Driving down Main Street of Brownsville is like slipping into the past. The town of 1600 residents where the movie Stand By Me was filmed, has remained largely unchanged. Roughly midway between Salem and Eugene, it’s a happily undeveloped part of the Willamette Valley where everyone knows one another and is proud of the town’s history.
Brownsville’s historic downtown is located only 4 miles off I-5. Astride the languid Calapooia River, our town is short on bustle and long on charm, befitting a place that was settled 13 years before Oregon achieved statehood.
“It’s an unusual community that’s still like it was 40, 50, 60 years ago…”Don Ware
Described by local folks as both a good place to raise kids and a place to raise good kids, Brownsville is still happily living in the past. “It’s an unusual community that’s still like it was 40, 50, 60 years ago,” said Don Ware, owner and editor of the city’s 124 year old newspaper, The Brownsville Times. “In some ways it’s may be like stepping back into the 40s.”
The city is buffered by pool-table flat agricultural fields to the west and forested hills to the east that are volcanic buttes left-over from the formation of the Cascades Range.
“It’s stayed the same for many years,” Frankie Ridinger said. “I don’t think there were too many changes in this decade.”
As a result, Brownsville won’t see a strip mall any time soon. Instead, residents frequent the town’s quaint but reliable downtown where Ware can take a short jaunt from his newspaper office to the post office, dentist, doctor, pharmacy, library, lumber yard, cafe, and antique store.
Most businesses occupy buildings that were constructed in the early 1900s, with some built in the late 1800s. The city also has a great assortment of historic homes that are easily found thanks to tour maps that identify them and give a brief history. (Maps are available at the Linn County Historical Museum in town)
Brownsville dates to 1846 when three pioneer families — the Kirks, Browns and Blakelys — continued south at the end of the Oregon Trail. They stopped at a rest area on the Calapooia River and stuck around, boasting of lush grass so tall their cattle got lost in it.
In 1853, James Blakely platted a town and named it after his uncle Hugh Brown, both of whom had established a store south of the Calapooia. By 1912, the city had grown to 1,000 residents.
Brownsville has remained one of the last undeveloped pockets in the Willamette Valley
Bypassed by the mainline railroad and later by Oregon 99E and I-5, Brownsville has remained one of the last undeveloped pockets in the Willamette Valley.
“Bend’s not what Bend was, Salem certainly isn’t what Salem was, but Brownsville is what it was,” Ware said.
The city boasts a fine county museum featuring pioneer photos and artifacts in four railroad boxcars, an old spinster of a home — the Moyer House, an 1881 Italianate home open to the public on weekends — and the expansive 26-acre Pioneer Park.
The park is such a hot spot that former City Administrator David Clyne said folks have been known to camp outside Brownsville City Hall for three days to get first dibs on rental dates.
Brownsville’s central location is a bonus. “The convenience is we’re not too far from Albany or Eugene if we need to go get something that Brownsville doesn’t have,” Frankie Ridinger said.
For other residents, such as Charity Haworth, Brownsville is a refreshing change. Haworth moved to Brownsville from Santa Monica, California. “It’s a little bit of a contrast,” she said. Haworth said she’s seeing more two-income families move to Brownsville. Some residents commute to Albany, Corvallis, Eugene, Halsey, Salem and points between.
In general, Haworth said, Brownsville is a “sweet little spot” that many travelers tend to whiz by. She said the real secret to Brownsville is that residents aren’t anonymous.
“You just feel like if something happened to you, you’d be taken care of,” she said. “I can’t imagine at this point living anywhere else.”
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