By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and Forth: crackling good time in Willamina

A Father’s Day weekend was full of quiet pleasures, including our first foray into the community of Willamina since moving to Yamhill County a little over a year ago.

Our Saturday night destination was a presentation of “Duke’s Place: 1940s Radio Show” by the 99 West Jazz Band and Dayton Community Chorus, directed by Mark Williams.

Having seen staged radio shows before, and acted together in one, Lorre and I were curious how this one would go. This one was presented in the auditorium on the West Valley Community Campus.

I’m not here to provide a review, but I can say it went very well.

Instrumental and choral music accompanied a lively and funny radio tale set in 1944 in a tavern called Duke’s Place. Complete with “On the Air” and “Applause” signs, it was just plain fun to watch. And with minimal yet clever costumes and props, the performers really captured the feel of an old broadcast.

In the music and staging of the show, we found a stunning form of community in the comfortable auditorium of former Willamina High School.

A new K-12 campus was developed in 2003. The facility moldered until 2011, when a community nonprofit rescued it and turned it into valley campus.

Today, it’s a place for classes and community events — including providing the auditorium rent-free for the Friday and Saturday performances.

We started our exploration of Willamina by parking downtown and going over to see Galloping Goose, an old rail-carried bus on display on Northeast Main Street.

It operated in Willamina and Grand Ronde 100 years ago. After being decommissioned, it was displayed a couple of places in Eastern Oregon before being returned to Willamina in 2007.

Afterward, we then walked over to Wildwood Hotel for dinner, then strolled over to the Willamina Creek Bridge, featuring a gorgeous expanse of water and bower of trees.

Arriving at the West Valley Campus, we felt some apprehension. The grounds were well-kept, but we wondered if we were in the right place. Was this a community center or just an abandoned school?

When we checked the other end of the complex, we saw a line of cars and groups of people entering the building. We parked and encountered a place that felt energetic.

Tables with comfortable chairs were arrayed in the auditorium, and couches and padded benches lined the sides of the space. Volunteers greeted us and sold us cookies and a bottle of water, and we chose a table with programs at ready.

Graceful brushed metal art work adorns the sides of the stage, and overall the auditorium has a well-preserved but not overworked feel to it. The band and chorus members were still arriving, though most were warmed up and ready to go, some of them mingling with audience members.

We noticed other attendees, and at least one cast member, we’d seen a half-hour earlier at the Wildwood. It felt like a reunion, rehearsal and reception all wrapped into one.

The 99 West Jazz Band filled the stage and the Dayton singers sat in chairs at the base.

We were impressed at how well the space was used by the performers and others who staged the event, making it a welcoming place. It’s reassuring to see a community sustain an old building as a place where people gather for events.

I’ve always had an affection for old schools, churches or community halls that find new life as gathering places.

Guthrie Park Community Center near Dallas was an early influence on my awareness of such places. With its stage, wooden benches, and green lawn, it became a folk life center and performance space that kept it simple and timeless.

Granges and other restored halls can serve all kinds of useful, contemporary purposes.

In Hood River, a group of investors pitched a story idea to us about their plans to transform the former east Portland dog track into a massive gaming center they wanted to call “The Grange.” The project never went anywhere, and I was secretly happy because I felt they were commercializing a traditional American entity, aside from potentially creating confusion with actual granges.

Thanks to the local groups and a variety of lease, ownership and partnership arrangements, old facilities such as schools and grange halls endure in our society. Over the years, I’ve seen local interests revive or sustain former schools or grange halls and maintain their role as vibrant gathering places.

One example is the McMinnville Grange on Old Sheridan Road, part of a national nonprofit with roots in agriculture. Today it is home to numerous social, religious, musical and agricultural gatherings including a weekly Farmers Market.

The West Valley Community Campus remains a civic hub.

Inside the main entry, a case displays banners, trophies and other school memorabilia, including what must be a commencement relic: a globe with “Look Out World” writ large across it.

Meanwhile, there is a kind of ghostly feel to looking in the windows of the old shop class, which is crammed with old stuff, and the former football and baseball fields, which are mostly overgrown.

The weathered athletic bleachers are so scattered they don’t even face the diamond. Murals and painted school emblems stand faded, and the vacant scoreboard remains a lonely reminder of fields where young people once ran.

The campus, a school for so long, and not so long ago, provides a kind of trip back in time. But donations for the radio show went to the campus building fund, so there is hope for the future.

Contact Kirby Neumann-Rea at or 503-687-1291.


Web Design and Web Development by Buildable