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Parallel projects by WL couple unearth Maddax boat-making history
Marla Gaarenstroom and Roger Shepherd have been digging for years.
For Shepherd, the digging has been of the literal variety — a slow and steady excavation of a historic site that began about seven years ago. Gaarenstroom's digging, meanwhile, was done not with a shovel but rather a fine-toothed comb as she rifled through hundreds of years' worth of documents and photos.
But the couple's goal was the same: to learn more about the life of West Linn resident Virgil Maddax, and specifically the large fishing boats he built in a shed next to the home he and his wife, Dorothy, shared along the Willamette River at what is now known as Maddax Woods.
"I started over three years ago," Gaarenstroom said. "I was just interested in it — I'd heard about the area; I was walking down there and I knew the president of the Friends (of Maddax Woods) group. They kept talking about Virgil and his boats.
"I was curious — I've always been curious. I love researching. I love finding nuggets of information, and so I decided I could help them out."
Gaarenstroom dove head-on into the project as the Friends group's de facto historian, and she now has large three-ring binders full of information on the entire Maddax family.
"I've got their timeline and ancestry all the way back to the 1600s," she said, noting that, curiously, Virgil appeared to have changed the spelling of his name from Maddox to Maddax.
And with help from a slew of online databases, Gaarenstroom also tracked down nine of Maddax's boats. The earlier boats were made of wood, before Maddax switched to more seaworthy steel boats.
"It was a pretty amazing sort of thing," Gaarenstroom said. "If there was something he saw that he needed or wanted, he just figured out how to do it. He was very creative in that way."
He built his first boat on the property in 1941, naming it the Hornet, and the last was built in 1965 with the name Mar Azul.
"Most of them are (still in use)," Gaarenstroom said. "They were built really well — they were commercial fishing boats, for the most part, so they're somebody's bread and butter."
Gaarenstroom was able to add even more to her findings after meeting with Maddax's granddaughter, Diane Jones, in California last year.
"I went down and interviewed (Jones and her family) in California, and they have photo albums," Gaarenstroom said. "Up until I met Jones last year, we never had a picture of the boat barn. Some people remember the boat barn vaguely, but people didn't have a picture of it."
Jones, for her part, was pleasantly surprised by how much Gaarenstroom had learned about her grandfather, and she is planning to visit Maddax Woods in June.
"I feel that Marla knows more about my family ancestry than I know," Jones said. "She knows more about our ancestry, and more about the boats. I didn't realize he built so many boats."
Those boats, of course, had to eventually make their way from the construction shed into the water. But the methodology to move the boats seemed lost to history until Shepherd started digging seven years ago.
And even then, his discovery was a happy accident. Originally, Shepherd simply wanted to improve the river access point on the property.
"All there was was this little single track — it was hard enough to just walk down to the river on this little pathway that went down there, let alone try to carry a kayak," Shepherd said. "So we decided, let's try to improve this trail so we can at least get a canoe down there or something."
The site was full of small pieces of metal — relics from the days of boat-building past — but one day Shepherd's shovel struck something more substantial.
"We found this little piece of metal sticking up and thought, 'Oh, we'll try to dig that out, and we dug around and around, kept going down — it wasn't moving," Shepherd said. "We didn't know what we were up against. … We had this huge hole going down and finally discovered this wheel, and then the rail after that."
The wheel was connected to what Shepherd calls the "carriage" that ushered the boats along the rails from the shed to the water. As Shepherd continued to unearth more of the carriage and rails, the project morphed from a simple path-clearing to his own archeological dig — a particular thrill for someone who also serves as the president of the West Linn Historical Society.
"It's taken seven years — I come down here just about every Saturday morning," Shepherd said. "It's kind of like my workout for the week, and time outdoors and on the river."
The excavation work is just about complete — for now. Shepherd said if some trees next to the rails can be removed, he might be able to dig up more of the carriage system.
Beyond that, Shepherd, Gaarenstroom and other volunteers hope to see a replica boat barn built where the old one used to stand, on the uphill side of the boat rails.
"The Friends want to build a new boat barn and use it as an interpretive center," Shepherd said, adding that such a project would have to clear some regulatory hurdles with the City. "There's people in the Portland area who have said they would come out and do a pole barn. So pretty much the labor is there, and they said they could probably get materials donated too."
Gaarenstroom now feels a personal connection with Maddax, despite having never met him personally (he died in 1991).
"You've got memory threads, documentary threads, picture threads — as you put them all together, they just create this person," she said. "I never met Virgil, but I feel like I'm starting to know him.
She hopes her research and the work done at the Maddax property — which is a City-owned park and also features a garden dedicated to Dorothy Maddax — will draw more eyes to a relatively unknown story.
"One thing I want is a real good documentation of what was built out there — what Virgil did on that property, his boat-building business," Gaarenstroom said, "because I think it's a cultural treasure for West Linn and for the area in general. You don't see that much anymore — you don't see people building boats in a small, family way."
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