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Breathing Life into a Ghost Town: The Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center 

12-09-2015 17:35

Ghost towns are a source of endless fascination to people. Why was the town established? Why did the inhabitants leave? Where did everyone go?

Maxville, Ore., was once a ghost town. But today, thanks to the efforts of the descendents of families who once lived there, the story of this former logging community is being told and celebrated in creative and inspiring ways. And this renewed interest in Oregon’s timber industry and its workers is, in turn, bringing new life to this part of Oregon.

Maxville, nestled in Wallowa County, about 13 miles north of the town of Wallowa in the state’s upper right-hand corner, was once home to about 400 residents. In its heyday, between 1924 and 1933, it was the largest town in the county. Maxville was a timber town—like so many towns in the Pacific Northwest— but, unlike most timber towns, it was home to both African American loggers and white loggers.

In the early 1920s, the loggers and their families came to Maxville from the South and the Midwest in search of work. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company, which owned the town at that time, brought the black workers and their families to Maxville even though Oregon’s exclusion laws prohibiting “free Negroes” from moving to the state to live and work, and the current governor, Walter M. Pierce, was likely a member of the Ku Klux Klan.1

Maxville at that time was an incorporated town with a post office, commissary, hotel, doctor’s office, blacksmith, railroad shops, horse barn, and two schools.

The African American families in Maxville lived in segregated housing, attended segregated schools, played on a segregated baseball team—but they worked side by side with white workers felling timber. Eventually, approximately 40 to 60 African Americans lived and worked in Maxville.

Economic conditions, especially the Great Depression and consequent downturn in the lumber market, led to Maxville’s decline. In 1933 the Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company closed its operations. Some of the residents settled in the nearby town of Wallowa. A few lingered at Maxville to work in what remained of the timber industry until a severe winter storm in the mid 1940s caused most of the remaining structures to collapse. After that Maxville became a ghost town.

Some 60 years later, the children and grandchildren of the original logging families began researching the history of the town and uncovering the stories of their ancestors. This effort led to the founding of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center (MHIC).

Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

Founded in 2008, the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center collects, preserves, and interprets the history of the logging community of Maxville and similar communities throughout the West. The mission of the MHIC is to serve Oregon and the greater Pacific Northwest by preserving resources and providing information and education about this little-known chapter of the American experience.

From the onset MHIC faced a significant challenge. It had to essentially bring a ghost town back to life. Fortunately, remnants of the site can still be seen. Roads, railroad grades, the logging pond, and springs are still evident. A decaying railroad trestle, some 60-feet tall, rests on tall pines that have grown within its midst. The remnants of metal pipes, foundations, and ceramic plumbing are still visible, along with fragments of broken china and colored glass, some with recognizable patterns and partial manufacturer names. Just one structure remains—a large log building where the Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company ran the business and which also served as a meeting place for Maxville residents.

Undaunted by the scarce physical artifacts, the organization held a visioning meeting in 2008 to map out a plan for preserving and interpreting the site. Mary Hawkins from the Rural Development Initiative (RDI) served as facilitator for the session. RDI is a component of The Ford Family Foundation which has served rural Oregon for many years by teaching skills in leadership development, community collaboration, and effective organizations.

Preserving Firsthand Accounts of Maxville

One of MHIC’s highest priorities is to collect and preserve the personal accounts of life in Maxville. The window of opportunity to capture firsthand accounts is rapidly closing with former residents getting older or moving out of the area. MHIC located some residents with firsthand recollections of life in the once-vibrant community. Volunteers used a video camera to record those memories. Researchers also came across stories of Native American, Greek, and Japanese logging families in and around Maxville. The firsthand accounts told researchers a great deal about the language and dialects people spoke and about the social norms regarding class and culture. People interviewed also reminisced about the daily activities of Maxville and work in the logging industry. The videos are used in museum exhibits and other presentations.

Annual Maxville Gathering

To raise funds and to generate interest in Maxville, the MHIC organized the first Annual Maxville Gathering in 2009. This signature event now occurs during the third week of August each year. Community residents and members of heritage organizations volunteer time, resources, and materials. Local businesses offer discounts for services and gift certificates. Agencies, clubs, and community groups provide donations, in-kind support, and artwork for fundraisers. Guest speakers representing descendents, experts, and scholars offer perspectives on the history of the community.

Attendees at the Annual Maxville Gathering enjoy learning about logging practices from the community’s early days. Volunteers use axes, saws, and horseshoes to demonstrate logging skills. Other volunteers use mule teams to demonstrate how logs were moved from forest to railcars. The gathering also features local musicians and local foods, and the neighboring town to the north, Flora, provides a mule-drawn peoplehauler for tours of the town site.

Innovative Partnerships Help MHIC Achieve Its Goals

Another goal for the MHIC is to understand the social and economic dynamics of this isolated logging town and to promote a better understanding of the multicultural populations who lived and worked in similar towns throughout the Pacific Northwest. Partnerships with other organizations, property owners, and agencies are helping the organization reach this goal.

The MHIC is working with the City of Wallowa to create a visitors’ center to highlight the cultural history of the area, serve as a tourist destination, and provide an economic boost for the community. Oregon’s U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, with Congressman Greg Walden (whose district encompasses Maxville), sponsored a bipartisan bill to transfer ownership of a former U.S. Forest Service ranger station to the City of Wallowa to be used as a cultural center by MHIC. The station, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, runs through the heart of Wallowa, providing an easy access to the visitors’ center, now renovated to serve as a tourist destination.

Today, the original town site of Maxville is owned by Forest Capital Partners, LLC, (FCP), a forest investment and management company. The company leases the site to the Madison family, the former owners of the prop- erty, which has grazed sheep and cattle on this land for three generations. The MHIC is working with both FCP and the Madisons to access and research the town.

The Madison family has taken some measures to stabilize the foundation and roof of the one building that is still standing. Future repairs include upgrading the roof’s structure and replacing shake shingles, rebuilding the foundation (currently temporary supports are in place), and rebuilding the fireplace, which is the focal point of the building. All three entities—MHIC, Forest Capital Partners, and the Madison family—share a desire to see this structure preserved.

With firsthand accounts dwindling and memories fading, MHIC is looking to archeological research to provide some answers. For example, the privies hold “treasures” that reveal what was consumed, what was thrown away, and what was hidden. Archeological research will also help determine the location of gardens and the holes that were dug to keep food items cool and preserved.

The landscape also reveals clues about Maxville’s early years, such as what types of plants were native to the area and what types of plants were introduced. Was there a graveyard? Or maybe two, one white and one African American? Exactly where were the homes, the baseball diamond, the swimming hole, and the water towers that supplied the steam engines. The MHIC has asked FCP to consider granting MHIC a heritage easement to ensure the continued preservation of the Maxville town site, while also honoring current grazing agreements, so that the land at the Maxville town site can be left undisturbed until further studies can be carried out.

MHIC has conducted history talks regional and statewide governmental agencies and historical organizations. It has also developed traveling exhibits specifically for youth enrichment. As funding allows, the MHIC plans to create kits for school districts to explain the importance of Maxville and similar sites. Graduate students from Oregon State University’s rural studies program have also visited Maxville.

The arts and culture are vital to Oregon’s rural communities by providing a creative link to local history. Thanks to a grant from The Kinsman Foundation, the award-winning musician and playwright Marv Ross is writing a musical play about Maxville, On to Higher Ground. This fictional story about Maxville is based on firsthand historical accounts, transcripts, and research. The play will open October 25, 2012 at the World Forestry Center in Portland, during MHIC’s regional fundraiser.

In recent years, Oregon’s rural counties have experienced an influx of minority populations. A grant from The Kinsman Foundation allowed the MHIC, with the assistance of local and regional educators, to develop a course curriculum for high school students designed to teach the laws and social norms of Oregon’s early days. The curriculum builds on the research conducted for On to Higher Ground and introduces students to Oregon’s little-known rural communities and the people that founded these small towns. It encourages the audience to imagine what it was like to live in an isolated, segregated community or what it was like to constantly battle nature to earn a living.

Maxville’s Impact on Surrounding Counties

Like many rural areas in Oregon, Wallowa County has faced significant economic hardships. The small town of Wallowa (population 870) has been particularly hard hit—its grocery store and mill both closed recently. The MHIC and its programs, however, are creating renewed energy and enthusiasm in this corner of Oregon. This shared heritage helps community members better connect with each other. Visitors from around the globe express this sentiment through comments in the MHIC guest book, including entries noting the pleasant surprise of finding out about Maxville’s little-known history and hearing second-hand recollections of descendents of Maxville residents.

The rich history of African Americans can be found in all parts of the country, in communities both large and small, and in unexpected places. The isolated logging community of Maxville, home to many African American loggers, once resonated with the whine of saws and the laughter of children. Today, the children and grandchildren of the original settlers are working together to bring the story of Maxville back to life.

 Interviews Bring Maxville’s History Alive
Robert Cecil “Bob” Crisman’s father, Cecil, was an attorney in Wallowa who did the legal work to help the citizens of Maxville move to Wallowa when the logging town closed down. The following excerpt is from an interview with Bob Crisman in April 2010.

[My father] became the attorney and confidant of most of the people who lived down there [in Maxville]. Basically, through the rest of his life he represented them and they called him Lawyer Christmas. He just really had some very, very good friends.

The Marsh family, of course they were my age, so I went to high school with Amos and Frank. I totally enjoyed it and I think it was a good experience for me, being from an area that didn’t have non-white kids to go to school with and learn to know them and like them and hang out with them. I knew them probably better than if I had gone to a large school where everybody was kind of anonymous, you know. It was a good experience.


1Oregon’s state constitution stated “No free Negro, or Mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws, for the removal, by public officers, of all such Negroes, and Mulattos, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ, or harbor them” (Oregon Constitution, art. I, §35, repealed in 1926).

Publication Date: Spring 2012


Author(s):Gwendolyn Trice

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