Livening up those McKenzie Memories
EUGENE: Life was a little different over 100 years ago when settlers moved in to start a life on the McKenzie River. Making a move from Prineville, the Helfrich family put down roots and played a key role in developing tourism as a big part of the local economy.
Things were different back then. There was no running water, no electricity and no insulation in their house when the Helfrich family bought 160 acres on a mile and a half of river frontage in 1902. The land - stretching from the old Stockade up to Cook’s Ranch (near Mom’s Pies) - lead to the family’s role in the development of the Northwest’s tourism industry and the river guiding fraternity.
Last Friday night, Dave Helfrich shared stories about his family’s part in the development of both the McKenzie River drift boat and the river guiding industry. Speaking at the “McKenzie Memories” event at Cozmic Pizza in Eugene, he entertained a crowd of over 300 with reminiscences of a time when few men dared to take a boat down most of the streams that cut trough the canyons of the Pacific Northwest.
Times were tough when the Helfrich family made their home here. Around 1917 they opened the Halfway Grocery that sold not only the staples needed in the area but also pumped Union gasoline to power the sparse number of internal combustion engines.
At the Halfway Camp, their four rental cottages went for between a dollar to $2.50 per day. A tourist could hire a river boat trip for more, ranging from $5 to up to $8 a day.
In the early days of river guiding, the whole family had to help hoist one of the heavy boats up on a vehicle.
“Times were tough when I was a kid,” Dave recalled. “My folks told a story about the winter going into 1932 when they were living at their old house. When the guiding season ended that year they had $90 to last until Spring.”
For the Helfrich family and others in the area, trapping held out some hope. “If you could set out some traps you could survive. We lived on a lot of venison in those day,” he recalled.
“One night when I was four or five I went with my Dad on a trap line. We put in on the lower McKenzie, down into the Willamette and stayed all night on a little island. I think we had seven mink. Mink in those days got about 20 bucks. I remember how pleased my folks were. 140 bucks was a lot of money.”
Luckily, times have changed since then. The Helfrich family has played a key role in the development of the river guiding industry. As Dave noted last Friday, 15 family members, included two women, are licensed river guides. “Two more are in the wings and will be guides as soon as they turn 18,” he added.
Image above: Dave Helfrich, appearing at Cozmic Pizza in Eugene last week, shared a number of stories about his family’s connection to guiding on the McKenzie River. Photo by Tom Lincoln.
McKenzie River Reflections