When the community of Silverton was founded in 1854, the location we know by that name today had been a site of human habitation for countless millennia. The state highway known as 213 like so many other thoroughfares, stared out as major trails and roads for the First Nations. The Euro-Americans for the most part simply widened these existing trails to accommodate horse-drawn wagons, and eventually automobiles.
Over the course of fifty years, those original inhabitants succumbed to a variety of diseases that killed nine out of ten individuals. The survivors, whose traditional cultures had been shattered, were shuttled off to reservations along the coastal mountains west of their original homelands. Those first nations experienced a dramatic societal transition: A sudden and unexpected shift in reality. But their routes, trails, and roads remain. A silent testimony to ancient commerce. Ironically, the peoples who replaced them in this space were on the verge of their own societal transition.
For thousands of years, the speed at which humans could travel great distances was determined by the speed of a horse on land, and the strength of the wind at sea. Then humans discovered steam power. More precisely, they discovered how to harness its power. This became possible through the advent of new materials and the processes used to create them. This transition took a bit over a century to become firmly implanted in society. But it soon was replaced with even faster and more efficient devices once liquid petroleum was found to be more efficient than solid chunks of coal.
In 1854, Silverton officially became a community with a Post Office, but it was created according to the old, pre-steam paradigm. Travel was still pretty much limited to horsepower, although steam-powered riverboats provided transport of large, bulky, and over-sized loads. Communities sprang up along the Willamette River at locations suitable for riverboats to land. With horse-driven wagons completing the journey. Silverton was more than 15 miles from the river. By horse wagon, this meant at least a couple of hours or more, depending upon road conditions.
When the steam-powered trains arrived in the 1870s, the transitional shift from horse to steam power was complete. Supply chains switched from wagons and riverboats to rail with centralized locational hubs. Horse-power was still used extensively at the local level to deliver the goods to the final destination like in the Riverboat days. Silverton was geographically fortunate to be located where it was, along the old Klamath Trail which hugged the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
Silverton’s “hay-day” as a market town was from the arrival of the narrow-gauge railway in the 1870s to the post-World War II era. During this period, goods and services were very much local. With several active lumber and flour mills, agricultural product canning, and the support services required to keep it all running. As a rail hub, the town acted as a conduit to the world. Raw goods shipped out, and processed commodities shipped in.
And most of the day-to-day commodities such as food, were produced locally. Multiple small grocery stores in various neighborhoods provided fresh, locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. Several local dairies provided milk products, and multiple local butchers provided that service.
The local support scene also included such obscure services as printing and graphic arts. Local artists created labels for locally produced products. Local engineers created and serviced machines required in the lumber mills and local farms. And as if like frosting on a cake, all this was documented by a robust local media community. Several newspapers, professional photographers, and artists helped record the story of our town’s history.
After World War II, another transitional period began. Horses were out of the picture except for recreational and aesthetic purposes. Rail use was greatly reduced, while petroleum-powered automotive “Internal Combustion Engines” (ICE) became ever more efficient. It soon became more “cost-effective” to ship goods by ICE-powered trucks instead of rail. With the expansion of the highway systems, it likewise became more “cost-effective” to centralize the goods and services that use to be provided at the local level.
Telecommunications technology further accelerated our current bout of transition. This one, like the others, is defined by energy. But not a specific type of energy, but rather a source of energy that is renewable, sustainable as well as “clean.” Unlike fossil fuels that are noticeably warming the planet. With the ability that we have today, of networked computers that fit in our pockets, we can instantly communicate with any other person with a similar device anywhere in the world.
Everyone it seems has a “phone.” A quaint hold-over term from the 19ths century, when being able to speak to someone miles away at the end of a wire seemed magical. Now we don’t have wires. Likewise, anyone can be a photographer, graphic artist, journalist, and filmmaker with the right app. It also means that those photographers, graphic artists, journalists, and filmmakers that made a living doing that, now compete with anyone with the right app.
Newspapers are being replaced with digital feeds that attempt to simulate the old print, but just don’t quite make it. Texting and instant Messaging are replacing voice. And now with the new COVID-driven paradigm, these technologies are being pressed into service in many new ways. And then there’s the “Social Media…” These are all tools. And how one uses the tool is key. You can build a house with a hammer, or you can hit someone over the head with one.
The key challenges we see in the coming years can be addressed in part by an increased emphasis on “re-localization.” Not just in food production, but in other services as well. This boils down to a single word: Community. We recognize that as tough as it will get, it will be much tougher without community. This process has been happening more and more as folks want to learn how to reconnect with their communities, neighbors, and food!