Polk County Historical Society

There are several so-called “company towns” in the Pacific Northwest.  The most colorful — and best-known – was in Polk County.  It was known — and now remembered — as Valsetz.

Valsetz nestled in a heavily timbered valley that was the headwaters of the Siletz River in the Coast Range about 25 miles west of Dallas.

The first settlers in the area were Andrew Porter and his wife, who in 1894 filed a timber homestead claim on 169 acres of land. 

There were a few others who filed homestead claims in the area.  Enough so that a U. S. Post Office was established at Sugar Loaf — named after Sugar Loaf Mountain — in 1895.  John Wright was the first postmaster and the post office was in his home.  That post office closed in 1905.

Around 1903 Cobbs & Mitchell, a Michigan timber firm, bought up about 36,000 acres of timbered land around Sugar Loaf.  They had no immediate plans for the timber.  They figured it was a long-range investment.  But in 1910 a fire seared 4,000 acres of the Cobbs & Mitchell holdings.  The trees were killed but still harvestable, and Cobbs & Mitchell figured it had to be logged to save their investment.

The next year — 1912 — Cobbs & Mitchell started to build a railroad from its connection with the Southern Pacific line at Independence into the Sugar Loaf area to allow access to the timber.

It took seven years — until 1919 — to lay the tracks to the center of the burned area.  There, in 1919, Cobbs & Mitchell began construction of what would be Valsetz, which was named after the railroad itself, the Valley & Siletz.  A post office was opened there on November 6, 1920.

Logging spurs were laid from the main track into the areas to be harvested, equipment was moved in, housing constructed and a sawmill opened at Valsetz in 1922.  Soon, nearly 200 people lived on the town.

Life was simple in Valsetz in those days.  Workers were paid $5 for a typical 12-hour shift.  The weather generally was lousy.  Valsetz had an annual rainfall of 140 inches, and was known as the wettest weather reporting station in Oregon.

But rent was cheap — $7 a month and utilities were provided without additional charge.

The company built a school in 1929, and a replacement was constructed in 1981.  There was a general store, café, movie house, train depot, recreation hall, a company dairy herd, dentist, barber shop and a one-room hospital staffed by a company nurse.

The mill was closed in 1931 during the Depression.  By 1933 only 30 people remained in the town.

The mill operated part-time when there were orders.  When the mill ran, the few men left there got paid.  And the electric generator worked which meant the town had lights.  When the mill was closed, kerosene lamps were used.

The mill reopened full-time in 1936, and things boomed. 

Cobbs & Mitchell sold out to Herbert Templeton of Portland in 1945.  Templeton converted the original mill to a plywood mill in 1958 and sold the mill, the town and its timber to the Boise Cascade Co.

The timber business went flat in the 1980s.  In December 1983 Boise Cascade announced that the mill — and the town —  would close in February 1984.

Valsetz was torn down, the pond drained and the area returned to its natural state.  A series of going-away events was held.  The school closed.  The last issue of the high school annual was entitled The Last Hurrah.

A prize-winning movie that memorialized the history of Valsetz and its demise, was produced in 2011.

Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society.  The Society’s Library and Museum, located at the Polk County Fairgrounds at Rickreall, is open to the public from 12 to 4 p.m. each day, except Sunday, Monday and holidays.  Admission:  adults, $5; seniors (age 62+), $4; children ages 6-17, $1; children under age 6, centenarians and Society members, free.)

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