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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon marked its first 100 years with a $2.6 million party

Centennial bash in 1959 was a huge event; state had been gearing up for three years. By contrast, 2009's Sesquicentennial was a mild, understated affair.

Centennial token from Creswell, Oregon.
This image shows both front and back of a Centennial token issued
by the Creswell Chamber of Commerce.

This coming Saturday, the state of Oregon will celebrate its sesquicentennial. It will have been precisely 150 years since Oregon officially became a state, in a hasty effort to settle the question of whether slaves would be allowed here, on the eve of the Civil War.

But surprisingly little is being planned to commemorate it. In fact, many people around the state don’t even know it’s happening this week, on Valentine’s Day.

Fifty years ago, though, on the eve of the state’s centennial, it was not like that — not at all. The upcoming centennial was impossible to ignore. Folks had been gearing up for it for years.

Postcard image of Depoe Bay and its Spouting Horn.
A representative of helicopter-logging company Sky King stands next
to his company's brand-new Buick looking at an exhibit of an enormous
old-growth log at the Centennial Celebration in 1959.

On the big day, President Dwight Eisenhower made a proclamation. Vice-President Richard Nixon appeared with Oregon Governor Mark Hatfield at the state Capitol, which was dusted with a surprise late-season snow, and had a 19-gun salute fired in his honor with 105-mm Howitzers. The ceremonies were opened by the Oregon Symphony. Members of the National Guard stood at attention. It was a very big deal. But that’s not why almost everyone in the state knew what Feb. 14, 1959, meant.

At a Grand Centennial Ball in Salem, the movers and shakers of the state gathered for a tony party replete with a cake shaped like the state Capitol building, with pictures of a bridge, power lines and log truck in the frosting. They danced and looked fabulous. But that wasn’t why most Oregonians knew it wasn’t just another Valentine’s Day.

Youngsters at North Salem High School put on a pageant that would be unthinkable for a public school today, called “Christianity Comes to The Oregon Territory,” featuring students playing the roles of John McLoughlin, a frontier preacher and various settlers and “Flathead Indians.” It was played five times. But that’s not why, either.

The real reason the Centennial was such a big deal was the money. The 1955 Legislature got started on the plans early, and allocated $2.6 million for the party.

You can throw one humdinger of a party with two and a half million 1959 dollars, and three and a half years in which to spend it. And boy, Oregon did.

A Centennial Commission sprang up, with members appointed by the governor. Local Centennial Committees formed at the town and county level, about 38 of them statewide. People got very excited about it. And part of that excitement was Centennial Tokens.

A Centennial Token was about the size of a half-dollar, usually bronze but occasionally silver. You can still find them in junk stores and coin shops -- expect to pay $5 to $10 for one in decent condition. Most were made by Northwest Specialty Sales Co.

A few were commemorative, with no face value. But most of them were sponsored by a local area’s Centennial Committee and were worth 50 cents — but only if you spent or redeemed them before 3 p.m. on Feb. 18, 1959.

This year’s Sesquicentennial festivities will surely feel a bit light to anyone who saw the statewide party of 1959. Well, the state is quite a bit different now. Oregon was a relatively rich state in 1959. Stumpage fees for timber harvests were pouring into the state. So were income taxes from the loggers and millworkers processing them. An extra few million was easier to come by, back then.

Anyway, 100 years is a more momentous number than 150. So we’ll probably have to wait another 50 years to see another state birthday party like that one — if we ever do.

(Sources: Hibler, Harold & al. So-Called Dollars. New York: Coin & Currency Institute, 1963; Salem Public Library digital images archive)