2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
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Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.

Goal of Oregon whale hunters: Grow fur coats, and put a man on the moon.

helping put a man on the moon, one dead whale at a time?

Whale oil is special stuff, and NASA needed it for the space program. So an Astoria group launched a whaling venture in the early 1960s. Here's the story.

Shipwreck ended Astoria's 1840s bid to become the Nantucket of the West Coast

astoria could have become a mecca of whale hunting ...

... had it not been for the Columbia River Bar, which wrecked the only whaling ship that ever dared try to cross it with a full cargo hold. It was a total loss. Here's the story.

Early Oregon 'holy roller' cult ended in murder, suicide, insanity

THE holy-roller "NAKED LADIES' CULT" IN CORVALLIS and waldport.

It started out as a church seeking perfect holiness and Godliness. It ended in murder, insanity and chaos — and, yes, rumors of naked ladies. Check out the full story (in two parts).

The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

mariner's spooky nightmare came true the next day

In his dream, the first mate of the German barque Mimi saw seaweed covering all but three shipmates. The next day, all but three drowned in one of Oregon's worst-ever salvage disasters. Here's the story.

Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...

The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.

.44-caliber Colt Dragoon revolver, designed in 1848.

gold-rush bandits hunted down and killed ... but where was their loot?

No one has ever found it — or if they have, they've been awfully discreet. The Triskett Gang had stolen it hours earlier from the assaying depot in the town of Sailors' Diggins. Here's the story.

US Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat takes on a heavy sea off Cape Disappointment.

tired of seeing mariners die, lighthouse keeper took action.

In 1865, Joel Munson watched 17 sailors drown on the Columbia Bar. But when their lifeboat washed up near his lighthouse, it gave him an idea — an idea that lives on today in the U.S. Coast Guard. Here's the story.

Delake Rod and Gun Club as it appeared in 1960.

mysterious mansion was haunted only by olympic medalist's dream.

OSU Wrestling legend Robin Reed, an Olympic gold medalist, was never pinned once in his entire career. But his plan for the Delake Rod and Gun Club ended in defeat. Here's the story.

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers save sailors' lives, but get thrown in jail anyway.

In the early years of Prohibition, a Canadian rumrunner entered U.S. territorial waters to save the lives of nine castaways — and got caught and sent to jail anyway. Here's the story.

Bobbie the Wonder Dog

Bobbie the wonder dog's 2,400-mile odyssey.

Left behind in Illinois, the big collie dog walked home to Silverton, Oregon. It took him six months. Here's Bobbie's story.

A modern reproduction of a classic Concord Stagecoach.

a few legends of buried gold and treasure ...

Some of them might even be true. Here's a selection of them — as far as we know, the loot from any of them has never been found.

This crater marks ground zero in the Roseburg Blast. It's about 60 feet across.

a nuclear strike
in downtown roseburg?

No; it was "just" an exploding dynamite truck. But the mushroom cloud was big enough to fool a passing airline pilot. Here's the full story of the legendary "Roseburg Blast."

Part of the historic entry to Portland's Chinatown.

he dressed in rags like a beggar, so no one would know ...

To avoid getting robbed and murdered, Chinese couriers dressed as beggars while carrying thousands of dollars in gold from the fields. This is the story of one of these men, and the woman whose life he saved.

Steamer Admiral Evans, f.k.a. Buckman, which the two would-be pirates tried to hijack

THE dumbest would-be pirates in the history of the universe.

Their plan: Hijack a passenger steamer (that's it, in the thumbnail above), run it aground and sneak off into the bushes with 3 tons of gold. Do I need to mention that it didn't work out? Here's what happened.



Usually when something steams out to sea to rescue shipwrecked sailors, it's not a railroad train. Here's the story of the one (and probably only) time it was.


Far-out guru "enlightens" Central Oregon.

What happens when a colony of acolytes of an East Indian guru move in, then try to take over Wasco County? Check out the four-part story of the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram ...


this oregon youth went on to save half a billion lives...guess who?

A local Willamette Valley teen-ager named Bert Hoover, an orphan sent from Iowa to live with his uncle, went on to save millions of lives and become a singularly ill-starred U.S. president.


oregon's most spectacular shipwreck ever.

The steam schooner J. Marhoffer was almost brand-new when, burning fiercely from stem to stern, it piled onto the rocks near Depoe Bay. It's the remains of this fiery shipwreck that gave Boiler Bay its name ...


the gallant rescue of portland's floating brothel.

Maritime madam Nancy Boggs kept her bordello on a barge floating in the river, until a police raid cut it loose. But the captain and crew of a sternwheeler came to save the day. Here's the story.


take off to the province of oregon, eh?

Few people know how close Oregon came to officially becoming a British possession under the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Only the presence of a handful of scattered, starving survivors from Astor's fur enterprise prevented it. Here's how.


timberline lodge could have been a glass skyscraper

Calling the plan a "profit-making eyesore," a Forest Service manager nixed 1920s plan for a modern steel-and-glass structure with an aerial tramway. You can read about it right here.


pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

Built in the late 1960s as a "fairy-tale history of Oregon," the amusement park lasted just a few years before slipping into receivership. Today, all that's left of this odd and uniquely Oregonian story is a dilapidated guardshack.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

First youth symphony in U.S. came out of Oregon’s high desert

Every youth orchestra in America can trace its ancestry back to the tiny, dusty town of Burns in Eastern Oregon, and to one gifted, visionary violin teacher named Mary Dodge, founder of the Sagebrush Symphony.

Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on a float during Fourth of July Parade in Burns, 1915.
This postcard photo by Rufus W. Heck shows the Sagebrush Symphony
Orchestra members on the float built for them for the Fourth of July
parade in Burns in 1915; the float was placed in a dense growth of
sagebrush for the photo. (Photo: Harney County Public Library) [Larger
image: 1200 x 707 px]

Oregon is the home of America's oldest youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic — founded, they claim, in 1924.

But what many people don't know is that the Youth Philharmonic isn't really from Portland, and didn't exactly start in 1924. It was actually founded in 1912, in the town of Burns — a place so far away from the obvious trappings of “culture” as to almost qualify as a howling wilderness at that time.

Before I jump into this story, I have to fill you in on some background details, and forgive me if you already know them.

Homesteaders and culture

The important thing to know is that Portland and Burns were as different in 1910 as they are today, but in very different ways.

The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on its Fourth of July Parade in downtown Burns
This photo, by Rufus Heck, shows the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra
on its Fourth of July parade float in downtown Burns in 1915. (Photo:
Harney County Public Library) [Larger image: 800 x 611 px]

Portland was a rough-hewn up-and-coming metropolis, still commonly called “Stumptown,” with the roughest and most dangerous waterfront on the West Coast, a tremendous amount of trade going on and a “better class” of well-mannered citizens who wore nice clothes and appreciated culture. From far away you might have thought it was a logical place for a youth orchestra to arise — but appearances deceive. Although no longer a colony per se, Portland was like a colonial city: The elements of culture were assumed to come from somewhere else — New York, London, Paris. And possession of, or appreciation for, those elements was a mark of status.

But Burns was in the middle of a homesteading boom. A new law had opened up 320-acre patches of the high desert to settlers who would like to come and claim a piece and “prove it up” by living on it for five years. So Burns was full of people who actually came from those revered “culture places,” who flocked to the wilderness to create a community for themselves. And they sure weren't going to create a community in which the best things culture had to offer were reserved only for the “swells.” Like other emigrants before them, they were out to create a Utopia of sorts — and they sure didn't want their children growing up with no culture.

Put simply, Burns was hungry for culture and felt a need for it. Portland was, for the most part, happy with the culture it had. That's why it makes perfect sense that the Portland Youth Philharmonic got started in Burns, Oregon — a town in the desert with a three-digit population, a day's bone-jarring wagon-trail ride from the nearest railroad terminal.

Mary Dodge comes to town

The Sagebrush Symphony and Mrs. Mary Dodge pose with internationally famous opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink
The Sagebrush Symphony and Mrs. Mary Dodge pose with
internationally famous opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink (center)
at the Portland Hotel during their visit to Portland in 1916. (Image:
Harney County Public Library) [Larger image: 800 x 545 px]

The spark that brought those homesteaders' hunger for culture together into the nation's first youth symphony was a woman named Mary Dodge. Dodge was by anyone's standard an extraordinary person. She was a classically trained violinist, an extremely good one. But what was unusual about her was that her talent was linked with a love of children and, more importantly, a deeply democratic view about making music. The idea that a county-wide population of a couple thousand wouldn't have a big enough critical mass of genius musicians to form a symphony would have made her laugh. Music was, she felt, a gift to humanity, and anyone could and should get good enough at it to bask in it and the happiness it brought.

In other words, for all her talents as a musician, her skills and philosophy as a teacher were what really made her extraordinary.

Dodge came to Burns when her husband, bass player Mott Dodge, got a job in Harney County. The arrived in their new home town in 1910.

The Sagebrush Symphony forms

When they got there, Mary Dodge naturally started playing her violin. The town's children found this fascinating, and pretty soon Dodge had a flock of them learning to play in an old photography school which she'd taken over.

She was joined by her husband, who was able to teach kids to read notes on the bass clef, and by a homesteader who happened to be a professional flautist from Italy, who taught the wind instruments and conducted. By 1912 they had put together an orchestra, which they called the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra, consisting of 30 to 35 disciplined, skilled musicians — many of them still under four feet tall.

By 1915 the Sagebrush Symphony was the pride of Harney County, and they were touring Eastern Oregon on a Chautauqua circuit. The town of Burns was thoroughly energized, and residents raised funds to send them to the state fair in 1916.

On tour in the big cities

Burns still had nothing but wagon trails connecting it with the outside world, so the trip to Salem was a real adventure for the kids. One player counted 14 flat tires on the way from Burns to Bend; the car arrived on its rims. But they got there.

The kids played seven concerts at the state fair, and then headed north to Portland for a week as the toast of the city. The Jaycees got cars to use to take the young musicians on tours of the area, showing them the newly built Columbia River Highway, Council Crest and other local attractions. And, of course, there were several performances. Portland was utterly enchanted.

The kids couldn't know it, but it was their finest hour; it wouldn't happen again. The U.S. was already in the process of getting directly involved in World War I, which shifted everyone's attention off the symphony and onto grimmer events. Then in 1918, Mott Dodge was transferred to Portland, and he and Mary left Burns.

The Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra

Mary had taught her students well; the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra soldiered on without her for a while, although it never again reached the same levels of acclaim. But some of her students moved with her to Portland, where she opened her own violin school — and, with their help, built another youth symphony, the Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra.

Successful though the orchestra was, there was one more thing Dodge had to do before her creation would be ready for the true international success that was to come: Find a conductor.

So when a  professionally trained Russian conductor named Jacques Gershkovitch came to Portland to guest-conduct the Portland Symphony, she talked him into taking over as Junior Symphony conductor. Although he at first protested that he didn't teach children, after hearing them play, he said, in his thick Russian accent, “I take.” And he remained with them until 1953.

Gershkovitch came in 1923 and conducted the group's first performance in 1924, and it's that date that people use to mark the origin of the symphony — as if it didn't exist until a “real” conductor showed up to take over. Certainly this marks the moment the symphony moved up to the big leagues, but using 1924 as its date of origin is a bit of a slap in the face for the people who did the really hard work and beat very long odds to get it to that point — especially Mary Dodge.

Internationally known

But it was Gershkovitch who catapulted the symphony to international fame. Under his baton and that of his successors, the group has performed all over the world, and in the early 1930s was regularly broadcast on nationwide network radio. It's been the model for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of youth symphonies in cities all over the U.S. Its name was changed to Portland Youth Philharmonic in 1978.

And it all came out of a tiny, dusty town in the wilderness of eastern Oregon — with the help of a woman who was probably the best music teacher in Oregon history.

(Sources: Jelsing, Nadine. “Sagebrush Symphony,” Oregon Experience. Portland: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 7-12-2011 (www.opb.org); Avshalomov, Jacob. Music is Where You Make It/II. Portland: PJSA, 1979; Russell, Ronald. A New West to Explore. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1938)

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