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‘Timber Culture’ exhibit at Bend’s High Desert Museum spotlights history of Maxville logging community

The traveling exhibition, created by the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, reminds viewers of the multiracial history of Oregon’s timber towns.

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Black and white loggers worked side by side during the early 1900s in the Wallowa County community of Maxville. A traveling exhibition at the High Desert Museum, Timber Culture, explores that history. Photo courtesy: Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center
Black and white loggers worked side by side during the early 1900s in the Wallowa County community of Maxville. A traveling exhibition at the High Desert Museum through April 28, “Timber Culture,” explores that history. Photo courtesy: Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

In 1923, the Bowman-Hicks Lumber Co. of Missouri began a logging operation in remote Wallowa County, just outside of Joseph. They erected a company town – Maxville – which at 400 residents instantly became the largest community in the county.

Bowman-Hicks imported laborers and their families from the South and Midwest, including Greeks to build the railroad; other white workers to serve as foremen, drivers, and bridge builders; and Blacks to fell trees and cut and load logs.

At the time, it was technically illegal for Black people to live in Oregon; the last of Oregon’s Black exclusion laws weren’t removed from the books until 1926.

The story of how Maxville’s residents found common ground, despite racial and ethnic differences, during the community’s 10-year existence is the subject of an exhibit on display through April 28 at the High Desert Museum in Bend.

Timber Culture was created by the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in Joseph as a touring exhibit. It made its debut in 2018 at the Oregon Capitol and since has traveled around the state, including a run at the Deschutes Historical Museum in Bend in 2022. The exhibit features 22 historical photographs, mostly from family collections, that depict life in the remote logging community. The High Desert Museum augmented the exhibit with pieces from its own collection, including cross-cut saws and other items that would have been at home in a 1920s logging camp.

“One of the things that’s really interesting about Maxville and its history is it was a relatively integrated community in a state that was not necessarily known for being integrated or particularly welcoming of Black people in general,” said Hayley Brazier, Curator of Natural History at the museum. “I just thought it was such a compelling story, and the photographs were beautiful and showed a certain level of intimacy between families that you don’t often see.”

Relatively integrated does not mean fully integrated. The 60 or so Black people in the community lived in a different part of town from the white families. Maxville had two schoolhouses, one for white children and the other for Black children. The town sported segregated baseball teams that played against each other but would join forces for tournaments against other towns.

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Students from Maxville’s segregated school for Black children pose for a photo in 1926. The school taught about 13 children, while the school for white children had up to 75 pupils. Photo by: Carolyn Lambertson
Students from Maxville’s segregated school for Black children pose for a photo in 1926. The school taught about 13 children, while the school for white children had up to 75 pupils. Photo by: Carolyn Lamberson

Yet, despite the existence of Jim Crow in the northeastern Oregon woods, the photos depict a second story.

“You’ve got a couple histories competing against each other at the same time,” Brazier said. “You’ve got the more formal history of race and racial segregation, which did affect people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. We’ve also got the second history happening, where humans are humans, right?”

One striking photo shows four women, three white and one Black – mothers, presumably – surrounded by their smiling children. Another shows the work crew, with Black men and white men standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Because this is a remote place, people are depending on each other. They’re working alongside each other,” Brazier said. “There are these interracial friendships and bonds that were formed that show up in the photography in this exhibit. That’s what makes that those pictures so valuable.”

Bowman-Hicks ran the Maxville operation until 1933, when the lumber market plummeted during the Great Depression. While many of the workers and their families left Maxville, a few stayed on into the 1940s. Little remains of the community today, except what the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center has managed to collect.

The history is personal for Gwendolyn Trice, founder of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center. Her father, grandfather, and uncles all lived and worked as loggers. Her grandmother worked as a cook for the Black loggers.

“And I never knew about the logging stuff until 2003,” Trice said. “It was huge. You mean my family was recruited to Oregon for the logging industry? And my dad and his family once lived in a logging camp in the South? Nobody ever told me that.”

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She hopes the exhibit serves to remind viewers of the multiracial history of Oregon’s logging community. Maxville, she said, wasn’t an anomaly.  

“Look at Vernonia. It had a Japanese quarter, a Black quarter, and a Filipino quarter,” Trice said. “We’re just telling an American narrative with the inclusion of all the loggers, including the Greek loggers. There were Hawaiian loggers in Oregon. There were all these people in the industry. Chinese people were involved as well. I’ve heard tell of Russian loggers. So it’s a bigger story because of how the United States tells its history and its narrative. It’s not inclusive.”

On April 25, Trice will come to the museum to give a talk, Inquiry into Heritage: A Conversation with Gwendolyn Trice. Tickets, $12 for members and $15 general, are available here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Carolyn Lamberson is a longtime Pacific Northwest newspaper journalist who has worked at daily newspapers in Eugene, Roseburg, Bend, Vancouver, and Spokane. A former features editor for The Spokesman-Review, she covered music, visual arts, literary arts, and theater in the Inland Northwest. While there, she created and curated the newspaper’s annual short fiction series, Summer Stories, which in its 10-year run featured works by authors such as Jess Walter, Jamie Ford, Sharma Shields, Tiffany Midge, and Shawn Vestal. She now lives with her family in Central Oregon, where in her spare time she enjoys sitting along the banks of the Deschutes River and knitting.

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