During the six and a half years that I lived in Oregon, I always saw this sign along the I-5 whenever I was driving from Eugene to Cottage Grove. I’ve wondered if anyone ever satisfied this man’s tremendous need for fill dirt.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to delay my move to Los Angeles for a few days, so I decided to drive to Umpqua National Forest, which I had never been to before. It is a gorgeous wilderness that extends from the Willamette Valley up into the Cascade Mountains. I walked along a hiking trail that went alongside a creek. The forest was extremely dense. There were thick clumps of moss growing all over the tree branches. It was all a bit gloomy, albeit in a beautiful way. I kept thinking this place would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story.
On my way back home, I decided to swing by the funky little town of Cottage Grove. This place is most famous for the fact that Buster Keaton’s The General was filmed here. (Animal House was also filmed here, although, not surprisingly, nobody feels proud about that.) The town has an annual Buster Keaton Day. It also has a mural of Keaton located on its Main Street.
Keaton is not the only person honored by a mural in Cottage Grove. Another is Opal Whiteley, who is the most famous person to ever come from this town. In the early twentieth century, Whiteley published what she claimed was a diary that she kept as a child growing up in a lumber camp near Cottage Grove. In it, she claims, among other things, that animals could talk to her, and that she sometimes met “little people” in the woods. She also wrote a nature book titled The Fairyland Around Us. The title of this work is meant to be taken literally. It is a curious mixture of scientific facts, poetry, and just plain fruitiness. I’m told that only five copies of the first edition still exist. One of them is at the University of Oregon (which Opal attended for a couple of years, though she didn’t graduate). It is kept in a locked vacuum chamber that is surrounded by armed guards. Although I would like to think that this indicates a firm commitment to preserving Oregon’s literary history, I have, however, a dreadful foreboding that the university will one day sell it in order to pay for more uniforms for the football team. (Okay, I’m kidding about the armed guards. However, I’m not kidding about the uniforms.)
I find it a bit ironic that Cottage Grove has chosen to honor Whiteley in this way, considering that Whiteley disdained her Oregon background and upbringing. She devoted a large amount of time and energy to claiming that she was the daughter of a French aristocrat, Henri, Prince of Orléans, and that she had been sent away to be raised in a lumber camp in Oregon. (I guess that this sort of thing happens all the time to the daughters of the French aristocracy.) She spent the last fifty years of her life in a nursing home in London, where the staff referred to her as “the Princess”. She was buried under the name, Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans. One of the reasons for the ongoing fascination with Opal’s life is that it is not clear whether or not she was a fraud. My guess is that she was probably suffering from a mild form of schizophrenia.
Located near Main Street is a long narrow hill that Cottage Groveans (I don’t know what else to call them) call Mount David. This is the most striking physical feature of the area, and I assumed they would have made it into a public park. However, I was surprised to learn several years ago that there were plans to build houses on the hill. This struck me as a bad idea, because, among other things, the sides of Mount David are extremely steep and are almost like cliffs in some places. I once climbed this hill, and even though it’s not that tall, it was only with a great deal of effort that I managed to make it to the top. I was sweating profusely when I got there, even though the hill is not especially high. These plans have apparently been abandoned, which may have something to do with the fact that local residents formed a “Friends of Mt. David” society to preserve the hill. (I suspect that the recession may have been another factor.)
Mt.David is interesting in a number of ways. There is a pioneer cemetery at the foot of the hill. There were cougar sightings on the hill last year. And, according to this reputable website, the hill is haunted:
- Said to be a some kind [sic] of spirit that will chase you off of the hill at night time. Around the graveyards there are said to be many apperinces [sic] of the ghostly kind. Beware of the thing that will chase you off the mountain at night time.
When I climbed the hill, I did go back down at sunset, although I am not aware that I was being chased by anyone or anything. Besides, I think I would be more frightened to run into a mountain lion than into a ghost. One thing I did notice as I was walking along the ridge was an almost perfectly circular impression in the ground, about twenty feet across. I have since learned that there used to be an oil well on top of the hill, which perhaps explains that odd formation.
This sign is on a building which used to be Cottage Grove’s City Hall, but which now houses a ballet school and some small businesses. I used to see signs like this all over the place when I was growing up. Yes, this actually gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Cold War. Does that make me a bad person?