Creswell offers another perspective on life in Lane County
The Urban Echo Chamber
Oregon’s character is often defined by its urban areas: cities filled with flavorful food carts, copious coffee shops, and laid-back liberal attitudes. Due to these cities driving Oregon’s social, economic and political conversations, the voices and perspectives of rural Oregonians are sometimes drowned out.
Lane County is no exception. Eugene is the county seat and largest population center, with over 40 percent of the county’s population residing within the city. While Eugene may feel small at times, other Lane County towns such as Creswell, located 10 miles outside the city, have a population of just over 5,000 people.
Creswell on Fourth of July is classic Americana. First, the town’s families meet in the park to eat a pancake breakfast together. Then they crowd the sidewalks of the main street, catch candy tossed from floats and watch 1950s hot rods pass by as biplanes soar overhead. The spectators stretch as far as the eye can see and are packed three deep. Creswell is the poster child of small-town America.
Small Town Feel
The friendly and enthusiastic attitude of the crowd at the Fourth of July parade is an accurate representation of Creswell’s character. Michelle Amberg, a city administrator, says there is a lot to be gained from a tightly knit community such as Creswell.
“In a town like this, the real capital you have is knowing people,” says Michael Dehart, the city’s economic development coordinator.
Amberg highlights the close-knit community of Creswell saying that,“There’s no such thing as a missing animal in Creswell,” Everyone here looks out for each other, down to their pets.
While the town may seem small to those who visit, some residents remember a time when the population was substantially smaller.
“There are a lot of people who have lived here for several generations,” says lifetime Creswell resident Suzanne Holt Peterson. “I can remember when it was 800 or less people. I’ve seen it turn into a town of 5,000 people.”
Change in Creswell is often gradual, at a “Creswell pace” as coined by Mayor Stram, but in the past, the unexpected dramatically altered the course of the town.
The Fire that Changed Creswell
Months before stock markets crashed in 2008, Creswell experienced an economic tragedy of its own. The Bald Knob Veneer Industrial site burned to the ground that May. But the industrial site was not the only casualty; approximately 100 Creswell jobs were lost when the company decided not to rebuild the industrial site after the fire.
Current mayor Dave Stram remembers the devastating effects the fire had on the community and its members.
“It was a major fire, and it shut them down, and they decided not to rebuild. All that employment, just like that, ended,” he says. “During that time I was pastoring a church, and people lost jobs. Just their job was gone.”
Amberg, the city administrator says the fire affected the timber industry as well. The damage to the industry was so severe the city thought it wasn’t worth rebuilding
When the Bald Knob Lumber company decided not to reinvest in Creswell, it represented more than just a vacant industrial site; it signaled a profound shift in the town’s identity.
“That was when Creswell started to become less of a nuclear community and more of a bedroom community,” says Dehart.
Transitioning from a stand-alone town to a town reliant on Eugene has been drastic: about 85 percent of Creswellians leave the town to work each day, according to city councillor Richard Zettervall.
Losing a local mill has been a crippling blow to small towns across Oregon, but being situated only 18 minutes from Eugene turned out to be a blessing for Creswell.
“By anchoring to Eugene and becoming a bedroom community, Creswell kind of saved itself,” says Dehart.
Each passing year, Creswell becomes increasingly intertwined with Eugene; however, Mayor Stram assures that does not mean Creswell will lose its small-town character.
“We love being near Eugene, not being Eugene. We’re Creswell. We’re different. We’re unique.”
Blue State, Red City
Despite Creswell’s beneficial economic relationship with Eugene, there are stark contrasts between the philosophies of both communities.
These differences are apparent to those who understand the cultures of both cities, such as Dehart, who lives in Eugene and works in Creswell. He says the differences between the two towns appear even before he enters Creswell.
“I’d leave Eugene where I see all the Bernie signs over the hill on Dillard Road and then see the Trump signs. You get this real vivid sense of the urban/rural divide when you live in Eugene and work in Creswell.”
In the 2016 general election, 53.07 percent of Creswell voted for President Trump while only 35.17 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. The remaining 11.76 percent voted for a third party or wrote in a candidate. Eugene was the opposite — with the overwhelming majority of the electors casting their vote for Clinton. Dehart’s observation is not unique to Lane County: While Eugene and Oregon’s large metro areas vote Democratic, Oregon’s rural communities tend to vote conservatively.
Despite the election being a national upset, Dehart was not entirely shocked.
“It was kind of less of a surprise to me when Trump got elected. Because I knew that beating heart of conservatism was around.”
The divisions between Creswell and Eugene are not drawn by red and blue lines but rather by an adherence to traditional values. Creswell, for example, voted down the sale and production of marijuana while Eugene has welcomed the new business with open arms and wallets.
Eugene’s reputation as a liberal haven is solidified by the presence of the university, which acts as an anchor for academics and social justice advocates. Dehart, an alum of the university, says that sometimes there is a bubble between academia and other parts of the state such as Creswell.
“There’s a lot of closed-minded, liberal opinions at the university,” he says. “I saw a timber harvest protest at the UO, and they were holding wooden sticks and paper signs.”
However, he is quick to note that this phenomenon is not at all unique to college campuses and cities, saying that rural communities will have closed-minded, conservative opinions as well.
At the most fundamental level, some members of both communities refuse to engage in dialogue with one another.
The Friendly City Looks Out for Each Other
Creswell is sometimes overlooked when it comes to grants or other available state funds.
“A lot of resources are captured by the large cities. With a city staff of eight people, it’s hard to get those,” Amberg said.
With money and resources flowing to big cities like Eugene, Creswell’s community has to find its own means to combat issues in the city. That is where Creswell First steps in.
Creswell First is a 501(c)(3) community foundation that brings city money to facilitate projects that address Creswell’s issues, as well as building on prior community success.
“One of the downsides of a small community is that you don’t have as many resources available for people and that’s something else we’ve tried to address,” says Su Liudahl, vice president of Creswell First and director of the local library
In an effort to bring more resources to Creswell, Creswell First helps facilitate Women Space, a local nonprofit organization that helps victims and survivors of domestic violence.
There were 80 cases last year where women in domestic violence situations wanted to leave their situation completely. Based on how many cases reported, and possibly unreported, in such a small community, president of Creswell First Steve Carmichael made sure Creswell First stepped in to help fund Women Space in Creswell.
“It was the project that touched me most emotionally of these projects that came to us,” Carmichael says.
The spirit of Creswell shines the brightest when fellow residents need a boost in life. The Friendly City goes far and beyond friendliness.
An Open Invite
Although the city’s economic changes have transformed the way citizens work, there is still a strong sense of small town identity and culture among Creswell’s residents.
“Creswell is a vibrant community. I think it’s a healthy community, and we’re growing,” Mayor Stram said. “We’re growing at a slow pace, a Creswell pace. A thoughtful pace. We don’t have aspirations to be Eugene or Springfield. We want to continue to be Creswell. The Friendly City.”
While being only 10 miles from Eugene and the university, Creswell may seem like a blip on Oregon’s radar. This is far from the truth. Creswellians make the trek from their community to the bustling city of Eugene, and Eugenians have the opportunity to journey to Creswell to experience life at a slower pace. Stram invites Eugenians to visit Creswell with the same cordial attitude his town had on the Fourth — “come have breakfast with us.”