The expression “you can’t go home again” is true for us all to some extent. No place can hope to compare to the magical memories of childhood.
But the phrase rings true on a literal level for the former residents of Valsetz, the Oregon logging town wiped from the face of the Earth in 1984.
Documentary maker Ronan Feely chronicles the history of this vanished town in “Home: The Story of Valsetz,” screening this Saturday, Oct. 26, as part of the Bijou Theatre’s Oregon-Made Film Festival.
Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Feely began his career in information technology, before branching out into documentaries via an internship with the BBC. After he and his US-born wife moved to Oregon, Feely shifted back into the IT world, until he stumbled upon the story of Valsetz.
Feely discovered Valsetz while searching on Google Maps for a place to go fishing with his son. The town’s name popped up in the midst of what appeared to be nothing but dense forest 30 miles east of the family home in Independence. On closer inspection, Feely saw streets such as Main Street and Cadillac Avenue snaking their way through the trees, with not a hint of asphalt in sight.
After doing some initial research, Feely drove out to the site to explore.
“I had my TomTom, plugged in ‘Main Street, Valsetz, Oregon’ and it took me right there,” he said. “It says ‘you have reached your destination’ — and you are just in the middle of the forest.”
Aside from the concrete foundations of the old sawmill and a few other buildings, the forest had completely reclaimed the area.
Intrigued, Feely started to research the area in earnest, tracing the ownership of the company town as it passed from owner to owner throughout the early 20th Century (See facing page for the full story).
In order to get firsthand accounts of life in Valsetz, Feely made contact with a former resident who maintained a website of photos and clippings about the town and agreed to post a plea for contributors.
As people started coming forward with their stories, photos and materials, Feely was struck by the emotional significance of a whole community being razed to the ground.
“I’m from far away,” he said, “If I want to go home I have to book a ticket, I have to get on a plane, I have to bundle up my kids. These people can never go home. They can tell their kids and grandkids about the place they grew up, but they can never visit it, they can never show them the house they grew up in, the baseball field they used to play in, or the lake they used to fish in. Not being able to go back, the mind boggles.”
The life that former Valsetz residents described struck a chord with Feely, who enjoyed a similarly free-rage childhood.
“I grew up in the countryside,” he said. “I was out all day and only came home at dinnertime. They had that same lifestyle. But they had it all ripped away. They were just cast out. Most people, you lose a job, you get another job nearby. These people had to find a new job in an industry that was dying and do it in a new town.”
In the course of his research, Feely made contact with the official at Boise Cascade who made the final decision to bulldoze the town — a man regarded by many residents as the villain of the story.
The finished documentary chronicles the rise and fall of this tight-knit community over the course of 78 minutes.
“The first half of the film builds the town up,” Feely said, “and the second half of the film tears it down.”
For the documentary’s 2011 premiere, Feely chose a venue that could not have been more significant — the townsite of Valsetz itself. The screening took place at a residents’ reunion, with the film projected on to a painters’ tarp in what used to be the center of town.
“There were people weeping” Feely said, “and so many people came up to me afterwards and said this had just been gnawing at them and festering inside them for 30 years and this film had helped them to heal.”
“Home: The Story of Valsetz” will screen at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Oct. 26, as part of the Oregon-Made Film Series at the Bijou Theatre, 1624 NE Hwy. 101, Lincoln City. Director Ronan Feely will attend the screening to take part in a Q&A.
That same day, Feely and Bijou co-owner Keith Altomare will discuss the film at 2 pm at the North Lincoln Historical Museum, 4907 SW Hwy. 101, Lincoln City.