Gwen Trice’s father came to Oregon by boxcar in 1923. She now wonders how much he knew about Oregon’s sundown towns and what awaited him as a Black man as he traveled from Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
The Black exclusion law in Oregon’s state constitution would be formally repealed three years later, but industry forces supplanted local law and custom: Lumber company Bowman-Hicks, based in Missouri, created a company town in eastern Oregon that at its height was home to about 400 employees – an estimated 15% of them Black.
But Trice didn’t know that her father had lived and worked in Maxville as a logger until long after he had passed away.
“A lot of us don’t know it,” she told The Skanner. “I didn’t know it when I was growing up in La Grande, which is why I came back home. I came back home after living in Seattle for 30 years…I didn’t have a connection to a sense of place. I moved back here to provide that.”
Lafayette Trice was 56 years old when Gwen. the sixth youngest of his seven children, was born. By then a lot of life separated Lafayette from his logging days, and he had been a busy man.
“My dad was involved in everything in our community,” Trice said. “He was the first African American that held the position of district commander for the American Legion in Oregon, in the 1950s. He was also a conservationist and helped to lead volunteer groups to help the fingerling salmon that were coming upstream. He was on the marine board and on the sportsman fisherman association. He worked tirelessly for people of color in our community, and was sort of the unofficial liaison between the white community and the Black community. We were also an unofficial Green Book stop – when I was a little girl, people stopped by our house all the time. He would go out in the front yard and talk with them and let them know where to go, where to pass by, where they could rest, get gas, get food.”
Though his education stopped at the fourth grade, Lafayette secured a pilot’s license after his service in World War II.
Perhaps the bustle of a large family and numerous community commitments crowded out his memories of early adulthood in Maxville. Maybe the significance of his presence in the state at that time escaped him. In any event, Trice was never told of Lafayette’s life a mere 60 miles northeast of where Trice grew up in La Grande.
That is to say, Lafayette never told her. When she found out during a trip to the area in 2002, and followed up in the small town of Promise, where some older White residents gathered for the town’s reunion were able to fill in some of the gaps.
“He was a real good man. If things were bubbling over, he kind of kept a lid on them,” Jack Gregory, the son of one of Wallowa’s town doctors, said in an interview featured in a short documentary Trice produced with OPB in 2009.
Maxville had been effectively disassembled by then, with only one structure – a meeting place – remaining. Houses had been carted off to other towns when Bowman-Hicks pulled up its stakes and left during the Great Depression. There was no formal historical archive. Trice, who had previously worked as an instructional designer at Boeing and as a voice-over actor, established the Maxville Project in 2007 to remedy this. She had to collaborate with former Maxville residents to create a map of the town that depended on their collective memory.
What emerged was a segregated town, with separate schools for Black children, as well as a Black baseball team. Living conditions were hardly created equal, and Black loggers and their families lived without running water or electricity.
In an interview for the 2009 documentary short, Mattie Wilfong recalled the miserable year she lived in Maxville.
“It was rugged,” Wilfong said. “I had to go out and pack water while my husband went out in the woods to cut logs. It was a small place and it was just like shacks or something to me. In fact, about the worst place I ever lived in.”
The interpretive center has been able to piece together the divided structure of the town.
“On the white side of town, all the single men lived away from the married people,” Trice said. “And so that was an industry standard, to just segregate everyone based on their job and their marital status. For the families, a lot of those buildings were built at the mill and then brought up on skids on the white side of town. On the Black side of town, they were shacks. They were makeshift wood built on top of flatbeds so they could hook them together and just take them out to the site to work.”
But Black and White loggers worked side by side, looking out for each other in what is now recognized as the most dangerous job in the U.S.
Other white residents, Trice said, were homesteaders, often from coal mining stock.
“They have this saying: ‘In the coal mines, everyone’s Black.’ You have to protect and help that person and those faces. And so a lot of those people who were already here didn’t have those biases. And a lot of African American folks built those relationships to the people that were already here.”
In the remnants of the ghost town, Trice saw potential. In 2010, she was able to secure nonprofit status for the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center. In June of last year, the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center purchased 240 acres that encompass Maxville. She is the center’s executive director.
“It’s not just our community, but with purchasing the 240 acres that we’re developing for education, archaeology, land management, nonprofit management – there’s so many ways that we can build young leadership, and that’s a big part of what we want to support,” Trice said of plans for the site.
She added, “We’re connecting to the students that are here already. We have a long relationship with our Indigenous population, which are the Nez Perce and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. It was their land before we bought it, and they had it for thousands of years and it was stolen.
“We consider ourselves temporary stewards of the land, and we want to understand how their stewardship worked, what it looked like, so that we could maybe bring in other ways of understanding and management of the land, as well as interpreting the land – that we do it in English, but we also do it in Nez Perce.”
Still, the mission remains a deeply personal one for Trice.
“I didn’t have a connection to a sense of place,” she said of growing up in largely White La Grande. “I moved back here to provide that. Truly this body of work that I’m doing is to create a sense of place for me, for the adults, for lifelong learners, for the kids that are adopted from Haiti, from biracial families that aren’t represented in school, so they have a space and a place.”
The Maxville Centennial Gala will be held Sept. 7, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave., Portland. Attendees are invited to explore Timber Culture, MHIC's traveling exhibition, and enjoy an evening of food, film, music, a silent auction and stimulating conversation. Tickets are $30. For more information, visit https://fb.me/e/TbX9q4NL.
For more information about the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, visit https://www.maxvilleheritage.org/.