Pixieland: High-water mark of Oregon’s postwar timber culture
Jerry and Lu Parks envisioned a “fairy-tale history of Oregon” in the form of an amusement park. What they created was a rich cultural artifact, and a treasured childhood memory for a generation of Oregonians.
By Finn J.D. John — September 17, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in December 2009, which you’ll find here.
It goes without saying that Oregon has changed in the 50 years that have gone by since the Tom McCall era.
People who remember Oregon in 1967 look back on a sort of Edenic place, comfortably conservative in some ways and progressive in others; a place with plentiful good-paying jobs and high levels of public services and low taxes and excellent roads, all paid for by a booming timber industry.
It went away, of course, when the mills started mechanizing and the available logging projects dwindled, starting in the mid-1970s. But while it lasted, it was a real and distinctive regional culture.
To get a sense of that culture (or, for those of us who have been here long enough, to remember it), there’s really no better refresher than Pixieland.
Pixieland no longer exists; it was open for just four years, half a century ago. But those four years captured the essence of that postwar Oregon culture that was celebrated in the state’s Centennial bash in 1959: a culture, really, of endless progress and proud commercialism and innocence.
The Pixieland story really starts in 1953, when Jerry and Lu Parks bought a little restaurant called the Pixie Pot Pie in Lincoln City.
The Parkses renamed the restaurant Pixie Kitchen, and over the subsequent decade or so built on the pixie theme until the place almost had a mythology of its own. The décor of the place was themed around a community of pixies, depicted with a distinctive artistic style with little green pointed caps. There was a set of funhouse mirrors in the foyer for kids to entertain themselves with. The restaurant focused heavily on kids, providing paper placemats that could be folded into pixie hats. The tables along the back wall looked out through huge plate-glass windows on a courtyard with a motorized diorama of three pixies running a little train. And, of course, the food was excellent.
By the late 1960s, the Pixie Kitchen was a destination restaurant, and a meal there was an integral part of thousands of Oregon families’ regular beach-trip plans. In an age when waiting for a table was almost unheard-of at a diner, the Pixie Kitchen sometimes had so many people waiting that they had to line up outside.
So Jerry and Lu decided they would build on that popularity by giving the kids more of what they loved so much about the Pixie Kitchen: An 57-acre amusement park centered around those pixies.
It would be more than a collection of thrill rides, though, this amusement park. No, Pixieland would be a cultural artifact, a teaching tool for young Oregonians to learn about their state and its history and culture. It would be, as Jerry Parks put it, “a fairy-tale story of Oregon.”
There would be a frontier town, a la “Little House on the Prairie”; there would also be an Indian village and canoe docks. Vaudeville shows would be performed in an opera house, and there would be an old-fashioned penny arcade. A petting zoo would feature the important animals of Oregon history. And the logging industry would be represented by an old 1890s-vintage narrow-gauge steam logging locomotive (dubbed “Little Toot”) and by the piece de resistance of the park: A log-flume ride, in which kids would sit in fiberglass boats shaped like hollowed-out logs and ride a sort of roller-coaster track through the park.
Jerry and Lu unveiled their plans in 1967, and the response was uniformly enthusiastic. The two of them put up $300,000 as seed money; made the rounds of businesses for sponsorships; held a public stock offering to raise another half-million; and got to work on the project.
They hired two former Disneyland executives to help them design the place. It would be built on a 57-acre swampy tidal flat on the edge of the Salmon River estuary; they built a dike around it and drained it to get the requisite firmness underfoot.
Oregon businesses loved the idea, and hurried to get into the act with sponsorships of rides and exhibits.
Pixieland opened for business on June 28, 1969, with Gov. Tom McCall officially dedicating it. Shiny and new, it featured a frontier Main Street lined with Western-style shops — a print shop, gift store, the penny arcade. There was the Darigold Barn, serving milkshakes and chocolate milk and other dairy treats; and, slumped improbably against it and looking a bit like a colossal drop of drywall mud with a hole in the front, the Darigold Cheese Cave, in which visitors could sample every kind of cheese then known to the Oregon of that pre-hipster-cheese-bar era.
Other business sponsorships included the Fisher Scone concession building, its roof made of a colossal plaid-painted fiberglass replica of a Scottish tam, and the piece de resistance — the Franz Bread Rest Hut, shaped like a great hollow log with a huge fiberglass loaf of balloon bread jutting incongruously out of its top. Inside this, guests could watch their kids enjoy the park’s only real thrill ride: the log flume.
There was an opera house (sponsored by Blue Bell Potato Chips), a big two-story structure built like a 1910s Grange hall, in which live Vaudeville melodramas ran daily — with noble, manly heroes saving fair young maidens from mustache-twirling villains, and other turn-of-the-century theatrical tropes.
And everywhere there were murals and sculptures and plywood cut-outs of the ubiquitous pixies, flashing winning smiles with a hint of mischief behind them.
There were hints of trouble from the start. Plans fell through; costs ran high; the Parkses had to scale back the planned exhibits and rides. They also seem to have had to cut back on their landscaping budget. As a result, even in the postcard views of Pixieland, it looks a little bit unfinished — like the playground at a rural elementary school. The paths and walkways are asphalt, at the side of which the well-groomed grass starts up without the formality of a curb or border. And there’s a good deal of unused space.
That slight air of seediness may have contributed to the park’s demise. It’s more likely, though, that its primary challenge was the short operating season — there’s a reason Disneyland is located in a place that gets 15 inches of rain a year. Almost all of Pixieland was outdoors, and even in the summertime things can get drizzly and chilly in Lincoln City. How many families chose a different destination for their beach vacation out of fear that the weather would ruin it? It’s impossible to say.
In any case, by 1974 Pixieland was no more. The log flume ride and Little Toot were sold to the Lagoon Amusement Park in Utah, where they are still in service today. And by the late 1970s, the park was essentially a 57-acre blackberry bramble.
The Pixie Kitchen soldiered on for another dozen or two years, but it seemed as if the magic had been drawn out of it and infused into the failure of Pixieland. It changed hands several times, and finished its run as a nightclub. Sometime in the 1990s, a fire damaged the structure, and although the best part of the building was still OK, there apparently was no reason to keep it going. It was demolished, and today is just a level place beside the road.
Today, the site that once held Pixieland has been restored as part of the Salmon River estuary. The tides have been allowed to flow freely back in and mix with river water, providing cover for all sorts of wildlife — especially salmon smolts. As of five years ago there was still a building on the grounds — a little tide-gate shack, built in the classic cartoon-pixie style. But by now, likely that’s even gone, and, a mere 50 years later, Nature has reclaimed its own.
So, could Pixieland have been saved? Likely not. It was other factors that killed it, but by 1974 the culture of Oregon was changing as well, as the demoralization of the Watergate scandal and the growing legitimacy of the anti-war counterculture, plus environmental objections to full-throttle logging, undermined the shared vision of progress and egalitarian libertarianism that had knitted postwar Oregon together as a community. With its brazen commercialism and proud kitschiness, Pixieland was old-fashioned almost before it was opened for business. If the weather hadn’t done Pixieland in, the changing Oregon culture likely would have killed it within a few more years.
And there’s another point, which Portland Oregonian writer Inara Verzemnieks makes. “It's hard not to wonder whether if by disappearing, Pixieland became an even better place in the end,” she wrote, in her 2008 article about the park. “If Pixieland had stuck around, we would might have been forced to see those things that photos reveal and memories don't: Children bundled up against the bracing cold in Nordic sweaters and wool shirts; the pathetic descent of the log flume ride; the way the pixies in the background actually look kind of menacing. The Pixieland we see now in our minds is more fantastical and impossible than the one that actually existed, which seems right somehow.”
(Sources: Moore, Mark. “Pixieland,” pdxhistory.com; nara Verzemnieks, Inara. “Invisible Cities: Pixieland, the Mythical Amusement Park,” Portland Oregonian, 22 Jan 2008; Amen, Steve. “Pixieland Restored,” Oregon Field Guide, Oregon Public Broadcasting, 03 Feb 2011)