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July 02, 2007

Saving a Dying Town

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

We got a head start on the July 4th holiday by driving across the Cascade Mountains for a few days visiting friends who rented a house for the long weekend. And I wasn't able to post because the place was not in the Verizon Wireless beam -- no cellphone connection, no internet service for my macBook.

Where we were was Leavenworth, Washington, a town that was well on its way to semi-extinction 45 years ago. It reached its initial peak in the early 1920s when it was a railroad and lumber industry center. But the Great Northern moved its Leavenworth activities farther east to the much larger town of Wenatchee and the timber business in the area began a slow decline.

When I was young I occasionally passed through Leavenworth via car or "milk train" (a passenger train that would stop at nearly every available station along a route -- very slow travel, and very boring for a kid). Nothing much there. Just a few two and three-story brick buildings dating to the turn of the century surrounded by smaller, wooden ones. The main reasons for stopping (if driving) were to fill a stomach or a gas tank.

The situation was getting dire by the early 1960s with population declining and businesses failing. What to do? One local booster offered Solvang, California as a model. Solvang was settled by Danes and its business district buildings follow a Danish architectural theme. Many businesses are also Danish-themed.

Leavenworth is right next to some fairly tall mountains, lying as it does on the eastern slope of the Cascades. So a Danish theme was ruled out by the topography. The pretty obvious solution? Go Alpine. And to sharpen the focus, make it Bavarian Alpine.

And that's what was done. Within a few years several business buildings were modified to mimick a Bavarian village. Moreover, the crazy scheme worked. Today Leavenworth's entire business area is "Bavarian" right down to gothic script on signs.

Speaking of signs, they're mostly in an odd mix of German and English -- the English label preceded by a Der, Die or Das. This makes business sense when you consider that not many Americans understand German. Even so, you also can see supporting verbiage such as Bäkerei or Herzliche Wilkommen.

On Sunday, a fancy beer wagon (sans beer, I think) was parked by the little park on the three or four block-long main drag. In the park's gazebo was an accordion player belting out German songs.

The overall effect strikes me as a little hokey and forced. Few shops offer anything even remotely sophisticated, and some of the souvenir stores sell stuff that seems pretty junky. On the other hand, we found German merchandise similar to what we saw in Munich, such as cheap cuckoo clocks, that were better buys here than there when the cost off shipping stuff home from Munich stores is factored in.

Leavenworth had lots of visitors this last weekend. Most of the shops and restaurants were busy. My take was that the tourists were just average folks -- a mix of families with children and retirees.

So Leavenworh isn't Palm Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea or Martha's Vinyard. It is what it is: an okay place to spend a few hours if you're passing through or perhaps a weekend if it's your destination. Best of all, the town has found a niche and avoided an almost certain fate of becoming one of those almost-ghost towns you find off beaten tracks in many parts of the west.

My only advice is that a more market-relevant name for the place should be selected -- "Alpendorf," perhaps? The name Leavenworth gives me Army prison vibes.

Here are a few pictures I snapped.


Mountains in the background, old buildings with tacked-on Bavarians architectural touches, and plenty of flower baskets greet Leavenworth visitors this time of year.

Another street scene, this time featuring visiting hot rods.

Sometimes Leavenworth offers something real -- in this case, a Ford Model A that could use some restoration.



posted by Donald at July 2, 2007


My hometown of Kellogg, Idaho tried this same approach about 20 years ago to resurrect itself after the mining industry there collapsed. Unfortunately, it failed in Kellogg. But, Kellogg is back on its feet now as the environmental damage done by smelting recovers; as condos go up and are selling; as the Silver Mountain resort progresses as a popular ski, mountain bike, hiking, and outdoor concert venue. A fancy new golf course is being built and who knows what else will develop in this feisty mining town.

So, it wasn't really the Bavarian theme itself that failed. It just wasn't the right time and the scarred landscape made Kellogg not the right place.

But, a lot of confidence and a lot of hope lives in this town now which, for the last twenty years, has suffered much despair and suffering.

Posted by: raymond pert on July 2, 2007 10:05 PM

Asbury Park, New Jersey is an example of a community whose salvation came from an unlikely source. Once a popular seaside resort town, it went into a long and seemingly inexorable slump starting in the 1960's. Its last viable "industry" consisted of boarding houses for the deinstitutionalized mentally ill. And even that failed! By the late 1990's the downtown area was a mixture of abandoned buildings, weed-filled vacant lots, and, courtesy of a failed redevelopment scheme, the bare frame of a highrise apartment building.

And then came the people Steve Sailer calls the shock troops of gentrification - gay men. They began moving into Asbury Park around 2000 and the flow continues. The community still has a long way to go, but it's definitely on the upswing.

Posted by: Peter on July 2, 2007 10:57 PM

Donald: Keep up the good work in covering the Pacific Northwest and its history. I for one love it.

Posted by: Ethan on July 3, 2007 12:11 AM

I've lived in Bavaria for ten years and never seen Gothic script on a sign anywhere. Wouldn't be surpirised to hear it's only been gone for a generation or less, though.

(I love the way the Goths in the Asterix the Gaul books speak in gothic script)

Posted by: Alan Little on July 3, 2007 2:14 AM

There's a very fine Alpine Village just across the Pacific from you, on South Island NZ. Mind you, Hanmer Springs has the advantage of having hot springs.

Posted by: dearieme on July 3, 2007 5:58 AM

And to think that only 2 days ago I was denying a friend's statement that America is a country of surrogates...

Posted by: Tat on July 3, 2007 7:04 AM

Georgia did the Bavaria thang some time ago. See it here...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 3, 2007 2:51 PM

Worst case of mock-German on a sign I ever saw was an import/giftshop in downtown Seattle some years ago. I swear, the name of the shop was actually --


To explain the incongruity, "Gift" in German means "poison." ("Geschenk" would be correct German for English "gift," but yeah, I know, who would understand "Das Geschenkhaus"?) But what also struck me was that whoever named the shop knew enough to get the article right -- "das" is actually correct for "Haus." Unless it was a fortuitous coincidence, someone must have known what they were doing and knew full well they were naming it "The Poison House." But for non-German speakers "Das Gifthaus" would be understandable and "Das Geschenkhaus" would be gibberish, so maybe it does make sense...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 3, 2007 3:58 PM

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