been in place for nearly 20 years! 20 years later, in 1991, it ranged from $67 to $125 a month for rent.

Gilchrist also sidestepped the expensive railroad logging that other timber companies east of the Cascades used earlier in the century, and relied heavily on roads and log trucks. Gilchrist sold the mill and timber lands to Crown Pacific in 1991 for $136 million, which closed the mill and laid everybody off, opening it later as a new operation. But Crown Pacific was heavy in debt, and the nearly 100,000 acres of timber land that Gilchrist had carefully managed for sustained production forever was virtually logged off to pay the new owners’ debts. The company is now owned by Interfor of Canada and is one of only a few remaining in operation east of the Cascades, producing lumber for shipment worldwide. The homes are no longer Gilchrist brown in color, and many are owned by part-time residents.

As John Driscoll points out, one of the things that Frank Gilchrist learned early on with his lumber camps in the South is that lumber camps usually attract single men, or married men without their families. And things get a little bit rowdy. So what he wanted to do when he established the town of Gilchrist was to have some order and civility here. So what better way to do that then to provide a place for the wives and kids, and that’s the community of Gilchrist: A community that was well planned out.

Other lumber company towns in NewsWatch12 viewing area included Pelican Bay, Modoc Point and Algoma on the shores of Klamath Lake in Klamath County, and Hilt, just south of the Oregon-California border. For information on how to obtain a copy of John Driscoll’s book, “Gilchrist, Oregon: The Model Company Town” go to www.gilchristcompanytown.com.