October 24, 2002 11:00 pm
The Post General Store, located 25 miles southeast of Prineville off Highway 380 is the geographical center of Oregon as well as the social center of the Post community. (Photos/MARK HIGHBERGER).
The Post General Store, located 25 miles southeast of Prineville off Highway 380 is the geographical center of Oregon as well as the social center of the Post community. (Photos/MARK HIGHBERGER).

By Mark Highberger

For The Observer

Find the center—it's the lesson of Zen masters, the aim of tournament archers, and the quest of the Portland Trail Blazers since the day Bill Walton left. For most Oregonians, however, achieving this elusive goal involves nothing more than driving to Post.

If you make this journey to find the center, don't worry about getting lost; you'll know it when you see it, thanks to the green signs hanging above the Post General Store: "The Center of Oregon," it says high on the left-hand side of the building's false front; And again "The Center of Oregon," it says high on the right-hand side. And so that must mean the smack dab center of Oregon is between the two signs and through the doorway. So through it you go, and a bell rings above the door.

"Hi, there!" a voice calls from behind the counter and beneath the glass-eyed stares and wide-swept antlers of mounted deer and elk heads. The voice belongs to Zeb Jacobson. So does the store. And that means she and her husband Kenneth, who have run the combination store-tavern-post office-gas station for the past five years or so, for the most part are the town. "The population is two," Zeb says. "My husband and I."

But then again, Post isn't so much a town as it is a community center for the ranchers who live along this stretch of the Crooked River, as well as a gateway to the Maury Mountains for the hunters and fishermen who wander through this chunk of Crook County. And that makes the Post General Store the center of the center of Oregon.

"Not exactly," Zeb says. "The geographical center of the state is up the highway a few hundred yards. From there you can see the survey marker out in the field, but it's private land, so you have to ask to go out there."

Oh well, the store is close enough, especially for the people who pick up their mail at one of its 35 post office boxes. For taking place within these walls, Zeb says, are conversations about the births and deaths, the weddings and funerals, the political issues and hunting adventures that affect the community, which began when the first settlers arrived in 1886 to stake homestead claims and start cattle ranches in the valley and the foothills of the Crooked River.

Within three years these folks had themselves a school, a post office—Post was named for the post office's first postmaster, whose name, not surprisingly, was Post—and the store. That original store was located across the river from where it is today, but then Highway 380, built in the 1950s, bypassed it.

"The river would flood and people couldn't get across for their groceries," says Zeb, who was born and raised in nearby Prineville. "So they built a new store on this side of the river. It's been in the same building since the 1920s."

Since that time the population of the area has been shrinking as ranchers sell out or move on. "Now in many places scattered here and there in the sagebrush are but a few boards left to indicate what was once a homesteader's dream," Beverly Wolverton writes in her history of the area. "Where once there stood his barns, corrals, outbuildings, and houses [there now stand only] sagebrush and junipers."

But even as the ranchers moved away, the store stayed in business, selling groceries and gas to remaining residents as well as to occasional travelers. "I feel like I'm living with the ghosts of the pioneers," said Pat Wells, who owned the store for 25 years, from 1953 until 1978. When she bought the store, Post had a population of six, not including Pat's two Chihuahuas.

How small was the community? "We whizzed through Post," Oregon author Ralph Friedman wrote in 1976. "Had I blinked at the wrong second I would have missed it."

It's even smaller today, of course, and other than the busy times of the year, hunting seasons and holidays, the day-to-day routine at Post can involve long spells of solitude when one of the most exciting things to do might involve watching the weather. "I don't pay attention to the weather reports," Zeb says. "I look out the window. If it's wet, it's raining; if it's white, snowing. And if the trees are bending, the wind's blowing."

But for those who still call Post home, the store is a critical part of their lives, for it provides the only food and fuel for miles around. As a result, Zeb works "seven long days a week" and stays on call through the night because "There aren't many people out here to help."

Out on the highway, a truck rumbles past and honks. Zeb waves toward the window. "Different truckers beep," she says. "I recognize some of the beepers."

The bell above the door rings and a Crook County road crew walks in. "Seen any elk?" one of them asks. Sure, Zeb says, a big herd in the field down by the river. After they talk with Zeb about the elk, the crew buys ice cream bars. "See you next time," one of them says, and the bell rings as he steps outside.

"There are so many rewards to living here," Zeb says, the store settling back to quiet. As an example, she describes the day that she and a friend were standing outside when they saw 27 elk ease out of the hills, 13 deer run across the field, and two bald eagles fly overhead. "Can't get any better than this," the friend said. But soon after he said it, they saw an otter swimming on his back down the river.

If any day can top that one, it probably comes when the store serves as a gathering spot for the community's potlucks, baby showers, birthday parties, or weddings. In fact, a local couple is getting married here soon. Zeb calls the bride and groom "the grandkids of families who've lived around here many, many years."

And it was at an earlier wedding, Zeb says, that a little boy might have captured what living in the center of Oregon is all about, for when the boy saw that the ceremony was to take place on the store's lawn, he was confused.

"Mom," the boy said, "where's the church?"

"They decided to get married here instead," his mother said. "Isn't it beautiful?"

The boy stared at the sky for a moment, then said, "Yeah. I think God could be here."