Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Snowbound skiers make best of situation

In February of 1949, a group of 14 Pendleton residents planning to enjoy a skiing weekend at Spout Springs Ski Resort near Tollgate was trapped when a series of heavy snowstorms buried them in more than 10 feet of snow for 10 days.

The group was distributed between two cabins, one owned by Vern and Teddie Pearson and the other by George and Jean Donnally. The Pearsons and daughters Joan, Linda and Vickie were hosting Jean and Dave Hamley, and Bill and Inez Clarke and their children Billy and Jennifer. Bryson Cooley was staying with the Donnallys and their son Dick. Vern Pearson started to worry about his sheep when heavy snow began to fall on February 4, and left to look after them. The rest of the group was trapped when at least three snowstorms dropped 126 inches of snow in less than a week — but, having laid in plenty of supplies, they decided they would make the best of their unplanned vacation.

The group was able to reassure their families and friends in Pendleton by telephone that, besides being snowed in, they were all fine and in good spirits. The weather was a balmy 20 degrees above zero and the Pearson and Donnally cabins were situated closely enough together that the group could ski or snowshoe between the two for visits. The women had plenty of food with which to improvise meals, and they were also able to snowshoe to Tollgate Store to pick up essentials. The liquor supply, however, ran low early on and the group, who had keys to cabins owned by other friends in the area, were able to “borrow” what they needed and leave IOUs, some of which became cherished mementos for the recipients.

The two groups entertained themselves by playing games, skiing and playing in the snow, and the men exercised by shoveling out vehicles and roads and sweeping snow off the cabin roofs. The children were also expected to spend some time each day studying.

In a spirit of fun, they dubbed themselves the “Slobbovians” after characters in the comic strip “Li’l Abner” — the Pearsons were “Upper Slobbovia” and the Donnallys were “Lower Slobbovia” — and improvised costumes and signs from whatever they could find around the cabins. The costumes were changed and interchanged, often with hilarious results. And when they grew tired of entertaining each other, the whole group marched to Tollgate Store to show off their ingenuity. They also made elaborate plans for the costumes they wore when snowplows were finally able to get through on Valentine’s Day to release the group from its enforced vacation.

The "Slobbovians," in full dress, await snowplows after 10 days buried in the snow near Tollgate in February of 1949. (photo by Dave Hamley)
Every one of the “Survivors of ’49” escaped unscathed from the ordeal, and enjoyed themselves tremendously.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

German man alleged victim of strong-arm plot in Athena

A German immigrant claimed he was strong-armed by an Athena policeman and then further soaked by a city judge after being caught speeding through the small Umatilla County town in 1952.

Konrad H.L. Linke, who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. and landed in Milton-Freewater in November of 1951, claims he was driving home with a co-worker after a shift at Harris Pine Mills in Pendleton at about 2 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1952, and had slowed to 40 mph through Athena when a car began following them. Linke slowed to about 20 mph to make a turn in the center of the business district and then gradually increased his speed as he headed out of town. About two miles outside of Athena Linke and his passenger, K. Wattsburg, heard two “thumps” at the rear of the car, and Linke pulled over to the side of the road to check out what may have happened to the car.

When Linke pulled over, the car following them stopped in the middle of the road and a man in bib overalls got out carrying a flashlight and a revolver, and told Linke to get out of the car. Thinking that either the Gestapo had followed him from Germany, or he was going to be the victim of a holdup, Linke decided to stayed put.

Eventually the man got Linke out of his car, put him in handcuffs and told him he was going to put him in prison. The man then demanded Linke pay him $5 for speeding through Athena. When Linke said he didn’t have the money the man asked for his wristwatch, but Linke said he needed the watch for his job. Linke finally put up his 35-mm camera as a guarantee, and the man wrote out a ticket, signed it “Huffman” and told Linke to appear before Athena City Judge Chet Dugger later that morning.

Neither Linke nor his passenger reported hearing a siren before they were stopped by Huffman. And a third Harris employee, who was following the officer’s car, said that while he saw Huffman fire two shots at Linke’s car, no siren or red light was ever used by the officer.

When Linke appeared before Judge Dugger, he was told he was charged with “passing without clearance, refusal to stop, and speeding.” The judge then typed out a “confession” and told Linke to sign it, after which he told him he would have to pay a $25 fine for speeding. When Linke asked why he had to pay the judge $25 when the officer only asked for $5, the judge didn’t answer. Linke said he was never asked to plead to the charges, nor was he offered the chance to talk to an attorney.

Linke left his camera with the judge as bail and sought out attorney William E. Hanzen, who investigated the incident. Officer Huffman claimed to followed protocol to the letter and claimed he used his siren before firing two warning shots at Linke’s car. Judge Dugger called the whole incident “regrettable,” saying he had also honored all the rights to which Linke was entitled during the brief trial. Because Linke had signed the “confession,” he had no recourse against either man.

Regardless of his alleged treatment at the hands of the law, Linke said he liked the U.S. and planned to apply for citizenship as soon as he had studied enough to pass the test.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pendleton secretary stumps game show panel

When tiny Tammy Thorne appeared on “What’s My Line” in May of 1967, it wasn’t her day job as secretary of the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce the show’s panel of judges was tasked with figuring out. Her sideline gig as a weightlifting instructor left the panel completely in the dark.

Thorne was unaware her name had been submitted to the show until a representative of “What’s My Line” told her an anonymous person had sent a Yellow Pages ad for Thorne’s Health Spa, a reducing and bodybuilding business in downtown Pendleton she co-owned with husband Lewis, to the show’s scouts. Within days she was winging her way to New York to appear on the famous program that pitted people with unusual occupations against a panel of celebrities from 1950 until 1967.

For each show, “What’s My Line” host John Daly introduced each contestant and revealed their odd occupation to the studio and home audiences. Panelists were given limited information about each contestant: whether they were salaried or self-employed, and whether they dealt in a product or service. The panel was allowed to ask only yes or no questions. If a panelist’s question was answered by a yes, they could continue to ask questions. A no answer moved the questioning to the next panelist and $5 was added to the prize. A contestant won the top prize of $50 by giving 10 no answers, or if time ran out.

As the first guest for the May 28, 1967 broadcast, Thorne was able to stump actress and talk show host Arlene Francis; actress and singer Phyllis Newman; actor, radio and TV personality Robert Q. Lewis; and Bennett Cerf, founder of the Random House publishing firm. None of them could guess that the 5-foot-2, 100-pound Thorne was a weightlifting coach, and could deadlift 175 pounds or do 30 squats with 170 pounds on her back. Following the taping Thorne was able to chat with the panelists and, mindful of her responsibility to represent Pendleton and the chamber, give each of them a Pendleton Round-Up wooden nickel.

Following her appearance on the show, Thorne toured Washington, D.C., and stopped overnight in Chicago for an interview on the Don McNeill Breakfast Club radio show. She returned home on May 30 to a celebrity red carpet welcome at the Pendleton Airport amid a volley of gunfire, courtesy of Pendleton’s Main Street Cowboys and Side Saddlers.

Pendleton's Tammy Thorne demonstrates her ability to lift 125 pounds in high heels prior to a May 28, 1967 appearance on the famous "What's My Line" game show. (EO file photo)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Explosion, fire demolish Pendleton flour mill

A dust explosion on the second floor of the Western Milling Company flour mill on July 21, 1947, and the ensuing conflagration leveled the facility and caused fires that threatened a southeast Pendleton residential neighborhood and the county courthouse.

The explosion at 12:35 p.m. sent a super-plume of smoke into the air reminiscent, according to witnesses, of the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. The fire spread so fast that the entire mill complex was on fire within 15 minutes. The suction created by the flames, which shot hundreds of feet into the air, dispersed burning embers over several city blocks to the south and east, bringing residents outside to defend their homes with garden hoses. One grass fire raced up the south hill and threatened the city water reservoir before being doused by volunteers.

Fire Chief William Batchelor directed four fire trucks at the scene, including one from Pendleton Field, and brought the department’s entire supply of hoses — 13 lines — to bear, hooking up to two of Pendleton’s wells, a booster pump and an upriver intake, pouring enough water on the blaze to lower the level of the south hill reservoir by two feet. The heat was so intense for a time that firemen used solid wooden doors borrowed from the nearby Oregon Lumber Yard and other makeshift shields to protect them from the searing flames. Plate glass windows at Comrie Motors and the Leo Goar plant across Court Avenue were cracked from the heat. Utility poles burned, and some of the cable pairs melted, and Pacific Power and Light shut off power to the area until the fire was brought under control. Union Pacific Railroad lost some track at the mill property but rail cars were moved out of danger.

Fire crews battle a blaze at the Western Milling Company flour mill on July 21, 1947, on Southeast Court Avenue and Southeast Fifth Street in Pendleton. (EO file photo)

Traffic snarled as Court, Dorion and Emigrant avenues were shut down near the fire scene. But most of the problem was caused by gawkers who drove as near to the fire as they could and then abandoned their cars. Several thousand people surrounded the fire, and policemen with bullhorns kept the crowd out of danger. Hundreds of onlookers lent a hand as needed to help stamp out smaller fires so fire crews could focus on the main blaze. Prisoners in the Umatilla County Jail, located in the Umatilla County Courthouse across the street from the mill, were evacuated to the city jail for safety, and some volunteers moved files and furniture out of the courthouse while others battled spot fires on the roof.

The following day, firemen were still pouring water on what was left of the mill, and mill officials deemed it a total loss to the tune of more than $500,000. The main mill, two warehouses and an almost-finished wooden elevator were destroyed, along with 75,000 bushels of premium wheat and 700,000 pounds of flour. But not a single person died in the blaze — all the employees were out of the building for lunch. And Chief Batchelor said his crews suffered only minor burns, cuts and bruises.

The only fatality, in fact, was nowhere near the mill at all. Sister Mary Doreen, 29, of the Order of St. Francis, a lab assistant at St. Anthony Hospital, rushed to the outside balcony of the hospital to watch the fire, lost her balance and fell 35 feet to the pavement below. She died of head and internal injuries about three hours later.

This was not the first fire at the mill site, either. The original stone mill, then known as Byers Mill, burned to the ground almost 50 years before the 1947 fire, and that blaze almost took the courthouse with it. The stone building at one time was used as a fort during an Indian scare in Pendleton’s earliest days.

A special thanks to Larry McMillan of Pendleton, who consulted an online inflation calculator and determined the loss in 2016 dollars to be about $5.4 million.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Jailed ‘Houdini’ won’t test skills on cell

His greatest wish was to escape from the water chamber that ended Harry Houdini’s life. His signature feat was wriggling out of a straitjacket and chains while dangling by his feet from a rope hung over busy city streets. But Sam Ross wisely decided to put his skills on hold while on ice at the Umatilla County Jail in August of 1980.

Ross, a 25-year-old escape artist, traveled with a portfolio of newspaper clipping detailing his daring escapes in places like Richmond, Va., Atlantic City, N.J., Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego and more. He began experimenting with escapes at the age of 15, and wriggled out of his first straitjacket two years later in Boston. After three years in the Navy, Ross began a swing through the country in 1978 and 1979, startling passersby with his death-defying stunts. Newspapers were always given a heads-up before the performance, though he was foiled from an escape try on Hoover Dam when a story was published in advance and the Bureau of Reclamation put the kibosh on his plans.

“People think it’s crazy for some reason,” said Ross. “I don’t know why; it’s normal to me.”

But normal took a back seat after Ross was introduced to heroin in San Diego in 1979. A life of crime followed to support a $100-a-day habit, including petty thefts in Las Vegas and Reno, then felony thefts of silverware, guns and a car from a home north of Pendleton. Ross turned himself in to San Diego police after ditching the car and fencing the stolen goods. He was returned to Pendleton and sequestered in the Umatilla County Jail’s maximum security section — with an extra heavy chain and padlock added to his door for good measure.

“When he listed his occupation, he said ‘escape artist,’” sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Campbell said. “So naturally we put him back there. What else do you do with an escape artist?” Ross was eventually moved to a lower security part of the jail with other prisoners.

So did he try to escape? “I’m just gonna do my time and get it over with. ... Try and get myself straightened out,” Ross said. His post-jail plans included a Halloween stunt to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini, where he would be outfitted in a straitjacket, 50 pounds of chains, arm and leg shackles, and hung by a rope 30 feet over swords. The rope would then be set alight, giving him about 60 seconds to make his escape.