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Walking the plank

WL man creates model of Native American 'plank house'

TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Plank houses were generally owned by wealthier members of Native American tribes. Larry McIntyre doesn’t fancy himself much of a craftsman.

Rather, the former West Linn mayor simply picked up woodwork as a hobby when he retired. But take one look at the tugboat-themed parade floats he constructed for the West Linn Old Time Fair, or his latest creation — a model of the unique “plank house” once used by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest — and it’s clear that McIntyre has a distinct gift.

McIntyre began work on the model plank house in September 2015, at the request of a staff member at the Museum of Oregon Territory (M.O.O.T.). After about 100 hours of research and construction time, the finished model was presented in January to the West Linn Historical Society — where McIntyre is a board member at large — and subsequently loaned to M.O.O.T. as part of the Historical Society’s “Museum Without Walls” program.

The model presents, in painstaking detail, a rare look at the dwellings used by the Clow-We-Walla tribe which lived close to the Willamette Falls.

“As I occasionally serve as a docent or guide at the museum, I am aware of the need to show how the natives at the falls lived,” McIntyre wrote in a description of the project. “There are ample displays of the baskets, tools and fishing gear used but little reference as to the type and size of the dwellings the local natives lived in.”

Plank houses were large, extended family dwellings that could be as long as 300 feet. The name comes from the long, wooden “planks” cut from cedar logs and used to construct the bulk of the home.

“Natives used to cut trees down and cut them into planks, four feet wide and 40 feet long,” McIntyre said in an interview with The Tidings. “These planks were so valuable that come winter time, when they had to move from one location to the other, they’d leave the frame of the building there and haul the wooden planks with them.”

What made this particular project tricky, McIntyre said, was a simple lack of visual evidence. Photography did not arrive in the Willamette Falls area until after 1850 — two years after all of the plank houses were burned down.

TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - The house is on display at the Museum of Oregon Territories in Oregon City, and features a removable roof to allow a glimpse inside the home.

“The tribes were so decimated because of disease, they couldn’t build them back up,” McIntyre said. “So (plank houses) disappeared.”

What McIntyre did find, luckily, was a painting titled “Oregon City on the Willamette River 1847,” which featured a detailed — albeit small — rendering of a plank house.

“According to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, that’s the chief’s plank house (in the painting),” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, now I know what the thing looks like.’”

That, along with several primary source written materials, gave McIntyre enough information to create a model that overflows with detail. The roof is lined with blackened spots — stains from the smoke and grease that was constantly rising from the cooking taking place inside. And indeed, the roof of the model lifts up to reveal a rendering of the plank house interior, with Native American families going about their daily activities.

“Plank houses were owned by a wealthy person,” McIntyre said. “Let’s say I’m a wealthy guy: The more impressive the plank house was, the more impressive I was, and my family unit.”

While plank houses have all but vanished from the Pacific Northwest, the Historical Society has hopes for more projects to raise awareness for this particular slice of history.

“The actual location of a plank house here, historically, sits in the West Linn park area underneath Interstate 205,” said West Linn Historical Society President Beth Smolens. “West Linn is doing park work there, and one of the things the McLean House was starting to talk about in conjunction with the Historical Society was, ‘Is there a way to translate where it stood?

“In some places they have borders of homes to show you — in a parking lot, even — where it stood.”

“So much of what happens when communities grow larger,” added M.O.O.T. Executive Director Claire Blaylock, “is you lose some of that.”

Take a look

The plank house is available to view at the Museum of Oregon Territory, 211 Tumwater Dr, Oregon City, OR 97045. The museum is open Tuesday - Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Contact 503-655-5574 for more information.

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..