It's early Spring and the cool morning air affirms the last vestige of a late Winter.
The heater in my old truck is on the fritz so I keep the chill off my mind by singing along with a classic western tune that's playing on the radio. Thankfully it still works.
I'm taking the scenic route to Brownsville today. It's a day trip I promised myself almost a month ago.
I love driving these back roads, especially this time of year. The areas rolling hills make for a harmonious contrast to the wide open fields of lush green grass, the beginnings of this years seed crop.
I've been rolling along Gap road for miles, and now come to a stop at highway 228. I'm in Brownsville. A quick right and then left puts me onto Main Street.
The Calapooia River runs beneath my wheels as I cross a 75 year old truss bridge to the business district of what is considered to be one of the oldest towns in the Willamette Valley. The bridge is like a portal that takes me back in time to an era of classic homes and quaint businesses.
Brownsville took root in 1846 and for years, when the river was too high to negotiate, wagons were ferried across the Calapooia on a small wooden raft at just about this spot. That was well over 150 years ago.
With so many years behind it, you'd think this original pioneer town would be a major city by now.
There is plenty history here to be sure. Even a nice museum. But for one reason or another, Brownsville never seemed to get on the map in a big way. That's not to say the town hasn't had it's share of opportunities. There have been more than a few.
not for lack of trying. A few items of industrious note have taken place over the
years. For instance, Oregon's second woolen mill got its start here
in 1865. It was known as the Brownsville Woolen Mill and ran for over
seventy-five years. It was eventually overtaken by larger mills in
other cities, bought out and eventually shut down. The abandoned
buildings were destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.
Other industries opened for business over the years, including a furniture factory, grist mill and logging mill. Around 1890, the railroad took note of the bustling little town as it laid track with its sights toward the Eugene/Springfield area. It made Brownsville one of its stops along the way.
As the areas industries that utilized the railroad for moving their products slowly disappeared there was no reason for the railroad to stick around. It was losing money and eventually, it left as well.
Brownsville still has a small industrial base, which doesn't need a railroad to survive.
MUSIC: Can you say country
For a time, Brownsville was the preferred hangout for some of country music's greats including such artists as Porter Wagner, Roy Clark and Johnny Cash.
As Royal Yoakum, a friend who frequented Brownsville as a kid and actually rubbed shoulders with some of these country greats through family friends, tells me, "This was like a rest stop for performers who were touring the west coast. They hung out at the house of a family friend named Gary Nelson, a country western musician in his own right, who made his home in Brownsville. When not at the Nelson house, the musicians spent their time at the Brownsville Saloon.
On occasion, guitars would be pulled out for a song or two if the mood was right. This was back in the 60's when the towns population was less than a thousand people. Everyone knew each other and the musicians were like one of the family. It was quite a time."
Country music still runs deep here. Each year Brownsville hosts one of the Northwests largest country music festivals when the Willamette Country Music Festival comes to town. Each year over seventeen thousand fans showed up to see and hear a lineup of some of the countries best country music musicians.
Brownsville's five minutes of fame came in 1985 when the movie "Stand By Me" was filmed along Main street and in the surrounding area.
The movie is still celebrated each summer with a “Stand By Me” day which includes a walking tour of film locations and a talk from someone associated with the films creation . The Coco Cola sign was painted for the movie.
The actor, Sam Elliott, makes his home in Brownsville. He's been spotted in town a few times in both the store and the Brownsville saloon.
Brownsville has never had a population much larger than 1600. Some of those who live here would love to see new growth while others prefer to keep it small.
The image of a pioneer town does have its charm, and no doubt the red brick buildings along Main Street and old style storefronts have a certain amount of eye appeal. Some of the longtime residents undoubtedly like the status quo, while most of the business owners in town would likely welcome more growth.
The town's improving tourist industry seems to be a step in the right direction. Plus, the small but growing art scene here may develop into something over time. This town could easily become an art mecca with a little nurturing.
Within the context of its historic time line, there will surely be continued growth and a few changes yet to come.
For now, if you're interested in visiting a quaint pioneer town with a a long history, several historic features, a museum, a couple of antique stores, one saloon and lots of character, Brownsville is a great afternoon getaway from the daily grind of the big city.
You can have a beer and a bite to eat at the iconic Brownsville saloon.
Or, if beer's not your thing, a glass of wine might be more to your liking at the new Brownsville wine bar.
At first blush, Brownsville may seem to have the persona of being stuck in time. It's intentional and it's what brings people to town.