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Little town's centennial celebration features old cars, parade, local history

Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO - Photos of old-time Gaston such as this one of the old railroad depot will be displayed at the Wapato Showdown this Saturday. If an early 1900s coin toss had gone differently, residents of a small western Washington County town would be celebrating Matteson’s 100th anniversary this weekend. But as it went, they’ll be celebrating Gaston’s centennial Saturday, Aug. 23, with the annual Wapato Showdown, an all-class Gaston High School reunion and a parade.

Joseph Gaston came to the area now known as Gaston to start up a town site for what he hoped would be a bustling railroad. He was too late to take advantage of the Donation Land Claim Act, but convinced local Alveris Matteson to sell him 20 acres of his property. They flipped a coin to determine whether the town would be called Gaston or Matteson, and the rest is history.

This Saturday, event organizers are hoping to draw crowds to the celebration of their little town as well as the 100th anniversary of the Gaston chapter of the Knights of Pythias fraternal organization. Gaston locals will welcome between 3,000 and 5,000 people to their town of 650, said Chris Anderson, an event organizer.

Celebrate the old

Old photos and historical artifacts will be on display to educate visitors. Local historian Ken Bilderback will celebrate with the rest of the town. Hear him on KPAM AM 860 at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 23. He’ll chat about Gaston history while his brother, Walter Bilderback, will talk about the world adventures he’s embarked on while wearing his Wapato Showdown hat.

Bilderback hits a lot of Gaston history high points in his book, “Creek with No Name.”

“For such a little town most people don’t even know about, I’m amazed at how there’s not any aspect of Oregon history that can’t be told through the stories and people of Gaston,” Bilderback said.

The Native Americans that inhabited the Gaston area were of the Kalapuya tribe, Bilderback writes. They made Wapato lake — so named because of the ideal conditions it created to grow the root vegetable, wappatoo — their center, as it drew deer, elk and waterfowl. By 1850, however, the Kalapuya’s population was down to 400 due to disease and conflict with settlers. Eventually, the people who called Gaston home first were forcibly removed to the Coast Range.

Joe Gaston secured Wapato Lake through Congress’ Swamp Act of 1849 and tried to drain it for about 15 years. The rains continued to refill it each winter, however, and eventually he gave up. Gaston eventually gave up on the town, too, after rights to the railroad he planned to build were wiggled away from him.

He lived out the rest of his life in Portland and died just a few months before the city was incorporated in his name.

Other lingering landmarks of Gaston’s early history include the Stimson Lumber Company and Henry Hagg Lake. In 1929, west-coast lumber baron C.W. Stimson built a lumber mill that began operations in 1933 and provided much-needed jobs in the great depression. Farmer Henry Hagg spearheaded the Hagg Lake dam west of the Stimson Lumber Co. which was completed by 1975.

Celebrate the present

The Gaston Fire Department will host its annual pancake breakfast from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, helping visitors fuel up for the Wapato Showdown. The ever-popular classic car show will include a vintage camper show this year. Stop by anytime between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

In addition, all graduates of Gaston High School are invited to a reunion at Brown Park from 5 to 10 p.m.

The annual parade will start at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, led by Grand Marshal Randy Tipton of the Knights of Pythias. A steak feed will follow from 6 to 10 p.m.

“It’s fun to see something come to fruition and be successful in a town that attracts so many people from other areas,” Anderson said of the event.

“It’s a big homecoming,” said Elena Rasmussen, who runs the Gaston Market with her husband, Jeff. “The celebration attracts new people and convinces other people to get out here.”

Rasmussen grew up in town and graduated from Gaston High School. “I like knowing everyone,” she said. “I always like when people stop by and say ‘hi.’”

The Gaston Market serves as the town’s central hub and not much has changed since 1962, when Jeff’s parents, Ralph and Pat Rasmussen, started it.

“I don’t have to leave Gaston because people come to me,” Elena Rasmussen said. “It’s a place to be reunited.”

She considers the ready-to-help attitude of the townsfolk one of Gaston’s greatest assets, citing the strong community attendance at local memorial services.

Gaston Mayor Rick Lorenz feels the same way. He moved to Gaston 38 years ago with his family after they fell in love with an old Victorian house.

His fondest memories of his time in Gaston stem from building Brown Park. There was only one local softball field when Lorenz moved to town, so he and other locals got together and cleared a neighboring blackberry patch. The fire department burnt an old military hut that sat in the field and Lorenz even convinced Bill Heesacker to donate a portion of his farmland to be used for baseball fields.

“It was a total positive experience,” said Lorenz, a truck mechanic in Carlton. “We all had a vision and all saw it happen.”

To Lorenz, the fields are more than a place to play ball. “The baseball programs are so big here because that’s one of the only things that keeps people connected,” Lorenz said. “Baseball brings people together.”

“The celebration will be a good time for the community to reconnect.”

Celebrate the Future

As Gaston residents celebrate 100 years of slow population growth, they’ll also likely be chattering about what’s next for the town.

A housing development in Gaston is expected to triple the size of the city over the next decade, Lorenz said.

The homes are expected to attract the increasing ranks of Washington County’s high-tech employees.

“I’m a little worried about the new development. Things can change real quick and fast,” Lorenz said.

Tim McDonald Construction has been preparing land near Hedin Terrace for as many as 300 new homes in the next few years, with the possibility of more after that.

Ssome of the town’s newcomers may bring along the spirit of its founder. “Something about Gaston has always drawn dreamers and people with high hopes,” Bilderback said.

For more information or to register for the car show and parade, visit

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