Sawdust flies at WOE Heritage Fair

Event organizer Larry Horner watches on as the competition kicks off. PHOTO BY NICK SNYDER/CG SENTINEL

The debate over what is and isn’t considered a sport rages on in conversation all over the country. For viewers of one particular event last Friday evening, however, the answer was clear.

The 87th annual Western Oregon Expo [WOE] Heritage Fair took place from Friday, Aug. 16 thru Sunday, Aug. 18 at the WOE fairgrounds. Attendees roamed the grounds serenaded by various bands on multiple stages, admired animals raised by local 4-H students, browsed the wares of local vendors and, most notably, cheered on the participants of the Lumberjack Show which, in this part of the world, is most definitely regarded as a sport.

“Oh yeah, it’s a sport,” said one attendee when asked whether or not these kinds of timber-cutting demonstrations qualify. “If they can show poker and cornhole on ESPN, then I’m going to go ahead and call this a sport. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of skill.”

The Lumberjack Show has long been a highlight of the Heritage Fair and this year was no exception. Competing for cash prizes, participants could sign up for axe throwing (men’s and women’s), large saw bucking, women’s stock saw, modified saw and motorcycle saw.

After some hiccups getting started and a few last-minute sign-ups, earplugs were handed out free of charge and the saws roared to life. Axes flew towards the bullseye, piles of sawdust steadily grew on the competition grounds and the men and women participating in the event put all their skills on display.

While the attire has changed and safety measures modernized, the skills of these timber cutters have been valued in the state of Oregon for centuries.

“A lot of these people know each other and what you see here is kind of the showmanship aspect of [timber cutting],” said Happy Greenough, Creswell resident and former logger and timber cutter.

“There used to be an event up in Albany, the Timber Carnival, but it’s gone now. So these events are getting rarer, but this one here is trying to keep alive a dying art,” Greenough continued.

Common throughout the state during the timber industry heyday, timber shows and lumberjack showcases have been on the decline for decades. West Linn, Estacada and Prospect, Ore. still hold summer events, but the popularity of the event in Cottage Grove shows that these skills are still enjoyed and valued by many.

In many ways, the decline of timber shows is representative of the situation for many of the skills and crafts on display at the Heritage Fair. Whether it’s metalworking like that of local blacksmith Perry Thiede, the animal husbandry of 4-H students or the ability to maintain decades-old engines, these are industries that have seen their popularity wane and fall out of favor with many young people.

“But here at the fair there’s the people you do see that still have those skills, the crafts and hobbies … it’s just that’s not where you make your money anymore. Where it used to be that was your living based on what you know how to do, but now you go to Wal-Mart and it’s just cheaper to buy everything,” said Skye Hefner, WOE office manager and a key organizer of the event.

Stan Garboden, a Creswell resident and volunteer that helped organize the numerous musical acts that performed over the weekend, also lamented the loss of something that was a part of so many Oregonians’ childhoods, but sees these ongoing fairs as a way to reconnect with the past.

“Seeing what the fair used to be like,” said Garboden when asked what he hopes attendees can learn from this event. “This is what most fairs used to be like. I remember when I was a little kid in the 50s, we went to the county fair up in Deschutes county and Lane county was a little bigger, but it was basically like this. You’d look at the tractors, see a show on the stage, look at the little critters. It was really a fair and you enjoyed it.”

Based on the number of cars jammed into the fairgrounds parking lot, Cottage Grove’s own celebration of past industries and skills was enjoyed by many and fairs like these may also provide an opportunity to reinvigorate things that may have seemed lost.

“Today’s society is so bent on sending kids to college and there’s not enough in the trade schools, farming or agriculture so they come here and they see something, another option, and maybe they get an interest in it,” said Patrick Dearth, an event volunteer from Creswell.

Garboden also sees opportunity in events like these.

“You learn common sense and a sense of duty because, you know, the 4-H critters gotta be fed every day and taken care of. And when you go in the woods, like the loggers, you gotta be careful. Some of them weren’t and they got brought back in a bag, but it’s a skill. People think, ‘well, anyone can cut a tree down with a saw,’ but you can’t. It’s a skill that takes care and patience.”

It may be a celebration of the past, but the skills and crafts on exhibit provide the younger generations with ample learning opportunities, giving them potential tools for their future endeavors regardless of specific trade.

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