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A Couple's Defining Moments

To the Pacific Northwest, they gave 'Bavarianization.' Three decades later, they gave themselves permission to come out.

March 11, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

LEAVENWORTH, Wash. — Here, in the very heart of the state, travelers headed east through the narrow passes of the Cascade Mountains abruptly leave behind the Pacific Northwest of Lewis and Clark and enter the Bavaria of two gay pioneers, Price and Rodgers.

They enter a town so concertedly Bavarian that the buildings are half-timbered, the benches are painted, there is a maypole and even a glockenspiel. It could be the Alps, except that, in Leavenworth, every occasion is a special occasion. Christmas lights burn until March. Easter is followed by "Maifest," which is followed by a June accordion festival. July brings both "Kinderfest" and a sausage festival. A wine festival follows in August, the salmon and autumn leaf festivals in September, and next, naturally, is Oktoberfest. November, it's time for Christkindlmarkt, or "Christ Child Market," the Bavarian equivalent of Thanksgiving Day Sales. In December, it's time to light up the town for Christmas all over again.

Not so long ago, the town of 2,500 was neither merry nor Bavarian. When Seattle residents Ted Price and Robert Rodgers first came through on holiday in the late 1950s, the railroad was long gone. The timber mill had closed. The local high school was condemned. The mayor was a janitor in the local hospital. Business after business along main street was boarded up. More than half of the population had disappeared. Those who remained hadn't so much stayed as been stuck.

Price and Rodgers saw potential. The town, founded in the 1890s, already had an alpine-like setting. All it needed, they decided, was a make-over. Within 10 years, Price and Rodgers had given Leavenworth a new look and city planners a new verb: "Bavarianize."

Inspired by the transformation of Leavenworth, a number of depressed rural towns from Oregon to Idaho to British Columbia turned to themes in a bid for survival. Some Bavarianized. Others became Wild West towns, mining towns, wine towns. Adopting a central city theme is now part of a survival strategy being promoted by the state of Washington.

But the pair who first convinced lumberjacks to don lederhosen left Leavenworth for Palm Springs in 1986. After nearly 30 years of teaching a place how to become what it wasn't, Price and Rodgers finally fully acknowledged what they were: a couple. Both approaching the age of 80, they now live openly as gay partners.

They met in the late '50s, sunning themselves on Lake Washington. "We were goofing off from our jobs," says Rodgers. He was a Seattle native who had joined the Army, served in Europe in World War II, then become a food and drug inspector for the state of Washington. Price was Oregon-born, a former Marine and drug company sales rep in Seattle. As they took to camping together east of the Cascades, neither man thought of himself as "gay."

But by 1960, they were partners, living together and running a restaurant. On a trip to the mountains, they bought a log cabin-style building, called Cole's Corner Cafe, 15 miles from Leavenworth. Price fancied doing it up in Wild West decor, but Rodgers thought a style he'd admired in Europe would be better suited to the mountain setting. They remodeled Cole's with an Alpine theme, in a fashion they called "Swiss Bavarian."

"It was like saying it was 'English-French,' " says Rodgers. "But Ted was sensitive about anti-German sentiment from the war." They put their waitresses in dirndl skirts and had oompah music and yodeling at every meal service. "It drove the waitresses nuts," says Price, "but the customers loved it." A "chalet"-style motel soon followed.

The cafe was far enough outside of Leavenworth for the couple's living arrangements to escape the notice of most locals. Attempts by townspeople to introduce Price and Rodgers to their spinster sisters and daughters quietly bombed. Rodgers thinks locals must have realized that they were gay. "They were rednecks, not stupid," he says. But Price doubts it. A police officer used to freely visit with them, he says. He doubts that would have happened if the officer had an idea that they were gay.

Plus, the town had its mind on other things. Leavenworth was dying. In a bid to attract new business, in 1962, residents formed "Project Life" to consider ideas about how to save the place.

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