Horse Butte

Many of my favorite memories involve a place called “Horse Butte’: a 1200′ hill just east of the Santiam river that flows through Lebanon, Oregon, where I grew up.   You won’t find Horse Butte on any map:  you’ll find a place referred to as “Ridgeway Butte“, (Blue font is an active link) named after a fellow who operated a ferry boat across the river back in the 19th century.

Fortunately, there was a bridge over the Santiam River by the time I was a kid, a half century or so ago. It was  gateway to a world of unbounded mystery, romance and adventure, less than a mile from my house.  The hill was visible from nearly any place in my hometown with a view to the east, and along with the somewhat taller Peterson’s Butte, formed a reliable guide as to navigation and orientation, although hardly a problem in a town where all the streets ran North/South or East/West.  (I still do this now, and have always lived near at least some visible mountainous landmark(s): the first time I ever drove anywhere in the Midwest, I repeatedly got disoriented.)  Driving towards Lebanon on Highway 34 you could see it for miles forming the foreground for the Cascades Mountain Range looming up behind it.

I never knew the actual name of Horse Butte was Ridgeway Butte until adulthood, as everybody I knew called it Horse Butte.  My step dad told me it was because the meadow where the cross was looked like the shape of a horse from the middle of town.

Further adding to the mystical allure, for me at least, was the fact that every Christmas season a cross would be illuminated about 2/3 of the way up the hill.  In my neighborhood, it was common knowledge to those familiar with kid-lore that every time you went up on Horse Butte. It was never discussed exactly what misfortune might befall someone imprudent enough to ignore this axiom, but I figured it was probably on a “need to know” basis. (In the 90’s the cross was replaced with a new one, that from the vantage point of the town, looked more like a big plus sign than a cross.   At least it was a positive message.)

One of the few “father/son” memories I have with my genetic father was a hike up the mountain (that’s what I thought of it as) when I was around 7 or so.    It must have been in the spring-early summer, as about halfway up the hill we got caught in a sudden downpour and sought refuge under a large deciduous tree of some sort.

I remember the smell of the rain and the sound of the drops hitting leaves, and I remember sitting down on the ground  savoring the delicious feeling of being warm and dry while I ate a peanut butter sandwich and drank water from my Army surplus canteen.  Ahh, the joys of “roughing” it.

What really sticks with me are the countless times I hiked up that hill, either with one other kid, or on an expedition with several of us.   Until I was about 10, trips up the hill needed to include a somewhat older kid to make sure we didn’t do anything dangerous or get lost.   We didn’t really follow a trail, there was a gravel road that led all the way to the old unused quarry at the top of the hill.   The road was blocked off by a locked gate at the base, and I never saw a car or a truck using the road.  You would see deer, owls, buzzards and other critters on a regular basis, although, as kids, we didn’t think of that as anything special.   Supposedly there are eagles and cougars up there, but I never saw any of those.

We did get to use a trail when we went to touch the cross, as it was probably a couple hundred yards off the gravel road.  The first time I made the pilgrimage I was all excited to actually see the cross up close, which I’d imagined countless times would be a wonderful, awe inspiring sort of thing on the order of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, culminating with the attainment of enlightenment at the moment I actually laid one of my mitts on it. Like many experiences before and since, this failed to live up to my high expectations when I actually got to do it.   The cross itself, while suitably impressive in size, looked more like a crude sheet metal business sign to me and I was amazed to see that it was illuminated by regular light bulbs that just screwed into the front of it.  It just didn’t have the majesty I was expecting. Sigh.

One thing that didn’t disappoint was the view, especially from the top.   Click on the photo for a larger view.

At 850 feet above the valley floor, you could see much of the town from up there and I was delighted that, although I couldn’t locate my house, I could see things I recognized: churches, schools, water towers, factories and roads.  This gave the experience an otherworldly sensation of being outside “civilization” and being in some sort of wilderness.

The spontaneous and unstructured aspect of these little excursions also added to the appeal and the feeling of freedom and “being on your own” are things that still resonate with me.   The lack of adult supervision here was key.  Being free to fantasize that an old cistern was a German bunker for a moment,  that we were experiencing life like pioneers, or had something in common with Sir Edmund Hillary when we got to the very top were things a more mature presence would stifle.

Doing research (mainly looking for suitable photos) on this I discovered that there are now regular organized hikes up both Ridgeway and Peterson’s Butte.  I find this a little like the adult takeover of Halloween.

In 2008 a plan to subdivide most of Ridgeway Butte into 285 lots and build view homes up there was announced.  From what I can tell, things seem to have ground to a halt.  Nothing pops up when you go the the Ridgeway Butte website, and I found some evidence that they’re having trouble with environmental stuff.  Google earth doesn’t show much development other than some trees having been logged off.   I’ve heard there have been concerns with soil stability. The downturn in the Economy may also have something to do with it.

One day when I was in the sixth grade, several (at least two or three)of my classmates from Santiam School were hiking up to the top of the butte on a Sunday afternoon when we encountered some kids from another school, Cascades.   They were at the edge of the old quarry and were using a pipe as a lever to roll rocks the size of an old 19″ portable TV down the hillside and off into the forest about 30 yards away.   They motioned us over to join them and indicated that all of us might  be able to dislodge this really large rock and send it down the hill.  I remember being worried that one of us might get crushed but an examination seemed to reveal little danger of this and it looked like something that would be fun to all of us.

It took us maybe 10 minutes to  dislodge and send the boulder, which was about the size of a kitchen stove, thundering down the east side of the mountain.   It rumbled off into the forest (small evergreen trees, with up to six inch trunks) and quickly disappeared from sight, but continued to provide sonic evidence of it’s path of destruction for quite some time.   We continued on with smaller rocks, but lost interest as this seemed anticlimactic after the big one.

The next morning at school, we were discussing our adventures with our fellow students while we waited for the teacher to come and open the door.  The size of the big rock had grown to the size of a car by then with suitably larger sized trees as victims.  We were somewhat surprised when the teacher, Harold Grove, opened the door from the inside as we hadn’t realized he was in the classroom, but we quickly went inside and got ready for class to start.

The first thing he says is: “Did you hear that the police are looking for the people that crushed a house up on Horse Butte with boulders?  They almost killed a couple of people.  They’re going to be in big trouble.”    I remember my focus narrowing down to the top of my desk and my throat going dry as I contemplated the rest of my life behind bars.  I fully expected the police to come into the classroom at any moment and my heart was pounding.   I then noticed Mr. Grove was smiling and  realized he was kidding.   He then gave us a brief “seriously, that was really dumb” lecture on how foolish, destructive and dangerous our actions were and we were lucky we didn’t kill someone. I think he made his point.

The Measure of a Man

My step dad was a lot of things, but a good business man was not one of them.  He was a partner in a forest seed business, Century Forest Seed, in Lebanon, Oregon, my home town.   He hadn’t bothered to be adequately insured and the business was severely damaged by a flood in 1965.   I wasn’t privy to all the financial details, but our family finances were a bit spotty over the next couple years, and he eventually lost the business.

At one point, things got so bad that we had our cars (among other things) repossessed.   This was around 1967 or so.   None of this fazed my step dad one bit.   He’d lost his business, a house, our cars, a boat and a camper and we were watching a black and white TV from the 50’s instead of the year old color set that had been the focal point of our living room.  We were lucky to have a phone.   My step dad  had a friend take him to a junkyard where he found a 1952 Ford 2 door sedan that he towed home and managed to make run.

It looked like the one in the photo, (even the visor over the windshield) except it was two tone green oxidized beyond all hope of displaying anything remotely like a shine.  It almost looked like it was flocked.   I think he only paid $25 bucks for it.   Now, I’d love to have it, but, then I was ashamed of it.  Except for the paint, it was in good shape, Flathead V-8 backed up by a 3 speed with overdrive, but I hated to be seen in it.

He found a job in a few days.   He’d owned a sheet metal business in the 50’s, and went to work for a non-union shop in a nearby town.

Soon, he managed to get another car (loan from my uncle) for my mom to drive, a 59 Rambler Station Wagon in Appliance white.

This had an automatic transmission and steering so slow it was probably six turns, lock to lock.  It was the car I learned to drive in.   Quite a drop in prestige from a 1965 Impala and a 66 Chevy Fleetside with a Chinook camper.  Our current rolling stock had a value of less than $300.

I didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation at the time, but it must have been fairly dire as I remember one time he came home with a bunch of USDA surplus food (pre-food stamp program) in cans.    They all had labels painted right on the cans with USDA stamped all over the place, and I distinctly remember a can labeled “One Whole Chicken”.

Years later, it all dawned on me that the way he handled this situation with calm and resolve was very special.  He never seemed to miss a beat, never showed any signs of self pity, or seemed to be the least bit embarrassed having to work for someone else or bringing home surplus food.

How a man acts after he gets knocked on his butt tells you a lot more than watching him when everything is going  smooth.   It only took a year or so for us to get back on our feet, more or less.  We got a new color TV (big deal in the 60’s, you know) The Rambler turned into a 63 Dodge and my step dad bought a 61 GMC pickup.  For some reason, the old Ford stayed around for another year so so.  I can’t actually remember what happened to it, but he did tell me he kept it around, as a reminder.

He eventualy  started up his own sheet metal business in the early 70’s that he operated until he passed on in 1979 at the age of 56.  He was the sort of man who taught me things by example rather than lecture me on some subject.  Once I came home when I was around 16 after drinking a few beers with my buddies.  I was a little shocked to find my parents still awake when I got home and I was certain that I was going to get busted.    But they said nothing, and so I went upstairs and went to bed.  I was awakened at about 7:30 by my old man who announced that I needed to help him unclog the drain in the basement.   I was experiencing my first hangover and now I’m in the basement pulling on the end of a plumber’s snake that’s stuck in an old cast iron pipe.  I’ll spare you the details of how it all worked out, but when I was crawling out of the dirt floor basement he said to me “I hope if was worth it.” “What?” I said, wondering what “it” was.   “I know what you were up to last night, think I wasn’t young once?”  He didn’t need to explain at that point that sometimes actions have consequences: I heard him loud and clear.



I’m not all that happy with the way this came out, it just doesn’t do the painting justice as it’s a scan from the original Polaroid my mom sent me, so it really doesn’t do it justice in any way.  She painted this one sometime in the 80’s.  I’m not sure where any other photos I have of her stuff are, so this will have to do.

This isn’t a painting of anything that actually exists, she just thought it up.   The last 15 years or so that she was painting in oil, she really just was doing it to please herself, and stopped doing anything that was representational.   I think she did her best stuff in her late 60’s and early 70’s.  At her best, she was really good.

In the mid 70’s, (when she was in her mid 60’s) she had a one woman show at the then Pat Boone Inn on the Oregon Coast, and pretty much sold everything she had on display, and bagged a few other commissions for large oil paintings from people who saw her work.     She understood that her clients wanted home decoration rather than art, but she wanted to pay off her house, and that little burst just about did it for her. It gave her the freedom to do what she wanted.

After that, she did paint whatever she wanted, and 90% of it came straight out of her head.   Since I’d been watching her do this since before I could talk, I understood most of the time where she was coming from: how her eye viewed things.   She once did a large oil painting on a sheet of plywood.   My stepfather had a 4X6 sheet out in the garage where she parked her car, and one night she noticed the grain reminded her of the ocean.   She just added colors to the existing patterns, a little sea foam, a couple seagulls and she had a painting she called “The Restless Sea”.   Before she painted it my stepdad sprayed water on it a couple times to bring out the grain a little more,  it really added an interesting texture and seemed to cause the painting to  change colors depending on viewing angle.

I din’t get any of her artistic talent as I’m barely able to write legibly, let alone paint or draw anything.   But I did learn to see the world, to a degree, through her eyes.   It’s not what you’re looking at that’s important: it’s what you see when you do.

Full Circle

This is a photo of my father, Verne Stevens, taken in  Lebanon, Oregon 1947 or 1948.   He worked part time here for a short while (The Town Tavern, but I don’t think that is what it was called in 1948) as a bartender a couple nights a week, while also working his regular job at the US Plywood plant where he’d worked since 1936.  (Minus 3 years off to work in Germany as a Machine Gunner in the US Army)  He was trying to save up money to buy a house (GI Bill) so as to entice my mother to move to Lebanon so he could start a family.   (They’d met in Cleveland when he was on his way to the east coast to catch a boat to Europe)

He had his heart set on this brand new, little (949 sq ft) 2 bedroom house.  There were 7 of them in town, all identical:  this one was a little less money ($12,000) as it was located on a truck route at 365 Williams St.. prefab5He managed to buy the little house and my father continued to work in the mill until he passed on in 1960. (The house is listed on Zillow as being worth a tick over $70,000, and last sold in June of last year for $92K, ouch!)e

50 years after that photo was taken, I found myself working behind that exact same bar for 9 months.  (By then called Terri’s Town Tavern , run by Ms. Terri Wiser) I opened up the bar early in the morning a couple days a week.    An interesting fact is that most of the clients at this time of day were men in their 70’s and 80’s who came in to drink coffee and play pool.   Some of them had worked with my dad at the mill, and when they found out who my father was, they started calling me “Verne”.

One of them, Lloyd Randall, the local shoe repairman, (he just came in to drink coffee, no pool for him) was actually a good friend of my father’s and I managed to have a number of conversations with Lloyd; and much of what I do know about my dad, (other than what my mother used to tell me) I know from talking to Lloyd.   Evidently, among other things, my dad was a much better bartender than I was: Lloyd reminded me of this whenever I failed to warm his coffee in a timely fashion.

During that time, I also served as “house guitarist” hosting a Sunday night jam session (actually, the guitar  part went on for five years), and more often than not playing in a revolving collection of players (almost always featuring Terri’s brother, the amazingly talented Larry Wiser, on keys) every weekend.

A bar is sort of a stage for a play with an ever changing cast that gets to make up the script as it goes along.   People tell stories when they drink and it all mixes up together.  They’ll yap away about stuff they’d never say if their tongues weren’t loosened by the alcohol.    Getting a call from a baby sitter who’s employers have all the bars in town on speed dial, would be a unique experience for most people. (“I think they headed over to Wood Chippers to drink some hard liquor.”) Being the only sober person in a room full of drunks is enough to drive you to drink.

Sometimes, after closing, I’d sit down at the bar and marvel that a half-century before me my dad had sat in that very spot and had someone take his picture.   It’s a postcard from another era, a two dimensional time machine.   We were in the same play, even the same theater, but with a slightly different cast.

Haunted House?

When I was a child in Lebanon, Oregon, this house was known as the “haunted house” in the neighborhood.   It was surrounded by hugely overgrown hedges and the front porch was wrapped in dark, discolored plastic.   It really did have a spooky aspect to it.

In the fall of 1964 my parents bought the old house, (The photo was taken around 1900, the house was built in 1890) and we moved into the ground floor.   At the time, the house was being used as a rooming house: (as it had been since the end of WW2, and it was more than a little worse for wear) there were three tenants upstairs, and one who lived out back in the former carriage house that was now attached to the rear of the house.

My parents bought the house with the understanding that the tenants would be allowed to continue to live there for six months, but all of them were gone within about 90 days.   The entire infrastructure of the house was overburdened.  The main source of heat in the main part of the house was an oil stove in the living room.  The stove pipe passed through the center of  a circular cast iron register set in the ceiling up to the second floor.  In the second floor apartment there was an additional radiator like device with a small built in fan to extract  the remaining heat from the stove pipe before it took a 90 degree turn into the brick chimney leading to the roof.

The wiring was all in the old knob and post fashion with the lighting fixtures having cloth insulated wires running from the switches (which were either rotary devices or two push button types) up the wall and across the ceiling:  the house was built in the 1890’s prior to electrification.   The plumbing fixtures were all from the 20’s, with two claw footed cast iron bathtubs.   The two bathrooms were added at some point after the initial construction where the two halves of the house came together, (the house being shaped like a “T”) off to the side of the kitchen, so as to minimize the additional plumbing needed to add indoor plumbing.

The house lacked a perimeter foundation with beams supported by posts sitting on large rocks set in to the earth.   It was sagging in places and the east end was a couple inches lower than the west.   During the next 15 years my stepdad  (a sheet metal guy: he also grew up on a farm) upgraded virtually all the systems in the house, installing central heating, rewiring most of it, adding insulation where possible, re roofing it, remodeling the bathrooms and kitchen, and leveling the house by pouring some concrete pads and adding supports.  We had to raise the entire house with jacks to do this.

I received a real education in construction during all of this.   My step dad explained everything he was doing to me, and took the time to show me interesting details.  How the house originally was put together with square nails and how and where the additions had been added.   I wanted a more “modern” room and so we remodeled it and it was the only room with sheet rock,  wall to wall carpet, and a modern closet in the whole house.  We converted the upstairs apartment that had a kitchen into her art studio, and she worked in the garden to convert a virtual jungle (blackberry thickets, etc) into something that that was nice to look at out of the 16 panel window that faced the morning sun.

My step dad passed on in 1979 and never had the chance to “finish” the house the way they’d planned.   I moved to California in 1980.  My mom was going to sell the house and move to California to move in with her sister who was also recently widowed.   She never could get herself to sellthe place, however.  She’d lived in Lebanon for over 30 years at that point and she just loved that house.    She lived there by herself for the next 20 years.   I spent my summer vacations for the next decade visiting her and trying to do whatever repairs were needed.  Many of my friends also helped her when she needed things done or they’d show up with a cord of wood or fix her garage door.

In 1990 she fell down the stairs and I ended up returning to Oregon.   I spent a lot of the next decade getting reaquainted with virtually every aspect of that house.  I replaced all the toilets, much of the rest of the plumbing, painted the entire house twice and replaced the floor in her bathroom, it always seemed to be something.  I got to know the guy at the hardware store real well.   I tried to get her to sell the place and get something smaller, cheaper and a lot newer, but she wasn’t buying into it.  Those of you who knew my mother understand fully that getting her to change her mind was out of the question.

My mom passed away in November of 1999 at the age of 89.   She’d lived the last 34 years of her life (she was only hospitalized for 2 weeks) in that house, and her ashes are scattered in her garden in the back yard.   I think she probably lived in the house longer than any other occupant.

It’s changed hands twice since then, and If you wish to read a little more about it, here’s a link to a historical house website:

Many people told me I should have kept it.   It was my mother’s dream, not mine, and I was tired of worrying about it.  I didn’t love it and after my mom the house was used to having someone who loved it take care of it and preserve it.    People often send me photos of it, and here’s the latest one:

I think my mom would be happy with this.      I should probably send the current owners a copy of this post, after all, I know the address.  They might find this interesting.

My mom also collected antiques: she was also an oil painter and the house was full of her paintings.   It was a little like growing up in a museum.  That probably explains a lot.