Cottage Grove

Cottage Grove offers plenty of intrigue from ‘Christmas Past’

Coast Fork Willamette out of its banks in 1964. PHOTO: Debra Monsive

Today is Dec. 23, two days after the Winter Solstice and two days before Christmas. This timing warrants turning back the pages for a peek at some Cottage Grove Christmas pasts. Like Scrooge’s ghosts, these bits and pieces from the Cottage Grove Historical Society files rattle their chains to draw attention to some distant memories.

The first account comes from early settler scion Walter Veatch. In a piece for  the CG HIstorical Society, Dec 2010 Newsletter, Veatch describes his Grandfather (who arrived in Oregon in the Knox wagon train in 1853) growing up in a farming family of 17 children. The annual Christmas present for that army of child labor living in a frontier community where there were no stores or money to buy anything with, was a little time off from their daily grind. The deal was that the kids could drag in the biggest, greenest, wettest Yule Log they could fit through the door and into the hearth. As long as there was any part of that log left the kids had time off from their daily chores. His Grandfather told him how much they looked forward to Christmas time for weeks ahead of its coming. While the Yule Log burned their parents did all the work, it was one gift they could afford as it was not cultivation time. By the time his father was born (1872), Santa Claus had arrived in Cottage Grove and they hung their socks and stockings on the mantel and found cheap colorful candy in the morning. When Veatch and his sisters were born at the turn of the century (1900) they had a tree cut by their father from the nearby forest. They would make it into a Christmas tree by decorating it with homemade paper chains and self-strung popcorn garlands and lit by candles. 

During the Christmas season in 1968, Santa rode the fire truck from The Village Center, along Highway 99 before pulling into the downtown firehouse (old City Hall) to hand out candy canes and to discuss lists with kids. The historic Downtown was looking festive thanks to the decorations put up by Jaycees Club. 

Born in 1883 and still looking forward to Christmas at age 102, Myrtle Nelson shared some memories and insights in the local paper on Christmas eve 1986. She moved to Saginaw in 1919 working as a cook in logging camps and in canneries. Said “I still remember Christmas when I was a little kid, and still look forward to the holiday.” While longing for the simpler times she said now “It’s too commercial, people are forgetting what the day really means.” This from a centurion who grew up without a refrigerator and when automobiles were a novelty, uncomfortable, and a nuisance if riding a horse as she often did as a young girl. 

In 1988 Weyerhaeuser donated a 60-foot Christmas tree that was set up at Main Street and Highway 99 in the United Electric (Covered Bridge Brewing Group now) parking lot. Cranes and logger ingenuity were pressed into service by the volunteers putting the tree up and the fire department with their bucket lift draped the lights around the massive tree.

Just before the millennial change, the 1999 holiday season was marked by the first cooperative effort between the then Downtown Association and the Chamber of Commerce. Many of the activities featured at the recent “Kick Off to Christmas,” (Downtown CG, CG area Chamber of Commerce, and City of CG), held this year in Bohemia Park have their roots in this and previous holiday celebrations held downtown. Then as now, Caroling, hot drinks, pictures with Santa, and lighting of the city tree were on the program. One neat feature of the ‘99 festival was that the downtown merchants, who had festooned their businesses with decorations, dimmed their lights at 5pm, before the city tree was lit, then relit the downtown after that tree was twinkling. All efforts, past and present, were geared towards encouraging Grovers to “buy local” when shopping for the holidays.

In 2002 several hundred locals, including teachers with their classes, The Umpqua Community College Singers, Mayor Gary Williams, and citizens from all walks of life, gathered at City Hall to greet “Oregon’s Gift to the Nation.” This hand-selected National Christmas Tree, a 70 foot Douglas Fir, was bound for Washington D.C. It would eventually stand on the US Capital’s lawn.  From its cutting in the Umpqua National Forest Diamond Lake District, the tree on its special trailer, followed the Applegate and Oregon Trails in its journey.  Starting off in Roseburg, south to Jacksonville before turning back up to Cottage Grove. The tree beat out four other finalists to win the honor of being chosen. Several more stops, Springfield, Salem, and Portland were on the tree’s itinerary before its heading east to the Nation’s Capital.

As ghosts go, the Christmas Flood of 1964 should loom large in stories of holidays past. Although Cottage Grove miraculously avoided any fatalities or severe flooding, it still got clobbered. Creswell too! Many families had to change plans and spent their holidays with friends, relatives, at least 200 at Harrison School, and some in their businesses due to the high water or being cut off due to damaged roads and bridges.  

This was not just a local event. An Area as large as France. centered over Oregon, that affected all of the state and parts of Washington, Idaho, Northern California and Nevada received a big lump of coal for the holidays. This disaster cost lives, roads, bridges, homes and more. Particularly hard hit was the timber industry when logs,  finished lumber and logging roads, were washed away and mills damaged. Agriculture too suffered by loss of fields, livestock, and pastureland that was buried under debris and silt. $244.4 million in damage was reported in Oregon alone (billions today). 

This weather event was due to a series of cascading effects. First came a hard freeze, (two days at 9 degrees in Cottage Grove), then freezing rain, followed up by a big snow dump. If that was not enough, an atmospheric river (pineapple express) moved in and jumped the temperatures into the fifties, while bringing in heavy rains and  melting the snow. The frozen ground prevented much absorption of all this extra water into the soil.  

Trouble was already brewing the Monday before Christmas when a flash flood thundered down Rat Creek. That valley, having been freshly logged, built up pools of water that came down in an angry torrent of mud, water, and logs. The local paper warned of flooding danger in its Christmas Eve edition. Before the ink was hardly dry, water was shooting over the spill ways of the two local dams.  

The Row River was especially violent in its fury claming several homes and bridges.  Particularly hard hit was the Rocky Point area where both road and railway were heavily damaged. Before this flood there may have been some lingering resentment in the community by families displaced by the construction of the Cottage Grove and Dorena Dams. That sentiment seemed to be washed clean by the performance of those two structures during this catastrophe. The dams were universally praised as heroes who held back millions of gallons of water, preventing far worse damage. Old time Grovers couldn’t believe that downtown wasn’t flooded and that there wasn’t more damage from the worst rainstorm since the 1870s. Some houses in low areas flooded sas did many basements.  In all 10.79 inches of rain fell between Dec 20 and 25, not counting all the melting snow.

The Rouse Covered Bridge was destroyed by surging water as well the local favorite “Swinging Bridge.” Reports of a girl’s scream as the bridge broke loose led to fears someone was swept downstream.  A house to house search in the area found no one missing, but did turn up eyewitness information that  three boys were seen at the bridge at the time of its failure. Anecdotal accounts relate three buddies were “bouncing” the bridge off the flood waters. It’s all fun and games until physics takes over.

A CGS editorial generally praised the response of the community in the flooding but did offer some stern posturing on the “juvenile problem” blaming lack of guidance as to why youngsters would be out at 1:30am (the hour the bridge was destroyed) and what were the parents doing or thinking in “turning their children loose to fend for themselves.” 

Other items from this historic disaster include the tale of a Bohemia miner who was trapped by the flood damage and heavy snows, and hiked 18 miles out of the mountains when his supplies ran out. Stories in the paper included tips on dealing with water-damaged furniture and worries about the heavy snows that followed the flooding. Fortunately temps remained cold and the snow stuck around and didn’t add to the problems.

School kids enjoyed the snow and snowmen dotted the landscape. It was reported to be dangerous to walk the streets as snowballs filled the air. The students certainly had an extended winter break as frozen rain, which made travel dangerous before the holidays, closed schools early, then the floods and snows afterwards extended their break. The Christmas Flood of 1964 is one for the record books and hopefully one not to be repeated any time soon. It was called a “100-year flood” at the time, and according to my calculations we should still have another 43 years credit! Happy Holidays and stay dry. A special thanks to The Cottage Genealogical Society Library and Debra Monsive on research help on the Christmas Flood.

A special thanks to The Cottage Genealogical Society Library and Debra Monsive on research help on the Christmas Flood.

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