Oregon House

The Appeal-Democrat/August 15, 2004
By Ching Lee

Wilma Steiner calls them her "babies" - the family of deer that lives in her backyard.

"They walk up on my deck to see if I'm in the kitchen, and then they mosey along," she said.

The dovish creatures are still considered wildlife, but in Steiner's neck of the woods, they are the closest neighbors she's got. And she likes it that way.

There's a reason why folks like Steiner choose Oregon House as home: They treasure their privacy and the pristine, simplistic, quiet rural lifestyle they have been preserving for many generations.

For the most part, they've been successful, having squashed a number of development projects over the years while resisting the growth and urbanization of valley communities such as Yuba City. But they were also unable to keep a controversial religious organization, the Fellowship of Friends, from moving into the area in the early 1970s.

Today, the struggle to maintain its rustic identity continues, but the pendulum may be shifting. Some residents believe growth is inevitable - and perhaps necessary. They may not want urbanization, but they sure would like some urban amenities.

"It seems like the biggest problem is nobody wants to see any changes," said James Givens, whose family first settled in Oregon House in 1942 when his father came up to build a lumber company. "You can't blame them, but you can't stop growth."

Having grown up in Oregon House, Givens would be the first to say the rural community is "a good place to raise your children." But now that he's grown older, he also sees one of the disadvantages of living 35 miles up the hill is not having proper medical facilities nearby.

"What we could use up here is a good gas station and coin-operated laundromat," said Richard Dahms, a resident since 1978.

The Dobbins-Oregon House Action Committee, made up of area residents, has long been instrumental in protecting the community's rural status quo, most notably by stopping a 50-unit mobile home park project in 1981, the type of development residents have long considered a threat to their rural lifestyle. Today, some wonder how long the community can hold back growth and still remain viable.

"I think we need to expand our community for jobs," said Tom Richards, a cattle rancher with 6,000 acres in Oregon House. "We need to do some development up here."

Richards ran for the Yuba County Board of Supervisors in 2002 with goals to bring money into the district by improving roads and developing recreational areas and scenic trails.

"But people didn't go for it," said Supervisor Hal Stocker, who ultimately won that race, adding that he got into politics in the early 1990s to oppose the controversial Spring Valley subdivision project near Browns Valley.

"It takes a different person to live in the foothills," said Dahms. "It's a peaceful life up here. You don't have trains going by and cars and sirens. It's just serene."

It's so serene, in fact, that Oregon House is the type of place city folks drive their RVs to so they can escape the trains and cars and sirens elsewhere.

They drive up to camp at Thousand Trails off Frenchtown Road, or down the hill at Collins Lake. Bullards Bar Reservoir, often rated as one of the best recreational man-made lakes in the country, is also up the hill past Oregon House and Dobbins.

Vacationing is one thing. Living where others vacation is another.

At 79, Steiner shares a long history with the Yuba County foothills. She is Oregon House's honorary vice mayor.

Born in Oroville, Steiner moved with her family to the Oregon House area when she was 7. During the Depression, her father was a contractor who installed concrete piping to irrigate the orchards. When he lost his business in the early 1930s, her family moved into a log cabin in the Yuba County foothills.

Where today there are roads, back then they were mere trails - lots of them, said Steiner. There were also lots of American Indians, she said. In fact, there are still signs of their habitat. She pointed to a spot on the ground where a rock had been chiseled into a mortar. The pestles were still cradled in the hollow. The Indians used to grind acorns here, Steiner said.

"During the '40s, the place sort of blossomed because people came here to work - in logging, lumbering and the dam," said Steiner. "There was also a lot of mining. Of course, most of those are gone now."

Oregon House got its start not so much as a house but as a log cabin.

In 1850, a man named Larry Young built a log cabin about 24 miles from Marysville, according to "The History of Yuba County" published in 1879. The actual Oregon House was a hotel, built two years after the cabin. It was located at the head of the valley and served as a stage and freight stop before becoming Oregon House, the community.

Today, the town is a mixture of retirees like Steiner and young urban refugees. According to the 2000 census, Oregon House has a thriving population of 1,512, a number disputed by many in the community who say the population is at least twice that number now.

Fellowship of Friends

For such a small, insulated community, Oregon House has had its share of the spotlight, thanks to the Fellowship of Friends, a religious group famous for its wine and secretive lifestyle.

"They brought something to talk about," said Richards, who lives next door to the Fellowship property.

As wine producers, the group pretty much dominates the agricultural industry in Oregon House and has been the town's main economic driving force.

Despite the clash of cultures between Friends and locals, for more than 30 years they have managed to live side by side in the same community, even though technically, the Fellowship is its own community - named Apollo - separate and often inaccessible to others. Locals say members don't like to socialize outside their group and are not the most "community-oriented" people.

"They just stay by themselves," said Givens. "They don't bother anybody, but they just don't mix with the community."

Although the society is recognized as a tax-exempt religious organization, the Fellowship has often been referred to as a cult by former members, neighbors and cult experts alike.

When the group first took up residence in Oregon House in the early 1970s, many thought they were a hippie commune, and given the times, the assumption was reasonable; cults and communes were given plenty of lip service by the likes of Charles Manson in the 1960s and Jim Jones and the mass suicides of Jonestown in the 1970s.

Cult or not, the Fellowship has its own dirty laundry. In the early 1980s and into the 1990s, there were lawsuits from former members who accused its leader, Robert Burton, of brainwashing and sexual abuse.

Fellowship officials declined to be interviewed for this story. The Fellowship has continued to maintain a low profile in recent years.

The Fellowship follows the Fourth Way tradition of spiritual development established by early 20th-century Russian philosophers George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. Burton was a former Bay Area elementary school teacher before founding the Fellowship in 1970.

Although it is unknown how many members are left today, at one time, the group claimed it had a 2,000-member association and 60 centers around the world.

From postcards and brochures, the winery looks like a utopia in the middle of the forest.

"When you enter, it's like a totally different world," said Tony Verma, co-owner of Oregon House Grocery and Deli, which carries a number of the Fellowship's Renaissance wines.

Surrounded by perfectly sculpted landscaping and labyrinthine rose gardens, the property seems out of place among the simple life of other Oregon House hill folks.

"We're kind of the redneck group and the Fellowship," laughed Richards.

Members live in and around the compound and own a considerable amount of land within Oregon House. The organization itself is said to own about 1,250 acres. That could be why resentment and perhaps paranoia exist among residents who feel the group is trying to take over Oregon House.

Givens remembers what it was like when the Fellowship first moved in.

"They started putting in their grapes, and later closed Ponderosa Way," he said. "That was the first time the community really got upset."

Others believe the community's relationship with the Fellowship has improved over the years. Resident Gene Scheel noted the Fellowship has made community contributions and even worked with residents to devise an emergency evacuation program for the community's fire district.

"Personally, I don't have a problem with them," said Scheel. "We both know there have been some problems in the past. I think they recognized there were some things that got out of control."

He prefers to call the group a "philosophical organization" rather than a cult.

"I don't agree with their philosophy, but we've agreed to disagree," he said. "We're made up of all different denominations up here. As long as we recognize our boundaries, there's no need to get hostile."

Richards believes relations with the Fellowship are now better because "they're so integrated into the community." In such a small town, everybody runs into everybody, he said, particularly at Oregon House's only grocery store, Oregon House Grocery and Deli on Rice's Crossing.

"We're forced to mingle there," said Richards. "That forces everyone to get along with one another, and I think that's a blessing."

Oregon House hub

Oregon House Grocery and Deli is known as the town's hub, or "downtown" Oregon House, as one store employee puts it. It is an oasis of sorts because it's the only place in town that sells gas, so the store gets plenty of foot traffic from locals and vacationers alike.

"They come in here for everything," said Verma, who also runs the adjoining video and feed stores on the property.

On a typical afternoon, customers could be seen purchasing everything from multiple pints of ice cream to a single piece of fruit.

Store clerks say the store's best seller is wine. During the lunch hour, folks could be milling around the aisles or just hanging out and eating at the deli, which has its own seating area.

What makes this store unique and different from the typical stop-and-shop convenience stores are the groceries.

Yes, there's gum and candy, refrigerated drinks and all the usual stuff from the everyday convenience market. But there's also a generous selection of imported cheeses, fine wines (including a 1987 3-liter bottle of Renaissance wine with a $300 price tag), specialty teas, organic peanut butter and foreign chocolates and cookies that one would only expect to find at gourmet grocers such as Trader Joe's.

Verma credits the buying power of Fellowship members for the store's unusual stock of specialty products. He considers them some of his best customers, and not just because he can get a special deal on their wine. Because many of them hail from Europe, he said, the store will often carry items to suit their tastes.

"That's what makes it a unique store," said Verma.

Fear of fire

While Marysville and other surrounding communities down in the valley have long been plagued by floods, foothill communities such as Oregon House have had their share of raging forest fires.

"Fire is a constant threat there," said Scheel, who has installed a complicated sprinkler system on his property after two close calls that nearly destroyed his home.

The first was the fire of 1997, considered the worst Oregon House had had in 30 years. It scorched more than 5,000 acres and destroyed more than 80 buildings, most of them homes.

That year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection rated the Yuba County foothills as high or very high hazard severity zones.

"This was really pretty country until the fire came through," said Steiner, pointing to patches of dead forest and charred remains during a drive through her community. "As you can see, it's all devastated."

One of the foothill's most devastating fires came as recently as 1999 when nearly 12,000 acres, 13 homes, 57 buildings, two commercial structures and 44 vehicles were destroyed. That blaze caused major hardships for not only community residents but Yuba County's timber industry, with companies such as The CHY Company, Siller Bros. and Soper-Wheeler Co. sustaining the biggest losses.

"It was scary, but not," said Dahms of living through the two big fires. "Our feeling is if you practice safety, you're not going to have (fires). And for years, we didn't have them. Now that we've had them, people are more aware."

Until 1977, Oregon House relied on CDF for year-round fire protection. In 1977, the Dobbins and Oregon House communities formed their own volunteer fire department, which later became the Dobbins-Oregon House Fire Protection District. Although CDF still maintained coverage of the foothills during the summer, the communities were on their own in the winter.

Cora Peterson, current member of the district's board of directors, said it was not always easy running the community's own fire district. In fact, it was a burden.

In the beginning, there was no facility to house the fire equipment and rescue vehicles. Volunteers had to keep them at their homes on a rotating basis. That meant being on call 24 hours a day, which restricted them from going anywhere or even doing round-the-house chores such as mowing the lawn for fear they wouldn't hear a call.

But thanks to volunteer labor and community donations, the district finally acquired its fire station in 1987. Constructed with lodgepole pine logs, the structure cost nearly $18,000 to build and is located at the intersection of Marysville and Texas Hill roads.

Today, the station has six bays - four to store equipment and vehicles and two to house the Dobbins-Oregon House Fire Department Auxiliary's thrift shop, which raises money to support the fire department.

"There's no such thing as idle time when you're up here," said Dahms. "There's no time to be bored."

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