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Small Town, USA : Urbanites Find New Way of Life

November 01, 1986|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

CONDON, Ore. — Mike Richardson, starting a new life at the age of 52, was ebullient. Goodby, San Francisco; hello, Condon. It's the good life from here on out. No more traffic, no more crime, no more crazy real estate prices. Rural America had won another convert.

"After all the clutter and clatter of San Francisco--and I'd lived there on and off for 35 years--I don't ever want to go back," said Richardson, who has just moved to this northern Oregon town of 710 residents and set up a business cleaning rugs and upholstery and sharpening knives and scissors on the side.

A Home for $18,000

Just yesterday, he said, he had closed on his new home in Condon. It has three bedrooms, an electric kitchen, heavy insulation and a garage. He paid $18,000 for it. He set down his beer, looked across the bar and said to Don Schaeffer, manager of the Elks Lodge: "You know what my payments are, Don? Just $159 a month. Can you imagine what I'd have to have paid in San Francisco?"

Richardson turned to the man next to him. He said: "I'll tell you what struck me most about Condon. It's how darn quiet the town is. You could lie down in Main Street at 6 o'clock and not get run over. My phone's so still here that I pick it up every 30 minutes just to see if I can still get a dial tone. But I don't miss a darned thing about San Francisco, except maybe hearing that foghorn late at night."

The story of how Richardson got to Condon--he was actually recruited by the Condon Chamber of Commerce--is the story of rural America's anguish and urban America's restlessness. It is the story of how one small town, crippled by sagging farm prices, declining population and an eroding tax base, decided to take the future into its own hands and ended up attracting national attention.

Wheat-Filled Valleys

Condon, situated in the rolling, wheat-filled valleys of the Columbia Basin 150 miles southeast of Portland, is a Hollywood set for Small Town, USA. At the north end of Main Street is a towering, concrete grain elevator, at the south end, a Sears catalogue store. In between are the Elks Lodge (with a membership of 350), the Round Up Cafe, some stores and half a dozen boarded up shops. Three plaques next to City Hall honor the six Gilliam County boys who died in World War I, the 10 in World War II and the four in Korea.

There are two barber shops in Condon, and the owners work on alternate days. The liquor store is in the pharmacy, though some folks express it the other way around. The police department has a force of one, and on Chief Wayne Moore's days off, Sheriff Paul Barnett covers for him. An out-of-town dentist visits the medical clinic on Tuesdays and a physician visits on Wednesdays. (House calls are $28.50.) When someone dies in Condon, funeral notices are written on pieces of paper and the news is taped to shop windows around town.

Back in the 1960s, Condon had a population of 1,200. Then the U.S. Air Force radar base just outside of town closed and the 125 airmen there left. The Kinzua lumber mill moved to Heppner. A nursing home shut down with the loss of 21 jobs. Wheat prices fell, small farms were sold to make big farms and farmers complained that the decisions affecting their futures were being made in Washington by the State Department, not the Department of Agriculture. Year by year the town's population grew smaller and older as the young went off to college--85% of Condon's high school graduates go on to higher education--and never came back.

Jobs, People Needed

Condon needed jobs and it needed people, yet, like most rural towns, it had not been able to attract the new businesses or the light industry necessary to transform its economy. The radar base, now owned by private investors, its vacant 27 houses, barracks and other buildings maintained in perfect order, seemed an ideal site for a company to relocate, but 150 letters sent to Japanese electronics firms brought hardly a nibble. Thirty-six houses in town were for sale at prices ranging from $5,000 to $69,000, Walt Scothhower's variety store was on the market for $53,000, stock included. Even bargains are worthless when there are no bargain hunters.

Enter four Condon businessmen: McLaren Stinchfield, publisher of the weekly Times-Journal and president of the Chamber of Commerce; realtor Boyd Harris; Gilliam County Dist. Atty. Pat Wolke, and William Berray, manager of the Home Telephone Co.

After a series of sparsely attended meetings, they decided the chamber would do what would have been considered heresy in the 1970s when Oregonians went to great lengths to protect their life styles and to discourage out-of-staters from moving here. They would kick in about $250 and recruit new residents through classified ads placed in the real estate sections of the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury and the Portland Oregonian. Their goal was to get 10 families within 18 months.

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