By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

Firing up a fabulous Fourth

It takes a lot of work to have some fun. No words could be truer than when the source of the enjoyment is a community-wide event and you are one of the coordinators.

Just ask those behind the scenes, making sure everything runs smoothly during the two weekends that make up Willamina’s annual Fourth of July celebration.

As Willamina’s Timbertown USA nickname indicates, logging and wood processing have been leading local industries since the late 1800s. And those industries put a premium on teamwork.

So this deceptively quiet community, nestled at the eastern edge of the Coastal foothills, knows how to come together when the need arises. And preparing for the Fourth is one of those times.

Old-Fashioned Fourth of July has become Willamina’s signature event, owing to many years of demonstrating through doing that the little guys have the wherewithal to do it right.

The preparation kicks off with committee meetings that begin on a weekly basis in March and rev up to twice a week by May. These strategy sessions all take place at the West Valley town’s most popular eating and gathering place, Coyote Joe’s.

As the time draws nearer, the committee begins to review notes, check to-do lists and make sure nothing has fallen through the cracks.

A meeting held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, reflected that focus.

If a countdown ticker had been mounted on the wall, it would have pointed to 10 — the number of days left until the Mud Drags. So discussion of the Mud Drags dominated the meeting.

This competition of the slippery and sloppy kind is held on the prior Saturday, which falls on June 29 this year. And it has come to draw as much attention as the big Fourth of July parade to follow.

It quickly becomes evident that the drag doings require as much planning as the big bang itself. That’s particularly true in light of its role as the only moneymaker, as the parade and fireworks come free of charge.

Donna Nelson and Clyde Dawkins are heading up the Mud Drags Committee, a subcommittee of the Fourth of July granddaddy. Dawkins is planning to run a rig himself, and he has brought his teen granddaughter Jazmin to the meeting because she wanted to help out.

He explained to me that the course is 200 feet long.

“It doesn’t seem like much, but it can really get exciting,” he said. The right rear-end gearing is the key to success, he said.

“Every track is different, and every time you run, the track has changed a little bit because of the races before you,” he said. “It’s a real challenge.”

Dawkins gave me a sheet enumerating the six all-comers classes and four powder puff classes. Placement is based on points accumulated from the rating of various elements.

Looking it over, I realized a plain-Jane stock car wouldn’t score any points at all. My four-cylinder Subaru would score zero, even with its all-wheel drive.

If I equipped it with big tires, likely the only way it could negotiate the muck without getting bogged down, that would give me my first half-point.

Tweaking things a bit with an aftermarket distributor, performance intake and exhaust headers would get me all the way up to three points, qualifying me in the 4-cylinder stock class.

Vehicles that score 14 or more points run in open class. Those mud masters are sure to inject some excitement into the afternoon.

When it was his turn to report, Dawkins said with a combination of enthusiasm and trepidation, “We’ve already got 87 entries signed up. This is going to be the best one yet.”

Considerable discussion ensued about crowd control, parking and safety. Based on previous experience, several suggestions were offered and eventually agreement was reached.

When I saw “No Alcohol Allowed” prominently displayed on promotional fliers for the event, I asked Dawkins about it. He said there is no leeway at all in that regard.

Consume alcohol on the premises, or show signs of having consumed some ahead of time, and you’re outta there. The fliers also proclaim, “No Dogs or Bikes Allowed.” I didn’t ask what kind of “bikes” they were referring to, but was assured all of the rules are enforced.

Everyone in attendance appeared to be quite clear on their roles.

The BBQ in Lawson Park at 6:30 the evening of July 3, the Kiwanis breakfast at 7 the next morning, and the fireworks to follow at dusk, had all been assigned. I could only conclude the car show, horseshoe tournament, vendor village, pony rides, logging jamboree, arm wrestling competition, valve cover races and  parade were equally well covered.

There was general agreeement that the arm wrestling competition had become one of the most popular events at Willamina’s Fourth. “Word got out that we were thinking of canceling it one year, and did we hear about it,” said Jennifer Flynn.

Flynn is joining Jimmy Colton and her brother James in planning the fireworks show.

“We’ve done it for 15 years,” she said. “We give Western Display Fireworks in Canby our budget and they send us a complete set of effects. It’s always a great blow.”

Asked how the fireworks are ignited, Flynn replied, “With flares. They don’t go out in the wind.”

When discussion turned to the parade, I learned there is no clue as to who or what will show up. “They just arrive and we line them up,” said Christen Powell, who has coordinated the parade the past three years.

Overseeing the whole shooting match are Bob and Mary Jane Hollinger. The hardworking couple keep things on track with a low-key demeanor, good humor and excellent organization

And after it’s all over?

“The committee takes care of everything,” Hollinger said. “And that includes all the cleanup.”

And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — getting a mud-spattered, shoulder-wrenching, big-blast feeling about Willamina’s way fabulous Fourth of July celebration.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.




And the newly formed Valley dance troupe will be performing the "Thriller" dance before the fireworks. If you missed us at Phil Sheridan Days this is your chance to see it again!

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