Gilchrist: Good times in a great town

Somewhere along US-97 in central Oregon — hidden between the cities of Bend and Klamath Falls — is a tiny community with enough stories to fill an entire book. 

In fact, there is such a book. Selected stories of the town’s origin, residents and millworkers are told in John C. Driscoll’s comprehensive town history, “Gilchrist, Oregon: The Model Company Town.”

There are plenty more untold tales that could fill another book or three.

Frank and Mary Gilchrist established the town in 1938, moving operations of the Gilchrist Timber Company to Oregon from Jasper County, Mississippi. As a company town, Gilchrist was built to serve employees of the timber company and its mill. It was one of the most successful company towns of its type ever established, with amenities such as a dial telephone system in all houses and plumbing and electrical wiring — not bad for 1938.

Photo Dec 30, 2 20 19 PM(The grocery store in the Gilchrist Mall now relies heavily on travelers along US-97 stopping for supplies, a bite to eat, and a break from the road. Note characteristic brown color of buildings.)

At one time, the buildings were all painted the same color: “Gilchrist brown.”

The town also featured a grand movie theater, school, and Oregon’s first “mall,” which was also possibly the first shopping center of its kind in the U.S. With a large building housing many different storefronts and services, Gilchrist’s shopping center was a precursor to the modern-day strip mall.

DSCF7072DSCF6982(The Gilchrist Theatre, top, is in the process of being restored by a mother-daughter team. The walls and floor of the Gilchrist High School gym, built in 1939, echo the town’s timber history.)

The theater, school, mall and many homes have survived.

One of the features of the Gilchrist Mall was “The Club,” a recreational facility for the townsfolk and their families. Amenities here included a lounge, card room, billiard tables and two-lane bowling alley.

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But changing times have necessitated transition. The timber industry declined and the Gilchrists sold their operation in 1991 to a company that dismantled the original 1938 mill and moved it to Siberia; that company later went bankrupt. The timberland and a sawmill remained, and these were purchased by a Canadian company a decade ago. The homes have been sold off, and many are occupied by retirees or serve as vacation homes for out-of-towners.

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The grocery store in the Gilchrist Mall now depends on travelers stopping in from the highway.

The only lodging in town, the Gilchrist Inn, is made up of six former millworkers’ residences converted into condo-style housing.

The movie theater, which hasn’t been fully operational for two decades, was recently purchased by a mother-daughter team. They are currently renovating the theater and raising funds, hoping to return it to its original splendor.

DSCF6753bowlingalley1939DSCF6850(The Gilchrist bowling alley, then and now. B&W photo circa 1940.)

The wood-paneled Pine Room Restaurant and bowling alley — which once relied on clientele coming in from nearby towns to eat, drink and compete in bowling, billiard and dart leagues — are currently closed and awaiting a new proprietor.

Gilchrist is a mill town, but no longer a company town.

Story and color photographs © 2015 by Kevin Hong. 

Black and white photograph of bowling alley courtesy Klamath County Museum, with thanks to John C. Driscoll