Condon: a unique little town off the beaten path

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Wind turbines on the hills near Condon.

At first glance, Condon resembles many other small Western towns - its wide Main Street, its old brick buildings. After spending a weekend there, I discovered that it's not just the buildings and the streets that make a town, but the people who fill them.
   "There's a comfortable feeling with Condon," said Mayor Dale Thompson. "Visitors come here to enjoy the small town atmosphere and to get away from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities."
   Located on the Columbia River Plateau, Condon boasts panoramic views of the Cascade volcanoes, canyons that sweep down to the John Day River, the anthropomorphic wind generators standing on the western skyline and the surrounding dry-land wheat fields.
   Two of the more exciting draws for me were the historic Hotel Condon and the Gilliam County Historic Museum. The hotel was built in 1920 and originally had 42 guest rooms. Today, after changing hands 14 times and much remodeling, there are 18 guest rooms and suites that reflect not only the historic charm but also modern conveniences. Stanley's Steak House (800-201-6706), located in the hotel offers a great menu - I had the Dungeness Crab Stuffed Salmon.
   The uniqueness of the museum also brings visitors to Condon. Open from May through September, the grounds contain a jail, school, cabin, barber shop, train car and an agricultural building full of historic farm equipment used in Condon's past.
   Tom Greiner, who was born and raised in Condon led a tour of the buildings. The most interesting story is one of an inmate at the jail in 1914 who decided one night that he wanted out. He set fire to this bedding and threw it on the floor, eventually burning a hole big enough for his escape. Not wanting to burn the entire jail down, he sprinted to the nearby grocery store with a small bucket and ran back and forth tossing water on the fire until it was out. When the authorities saw what was happening, they threw him back in jail. There is now a steel plate over the hole in the floor where he burned the hole. I wonder if he got any time off for good behavior.
   You can't help but notice the 83 wind generators lined up like sentinels along ridges just west of town, leading visitors to Condon's doorstep. Near the generators is an old air base used as a radar station. Located on the highest point in Gilliam County, it is now the site of 27 very affordable houses with incredible views of the Cascade peaks.
   Condon was originally called Summit Springs due to a series of cool springs bubbling from the ground in what is now the city park. Sheep ranching put the town on the map but since the "good old days" of the wool industry and the air base, the town's population has fallen from a high of about 1,400 people down to 775 today. Condon's Main Street is a registered National Historic Site, with several of its buildings dating back to the late 1880s.
   For a small town, Condon offers some big events that attract people from all over the Northwest. Art Slate, an art show that comes every two years, features the biggest names in the Northwest. Fourth of July features a big parade and soap box derby. Labor Day Weekend is the huge county fair and there are also a few rodeos throughout the year. Visitors will even find a few surprises such as a 9-hole golf course and a Powell's Bookstore.
   While at the fairgrounds, be sure to check out the Silhouette in History metal relief sculpture on back of the grandstand. The mural measures 127 feet long by 12 feet high and reflects the history of the city's agriculture as well as its creative, spiritual and social life dating back to the Oregon Trail days of the 1920s. The project was accomplished with all volunteer labor and materials from communities around the county.
   Some people find Condon by just wandering off the beaten path. The roads in the area are very popular with motorcyclists, since there are a lot of curves. Between Condon and Fossil, there are 215 corners, if you're wondering.
   According to Pat Shaw, Gilliam County Judge, the crime rate is very low in Condon and the quietness and friendliness is what draws visitors. County Commissioner Mike Weimar has lived most of his life in Condon. "I love the wide open spaces here and there's no better place to watch the stars," he said.
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