“Turn left here,” I said.
“Already?” Betsy asked.
Betsy and Deb had heard me talk about Spencer Butte, but were unprepared for the surprisingly short commute from our urban center. I usually take visitors atop Skinner’s Butte for the local scene and then up Spencer Butte for the regional context. The parking lot at the trailhead was nearly full on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September.
These two southern Floridans enjoy hiking as one of their favorite hobbies. I didn’t ask whether sweating counts as a hobby, but maybe all the bug-swatting creates small wind patterns to keep hikers cool under the Everglades sun.
I wanted to show them a vantage that offers endless shades of green and very little else, even during the last days of summer. Betsy and I hadn’t seen each other since we were fast friends in high school. Two thirds of our lives have happened since.
Our conversation was less about us and more about our surroundings. Her career choices revolved around the sun — more accurately, escaping it. Mine have been shaped more by water — being near it, drawing from it, keeping it off me.
“Who do you thank for this?” Betsy asked as we ambled up the path. Betsy asks good questions. She and Deb both are therapists, so they pose questions with professional ease.
I might not have known what she meant, except her arm swept across the view of the hillside to our right. She meant the vantage — the spot we were standing on. Luckily, I vaguely recalled a little bit of the answer.
“It was 1937, “ I began, quietly surprised that I was offering such a specific date. “The depression was at its depth, and the owner of this butte needed to sell. A goat herder made an offer, figuring he would log it first and then let his goats eat what was left.”
“But the people of Eugene voted to tax themselves, so they could buy it and make it a park. At a time when people did not have enough to eat, they agreed to buy this for us.”
Betsy grabbed a large twig and fashioned it into a walking stick as we waited for a family with two young kids and a dog to scamper past us. Deb had other questions, about the people involved. Who led the campaign? Did the goat herder try to up his offer? Did the owner recognize what a gift it would someday be? Were any one of these people named Spencer?
I didn’t want to confess how little I knew. Instead, I used my ignorance to more deeply respond to Betsy’s original question, “You don’t know what you’ve got until you don’t know who to thank.”
Later that day, I researched the details. Lizzie Church and Alice Morse combined their properties for a sale price of about $6,000. Former Eugene mayor F.M. Wilkins led the campaign, with significant support from both the Eugene Register-Guard and the Eugene Daily News. The public levy became necessary in 1938 — I was close! — when their philanthropic campaign came up short $1,000.
Very few who enjoy Spencer Butte have ever heard of Church, Morse or Wilkins. The legacy of these leaders has outlasted their names.
I hope Springfield residents consider this story as they weigh how they will vote on Measure 20-199. Willamalane Park and Recreation District’s November bond request will raise $20 million over 20 years purchase more parkland, including a ridgeline trail in the Thurston hills.
If Springfield voters pass the measure, they’ll be agreeing to add an average of $50 to their annual property tax bill. Times are tough and taxes make it tougher, but the legacy of their choice will outlast the memory of their names. Future generations won’t know what they’ve got until they don’t know who to thank.
My friends and I reached the top of the butte and surveyed the landscape below. Betsy and Deb were deeply impressed that dozens were sharing the view, the vantage and the moment with us. Betsy interrupted the silent awe. “You’re lucky.”
I nodded, but I was thinking more than agreement, “Finally something I know for sure.”
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. A short history of Spencer Butte, named for a U.S. Secretary of War in the 1850s, can be found at http://www.spencerbutte.com/history