- By Erin Williams
Established in 1938, the town of Gilchrist was built to harvest more than 100,000 acres of forest purchased in Deschutes, Klamath and Lake counties by the Gilchrist family in the early 1900s. The family moved the company and many of its employees to the remote area of Central Oregon to harvest timber and manufacture products they had been producing for more than a hundred years, but in a different region. Many of the staff performed multiple jobs or were cross-trained for multiple tasks.
As a result of market and product research, the decision was made to build in northern Klamath County, and the small town of Gilchrist was designed by Hollis Johnston, architect and town planner in Portland. The original plan for the town projected housing growth for 1,500 people on the east side of what is now Highway 97 while the mill with the mill pond would be built on the west side of Highway 97.
Construction of the mill pond was accomplished by damming up the Little Deschutes River. According to an account by Jim Fisher about the first 50 years of the town, the plan described services needed from markets to auto repair shops, beauty parlors, restaurants and bowling lanes. Public facilities were listed as well, such as emergency medical aid, a fire station, a post office, and other services. In 1938, the remoteness of the area was felt far deeper than today. Cars were not as fast, telecommunication was in its infancy and the railway system was still breaking ground in Oregon.
The Gilchrist Timber Company was built and maintained as a state of the art mill between 1938 and 1991. At its peak, the mill employed approximately 300 people. The Gilchrist and Ernst families were known for their progressive and paternalistic efforts. During that time they fostered both the forests with innovative management styles and the employees’ morale as times changed. Those who left town to make their fortunes quite often came back to the security and loyalty in the town. The mill changed to accommodate smaller lumber and logs and eventually the company and the houses the family had invested in were sold to outside individuals and families.
Today, Gilchrist has a population of 238. While not a boomtown, Gilchrist is an intimate hamlet with an enduring sense of unity. The area is renowned for great recreational trails along with fantastic trout fishing at Odell and Crescent Lakes 30 minutes away. Both lakes offer fishing and camping experiences to rival Tahoe and other higher priced resort areas. Crescent Lake Resort is a member of the Hoodoo Resort family.
The Gilchrist Mall is an icon as you travel north to Bend or south toward Chemult and Klamath Falls. The mall provided a focal point for the community and still offers a small market and deli today. Many a nomad stops in for a snack or drink when traveling
You will want to stop into the Mohawk Restaurant for a unique dining experience in the presence of several amazing forms of taxidermy. From its meager beginnings as a tavern in 1933, the Mohawk grew into Crescent’s only restaurant in 1946 when the tavern was moved west to make way for Highway 97 and the original building was combined with the local Grange Hall. Along its knotty pine walls you can find bison, wolverine, bear, beaver, alligators, iguana and even a two-headed lamb. But be assured the food you partake of is down-home comfort food while you examine the variety of wildlife displayed on the walls of the establishment.
Although Gilchrist is no longer a “company town”, the company spirit prevails. The people are welcoming and the history enduring. For those seeking a closer look into the history of Gilchrist’s lumber industry, a road trip to Gilchrist will provide fun and learning.