A look back at the Top Stories of 2019

Nika, a Husky belonging to Facebook user TeayRex Irving of Cottage Grove, looks at the sky over Cottage Grove Lake after the first snowfall (photo submitted by TeayRex Irving)

As Cottage Grove rings in a new year, The Sentinel takes a look back at some of the top stories of 2019. Last year saw the community navigate growth, celebrate its roots and weather storms both literal and figurative. Through each trial and success, community members aligned to explore solutions, preserve a reflective hometown appreciation and underscore the cooperative ethos that makes Cottage Grove unique. The Sentinel is proud to be a part of chronicling that process and looks forward to bringing you another year of news, insight and communal discovery. In the meantime, let’s look back at some of the stories that defined our community in 2019...

What Now?

Cottage Grove area emerges from once-in-a-century snowstorm

(Originally printed March 6, 2019)

Snowfall in the Willamette Valley is often greeted with a certain affection. Children may get to skip some school days, families bond while creating snowmen and winter sports enthusiasts rub their hands together at a chance to make their mark on fresh slopes.

The evening of Feb. 24 likely sparked such sentiments as weather forecasts made good on their promise and the first snowflakes lazily floated to the valley’s floor. To the surprise of many, however, the snowflakes didn’t stop. And soon they weren’t falling so lazily.

By 8 p.m. that night, the first reports of power outages had begun to surface in Cottage Grove and the snow had risen to eight inches in some areas. Through the night, the storm battered the valley and, by Monday morning, the National Weather Service reported 14 inches had fallen in Cottage Grove while residents in outlying areas posted through social media snowfall closer to two feet or more.

The situation was nothing short of a crisis and states of emergency were declared for both Cottage Grove and Lane County Tuesday, Feb. 26. Before long, Gov. Kate Brown issued an emergency declaration for 10 Oregon counties, including Lane, last Thursday.

“It frees up resources that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us,” said Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch. “Getting those additional resources is critical because people are not as available to help when they’re stuck in their own locations. We have several other folks from different counties in our office helping us.” 

In response to the carnage, emergency services became inundated with calls and incidents.

From Monday to Thursday the week of the storm, calls totaled at 44 welfare checks, 60 fire or medical and 10 burglary alarm responses. In all, 328 emergency and 875 non-emergency calls came in, bloating the phone lines to two or three times the normal amount.

Power companies scrambled to respond to a high volume of inquiries and outage reports. By the morning of Feb. 25, Cottage Grove was completely without power save for those with generators. The city’s main electricity provider, Pacific Power, reported more than 3,300 Cottage Grove customers affected by the power outages and 44,000 throughout its coverage area, though the company’s power was fully restored by the end of the week.

City officials have been pleased with public and private responses to the emergency so far.

“I’d like to say good job to the city staff who have been working through this,” said Mayor Jeff Gow-ing. “For those of us who’ve been here since ’69, I haven’t seen anything worse until this one. It’s not as bad as that one, but pretty close.”

Buch hoped to see greater emergency preparedness grow from this event.

“This is a great learning lesson for not only the county but all communities throughout the affected areas,” she said. “To go back to the table and say, ‘This is where we did great. This is where we need improvement and let’s move through those steps because this could be much, much worse in the future and we need to be ready.”

Flooding prompts area evacuations

(Originally printed April 10, 2019)

Level 3 evacuation notices were issued Sunday evening to residents within the 100-year floodplains of the Row River and Coast Fork of the Willamette as intense rainfall over the weekend increased fears of area flooding.

The Level 3 notices warn that danger is current or imminent and citizens should evacuate immediately.

“If you choose to ignore this advisement, you must understand that emergency services may not be available to assist you further,” the Lane County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post. “DO NOT delay leaving to gather any belongings or make efforts to protect your home.”

Historic rates of water were released from Dorena Reservoir Sunday night to prevent overflow of the reservoir. By midnight, the reservoir was reportedly releasing 8,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), matching the amount released in Cottage Grove’s last major flood in 1996. 

As rainfall tapered through Monday, the release rate was slated to drop to 7,500 cfs, though concerns of snow melts had threatened to put that number at a record-breaking 10,000 cfs.

While Cottage Grove experienced some flooding in areas within city limits, heavier inundation oc-curred around the edges of the city and outlying areas.

Riverstone Mobile Home Park, a community of residents 55 or older, received an evacuation notice from South Lane County Fire and Rescue Sunday night as flooding crept through the park’s streets and up to homes. 

Community managers hurried to notify residents with the help of the fire department.

“We went door-to-door to every home,” said manager Lee Wege of the 125-unit park. “We’re extremely grateful to the fire department.”

Shoreview Meadows Cooperative, a resident-run community along the Row River, received the Level 3 evacuation notice Sunday night.

“On the spaces that are bordering the river, it’s lapping at their doorstep,” said resident Janice Scanlon, who moved to Cottage Grove a year ago.

In response to the notice, Scanlon helped organize an evacuation. She estimated about 65 or 70 residents were impacted or forced to evacuate their homes Sunday night, though they were given no instruction on where to go as shelters had not been fully established.

By 10 p.m. Sunday night, American Red Cross received notice and began setting up a shelter at the Cottage Grove Community Center, housing about 40 people through the night.

The flooding makes for the second natural disaster to shake the Cottage Grove area in five weeks, prompting some renewed talk of emergency preparedness.

“After the snowstorm, we started talking about making a list of those who are medically vulnerable,” said Joi Adair, another resident of Shoreview Meadows Cooperative. “And so kind of putting together a list of who can help and who needs help.”

For her part, Scanlon has found the past month eye-opening.

“Personally, I need a better go-kit,” Scanlon said. “If I’m going to live by a river, I need to be better prepared.”

Walls raised on first tiny house

(Originally printed May 1, 2019)

Members of Presbyterian Women helped hoist the first wall in Cottage Village last week, marking a new milestone in the tiny house project at 1430 E. Madison Ave.

“This isn’t the answer to our housing crisis, but it’s definitely a start,” said Mayor Jeff Gowing to a crowd of community members and project volunteers who turned out for the April 25 event.

After more than three years of planning and volunteering, the first of 13 tiny homes has begun to take shape as a new phase has begun in the collaborative affordable housing project run by the Cottage Village Coalition (CVC) and SquareOne Villages.

SquareOne Village’s executive director Dan Bryant emphasized the need for projects like this.

“There are a million Americans who lose their housing every year, evicted simply because they cannot afford their rent,” he said. “And so this is a way to address this problem.”

Providing low-income housing while maintaining quality is a challenge to any affordable housing project, but those involved in building Cottage Village are confident they have struck that balance.

“This is going to be high quality. It’s going to be attractive. It’s going to be something the whole community can be proud of,” said Bryant.

The need for affordable housing is no secret in cities like Cottage Grove. In the Cottage Grove Housing Needs Analysis relased in August last year, the 20-year plan indicated the need for an average of 69 new units to be built per year in order to meet projected demand.

Units like those planned for Cottage Village not only fall under the housing analysis’s stated low-income need, but also provide security for those who are economically vulnerable to a single expense-laden event that may render them without housing.

“It started really because people were saying, ‘We’ve got homeless people in our community; we know these people. What are we going to do about that?’” said Bruce Kelsh, chair of CVC. “And then it evolved into learning more about the state of homelessness in Lane County.”

Community bids farewell to Latham

(Originally printed June 5, 2019)

Community members gathered Friday to bid a final farewell to Latham Elementary School, a staple institution of Cottage Grove’s history and point of reference for many of the community’s memories.

Following a South Lane School District board decision earlier this year to close the school, Latham will be finishing out its last year of operation this month, ending 166 years of presence in the community.

Friday’s event was attended by current and former students, staff and residents who wandered the school in an open house before packing the school gymnasium for a series of presentations and speeches to commemorate the closing.

The sheer age of the school has ensured an enduring imprint on a community in which one’s great-grandparents may well have been students at Latham. 

The school even predates the founding of Cottage Grove itself, which became incorporated in 1887.

For the hour-long open house, the halls and rooms of the school were filled with people running their fingers along childhood memories, flipping through class pictures and greeting old friends.

Brothers Dennis and Leslie Chapman, former Latham students, returned to the school for the event.

“When I started here there were just four classrooms,” said Dennis, who attended Latham from 1944 to 1952. “You went two years in the same room with the same teacher — no kindergarten, no Head Start — just boom, straight in.”

While memories of bygone eras abounded, it was often the unchanging charm of the school that struck many attendees Friday night.

“I hate to see it go,” Dennis said.

Following the open house, the gymnasium filled with attendees to listen to reflections and celebrations of the legacy of a school with a century and a half of influence on the lives of families in the area.

Tom Davis, son of influential past Latham principal Cal Davis, reflected on the deep connection his family had with the school.

“My parents, Cal and Doris Davis, loved the Latham and London communities,” he said. “They treasured the people and treasured the schools.”

After students sang a final song, Davis rang the iconic Latham school bell one last time.

‘Diamond Jubilee’ shines bright for BMD

(Originally printed July 24, 2019)

Cottage Grove celebrated 60 years of Bohemia Mining Days with its “Diamond Jubilee” last week as fortuitous sunny skies made for high turnout in both particpants and festival-goers. 

“I think it went extremely well,” said festival coordinator Cindy Weeldreyer, crediting much of the success to the all-volunteer team. “This is the 26th Bohemia Mining Days celebration I have helped produce. As festival coordinator, I had the largest volunteer production team I’ve ever worked with.”

The three-day event featured a wide variety of family-friendly attractions, often drawing on the city’s heritage, and included 13 Main Stage performances, a carnival, competitions, daily parades and historical presentations.

Festival-goers were also invited to participate in Cottage Grove’s historical feud between Slabtown and Lemati, two historic rival settlements which quarreled over ownership issues such as the new railroad, the post office and water rights.

By all accounts, participation and turnout exceeded previous years.

Compared to around 50 vendors last year, registration this year reached 87 and sales were gainful.

“The vendors are so happy,” said Weeldreyer. “Most of them made money hand over fist.”

By Sunday evening, festival volunteers had finished cleaning up the parks, a feat Weeldreyer said was representative of the increasing efficiency of the group.

“We’ve been doing this for so long now, since 2012, that it has become a much tighter, well-run event. We’re really getting better at producing it,” she said. “We had a great time and we hope everyone else did too.”

At-risk residents find ‘Safe Haven’

(Originally printed Oct. 23, 2019)

This May, Cottage Grove Safe Haven opened the city’s first transitional home for women recovering from addiction. Five months in, the nonprofit is still looking for more residents.

The ‘Booher House’ — named after Darrell Booher, the former owner of the house who was also in addiction recovery — came to the nonprofit amid a challenging search for property in the Cottage Grove area. After Booher passed away, his surviving family, aware of the group’s mission, happily agreed to let Safe Haven use his property.

Safe Haven board member Billie Bird is the current ‘house mother’ at the Booher House.

“There’s nothing else like it in Cottage Grove,” she said of the program.

Though the project has garnered a degree of local popularity and support, only two women in recovery currently reside in a space which can house up to six.

Resident Heather Thompson is the first to use Safe Haven’s services.

Earlier this year, Thompson had her own business and was engaged to be married in Tacoma, Wash., when her brother’s sudden death at age 29 brought her back to her hometown of Cottage Grove. After attending the funeral, she felt compelled to stay in town.

“I couldn’t find it in my heart to leave my family because they were so devastated,” Thompson said.

Thompson fell into a pattern of smoking marijuana to excess and keeping her pain suppressed regularly with alcohol. It wasn’t her first experience with substance abuse and its return caused a rift between Thompson and her fiancé in Tacoma. Before long the two were split.

Desperate to extricate herself from the situation, Thompson chose the solitude of homelessness over the steady downward trajectory of her social environment. For a month, Thompson lived and detoxed in her car, sleeping in parking lots.

In a desperate bid for help, Thompson appealed to social media for support or guidance. In a turn of fortune, someone posted the phone number of Safe Haven.

Thompson was vetted over the phone and stayed in a warm bed that night.

Now, she says, her children have told her that she speaks more positively about life since her sober living began.

“My kids are very proud that I got clean,” said Thompson.

Thompson is currently back to work pursuing her career as a nursing assistant.

“I can see it going a lot of good places for me in the future,” she said.

A few days after Thompson took up residence in the Booher House, Leah (her last name has been withheld) became the house’s second resident. 

Nearly a decade ago, Leah’s son died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable and progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes gradual loss of muscle control. He succumbed to the disease within a year of his diagnosis.

By her own admission, Leah was no stranger to alcohol abuse, but the loss of her son catalyzed the habit into something more deeply pathological.

“Ever since then I’ve been trying to drink myself to death,” she said. “I found this place when I was at my wit’s end. This house and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) have given me a whole new outlook on life. It used to be the tunnel was dark. Now I see light at the end of the tunnel.”

With only two residents, the nonprofit is operating in the red on a monthly basis and fundraising efforts have not been as fruitful as they would have liked. Ideally, Safe Haven will soon take on four more women.

“There’s a drastic need in Cottage Grove for this,” said Leah. “And if they can help me turn my life around, they can do it for just about everybody.”

KNND settles into new home

(Originally printed Sept. 11, 2019)

For the second time since its inception, local radio station KNND has found a new home in Cottage Grove.

The move marks a deeper imprint for the station in the city, an imprint which has already met the test of time as the station has long retained local appeal.

“Most radio stations, you listen to them and they’re either getting syndicated programming from across the country or it’s all just canned stuff,” said station owner Cameron Reiten. “But here, we have live programming seven days a week.”

First broadcasting in 1953 from the rodeo grounds on Highway 99 under the callsign KCTG, the station later moved downtown around 1975 to 321 E Main Street, where it had stayed until recently.

“It was a good arrangement over the years. It worked out well,” said Reiten, who has owned the station since 2013. “Over the years, it had been remodeled, changed and fine-tuned until it was a very smoothly functioning studio.”

Last year, however, the station’s lease with the Odd Fellows was up and the fraternity opted to do some work on the building. After conferring with their counterparts in the Metro area, it was suggested that the rent price was unreasonably low and it should be raised to a level the group felt was more consistent with current market conditions.

“Two to three times more than what I was paying,” said Reiten.

Fortuitously, Richard and Brenda Conklin, owners of the AGS Automotive building on Main Street, had been trying to sell their building since the passing of Brenda’s father, the previous owner, two and a half years earlier.

“Nobody wanted to buy it,” Richard said. “We tried everything to sell it and nobody would buy it.”

Richard saw an opportunity and offered the building to Reiten at a greatly reduced price.

The purchase was a significant move not just for the station, but for Reiten himself.

As a 16-year-old high school intern, Reiten began his career at KNND in 2003.

“I wanted to get into radio. I’ve always had a love for all things radio and electronics,” said Reiten. “When I was a kid, I’d tear stuff apart and put it back together and fix stuff.”

With the move completed the station can turn its attention to a plan that has been in motion since last year: KNND FM.

Broadcasting on FM will enable the station to increase advertising revenue and reach a broader client base.

“So I think the future for this radio station is really bright,” said Reiten. “Not only are we in our own location that we own, not only are we going to have the FM up and going, but we’re going to continue building upon what we’ve worked to establish, which is live and local programming.”

A bridge by any other name...

(Originally printed Dec. 5, 2019)

The City of Cottage Grove held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly constructed J. Polk Currin Swinging Bridge on Saturday, Nov. 30, at 10 a.m.  

The new suspension bridge replaces the previous bridge at that location, which was closed in September 2016 after engineer inspections indicated the bridge was unsafe. 

The previous bridge, commonly known as “The Swinging Bridge,” but officially named the Currin Bridge, was built in 1965. The bridge was named after J. Polk Currin, an early resident of Cottage Grove and one of the first three graduates from Oregon State University. He was also a long-standing teacher and pioneer druggist. 

The bridge built in 1965 was built to replace previous bridges constructed over the years at the approximate location, the first of which was constructed by Currin to allow members of the community to have access to both sides of the Coast Fork Willamette River. 

The Cottage Grove City Council expanded the official name of the bridge to “J. Polk Currin Swinging Bridge” to differentiate the bridge from other bridges that shared the Currin name. 

Following the closing of the iconic Cottage Grove Swinging Bridge in 2016, community members and city employees worked to secure funding and grants and to make a plan for its safe replacement.

Hamilton Construction and the Ausland Group designed and constructed the new bridge. Construction was completed Oct. 18, for a cost of about $804,000. The city received a grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Local Government Grant Program for $200,000, with community members raising nearly $18,000 through Friends of the Swinging Bridge fundraisers and the Roundup for the Bridge program on City Utility bills.

The new suspension design captures the historic swinging and aesthetic character of the previous bridge, as well as meets modern codes for safe pedestrian bridges. Common materials were specified and some elements, like the concrete piers and angle-iron floor beams used to hold the decking, were reused to keep the project economical. 

The new bridge will retain some of its characteristic “swinging” movement and use a non-slip synthetic decking material, called pultruded fiberglass, commonly used for marine docks.

“The Swinging Bridge is an important piece of history for our community. Rebuilding it has been a great partnership between grass roots efforts, dedicated engineers, contractors and the city. We are all excited to add the bridge back to our walkable, beautiful neighborhoods,” said Ryan Sisson, civil engineer for the City of Cottage Grove.

Local resident Dana Merryday headed up the Friends of Cottage Grove Swinging Bridge, a community group which advocated for the bridge’s reconstruction.

“It is an integral part of the Cottage Grove community because generations of local families have used it to get to school, visit neighbors and relatives, had their first date (and sometimes kiss) on that bridge, etc.,” Merryday said. “Ask anyone who grew up in Cottage Grove and immediately they will start telling you stories about their connection and experiences on the bridge.”

CGHS hazing incident leads to citation of two students

(Originally printed Oct. 30, 2019)

An alleged hazing incident at Cottage Grove High School has resulted in the criminal citation of two 15-year-old boys and the discipline of at least seven others following a police and school district investigation.

The allegations surfaced after a freshman junior varsity football player reported that he was harassed by two older varsity players in the school locker room.

Following an investigation by the Cottage Grove Police Department, as well as a separate investigation by the South Lane School District (SLSD), two students were cited for harassment, a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum $6,250 fine and/or one year in jail. The Sentinel learned at least seven other students were disciplined, with some receiving suspensions, after the school investigation revealed other incidents that the district said were less severe and not related to the hazing incident. 

The school district would not comment further on the reasons for the other student reprimands due to student privacy concerns.

Through the investigation, it was determined that on or around Sept. 16, a member of the varsity football team picked up the freshman victim in the locker room while another varsity member attempted to thrust a broomstick into the victim’s rectum. The two varsity players then pulled the victim to the locker room floor, where one suspect held the victim down as the other continued the same act with the broomstick.

According to interviews conducted as part of the investigation, as well as information obtained by The Sentinel, it was determined that no sex crime had been committed because the victim was wearing underwear and a football girdle during the incident, preventing actual penetration by the object.

A KEZI television report on Oct. 22 featured an anonymous “family friend” who stated that a “doctor had confirmed” that the victim had been sexually assaulted, lending credence to the claim that the crime was more serious than investigations concluded.

However, an online version of the KEZI report that appeared later did not include the claim about the medical evaluation, but added that a member of the alleged victim’s family said the accused perpetrators also placed their genitalia on the boy while they were holding him down. 

While The Sentinel could not independently verify these claims, it was able to confirm that the police department’s investigation turned up no other cases rising to the level of criminal action.

“At no time during the investigation did we think there were other people at risk,” said Shepherd, who added that, to his knowledge, no cases of this nature have emerged or been opened in the last two decades.

After conducting its own investigation, the school district addressed the situation publicly.

“We have modified our supervision in the locker room to make sure that coaches are within eye and earshot of students at all times,” said Interim Assistant Superintendent Brian McCasline. “We need every athlete within sight and sound at this point.”

On the morning of Oct. 25, school officials spoke to students in an assembly which addressed the issue of harassment.

“We made some assurances and told them where we’re headed, what we expect of them and what we expected of all of us in the future,” McCasline said.

Among those expectations, McCasline said, is a school district that is attentive and responsive to student reports of harassment, intimidation and bullying.

“If there are any other reports that haven’t been reported to the Cottage Grove police or the school district, then we of course would want to know that,” said McCasline.

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