October 17, 2003 11:00 pm
The Wheeler County Courthouse in Fossil, one of the oldest and grandest courthouses in the state, has been serving the area for more than 100 years. ().
The Wheeler County Courthouse in Fossil, one of the oldest and grandest courthouses in the state, has been serving the area for more than 100 years. ().

"There's an early-afternoon calm in our town," says the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town,'' "a buzzin' and a hummin' from the school buildings; only a few buggies on Main Street — the horses dozing at the hitching posts; you all remember what it's like."

But maybe you don't remember. Horses and buggies aside, maybe it's been too long since you drifted toward the quiet of a spring evening in a gentle town, too long since you strolled along neighborhood streets that carry the scent of new-mowed grass and the sough of stirring leaves.

Well then, come along for a wandering walk through the north-central Oregon town of Fossil. And as we amble along the sidewalks and roads of this community of less than 500 people, we'll take our quiet time, waving and saying howdy to the folks who have invited us to share their hometown on this serene afternoon. Let's start near the beginning and head to First Street on the northern edge of town.

Along the way we pass by the blue "Welcome to Fossil" flags, wave to a fellow driving a brown Chevy, say howdy to a woman walking a Cocker spaniel — good, you're catching on to the howdy part — until we come to stand in front of Fossil's first building, constructed in 1881 as a general store and used now as the Masonic Lodge. Although homesteading ranchers had moved into the surrounding hills more than a decade before, this building marks the start of settlement in the town itself.

Across the street, for example, stands a two-story house with a row of pine trees and a white picket fence. "Circa 1880," says the sign hanging on that fence. This was the residence of Thomas Hoover, one of Fossil's earliest settlers as well as the postmaster of its first post office and a part-owner of its first store. In addition, Hoover can claim credit for naming the town after he discovered the fossilized bones of an elephant and a camelope near his ranch house.

Platted a year after the store was built, Fossil emerged in a decade when newspapers carried accounts of the outlaw Jesse James, the Apache warrior Geronimo, and the bare-knuckle heavyweight champion of the world John L. Sullivan. But in Fossil, folks were more concerned with making a living, raising their families, and building their homes. And because some of these homes still stand, they help show how the town grew through its early years.

So around the corner and down the street we go, to stand in front of another early home. "Circa 1890," says the sign hanging on the chain link fence that surrounds a tidy green house with tulips in its flower beds. The 1890s was the decade that saw the assassination of President McKinley, the Spanish-American War, and the invention of safety razors and Jell-O. It was also the decade that saw Fossil incorporate as a city, develop systems for water and electricity, ban public drunkenness and obscene language, and become the county seat of newly-formed Wheeler County.

With this new importance came new growth, and people who needed their grain ground or their shoes mended, their hair cut or their whistles wetted came to do business in Fossil. Fourth of July celebrations drew more than 1,000 people, yet the town became "so orderly during the past year with not one arrest" that the city council accepted the resignation of the marshal without hiring a successor. Sure, you could still keep a hog in town (though now it has to be confined to a run), coyotes still snacked on the local chickens, and it still took a 14-hour stagecoach ride to reach Arlington on the Columbia River — but Fossil was entering a new era as well as a new century.

"Circa 1900," says the sign fastened to a picket fence that fronts a two- story house near the corner. During this decade of the Wright Brothers' flight, the Model T Ford, and the San Francisco earthquake, the local newspaper described Fossil as "a happy, well located town with a population of 800."

Those early years of the 20th century were also a time of hard work and long hours, especially for the children living on nearby farms.

"There were cows to milk and herd, eggs to gather and chickens to be fed," writes Wheeler County historian Joan Wells, "wood to be hauled and split, crops to be harvested and stored." But it was also a time of grange potlucks and county fairs, of lodge meetings, baseball games and Sunday picnics.

Perhaps the most exuberant community gatherings, however, were the town dances. "Rugs were rolled back, fiddles tuned," Wells writes, "and only the children and lame went to bed before daylight."

The centerpiece of this community stood near the west bank of Butte Creek — the brand spanking new county courthouse. With its solid bricks, graceful arches and soaring spires, it's still one of the most beautiful and elegant buildings in Oregon. And across the street is what must be one of the most unusual and interesting fences in the state: 87 teapots lining a yard, each painted, decorated or polished.

Well, you can see that the afternoon is slipping away and evening drifting in, so let's head downtown, just a few blocks away. Here stand other buildings that retain their early elegance: the mercantile, the bank and the Odd Fellows Hall, which now houses the Fossil Museum and —

Hold on, partner, but is that the smell of chicken frying? By golly, look at the sign on the cafe across the street: "Fried Chicken Special Tonight!" Oh my. We'll be back, that's for sure, but first let's meander toward the hill that rises above Main Street on the southern edge of town. Near its base stands a white house with red and blue Victorian trim. "Circa 1910," says the sign posted in its yard.

This was the decade that saw the eruption of the first World War, the invention of the first traffic light, and the beginning of prohibition. Meanwhile, folks in Fossil watched the city replace plank sidewalks with concrete, the barber shop install a bathtub, and the Fossil Theater open "with comfortable chairs and late photoplays." But this was also a time that found the community fighting epidemics of influenza, typhoid and smallpox even as it said good-bye to its sons who went marching off to war. And on the top of the hill we'll find representatives of two forces that helped hold the town together through good times and bad — its schools and churches.

"Early settlers," writes local historian Kathleen Buhl, "wanted to build their lives in the same patterns as the ones they left behind, on the twin pillars of the school and the church."

As a result, this hill has long been home to the town's schools, started in 1882, as well as its Baptist Church, built in 1891). But it's also the location of a phenomenon so ancient that its age exceeds that of some Oregon mountain ranges: a fossil bed. Lying behind the high school baseball field, the bed is open to public digging.

Uncovered during the construction of Wheeler County High School in 1949, the fossil beds formed approximately 33 million years ago from the ash belches of the infant Cascade Mountains to the west. And if we poke around the slope, we'll probably find a number of fossils.

"If a moron like me can find one," says a woman along the slope with her Labrador retriever, "anyone can." She brushes away some soil and lifts out a piece of shale, running a fingernail along the rock-embedded outline of a leaf's stem and veins. The imprint is as delicate as Chinese calligraphy, as intricate as one of that language's characters.

As she continues to brush soil and examine shale, a boy wearing a red jacket climbs the slope toward her. Behind him walk his mother and father. "Where are the seashells?" the boy says.

"This was a tropical rain forest," his father says. "We won't find seashells." He bends down and dusts off a chuck of rock, then shows his son the 30 million-year-old imprints of bark, leaves and wood.

The boy bends and digs and holds up his own rock. "Look, Mommy — I found a bone. I think it belonged to a dinosaur."

When not digging for dinosaurs, this boy probably attends the elementary school across the way, above the county fairgrounds and next to the Baptist church. With evening settling in, we can get our last hilltop view of the town from there.

As you can see, we've saved the best for last: down below are the stillness of streets and sidewalks, around us the warbles of meadowlarks. Through the softly-lit windows of the Baptist church flow the voices of a choir, almost as though it's singing the town to sleep. And down at the fairground's baseball diamond, a father and son play catch, the man tossing the ball in lazy arcs or dribbling bounces, the boy shagging flies and scooping grounders and then flinging them back to his dad, the distant leather-thudding plops sounding like the ticks of a clock that mark the time as dusk descends upon our hilltop.

The Stage Manager describes the hill above Our Town as "a windy hilltop — lots of sky, lots of clouds — often lots of sun and moon and stars." From this hill above Fossil, a student-poet at the high school might have been watching one of those stars and thinking of her hometown when she wrote that "You see it shimmer as it lies upon the silky black foreverness."

But as poetic as we find the view from the hill, the song of the choir, the moment between father and son, as memorable as we find this walk through four decades of Fossil's growing up, we can no longer resist that which floats skyward from the town below — the sizzling fragarance of fried chicken. And so let us make our slow and quiet way down the hill and toward that warm-kitchen aroma, saying howdy to the folks we meet along the way.

Story and photos

by Mark Highberger