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Wasco's history of wheat fields gives way to a future of wind towers

Special to The Oregonian By Special to The Oregonian
on November 26, 2010 at 6:02 PM, updated November 26, 2010 at 6:23 PM
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wasco2.JPGView full sizeDee Van Gilder is a fourth generation member of a family that settled in Wasco County in the late 19th Century. She now raises Arabian horses on some of the family property.
Wasco, like most Northwest wheat towns, sits in an oasis of deep green trees that rise from a crinkle of hills. No one would say the town is pretty or even very picturesque despite several handsome structures. It's got a variety store and a grocery. Down the street, there's a bar-restaurant where waitresses and bartenders treat strangers like valued customers who have been gone for a while. This is not a town to come to if you are on the lam or just want to maintain a low profile.

News travels fast, and people are scrutinized, in a curious, not unkindly way. My guess is that the bar and the grocery store are rumor central for this place. The big news here has been and continues to be the wind farms, those highly cultivated fields of elegantly shaped towers, 400 feet from base to the tip of the highest blade.

History:
The town looks well-worn because it is. White settlers began moving into the area in the 1860s, although pioneers were pushing through on the Oregon Trail 20 years earlier. By the early 1880s, there were enough farmers in the hills and hollows to support a town, which grew quickly. The Columbia Southern Railway reached Wasco in 1898. The town lost the railway in 1964, the result of a flood, but the depot remains as the Wasco Railroad and City History Center.

Came with the wind: Sherman County's scenic appeal is no longer confined to the wheat fields or the views of the Columbia Plateau. The wind towers are now a big part of the view, for better or worse, and there are several hundred in the county. Ask locally for directions to the best viewing areas. Wind is changing the look of Sherman County and also the economy. Workers are coming to town, some erecting or servicing the towers, others studying the impact of the towers on wildlife.

A night on the town:
Watching the golden light spread across the wheat fields is a fine way to spend the late afternoon. Later, you might drop in to the Wasco Community Library, open until 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Volunteers run the library, and they've done a good job assembling a collection that makes for pleasant browsing. The library shares the space with City Hall, and if you are lucky, Cassie Strege, the city clerk, will still be there. She can handle just about any question about Wasco and environs or direct you to someone who can. Leaving the library, walk up the street to the Lean-To Cafe & Goosepit Saloon, (tinyurl.com/2e8c4q3) where you probably had breakfast. Have a drink at the bar and listen to the low rumble of conversation. In the dining room -- actually a few tables set up near the open kitchen -- chicken and steaks are on the menu, and the place is known for its specials, among them tacos Wednesday, spaghetti Thursday and prime rib Saturday nights. When it gets dark, drive out of town and watch the lights flashing on the wind towers.

Horses: Dee Van Gilder, a fourth-generation member of an old Sherman County family, carries on a venture begun by her mother, Marjorie, and raises Arabian horses on their spread outside Wasco. The family began as wheat farmers but started breeding Arabians in 1949. They now lease the wheat fields. They have about 45 of the sleek animals on the land at this time, and they sell them and also stand the stallions at stud. Dee Van Gilder will show you around, time permitting, and a visit there is a good way to sample the way of life of an old county family that has raised animals and grain there for a century. (541-442-5142, vangilderarabians.net)

Lodging: There are two places to stay in Wasco. To experience the feel of a small-town hotel a century ago, try the Just-Us Inn (503-957-6117, just-usinn.com), which is in the former Oskaloosa Hotel, one of the town's most historic structures, built in 1889. The owners, Ron and Debbie Doherty, bought it in 2007 and are fixing it up. It's nearly full most nights because workers on the wind farms reserve rooms for months and even years. The more conventional and comfortable alternative is Wasco House Bed & Breakfast (503-341-4450, www.wascohouse.biz). Owners Dave Bergmann and Lisa D'Arcy offer two extremely comfortable rooms in a handsome white house built in 1900.

-- Foster Church