In Santiam Canyon, faith helps out where economy falters
In Santiam Canyon, faith helps out where economy falters
STAYTON — In the heyday of Santiam Canyon’s lumber enterprise, laborers without college degrees could work at eight or nine mills, supporting families of four, five or six. The forests and hills had as many millionaires per square mile as anywhere on the planet. Companies like Freres Lumber and Frank Lumber donated for construction of Catholic schools, even subsidizing tuition.

But by 1990, all except a few mills had shut down because of a mix of factors. Environmental rules tightened; finished lumber was being imported; raw logs were shipped overseas for milling.

The Santiam’s towns lie dazed, like knocked-down geezers with spectacles askew. Hardy townspeople sought to rebuild their economies, but minimum wage jobs in restaurants and stores became the standard.

“Development in the Upper North Santiam Canyon is less than would be expected, given its proximity to the Portland-Salem metro corridor and its numerous natural and human-made amenities,” said a 2006 report from Oregon State University’s rural studies department.

And that was before the housing-based recession began in late 2008, hitting Oregon particularly hard. In the past 18 months, home building nationwide dropped off, meaning the three Santiam lumber mills still in operation had to slow down. That caused a chain reaction; mill workers were not able to spend much at local businesses, which in turn had to lay off employees or close completely.

Rick Schindler, principal of the 230-student St. Mary School here, has been giving tuition aid to more families in the past year and a half. “More people are applying for the same pie,” Schindler says.

Art and Liliana Pelayo gratefully rely on the help as they send three children to St. Mary’s and prepare for Christmas, despite hard times.

Last summer, Philips Windows and Doors closed its plant here, cutting 125 jobs. Among the newly unemployed was Liliana. Art faced reduced hours at Freres Lumber. For a two-month span, he worked only one day per week.

“It was kind of hard just trying to keep the house,” says Art, whose mortgage costs $2,000 per month. He’s had trouble getting refinanced, since the house value has dipped below what he owes.

The Pelayos, members of Immaculate Conception Parish, have lived in Stayton for 12 years.

“This year has been really hard,” says Art, 37.

He used spare time to help at the school, painting the cafeteria and library. Lately, hours have picked up at the lumber mill. Liliana is re-training to be a certified nursing assistant in classes at Providence Benedictine Nursing Center in Mount Angel.

“Thank God we are doing better now,” Art says.

Roughly 15,000 people live in the Santiam Canyon, from Sublimity to Idanha. The population of the upper area — highly dependent on timber — declined by 2 percent between 1980 and 2000, while the rest of Oregon saw a 30-percent increase. Similar communities like Ashland, Gold Beach, Hood River, Sisters, and Tillamook grew during that time by almost 24 percent.

One of the most telling statistics in the Oregon State study is the Santiam’s drop in the percentage of manufacturing jobs, down from 43 percent to 15 percent since 1970. That means high-paying jobs have been replaced by low-paying jobs.

Now, the few family-wage positions left are under pressure because of the recession, especially the slow-down in construction.

That’s the case for Dan Koenig, an electrician from Stayton. He and wife Katie, members of Immaculate Conception, have three children ages 4 to 9. A fourth is on the way.

“We’ve actually been luckier than most,” says Katie, 31. “My husband has not been laid off in a long time.”

But hours have shrunk for Dan, especially summer overtime jobs on which the family budget relied heavily. The Koenigs foresaw the problem and started cutting expenses in 2008: no trips, no movies, little eating out. Katie runs the after-school program at St. Mary’s to help the family budget. Katie, the daughter of a logger, recalls better times, but can’t forget the timber slow-down of the 1980s. Some men lost their will to live and marriages fell apart back then, she says.

She’s afraid it’s happening all over.

“I think the area was just starting to recover when this recession hit,” Katie says.
Katie and Dan pray about a lot of things, including money. It always seems to work out for them. But they know many others, like Katie’s brother, who have been unemployed for more than a year.

“I see a lot of despair,” says Katie, citing finance-linked suicides.

For Christmas, the grandparents will buy the big-ticket items. Dan and Katie will curtail their spending. “I don’t know if Dan’s getting a present,” says Katie.

Mary Foltz, a 49-year-old former St. Mary’s teacher who lives on 10 acres just outside Stayton, had a plan. She retired a few years back to care for the children of a niece. Her husband Dennis, an auto mechanic in Sublimity, would continue to work, supporting tuition payments for one child at Regis High and another at St. Mary’s.

But when the economy faltered, people put off car repairs. Dennis saw his work hours reduced.

Had the family not received some inheritance money, they would have been hard pressed to pay tuition.

The Foltz’s big worry now is paying for college. Chemeketa Community College, which waives tuition for high-achievers, looks like the best option.

Things are looking better in the car business, so the family has hope. Faith is a big help in times like these, they say.

“You just have to offer it up and know he’s going to take care of you,” Mary explains.
Anthony Hoke, whose children attend St. Mary School, owns a tree nursery, one of the industries that has expanded since timber work slackened.

“The past 18 months have required more effort than the past 20 years,” Hoke says.

Hard work and perseverance is keeping his nursery afloat. He labors longer shifts and travels more to see and maintain his customers. That’s been hard on his personal life and his body.

“Being a part of a community like St Mary School certainly helps bring out the positive side of things because kids just make you smile no matter how rough the day has been or how tired you may be,” he says.

Hoke still volunteers because he feels blessed and he acknowledges, sadly, that there are always people worse off.

Selling cars has not been easy in this economy. That’s how Tammi and Jim Burns make a living at a dealership in Sublimity. But this couple, members of St. Boniface Parish, have taken the opportunity to expand a side enterprise. It’s a ministry, really.

Tammi, a survivor of domestic abuse from previous relationships, was struck with the notion of creating an edgy line of clothing that speaks out against all kinds of violence. Break the Chain Apparel appeared in 2006. The company offers shirts that say things like “Love is Not Black and Blue,” “Meth is Death” and “End Hunger Now.”

“It’s God’s voice. We just put it on a T-shirt to reach as many people as we can,” says Tammi, 46.

Their clothing shop is a trailer towed by a pick-up. They get together with schools, where students come up with a slogan that will address a local problem. Then the Burns hire a team of artists to design shirts to be given to the schools, which in turn sell the shirts to raise funds.

Given the economy, the venture now costs more than it brings in. But the Burns see it as more than a business.

Mike and Jo Barsotti, who live on the flanks of McCully Mountain near Lyons, saw their retirement savings shrivel over the past 18 months. They hope the fund will be revived before the onset of any big expenses, like medical catastrophe.

The pair, both 63, are healthy and happy so far. Mike intends to work on his woodland until he’s into his 90s. Jo cautions that infirmity can come when no one expects it. They already spend $1,200 per month on health care.

The Barsottis moved to their mountain home with 20 acres of forest nine years ago. They plan to sell some timber, if only to pay the cost of managing the land. But they’ll wait. Demand for wood, and therefore price, are now too low.

“This economy is tough. It’s the lowest harvest since the Great Depression and it’s not because we don’t have the trees,” says Mike, who retired from state forestry work after 32 years. He’s still active in an association of tree farmers.

“If the mills that are left closed, we’d be in big trouble,” he says.

The mills have diversified into wood products to protect themselves. Meanwhile, Mike is exploring a government initiative that would pay forest land owners to keep trees and sequester carbon.

The Barsottis have his state retirement and Social Security. Jo, who taught at Catholic schools much of her life, has no retirement income to speak of.

They had enough savings to help their youngest daughter make a down payment on a house, taking advantage of the federal housing stimulus refunds. Jo spends many of her days working with an 8-year-old grandson who has autism.

Christmas will not be a dampened affair. The family made its annual trek into the National Forest to find a Christmas tree — a 12-foot Noble fir.

Down McCully Mountain, the sun shines through the emissions clouds from Frank Lumber. Not far away, a yard that 20 years ago was full of cut trees is now mostly empty. Log trucks still rumble up and down the mountain, but not as frequently as they did in decades past.

Some trucks roll east toward Mill City. A few miles farther, in Gates, is where Michelle Pfohl lives in a tidy manufactured home high above the rushing Santiam River.

The median annual household income in the area, according to the last census, was around $35,000.

Pfohl, a 69-year-old with a kind, round face, falls below that mark. When the market plunged in 2008, the retirement income her husband left after he died shrunk by half.

“It was not a lot to begin with, so that’s made things very tight,” Pfohl explains. As she shakes her had, her dog slinks nervously away to hide in the bathtub.

Pfohl shops infrequently to save gas, eats simply and has cut out frills. Her arthritic knees keep her from full-time work and so she thanks God for Medicare.

A former flower shop owner and a mother of three adopted children, she moved from southern California to Mill City in 2001 with her husband, Rich, who had retired from San Diego Gas and Electric. Life was too expensive in San Diego.

Rich died suddenly in 2006 after the couple had been married for 47 years.

On top of the grief and loneliness, Pfohl lost Rich’s Social Security income and the money he brought in from odd jobs — a total of about $1,600 per month.

“That was adding insult to injury,” she says. Just more than two years later, the market dipped. Not much later, her roof sprung a leak and a raccoon that climbed into a furnace duct prompted a fire. Repairs cost about $8,000 out of pocket.

“Every time I sit down to pay the bills, I hold my breath,” she says.

Like the Barsottis, Pfohl’s greatest fear is a serious and expensive illness. She has no idea how she’ll pay for everything.

Despite the struggles, she is dedicated to her church, St. Catherine’s. If something needs doing and no one else has time, she steps forward. She handles the flowers, liturgical scheduling and sacristan duties. She volunteers at a food bank and a free meal site for seniors.

“If I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t make it through any of this,” she says.

In her living room, Pfohl has placed a small artificial Christmas tree on the coffee table along with a nativity scene and some arranged flora. Christmas wrapping sits on her kitchen table, along with one of the oil paintings she hopes to sell some day.

Pfohl says of her life, “It’s not quite a tragedy yet.”