If you take the Oakland exit off Interstate 5, you will find yourself in a community where people wave as you walk along residential streets. Massive trees tower over you, and if you are fortunate enough to be there in the fall, you will see that they turn colors reminiscent of Vermont. The homes range from modest bungalows to elegant Victorians, and the plaques on them inform you that they have served Oakland families since the late 1800s. Some date back to the 1850s, not very many years after the first wave of settlers from the East braved the Oregon Trail.
Oakland’s business district makes you feel you’ve stepped back in time to 1900. The buildings are brick and often ornate. Fading advertisements are still visible on the sides of some, reminding you, for instance, that Bull Durham is the tobacco that should fill your pipe. The corner hardware store is still operated by one of the families who founded it back in 1891. Tolly’s Restaurant is unassuming from the outside, but inside, you find yourself torn between the authentic drugstore soda fountain on one side and elegant dining amidst stunning antiques on the other. Antique stores ranging from the rather gritty Oakland Trader, housed in the 1884 Smith Livery building, to upscale shops in the buildings near Tolly’s should attract anyone with a hankering for artifacts from the past.
A few blocks beyond the commercial center of town, the massive 1910 Oakland School building now houses City Hall and the town library. Staff there allowed me to look over the renovated upstairs, and told me not to be too alarmed if I encountered the resident ghosts who occasionally run up and down stairs, or even play a few passages on an organ in one of the upstairs rooms. I had visions of something out of Phantom of the Opera with a ghost pounding on the keyboard of a massive Wurlitzer pipe organ, but alas, the organ in question was a small early model Hammond electronic organ. I suppose if you are a ghost, you have to make do with what is at hand. At any rate, the wonderful wainscoted rooms with their varnished wooden floors were a reminder of times when craftsmanship was honored, even in a school building.
Oakland’s history could serve as a model of the history of many western communities. Its earliest settlers were travelers along the newly plotted Applegate Trail, a trail developed to reach the Oregon territory without a treacherous float trip down the Columbia River. In 1846 the Rev. J. A. Cornwall and his family were following that trail and reached the banks of a creek near the present site of Oakland. With winter setting in, they decided they could not reach their preferred destination near modern Eugene. They built a cabin and survived the winter primarily through the agency of a nephew, Israel Stoley, who was a good hunter. In the spring, they moved on. The creek was named Cabin Creek in honor of their sojourn. In 1851, Dr. Dorsey Baker and E. G. Young came to the area and stayed. The first commercial venture was a gristmill, followed by a store.
In a short time, the newly formed community was a hub for the surrounding area. A post office handled and dispatched mail to other towns, and stagecoaches between Sacramento and Portland used Oakland as a principal stop. In the late 1860s, the Oregon and California Railroad was plotted, and a visionary settler, Alonzo Brown, donated land for tracks and a station. The railroad station was over a mile away from the town, and before long, the early day merchants were persuaded to move their businesses and even their homes to a location close to the tracks. As was typical in the West, the buildings were built of wood, and as was also typical, Oakland paid the price. Fire visited in 1892 and again in 1899, destroying the downtown, but the thriving agricultural economy dictated rebuilding. Having learned its lesson, the town rebuilt in brick, the very buildings that line Oakland’s streets today.
Oakland’s history is well preserved in the exhibits at the local museum. Over the years, I have been in many small town museums and Oakland’s rates with the best. The exhibits are eye-catching and instructive, even for someone who has no connection with the town. It’s all the more impressive when you learn the museum was developed and is operated completely by volunteers.
Oakland struck me as a place to reconnect with what life was like a century ago and I could easily understand why Oregon guidebooks recommend stopping there. As I wandered through the museum, walked along tree-lined streets, peered in shop windows and even dined at Tolly’s, I couldn’t help but wonder if the years since 1900 could really be termed “progress.” Even the ghosts don’t seem anxious to leave Oakland. I think they’re on to something!
Gerald C. Hammon is a retired program manager with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Devlopment and a full-time RVer, based in Silver City, New Mexico.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
Try the RV LIFE Pro Bundle FREE for 7 days