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Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

On Dec. 2, 1999, Curt Deatherage stood outside his auto electric shop in Creswell and watched as a freakish windstorm blew into town, swirling tree limbs and debris and roof panels in a mad vortex near the giant rusty wigwam burner that used to stand near his shop.

That noisy moment changed his life.

"It got real dark, and it got real loud," Deatherage says. `I walked out in the driveway. It was almost deafening. The wind was throwing stuff. I saw something hit an RV. And then I saw the burner lift up a foot off the ground, and then immediately smash back down. I thought, `what the hell is that?' '

"That" proved to be a defining moment. The death of the Creswell wigwam burner - it was torn down a month later - launched Deatherage on an odyssey that's consumed his life, taking him hundreds of miles throughout the Northwest to search out the last relics of a bygone age in the timber business: the scores of wigwam burners that now sit rusting and abandoned.

Wigwam burners, also called sawdust burners, are the perfect decaying symbol of the old timber business in Oregon.

Enormous squat steel towers as simple as giant barbecues, they sucked up and burned the sawdust, chips and butt ends that used to be considered scrap when timber was king and old growth trees stood just about everywhere, still waiting to be cut.

Starting in the late 19th century, wigwam burners sent sparks into the night sky throughout the West, a cheerful image of health and prosperity for the timber industry.

But the end began in the 1970s. Clean air regulations began quenching the smoldering fires just about the time trees began to seem scarce. All of a sudden sawdust and chips had become a resource to be sold, not waste to be burned.

Today's wigwam burners stand idle and cold, odd red monuments on the landscape, their neglected dark interiors filling with trash.

But they still hold an emotional spark, as Deatherage saw after the Creswell tornado.

"That was on a Thursday afternoon," he says. "The next day there was a steady stream of cars through the parking lot here. People who were old enough to remember seeing one in use. A lot of people were real solemn. This was the passing of an era. They had worked in the woods or worked in mills. This was a symbol of our connection to the past - and now it was gone."

Deatherage thought there might be a couple of dozen wigwam burners left when he started looking around for them.

So far he and his daughter, Velvet, have found and photographed 131, from Northern California to Washington, and east into Idaho. He's still searching them out, looking on the Web and corresponding with a small network of other wigwam-burner enthusiasts he has met.

He's determined to photograph them and record their individual histories before they all collapse into junk.

"A couple friends of mine came over and watched," he says of the day the Creswell burner was demolished on Jan. 6, 2000. `I said, `somebody should find what's left of these things and photograph them.' People do that with covered bridges, huh? Maybe I could do the same thing with wigwam burners.' Deatherage laughs. "I had no idea how many of them were left ..."

Deatherage, 50, was born near Roseburg and grew up in Cottage Grove. His father worked in the woods until he got so bunged up by the job he retrained and opened an auto electric shop, which is how Deatherage got into the business himself.

Having grown up in Western Oregon, Deatherage remembers wigwam burners from childhood. But when he tells the story of watching them, it's with an improbable streak of romance.

"I must have, at a young age, read a story about fireflies," he says. "I don't think I've ever actually seen a firefly. But all the sparks under a wigwam screen, I thought that must be what fireflies look like."

He opened his shop near the old Creswell wigwam burner 16 years ago, long after it - like others around the West - had been shut down.

A photo buff since the 1970s, he used to take pictures of the burner - especially pictures in the snow, pictures that show its rusty red flanks blanketed in white. On summer days he used the wigwam burner for target practice with his potato gun. "I became pretty attached to that burner," he says.

Though they're probably more common, wigwam burners are still somewhat more obscure as an artistic subject than covered bridges. Run "covered bridge" through the Web search engine Google and you get 117,000 hits. Run "wigwam burner" and you get 99. There probably aren't any limited edition porcelain plates featuring images of wigwam burners, just yet.

But now, thanks to Deatherage, there are calendars. Created entirely by him, right down to printing the individual pages on his computer printer, the 2003 wigwam burner calendar starts with his color pictures of two rusty burners in California - one near Adin, the other at Carlotta - and moves on through White City, Ore., for July and on to two separate burners in Dorris, Calif., in December.

(Yes, you can buy the calendars from Deatherage. They're $15 each. Call him at 895-4242.)

That first year Deatherage found about 20 burners and, a little naively, thought he might have found nearly all of them. Now he's up to 131 and is still getting tips. About half are in Oregon.

"As of today, in Oregon I've found and photographed 71," he said last month. "Well, actually one of them isn't still standing."

His personal favorite was a burner he turned up near Woodside, Calif., which was used in a 1972 movie about Neil Young, "Journey Through the Past."

Deatherage, a Neil Young fan, turned up a newspaper story that mentioned the wigwam burner and traveled to California to see and photograph it. For a Neil Young/wigwam burner aficionado, it doesn't get much better than this.

"The last scene in the movie," Deatherage said, "Neil Young is playing piano inside the burner - with a fire going in it."

Bob Keefer can be reached at 338-2325 or bkeefer@guardnet .com.


Curt Deatherage took this picture of the wigwam burner near his auto electric shop in Creswell. When it was damaged in a windstorm and then torn down, Deatherage decided to document as many burners as he could find. He has ended up finding a lot more than he ever expected. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard With his Sony digital camera, Curt Deatherage of Cottage Grove has documented more than a hundred wigwam burners in the Northwest. Wigwam: Torn-down burner began a quest Continued from Page G1 Please turn to WIGWAM, Page G2 On a quest to preserve the memory of those rusting vestiges of logging's heyday Curt Deatherage
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Title Annotation:On a quest to preserve the memory of those rusting vestigates of loggin's heyday; Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 4, 2003
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