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How a group of urban designers is impacting and attempting to preserve the history and culture of a remote corner of Eastern Oregon.

Night Akhtar

Joseph, Oregon, pop. 1,081, is just a stone’s throw from Idaho in the furthermost, northeastern reaches of the state, nestled in a stunning valley between the mountains and the prairie at the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The five and a half hour drive keeps most Portlanders away, unless they come for the Joseph Days rodeo; take a detour on Cycle Oregon; or, like me, drive to the end of the road overlooking Hells Canyon. The truth is, no matter which two points you happen to be passing between, Joseph isn’t on the way.

But for the past five years or so, this pristine valley has been going through a design renaissance of sorts, driven to a great degree by a handful of restless urban creatives from opposite sides of the country — a venerable East Coast designer and some scrappy members of the Portland design community — who decided to get out of the city and take up residence in the middle of nowhere.

Like the generations of people who came before them, they’ve come to the Wallowas for a variety of reasons. Here, they’ve discovered a renewed sense of inspiration for their craft, due in large part to the existing community and the hard work it’s done to preserve the region’s history and culture. But also because of opportunity — the kind that city dwelling can otherwise make difficult or less sustainable.

Like most designers, the new crop that’s setting up shop in the Wallowas creates with the hope that their labor will have the desired impact on their audience. But what happens when that audience is a community of people with a deep connection to the history of a place, and the designers are outsiders? It’s a delicate balance to integrate into any new community, but especially one with a long history of displacement by way of forcible removal.

When I personally think about this remote corner of our state, the word that comes to mind is “wilderness.” A word that conjures images of adventure and possibility, but also the inevitable risk of the unpredictable and unknown. It offers the promise of greater freedom that can also mean greater consequences. In wide open spaces with residents separated not by driveways but acreage, the actions of a few individuals can affect the greater community in profound ways.

These idealistic newcomers have followed in the footsteps of those who built this community, the Nez Perce and the early pioneers, and also in the steps of bronze sculptors and other artists who migrated here long ago. They now live and work side-by-side with their descendants, who might not agree that a remote and rural way of life is necessarily simple and unencumbered. In many cases, local families have worked the land for generations, through dire economic times, only to continue to pay the price in poverty and an overall lack of opportunity. But while they might have very different ideologies, they do have something in common — their love of this place, its people, and its work ethic. Politics are set aside in this county on the edge of the prairie, where its newest residents are finding ways to forge common ground with the people who inhabited this land before them.

The Nez Perce Indians were the first inhabitants, using the Eagle Cap Wilderness as their summer hunting grounds. As you might expect, the history of settlement in this valley isn’t without consequence. White settlers came west in the 1830s, and trouble started when Chief Joseph welcomed them, and arranged for a huge tract of land to be set aside for the tribe. But discovery of gold led to broken treaties, and the forced exodus of the Nez Perce to a reservation in 1877. Nearly 750 members of the tribe took a 1,170-mile evasive walk instead, pausing to fight the U.S. Army at their heels, before being captured about 40 miles from Canada. Chief Joseph, namesake of the town, promised as a result to "fight no more forever." He was never allowed to return to Oregon. Resettled on a reservation in Washington, he died in exile in 1904, as his doctor put it, "of a broken heart."

Today, the vestiges of the Nez Perce culture are actively celebrated by the remaining members of the tribe, local artists, and the area’s other residents through a shared understanding and respect for the land they live on. The designers I spoke to also have a reverence for this place, although none have a stronger connection than Tyler Hays, who was born here, and who in many ways helped put this area on the map as a design destination.

I first realized that something new was happening in Wallowa County when Hays purchased M. Crow & Co., a general store in Lostine, Oregon. Owned and operated by the Crow family for more than 100 years, the store was part of Hays’s childhood, in the same county where his great-great grandparents settled in the 1830s and where his extended family still lives today. His decision to purchase the store wouldn’t be remarkable except that Hayes lives and works in Philadelphia, where he’s best known as the owner and sole designer at BDDW, his luxury furniture company.

I called Hays at his 160,00-square-foot Philly studio, where he employs 100 people to articulate his designs. While his glamorous life in Philadelphia, New York, and Milan is in many ways the polar opposite of his childhood in rural Oregon, his passion for both is apparent, as is his easy-going nature and hands-on approach to everything he does. As a teen, Hays was fascinated by the idea of making everything he needed himself — from toothpaste to clothing — and seems to be fulfilling that dream with his new bespoke clothing line (Bury Your Dead Downwind), and meticulously designed home goods and accessories that aim to elevate the mundane into the covetable.

Anyone who’s seen his furniture knows that he has the ability to transform a simple idea into a work of art, and in this case he’s turned his gaze on a general store, reinventing a relic of former small-town commerce into something once again relevant, while also staying true to its history. While M. Crow still ticks the boxes of what a general store should be, it also stocks produce direct from local farms — a rarity in this area — and holds a few other surprises as well. Walking into the store for the first time you’ll see Instagram-ready vintage Del Monte and Wonder Bread signs, a worn-wood floor, and a tub of Red Vines on the counter. But as you explore further, you also find locally raised beef, Filson bags, a brewery in the back room, and a variety of Hays’s furniture and ceramics pieces.

Soon, a new onsite M. Crow recording studio will air podcasts and spin vinyl on turntables designed by Hays. Cool, yes. But his objective is not to create something precious — it is first and foremost to support local businesses and meet local needs. No town is self-sustaining in a global marketplace, and Lostine is no exception. Hays is frustrated by the fact that local resources are being depleted, and employment opportunities are scarce. “Companies take the natural resources from these areas and leave them gutted, then take it all away to a Wal-Mart somewhere,” he says. “As a result, families are living on the edge of poverty, while working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet.”

Rather than sell off the local natural resources, he strives to honor them by creating valuable, locally made products. While cautious about saying that this new endeavor will add a certain number of local jobs, Hays does say that he hopes to provide better opportunities for local people. He’s well qualified to meet this challenge, being completely dedicated to hyperlocal production. He’s expanding his brewery, M. Crow Ferments, to include a brewing process that’s as eco-conscious as possible. He’s currently working on a kiln design that uses wood waste to fire bottles made from local wild clay, with the waste heat from the kiln providing energy for the brewing process; and his childhood friend, whose great-great grandfather developed a now almost-extinct strain of barley, will grow that same strain just miles away for the brewery. Only the hops will be sourced outside of Wallowa County, simply because they don’t grow well east of the Cascades. Heck, M. Crow Ferments might end up brewing the greenest beer in the United States.

Politics aside, Hayes shares a deeply rural American upbringing with the people of his hometown, and this region. Their lives have always been tied to the seasons and the land, which they depend on for survival. But now, most of the food grown in Wallowa County is packed up and shipped to big box stores, while shockingly, almost 1,200 of the 7,129 residents experience food insecurity. The county represents a part of the U.S. that has been forgotten by most, and Hays wants to do his part to help maintain its culture and vibrancy.

Greg Hennes, a Minnesotan who first visited Joseph from Portland during a trip to Hells Canyon in 2005, has a similar mindset. Portlanders may know Hennes from his previous ventures, including Clutch Camera, Antler & Co., Campfire Cologne, and the Portland Bazaar. In 2010 he came across a listing for the 100-year-old Jennings Hotel while cabin-hunting. He threw caution to the wind and purchased the run-down building in 2015, knowing it would be a labor of love. Since then, the hotel has had spreads in Sunset magazine and Remodelista, and was a resounding success on Kickstarter.

The guest rooms are being refurbished by Hennes and his friends, including talented Portland designers Ashley Tackett, Matt Pierce, and Ben Klebba, who have all fallen hard for the little town. Their backgrounds are diverse: Tackett is an accomplished hotel interior designer; Pierce owns Wood & Faulk, producing beautiful leather and canvas bags and accessories; and Klebba owns Phloem Studio, building handcrafted wood furniture using traditional joinery. Together, they’ve successfully completed seven rooms, often designing in Portland and coming out on long weekends to complete the construction. The process is slow, and the remote location demands resourcefulness on the part on Hennes and crew. Pierce tells the story of a “Jenningsgiving” when the crowd of locals and out of town friends far outnumbered the seating. An advantage of having such a scrappy brood: they built tables on the spot.

While the region’s stark beauty drew Hennes in, it was connecting with the local community of inspiring, colorful, and resilient renegades that made him decide to stay. They include James Nash, a fifth-generation rancher, veteran, poet, ecologist, and fishing guide who owns 6 Ranch; Chuck Fraser, the last remaining blacksmith in Wallowa County; Pam Royes, former shepherd and author of Temperance Creek: A Memoir; and Darrell Brann, contractor, guitar shredder and owner of the OK Theatre. These people, alongside visitors and the greater community, regularly gather for the Old-Time Community Dance at Hurricane Creek Grange Hall, where young and old swing to a live string band and caller. Tackett says that when both their local and city friends gather together something special happens. Sometimes a little wary of each other initially, they find common ground as they laugh, talk, and break bread together around the table. Most of the hotel guests fall in love with Jennings innkeeper and mother of three, Renee Beaudoin. Others share drinks in the kitchen with James Nash, then wind up hunting, fishing, or tracking with him the next day.

Hennes is fulfilling his dream of starting a school that teaches traditional craft with his newest venture, Prairie Mountain Folk School, slated to open this spring. He says it was possible largely because the local community had the requisite skills to make it happen. He’s excited that it will create opportunities for local people to teach skills handed down from their parents and grandparents, and explains that his longterm plan is “to create a sustainable organization that lives on after me. I want the school to provide tons of educational and economic opportunities for Wallowa County."

Tackett also moved to Joseph, fulfilling her fantasy of seeing a project flourish well past the construction process by staying involved in the hotel operation and other ventures. She and Hennes have plans for a restaurant that will highlight local grass-fed cattle; a retail store (dubbed “Small County”) showcasing the work of Prairie Mountain designer/instructors; and a private event space/honky-tonk that doubles as an indoor archery range. For now, they’re focused on completing the hotel's 13 rooms.

Let’s pause a moment for a reality check: unfortunately, the Wallowas aren’t a magical place where every new idea succeeds. The Lostine Tavern is a case in point, started as an experiment in whether a menu based on locally grown, sustainable ingredients could survive in a small, rural community. Turns out the answer was yes … and, no. A noble venture by Peter Ferre and Lynne Curry, it was meant to support sustainable agriculture and give Lostine's struggling economy a boost. It succeeded for a time, to enthusiastic reviews. Farmers even coordinated their planting schedules to meet the tavern’s demand for meat, eggs, and fresh greens. But the LT went up for sale in 2016, and is still on the market today. I’m not sure what was behind their closure, but my guess is that the local community couldn’t support it during the quieter times of the year. Luckily the growers, including 6 Ranch, Carman Ranch, Prairie Creek Farm, Backyard Gardens, and Hawkins Sisters Ranch, are still in business, some distributing as far away as Portland.

In nearby Enterprise, Jody and Michael Berry’s organic skincare company Wild Carrot Herbals is, by contrast, still thriving. This corner of Eastern Oregon had been on Jody’s radar and in her heart for 30 years, and her passion is contagious; I wanted to pack my bags as soon as I got off the phone. Her family relocated here five years ago, moving Wild Carrot from a 700-square-foot shipping container in Rickreall to a beautiful, old 14,000-square-foot building on Main Street that houses their entire operation as well as a retail store carrying Wild Carrot and other local products.

The move opened up opportunities to grow their business in ways they hadn’t expected, including opening Dandelion Wines, which Michael, a sommelier, runs; adding employees; and purchasing their building and the one next door. Their decision to buy the two formerly empty buildings is a reflection of their dedication to this place, which also shows in their involvement in the community. For instance, Jody created a non-profit website that helps with grant writing and downtown revitalization projects, and the whole family is involved in everything from the soap box derby race during Summerfest, to building the community ice rink every winter, in addition to donating to other community events and causes. The town is coming back from a dormant period, and, Jody says, “It feels like springtime here, like the ground is stirring underneath.”

The early pioneers in this region were eager, and willing, to abandon the places they came from in order to make a new life in the wilderness, to trade the relative safety of the expected, for the promise of the unknown. And our country ultimately evolved in the ways it did because of their actions — which also brought turmoil to indigenous cultures, the Wallowa Valley being no exception. Even good intentions can go awry without the perspective of hindsight. Just as Eileen Tjan explained in her engaging Design Week Portland Main Stage, “Did My Design Do That?”, authenticity can only exist if history (both the good and the bad) is acknowledged and respected.

Each of the area’s newcomers I spoke with shared a true reverence for the history of this place: its people, land, and built environments. Now, as a part of the fabric of the community, they are also committed to doing their part to contribute to its success. The collaborative spirit that seems to have taken root as a result — between the Nez Perce, the descendants of early pioneers, and these newest members of the community — is possibly a sign of both greater opportunity and inclusion. If you were to visit this corner of Oregon today, you’d see that on the surface, not much has changed in 100 years. But if you look just a little bit closer, you may notice that the ground is indeed stirring below.