What ails this place?

It is far enough upriver that the Sheriff’s deputies won’t respond at all to car crashes unless there is a fatality or, at least, a suspicion of drugs or alcohol being involved. Local residents have been advised to look to their own protection, at gunpoint if necessary, in an emergency.

The town of Tiller in Douglas County, Oregon, sits about halfway between Canyonville and Trail along the forty-nine winding miles of Highway 227 connecting Interstate 5 and the upper Rogue River country downstream from Crater Lake. For over a year, there were no groceries available for that stretch of road—not in Days Creek, Milo, Tiller, or Drew, the four communities on the South Umpqua River side of the Rogue/Umpqua divide. There is still nowhere along the way to buy gasoline. 

The community’s future is uncertain, and this brings the shadowy specter of it drying up altogether, of becoming one of those wide spots in the road that are all that remains of what was once a small community. Still, Tiller hasn’t gone away yet—it merely declined significantly over the past thirty years with half the population that it had in the early 1990s. What is left of the place is still reasonably substantial with its 187 souls, a volunteer fire department, the ranger station, a small convenience store, a post office, a church, and a parsonage. Most of those people of Tiller live in homes scattered along the river and creeks, miles away from the post office at the heart of town.

Last Spring, Sidhu “Neal” Nashattar opened The Pit Stop in Tiller, a small convenience store fat with snack food, as well as some basics such as beer, milk, butter, and hotdogs for summer campers. He also runs a small four-booth café offering, among other things, cheeseburgers, fries, and Samosas, a food from his native Kashmir.

The Pit Stop’s building was, for many years, called Ronk’s Mountain Tavern, a bar, and restaurant catering to loggers, tree planters, ranchers, and the nearby U.S. Forest Service office and summer wildland fire crews. 

But the days when “getting out the cut” led to building forty new miles of gravel logging roads on the ranger district every year are gone now and the USFS has cut their workforce by 40% from then. Now the Tiller ranger station is itself, after ninety years, scheduled to move twenty-six miles downriver to Canyonville in about six or seven years. The ranger station compound’s buildings were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the hard times of the Great Depression and need repairs that the Forest Service budget either can’t (or won’t) cover.

When the Forest Service held a public input meeting at the station to discuss the potential move, one of the reasons given for abandoning Tiller was reluctance on the part of the government’s employees to live in such a remote place. This left many area residents wondering why the hell anyone would ever want to get a Forest Service job if they didn’t want to live out in the woods or, at least, be willing to commute to work. Some of this reluctance, of course, is likely due to Douglas County’s few cultural opportunities, lower quality of education, and shortage of healthcare when compared to more populous counties. 

It is easy for people to feel insulted by the news that the government’s workers and managers don’t want to live among them and their neighbors. A few years ago, Douglas County’s largest private employer, Roseburg Forest Products, moved their corporate headquarters seventy miles north up Interstate 5 to Springfield in urban Lane County. It had become difficult, the company explained, to find college-educated technicians and managers who wanted to live in the Umpqua country. 

Abandoning the county that took pride in being the “Timber Capital of the Nation” and the home of that homegrown lumber company for ninety-something years was widely felt as an affront. Many residents suspect that, beyond the accessibility problems, there is an elitist cultural and political disdain behind both moves as well.

Timber is no longer the driving force that it once was for Douglas County, Oregon. Due to a long history of cutting its timber stands too fast and automation, the industry now supports about half the workforce that it had in the late 1970s. Due to wage and benefit cuts, the average pay for local timber workers is about 20% lower than it had been back then. What once were jobs that paid significantly more than the state’s industrial average now pay lower than average wages. 

Yet, instead, resentment lingers toward reduced federal timber sales aimed at protecting endangered owls and fish, a frustration that, fueled by a local timber company association’s fear-inducing strident publicity efforts during the 1980s, led to late night threats and vandalism for several of the county’s environmental advocates.

Earlier this year it seemed that the Tiller Post Office would be closing, leaving the nearest available postal service thirteen miles downriver in Days Creek. An alarming notice to that effect was posted on the P.O.’s front door but it turned out that the lease on the building was about to expire and no one was sure about how to contact the landlord’s manager in order to renew it. The lease was renewed shortly after an article about the problem appeared in the local daily newspaper.

For a time, it seemed that good things might be coming to Tiller. In 2017 Tiller made the national and international news, in headlines announcing that the town was up for sale. A series of contiguous lots totaling 257 acres in the center of town was on the market for $3.85 million. In 2018 most of the place including the post office building, founder Aaron Tiller’s homestead, and an estimated two million board feet of standing timber, was sold to Global Shopping Mall, based in Garden Grove, California. It was announced that the developers planned to build a destination resort on the land, a playground for tourists along the river and with easy access to Crater Lake National Park the Rogue River, itself famous for its fishing and rafting opportunities.

Four years later, the few empty old homes, the Tiller Market building, and the school that still stand on that land have gone to peeling paint, invasive blackberries, raccoons, and the tweakers who have stripped copper wiring from the empty houses, and the abandoned school buildings to sell for scrap metal. 

Some of the school’s windows have been broken out altogether without any attempt to tack up some plywood over them. The local folks worry that the acres of tall dry grass and brambles behind the school where the baseball field’s chain-link backstop and playground equipment still stand are ripe for a fire, here on the edges of the woods and where the fire danger levels run at the Extreme Level for months during the summer droughts.

There have been some efforts to pull the community together. A series of daylong summer craft fairs, reminiscent of the annual two-day Tiller Days festival of the 1960s and 1970s, took place here in 2017, 2018, and 2019 but haven’t happened since Covid-19 hit in 2020. A local group, the South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership, has also been on hiatus but recently held its first meeting since the onset of the pandemic. The South Umpqua Community Church holds an open Coffee House featuring pastries, coffee, soup, and conversation every Friday. Not far downriver the Friends of Carl C. Hill wayside, a volunteer group that provides the upkeep for a small riverside park that was closed for a while due to county government budget cuts, holds a series of monthly community Sunday potluck picnics during the summer months. Still, the fate of Tiller is largely in the hands of forces that are beyond anyone’s local control.

 The state of things here brings not just immediate worries about fire and crime but sadness too for long-time residents who know its past and recall the days when it was a vibrant community full of working families with children. 

It is true that fire and rust are the same chemical process: oxidation. The difference is a matter of how fast it is taking place. Rust, being slow, can easily be ignored and the same is often true of erosion, both socially and environmentally. Only those who stay in place long can measure the loss.

Robert Leo Heilman is an award-winning essayist, commentator, and author from Myrtle Creek, Oregon.