OPAL WHITELEY Photo provided
Opal Whiteley looms large in Cottage Grove – namely about 18 feet tall – smiling down from the newly restored mural in the Opal Whiteley Park on Main Street.
She is one of the area’s most interesting and mysterious former inhabitants, and there is a birthday party planned in her honor Friday, Dec. 7, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Axe and Fiddle.
The Cottage Grove Public Library, Friends of the CG Public Library and the Axe and Fiddle are joining forces to celebrate her life and legacy. The evening is also planned to educate, and to raise some funds for an archival quality display case. With such a display case, some of the fragile and rare items in Library’s Opal Whiteley Collection could be put on public display.
There will be some of these items shown at Opal’s Party, as well as cake, readings from Opal’s works and performances by the Cottage Grove Library’s Ukulele Club. It will be a good time for a good cause.
The party will be a few days early as her real birthdate is Dec. 11; she would be 121 this year. But 2018, is an important year in the Opal world, as it marks 100 years since she self published her first book ”The Fairyland Around Us” in 1918. She had raised $9,400 to pay for the printing by teaching children of the wealthy in Los Angeles and by soliciting subscribers.
After making many changes in the layout, frustrated printers demanded more money. When Opal couldn’t come up with the required funds quickly enough, they printed the typeset parts; however, many of the planned color plates where not printed. Miss Whiteley was left with the task of finishing the book herself.
With a supreme personal effort, she did this by locating prints she could use, cutting them out, pasting them onto blank pages and then hand labeling captions. This first edition is thus very rare, with fewer than 50 known copies existing today.
She had much better luck two years later when her book ”The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart” was published and became a bestseller after appearing serialized in the Atlantic Monthly. She used portions of her childhood diary, purportedly torn up by a younger sister, to write her books. This diary is part of the unresolved history that will perhaps never be fully clarified.
But who was Opal Whiteley, and why is she associated with Cottage Grove? Opal Irene Whiteley was born in Colton, Wash., in 1897, oldest of five children to a logging family. Her father followed forest work and ended up settling in near by Walden, once a stop on the Oregon & Southeastern Railway; Opal’s Maternal Grandparents had a farm there. She spent her childhood years in logging camps and towns, and had a fascination with nature and living things.
She befriended many wild creatures and often suffered consequences at the hands of parents due to these friendships, particularly when foodstuffs intended for human use were diverted to her animal friends. In her ”Fairyland” book, she describes yellow jackets as fairies, and how she shared her bread & jam with them. Having been on the business end with these wasp fairies, I am not so sure I agree.
Despite these humble beginnings Opal seemed destined for greater things. In 1915, she was chosen to be State Superintendent of the Junior Christian Endeavor, and was famous as a tutor and speaker on natural history and geology. She wowed the faculty of the University of Oregon when she visited, and was admitted despite not having completed high school. The Eugene City Guard writes, ”Tutored by nature, a tiny 17-year-old mountain girl, her hair down her back, has opened the eyes of the Eugene teaching profession and left them gasping for breath. Entrance rules have been set aside and scholarships proposed.”
Her path took many turns and was not without controversy, some of which reverberates to this day. I attended a very excellent talk on Opal Whiteley at the CG Community Center two Saturdays ago and sat fascinated as local historian Stephen Williamson addressed the crowd. He has spent years researching and tracking down any information he can to trying to understand and clarify the story of Opal Whitely.
I have enjoyed exploring the results of his work on his website, http://members.efn.org/~opal, and I recommend it to you to further your knowledge of this local celebrity. Also, do plan on coming to wish her a very happy birthday, and consider helping with a donation towards the display case. It would be a great addition to our town and the Opal Whiteley tour, which you can learn more about on Williamson’s website. The Book Mine on Main Street is also a rich trove of books by and about Opal, prints and other ephemera. Happy Birthday Opal!