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Fossil, Oregon

by Foster Church on March 7, 2011

Main Street, Fossil

Fossil can feel icy gray on a winter afternoon.  It had been two years since my last visit. That was a spring evening  in 2008, and the Fossil Players were performing Noel Coward’s  “Blithe Spirit” in the school auditorium. After the performance, which I thought was as good as I could see in New York or London, some friends and I walked over to the Shamrock Tavern for a drink.

I could hardly recreate that buoyant evening on a dim December day but I could retrace my steps and check out a couple of favorite landmarks. First stop was the Shamrock for a bowl of hot chili in its dim, cheerful depths.

 But the Shamrock looked like no one had opened the door for a couple of months, and the window was a dead eye onto the street. A lousy turn of events. That meant no scotch and soda that night, no steak, no jukebox, no time spent reading its pungent and often ribald graffiti. It’s the only bar I know of where graffiti is inscribed on the tavern walls instead of the men’s room, and with about the same content and spirit.

 I turned right on Main Street, the heart of the downtown. Wright Chevrolet was still in business. Good. So was Fossil Mercantile Co., one of Oregon’s last true general stores and a local landmark since 1883.

Woolly Mammoth Sculpture

I continued down the street, searching for an object that should have been easy to spot: a 14-foot-high sculpture of a woolly mammoth, crafted of steel and sheathed in tendrils of rusting metal that suggested the beast’s ragged coat. It stood on loan for a few years outside a bed and breakfast, the Bridge Creek Flora Inn. It belonged to no one in town, yet it belonged to everyone, and since the town was named for fossils dug up on a nearby ranch, it was a true icon. I later learned that no one could come up with its $55,000 price, and it was returned to the sculptor, Dixie Jewett, in Dayton.

 More than ever, I needed something to warm me up.

 At the Big Timber Family Restaurant, June Rollins  brought me a bowl of chili and a pile of crackers. I asked what had happened to the Shamrock.

 “They just couldn’t make a go of it, and we’re beginning to wonder if we can,” she said.

 Fossil without the Big Timber? Unthinkable. This is a place where people plan, gossip and relax over lunch, dinner, coffee or a piece of pie.

 I started feeling bad for Fossil. So why would anyone get worked up about the precarious state of a little town in Central Oregon? Start with its location in folds of hills covered with juniper and sagebrush. For a town of about 470 people, it has big-town civic structure. It’s got a museum to inspect, a general store to browse and a Baptist church on a hill where people sing hymns in a setting that takes you back a century. There are five other churches in town, the car dealership, a bank branch, several bed and breakfasts a motel and two restaurants. Fossil School District educates about 100 students, kindergarten through 12th Grade. I don’t have a count for the number of clubs in town—a dozen or more I think—but I know of three book clubs, an arts society and an international food club. A library serves the reading public and the Wheeler County Courthouse, built in 1901, reminds everyone that the law is on their side.


But is Fossil dying?

 Not exactly as it turns out.

 The Shamrock has closed and it’s too bad, but just down the street, a new bar and restaurant RJ’s, has opened and already it feels like it’s been there 40 years or so.  At the little industrial park on the edge of town, Painted Hills Natural Beef has built a new headquarters building.  It’s not an international food conglomerate, but it’s a good match for Fossil.

 “I think that’s really indicative of the way our economy is doing,” said Lyn Craig, owner of the Bridge Creek Flora Inn. “In larger towns in Oregon you see downtown stores boarded up. We just don’t have that here. We have a nice steady economy, and Fossil just keeps going along.”

For tourists, there may be more ways to spend time now than there were 10 years ago. You can still dig for fossils behind Wheeler High School and if you’re lucky, take in a performance of the Fossil Players. But now you can also tour the Paleo Lands Institute, a non-profit  environmental education organization with headquarters in Fossil, which offers day hikes and adventure trips. Also, the town is seeking a grant to finance a network of trails in and around Fossil, which will give a new dimension to a weekend there.

 The same people won’t always greet you in Fossil—it’s a real place. People move in and move out. They’re born and they die. But is Fossil dying? I don’t think so, and that’s true of most Oregon small towns. These are not boom towns, that unpack and fold up in a night. People work hard and have realistic expectations.  They love their friends and neighbors and all they have given to the town, and they love their surroundings,  whether they are desert, ocean, forest or wheat fields. Nothing will take that away.

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