Monday, October 17, 2011

Efforts to save Dr. Pierce's Barn collapse

Photo by Cathy Bellavita

9/21/11 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

The news was sad but inevitable. The press release stated, “On Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, the Historical Society Board of Directors elected not to pursue saving the Dr. Pierce Barn from demolition at this time.”

I was dismayed at the news but not surprised at the collapse of negotiations between the Save the Dr. Pierce Barn Committee and Doug Stout, the barn’s owner. In my opinion, Mr. Stout held the barn hostage for two years, hoping to reap a profit from Cottage Grove’s beloved asset that he purchased for a bargain price in 2009.

This year Stout dangled the prospect of demolishing the barn over the Historical Society’s head if they didn’t come up with a sum of money to purchase it. His position was absolute—the barn had to go. If they didn’t buy it he might even sell it on eBay!

A committee was formed in early summer and diligently compiled information on their options. i.e. should they purchase the entire property; the property that the barn sits on; or dismantle and move the barn elsewhere. Experts were called in to assist in appraisal, real estate options, grant writing and other legalities. The Historic Preservation League of Oregon even sent down a consultant.

But it was too late. Like so many other things in life, this battle was all about the money. No matter how many angles the committee pursued, the real problem was not about maintaining the building or how many horses and cattle that could be kept on the land. The real problem was that the seller wanted more money than the land was worth. Monetary solutions were not available for this situation.

Actually, it was a lost cause from the beginning. The law was always on Stout’s side. The barn may be a public asset but it sits on private property—and the person paying the property taxes owns the barn! He can do what he wants with it. Chew on that for a minute. Why would anyone knowingly buy a public asset that they didn’t want to pay the taxes on? It makes no sense to me.

Having said that, I commend the committee on a difficult but prudent decision. Theirs was a thankless job and I’m not going to beat a dead horse over this issue. It’s done. Unless someone comes up with an extra $350,000 they want to use to purchase the property and renovate the barn—Mr. Stout has won. He held the barn hostage and no one could afford to pay the ransom. He won and we lost.

So now, instead of an historical landmark greeting visitors to our small town, we’re going to have another sterile new building of some kind to define the entrance to CG. Isn’t that special? No. Not at all.

Cottage Grove’s location in the middle of western Oregon means that we attract people from north and south out for a day trip as well as other tourists. We are known as the Covered Bridge Capital of Oregon and the home of the Dr. Pierce Barn. A place of peace.

I hear from people all the time who tell me that they come to Cottage Grove for the old fashioned ambiance. They come to the Grove to visit the barn and the covered bridges built at the turn of the 20th century. They swim and fish in our lakes and run or ride the Row River trail. They spend the night, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and slow down.

People care about the past. That’s why we don’t tear down our covered bridges. Right now, the Chambers Railroad Bridge is under restoration and soon to be completed. Mosby Creek Covered Bridge is a favorite photo spot for tourists and weddings. We maintain connections with these bridges because of the magical days of horse and buggy transportation. They are monuments to the past.

We paint murals on our buildings that reflect other eras. If they weren’t important, we would paint the walls basic beige and be done with it. Instead, tourists and residents alike whip out their cameras and record Opal Whitely and Buster Keaton. At one time, the entire Hot Spot Café at Main & Hwy 99 was a mural. The creative painting by artists Cheryl Chapman and Cindy Wolford is now gone.

Losing the Dr. Pierce barn reminds me of another asset that we lost because of a lack of money. Judy and Greg Cash offered the city a historic carousel. This was a genuine, vintage 1920 Allan Herschell unit composed of horses, pigs, rabbits, zebras and a brass ring. Local folks were restoring the animals and excitement was rampant.

But as I said in a column in 2006, carousels don’t make money. They attract money. Parents will drive 100 miles to pay $1.25 to put their kids on a horse and then see what else the community has to offer. They’ll eat lunch, shop the stores and generally spend money.

People responded to the column by the dozens ready and willing to help. But the carousel—like the barn—came with a catch. It needed a home. And again, there was no money to be found for land and upkeep. And the carousel? Last I heard it was languishing in a barn.

Many of you will remember the Blue Goose steam-powered passenger train that chugged out of town and up to Culp Creek on a 31-mile round-trip through the woods. Visitors loved it but the railroad line and train were sold. Thanks to the effort of the Save the Blue Goose Committee in Siskiyou County, the Goose is still chugging along in Yreka. Lucky them.

Do you see a pattern here? Piece by piece, we’re losing parts of our heritage and we’ll never be able to bring them back. Next column I’ll share with you some of the secrets of success that have raised some towns from just ‘old’ to the historically significant level.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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