Silverton wears its history on its walls
On a rainy day, the Red Sox look as though they’re waiting for the sun to come out. Silverton’s celebrated semi-pro baseball team is the subject of a mural by Kelly Farrah on the wall of an auto parts store.
A few blocks away in downtown Silverton, Lori Lee Webb has created another mural that captures the magic of small town life in Oregon. It tells the story of Silverton’s most famous resident, Bobbie the Wonder Dog.
These murals give Silverton, a community of 7,400 about an hour’s drive south of Portland, 13 of the paintings, most of them on the outside walls of buildings. That’s not as many murals as some Northwest towns, but it’s getting to be enough to make travelers heading for Silver Falls State Park, or the Oregon Garden, put on the brakes and get to know the charming little town.
Silverton’s decade-long affair with murals has been good for business, getting some visitors out of their cars and gives them an excuse to walk around town.
O’Brien’s Restaurant is less than a block from the 70-foot-long mural of Bobbie, painted on a wall of beautiful Town Square Park, just a few steps from the covered footbridge over Silver Creek. The mural will help keep alive Bobbie’s story, one of the most amazing sagas to come out of Oregon in the 1920s.
Vince Till, president of the town mural society, invited me to visit Silverton and look over the murals he keeps watch over. We met over a sumptuous lunch at O’Brien’s, where the matron of the restaurant sat down to talk.
“Let me tell Bobbie’s story,” Molly O’Brien said. “I love animals and it warms my heart whenever I tell it.”
Back in 1923, she said, Bobbie lived a carefree life on a Silverton farm. The 2-year-old collie used to run eight miles into town to visit his owners, Frank and Elizabeth Brazier, for a midday snack at the cafe they owned.
During August of that year, the Braziers packed their touring car and drove east to visit relatives in Indiana. Bobbie went along, riding on the running board or atop the luggage in the back seat. He seemed to enjoy the journey as much as his masters did.
While they were visiting Wolcott, Ind., a pack of local dogs charged the car. Bobbie hopped out and was last seem running away with the pack nipping at his heels. The Braziers remained in the area for several days but had no luck tracking down Bobbie. They had little choice but to pack up their car and head home to Silverton.
The next February, Bobbie hobbled back into Silverton, his legs gashed, his toe pads worn to the bone and his eyes swollen.
As word spread of the dog’s return, letters began arriving at the Brazier home from people who had helped Bobbie along the way. The dog traveled an estimated 3,000 miles, crossing the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains during winter as he made his way back to Silverton.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not featured him in a comic strip. Walt Disney made a movie of his journey, but deviated from the story by adding a second dog, plus a cat, and calling it “The Incredible Journey.”
Silverton’s mural tells Bobbie’s story, as accurately as possible for a solo journey made by one determined dog. The painting catches the eye on the concrete fence that borders South Water Avenue, the route that Portlanders drive through town on the way to Silver Falls.
Silverton’s love affair with murals officially began in 1992 with the formation of the town mural society. David McDonald, the first of the town’s three mural painters, completed the “Four Freedoms” two years later. The four panels are reproductions of paintings made by Norman Rockwell for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post during World War II. The paintings represent freedom of worship, of speech, from want and from fear.
The painting that depicts freedom from fear showed a father holding a newspaper dated Dec. 7, 1941, as he puts his children to bed.
Several of Silverton’s other murals tell grand tales of the town, its residents and its place in the world. The cutting down of the town’s oak tree, the biography of Silverton native Homer Davenport, a cartoonist for Hearst newspapers, and the depiction of the 20th century have multifaceted themes.
Silverton’s murals are made with oil-based paints, a longer and more costly process than water-based acrylic paints. Each mural is coated with an ultraviolet protectant to shield it from the weather.
Many other Northwest towns take pride in their murals, especially Toppenish, Wash., with 70, and Chemainus, British Columbia, with more than 30. Murals can also be seem in Oregon at Sweet Home, Oregon City, Mount Angel, Woodburn, Hubbard, Canby, The Dalles, Klamath Falls, Portland and Ontario, and in Washington at Long Beach and Anacortes.
Bobbie’s tale was given new life with his mural. Ditto for Silverton’s semi-pro baseball team, which once finished third in a national tournament. The Red Sox must have their own story to tell, too.
If you go: Silverton is 45 miles south of Portland via Oregon 213 from Oregon City, or Oregon 214 from Woodburn. Pick up a map of the murals at the site of the Four Freedoms mural at South Second and East Main streets. Silverton has several art galleries, antique stores and bed and breakfast inns; one motel; fine dining at the Silver Grille Cafe and Wine Bar; the old-time Palace movie theater downtown; and Mac’s Place Tavern, a town institution since 1910. Be sure to bring a few small coins because the parking meters don’t take anything larger than a dime. For information, call the Chamber of Commerce at 503-873-5615 or visit www.silvertonor.com.
By Terry Richard, The Oregonian/OregonLive Photo by Mike Davis, The Oregonian