Damascus burned first candle in 1959
- Gresham Outlook - Features
It was 150 years ago that Oregon became a state and 50 years ago that Damascus made news, touting itself as 'The smallest town with the biggest ideas' - and then lived up to it.
Oregonians enjoyed myriad events during Oregon's Centennial Exposition in 1959 and most of the large events were held, logically, in Portland. There was one idea that Portland planners just couldn't pull off, and that motivated Damascans to show the state just what a small number of dedicated citizens really can accomplish.
Portland's plan was to build a huge candle made of wax collected by kids' groups from across the state that would burn throughout the 100-day celebration. Girl and Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls and Brownies, Bluebells and schoolchildren amassed a total of 20 tons of wax. When Portland abandoned the task due to a dispute between designers and officials, Damascus decided that, with a little ingenuity, and, as it turned out less than $1.50, rural residents could do what the city folks could not.
The wax was dumped in George Livingston's yard, and he and his wife spent three days melting wax, skimming out the wicks and spraying layer after layer of wax onto the outside of the 21-and-one-half-foot tall candle base he had made by welding several 55-gallon drums one on top of another. True to his plumber training, he ran copper tubing under the layers of wax and pumped cool water through it to keep the wax from melting in the sun. The dilemma was how to keep it lit.
Livingston tried an asbestos wick, but the wind extinguished it repeatedly. Other ideas were born and put to rest until a sure-fire solution was found.
It took several weeks and an observant reporter to notice that the candle miraculously never looked smaller, though it had been 'burning' continuously. Though Damascus Centennial Committee Chairman Pete Wiley and ceremonially appointed Damascus Mayor Mel Staples spun vague explanations, the solution was found inside a small shed near the candle. It housed a propane tank.
The candle sparked the whole town's imagination of what the Damascus Centennial Celebration could entail. The theme would be Oregon's pioneer days, and they would transform Damascus into a frontier town.
Locals felled trees and built two hand-notched log structures along Highway 212- a City Hall/jail and a trading post - and the general store and an existing building, which became the Barlow Trail Saloon, were false-fronted with log slabs. The addition of a wooden boardwalk connecting the buildings completed the pioneer look.
However, Damascans weren't satisfied with just creating a pioneer appearance; they planned dozens of events for literally hundreds of thousands of visitors throughout the summer.
The men started growing beards to get into character with the intent of jailing any man in town who didn't have one. Lawbreakers could post bail by buying a 'Damascus Clean Shave Permit' for 5 cents and use it thereafter as a free pass. Even then-Gov. Mark Hatfield, in town to be part of Damascus' self-proclaimed world's longest horse parade, was 'arrested' by Dee and Jay Wescott and Pete Wiley and briefly incarcerated until he ponied up his fee.
The saloon sold soft drinks and sarsaparilla for 5 cents a glass and hosted entertainment every weekend all summer. Alma and Smokey Humbird headlined and brought in many local and not-so-local entertainer friends, as well as kids, organizations and anyone else who wanted to sing, dance, act, read poetry or play an instrument.
'Gunfights' erupted in the middle of the highway and stalled traffic, and a fastest draw competition between the 'Lucky Seven' Gunslingers of Damascus, led by Tom 'Fargo Kid' Gray, was a crowd favorite. He averaged a .40-of-a-second draw time. No visitors got out of hand all summer.
Not content with crafting what was, arguably, the world's largest candle, George Livingston was also head chef for not one, but two all-u-can-eat pancake breakfasts and bear, beef and buffalo BBQs. The first one in July caught organizers by surprise when 1,000 seats and 4 tons of meat ran out before visitors' hunger was satisfied. Cars were parked across 40 acres of field and lined roads and side streets.
The second in August was twice as popular due as much to the unique menu as the 50-cent-a-plate price tag. This time, however, Damascus was prepared. Residents partnered with the Shriners and had 30 cooks. As thanks for their help, proceeds went to Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children.
Between the two days, more than 100,000 people were fed. Though this time 2,000 seats were available, the over-capacity crowd spilled onto blankets or the grass.
Even after all the visitors, all the press and building the candle when Portland couldn't, Damascus needled Portland Mayor Terry Schrunk to see just how talented the city-slickers could be in an all-Portland talent show. Damascus would host and Portland would provide the entrants, including Mayor Schrunk. Quoting from a newspaper article from the day, 'A slightly flabbergasted city council could do little else but accept the offer.'
Pete Wiley proposed that the mayors have a bragging contest. For five minutes, each mayor would tout the attributes of their community. A panel of unbiased judges would critique their oratory. Though Mayor Schrunk declined at the last minute due, ostensibly, to a scheduling conflict, Portland Exposition planners sent circus acts, a barbershop quartet, dancing baton twirlers and a theater group that performed excerpts from Broadway shows.
Earlier that year, Roseburg had been devastated by an explosion, so Damascus decided to donate proceeds from the centennial celebration collected during Roseburg Relief Week to help rebuild the beleaguered city.
Damascus also promoted a walk-a-thon from Salem to Damascus. Damascus Mayor Mel Staples once again challenged Terry Schrunk - this time to walk the 50 miles. He did not receive a reply by the start of the race.
Fourteen entered, one of whom was Mayor Staples' son, Duane, a Gresham High track star, who challenged his dad to cross the finish line before he did. More than 200 people stood in the wind and rain at the finish line to welcome Boring college student Don Powell, who won after walking for 10 hours and 38 minutes. There was a second-place winner, Vern Albright of Portland, but the third-place trophy was unclaimed, as no other contestants finished the race.
Though the festivities came to an end and the candle flame was snuffed out on Sept. 17, 1959, Damascans weren't done celebrating. They planned a centennial Christmas celebration. The community enacted a living nativity every evening for two weeks. Jack Livingston narrated and community choirs performed special Christmas music. One account described a glass-enclosed 'cage' that housed an organ and an organist clad in a Santa suit. They served free hot chocolate. And, of course, the candle burned throughout.
With a few thousand dollars profit from the centennial celebration, the Damascus Civic Club put a down payment on a piece of land that would be used forever for the benefit of local youth. They named it Damascus Centennial Park.
The Damascus Centennial Celebration saga would seem to end there; however, history has a way of repeating itself and the candle garnered center stage twice more.
In 1961 the wooden foundation of the original wax candle began to seriously deteriorate, and residents worried it might collapse and hurt someone. With this in mind, the community disassembled the original Damascus Centennial Candle.
In 1962, with the World's Fair happening in Seattle, Damascus hoped to recapture the substantial crowds and attention it had received in 1959. The town decided to hold its own 'Little World's Fair' with the theme 'Man from the Past' to run for three years with continuous and rotating exhibits. They decided to build a permanent candle situated on the edge of the park to commemorate the event, replacing the wax candle that resulted in so many visitors three years earlier.
The new candle was a 21-foot-high cement and steel pillar pipe, 3 feet in diameter, weighing 7,800 pounds, and decorated with electric lights and a gas flame. Residents called it 'The Candle of Peace.' It was lit June 2, 1962, at the opening of the Damascus Little World's Fair. The 100 inhabitants of Damascus hoped it would burn forever, symbolizing mankind's efforts for world peace.
This ambitious undertaking included a 6,000-seat, open-air amphitheater, visiting celebrities, a Native American village, an exhibition hall and a rotating restaurant (a la Seattle's Space Needle) pulled by horses. Alas, the anticipated crowds did not show up. With less than profitable attendance, the community lost $70,000 and was left nearly bankrupt.
The candle remained, but the electric lights and gas flame were extinguished forever, leaving only a nondescript cement gray cylinder that mystified most Damascans for decades.
The Civic Club made significant improvements to the park over the years and to the area immediately surrounding the candle, but the candle itself was mostly ignored until Dee Wescott, Damascus' first official mayor and longtime Civic Club board member, suggested that it be illuminated again for the 2009 Oregon Sesquicentennial.
After the original design was announced, several inquiries and suggestions from community members initiated a broader search for an alternative. The Damascus Civic Club researched materials from bronze to glass to propane to stone.
And then one afternoon, a phone call made one of those heart-tugging connections that happens when someone goes the extra mile to help out. Elizabeth Fournier at Cornerstone Funeral Services ruled out stone, but mentioned that Danny Scott of Eagle Creek Foundry might be able to help.
Although his company couldn't help, he said he'd talk with his friend Eric Sale at NW Technologies in Estacada because the type of metal flame he had in mind was right up Eric's alley. They both knew the candle's history and Eric had even done some work for Dee Wescott.
Most of NW Technologies laser-cutting metalwork has nothing to do with extra-large candle flames, but Eric was intrigued. He handed the design work over to Nate Alexander, who created a fluid, rustic yet elegant, circular buffed stainless steel flame with two flowing slits that start wide at the base and taper to the top.
John Krieg of Don Rhyne Painting and his crew painted the candle base an antique red and highlighted the 'wax drips' with a lighter color. Craig Leitzel was indispensable in installing the flame. John and his employees donated their time, materials and expertise and will maintain the exterior into the future as a public service.
Bill Trantham of Reliant Electric ran electricity to the candle from the fire station, and as has happened so often in the past, Boring Fire District firefighters and Damascus city personnel helped make this Civic Club project a reality.
The candle was officially re-lit Jan. 1, 2009, at 5 p.m. About 75 people were on hand and those who were there in 1959 had the unique opportunity to see it lit twice. The celebration included a 'Happy 150th Birthday' cake for Oregon, hot chocolate, coffee and cider, a few stories and then Dee Wescott flipped the switch. (Dee Wescott, first mayor of Damascus, died Jan. 29, 2009.)
- Joyce Schwer