If you go

INFORMATION

Coos Bay–North Bend Visitor & Convention Bureau: 50 Central Ave., Coos Bay; oregonsadventurecoast.com, 541-269-0215, 800-824-8486.

HOTELS

The Mill Casino Hotel and RV Park: 3201 Tremont Ave. (U.S. Highway 101), North Bend; themillcasino.com, 541-756-8800, 800-953-4800. Rates from $150. Dining outlets include the Plank House Restaurant (breakfast and lunch every day, dinner Tuesday to Sunday; moderate)

Myrtle Lane Motel. 787 N. Central Blvd., Coquille: facebook.com, 541-396-2102. Rates from $59

Myrtle Trees Motel: 1010 Eighth St. (State Highway 42), Myrtle Point; myrtletreesmotel.com, 541-572-5811. Rates from $79

RESTAURANTS

Ciccarelli’s Restaurant: 2072 Sherman Ave., North Bend; ciccarellismenu.com, 541-751-1999. Lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Moderate

Coquille Broiler: 2 N. Central Blvd., Coquille; www.facebook.com, 541-396-7039. Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday. Budget and moderate

Spruce Street Bar & Grill: 630 Spruce St., Myrtle Point; sprucestreetbarandgrill.com, 541-572-4309. Lunch and dinner every day. Moderate

Tokyo Bistro: 525 Newmark Ave., Coos Bay; tokyocoosbay.com, 541-808-0808. Lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Moderate

Yeong’s Place: 1120 Virginia Ave., North Bend; facebook.com, 541-756-1914. Three meals Monday to Saturday. Budget

ATTRACTIONS

Coos County Logging Museum: 705 Maple St., Myrtle Point; loggingmuseum.org, 541-572-1014.

Coquille Myrtle Grove State Natural Site: State Highway 542 between Broadbent and Powers. oregonstateparks.org/park_46.php, 800-551-6949

Hoffman Memorial State Wayside: State Highway 42 just west of state Highway 542, Myrtle Point; oregonstateparks.org/park_67.php, 800-551-6949.

The House of Myrtlewood: 1125 S. First St., Coos Bay; oregonconnection.com, 541-267-7804.

Lakeshore Myrtlewood: 83530 U.S. Highway 101 S., Florence; lakeshoremyrtlewood.com, 541-997-8563.

The Myrtlewood Gallery: 1125 U.S. Highway 101, Reedsport; myrtlewoodgallery.com, 541-271-4222.

The Wooden Nickel: 1205 Oregon St., Port Orford; oregonmyrtlewood.com, 541-332-5201, 866-377-5201.

Zumwalt’s Myrtlewood: 47422 U.S. Highway 101, Bandon; zumwaltsmyrtlewood.com, 541-347-3654.

NORTH BEND —

Somewhere in a box of souvenirs from my Boy Scout years, I have a small handful of polished-wood coins made of Oregon myrtlewood.

These are not wooden nickels. While I wouldn’t say they’re worth more than gold, they are certainly more valuable than the neckerchief slide or whatever else I may have swapped for the coins at a summer camp. After all, they are legal tender in the coastal city of North Bend — or so says Google.

During the Great Depression, as 1932 slipped into 1933 and this country waited impatiently for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to take office, the First National Bank of North Bend temporarily closed its doors. It was the only bank in town and city government found itself financially strapped. In order to make payroll, the mayor had a local businessman cut hundreds of coin-shaped disks of myrtlewood. Denominations from 25 cents to $10 were printed on a newspaper press, and the disks were hand-shellacked to protect their finish.

Although minting one’s own currency is illegal under the U.S. Constitution, these coins were not competing. They were redeemable for cash when the bank reopened following FDR’s inauguration. But not all were exchanged. Far from it, in fact; many municipal employees hung onto the tokens as collector’s items. Eventually, the city of North Bend was forced to announce that these wooden disks would forever remain legal tender within the city limits.

Nowhere else — not in the United States, at least — are wooden coins accepted as money. After 84 years, it’s rare for any to be redeemed in North Bend. But several full sets of coins are still believed to exist. Of course, they are worth considerably more these days: Allowing for inflation, a $10 coin might now be valued at $184.

Native verdure

Visitors to the southern Oregon coast today know myrtlewood more as a decorative wood. Shops and galleries from Florence to Port Orford lure tourists with all manner of gift items crafted from this beautiful hardwood — kitchen bowls and utensils, clocks, vases, musical instruments, toys, furniture, religious icons and many other items, including fine art.

But the Oregon myrtlewood is so much more than that.

A broadleaf evergreen, the tree grows slowly to a height of more than 100 feet, with a trunk up to 30 inches in diameter.

Native to southwestern Oregon and northern California (where it is known as the bay laurel), the myrtle is especially prolific a few miles inland along the lower Umpqua, Coquille and Elk rivers. It grows tall and narrow in riverside groves, where its intricate root system thrives, while on open hillsides it has a dense, rounded shape.

The myrtle’s most identifiable features are its 4-inch-long leaves, not so much for their lancelike shape as for their pungent aroma. When crushed, they have a flavor similar to bay leaves. Area residents who harvest them for cooking speak to their strong camphorlike taste.

In spring, the Oregon myrtle boasts small, yellowish flowers that bear a summer fruit. This round, green berry, about an inch around, turns purple as it matures in late autumn. Within is a single hard pit, as if it were a miniature avocado. Coastal tribes dried the fruit in the sun, cracking and roasting the pit as food or grinding it into powder to create a warm beverage similar to bitter chocolate.

Native Americans also used the leaves medicinally as a cure for headache and toothache, for instance, and as a tea for stomach aches, colds and congestion. Today some pet owners use them in bedding to prevent or get rid of fleas.

It is for its wood, however, that the mature tree is best known.

Production process

One of the largest factory shops on the coast is Coos Bay’s House of Myrtlewood, also known as “Your Oregon Connection.” Founded in 1929 — an indication of how long myrtle has been popular among woodworkers — this store combines an expansive showroom with extensive factory and warehouse space.

“Myrtlewood is a very wet wood,” general manager Stacy Gavette said as she led me through the factory. “It’s heavy and tight-grained. It sinks in water.”

The color of myrtlewood is affected by the minerals in the soil where it grows, she said: It can range from ebony black to walnut brown to maple blond, with in-between shades such as red, gray and green not unknown. Its fine grain patterns have earned it a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful woods.

But even before serious craft work begins, it takes 10 to 13 weeks for the wood to dry, Gavette said. Electric dehumidifiers — set at 70 degrees to start, eventually rising to 120 degrees — help to extract up to 300 gallons of water from a single “blank” of wood, 1½ to 2½ inches thick. Because of the slow drying, there is minimal warping.

“It takes about one full year for a product to go from a log to a finished piece of work, on the floor,” Gavette said.

Trees are about 100 years old, and 14 to 16 inches in diameter, before they are considered mature enough for commercial use. (The House of Myrtlewood uses only a dozen a year, Gavette said.) Logs are cut into 6-to-8-foot sections, then into planks 2 to 4 inches thick. Circles drawn on the planks are cut by band saws, then rough-turned on high-speed lathes before being sent as blanks to the drying rooms.

Once dry, roughed-out blanks are moved to the lathe for finish turning. Because the grain varies on each bowl and vase, no two are exactly alike: This is where the wood turners’ artistry comes in. They first shape the outside of the piece, then hollow out the center and carefully sand it to a smooth surface. Beeswax and mineral oil, or some other glossy finish, completes the process.

While bowls and wall clocks are the two biggest selling items at the House of Myrtlewood, guitars are a prized — if costly — item. Luthiers consider myrtle to be a world-class tonewood, ideal for the backs and sides of acoustic guitars.

For more than 30 years, Gavette said, the company has also been making golf putters. These are especially popular among visitors to the nearby Bandon Dunes resort. It takes about two weeks to make a putter: The myrtlewood head has accent strips of African padouk wood and a striking surface of Mexican cocobolo. It is attached to a shaft of steel or black graphite.

The House of Myrtlewood is owned by Star of Hope, a Coos County nonprofit that has established nine group homes for adults with developmental disabilities. “We help to integrate these people into the community,” Gavette said. “Some of them are employed here.”

Safety first

In Reedsport, a half hour’s drive north of Coos Bay-North Bend via U.S. Highway 101, I found another outstanding shop. The Myrtlewood Gallery, in fact, offers self-guided factory tours — “if you’re not bothered by dust,” according to signs held by carved bears that flank a green carpet. Here, you’ll learn how each chunk of raw wood is examined to determine its best use, according to size, shape and especially grain. These are pressure-washed to remove extraneous bark, then frozen at 20 degrees for two weeks to kill any insects.

The process of slow-drying roughed-out blanks is the same, leading to finish turning. Gallery signs emphasize how important it is for visitors to stay behind safety screens, as blocks of wood have been known to explode or fly off the lathe. Likewise, caution is essential when approaching craftspeople working the grinding wheels, where hardened-steel chisels and other lathing tools are sharpened.

“We don’t waste wood,” said Susan Mast, who has owned the shop with her husband, Gareth, since 1985. Their two adult sons, Jon and Jason, are the gallery’s principal artists, and their two dogs often shepherd visitors around the shop.

“When we cut corners off blanks, we make them into Christmas ornaments,” she said. “Small pieces become pen blanks or key rings, or are used for small projects. Shavings are made into flowers and the sawdust becomes mulch for our myrtle-tree nursery.

“In winter, we are able to get wood from trees that fall down during winter storms. We value living trees more than wood. Our policy is, ‘If the tree is healthy, let it grow.’”

The showroom collection runs the gamut of all manner of utilitarian items, right down to an exquisite (and very expensive) rocking chair. But the eye is drawn, in particular, to a series of highly detailed carvings by artist Lee Fisher, whose legacy is preserved in eye-catching representations of seascapes and wildlife 10 years after his death.

Riverside groves

Some of the largest groves of Oregon myrtle may be found along the Coquille River, whose south, north and east forks join at Myrtle Point, a 30-minute drive south of Coos Bay-North Bend.

En route, state Highway 42 passes through the Coos County seat of Coquille, a timber town of just under 4,000 whose most prominent buildings are its courthouse and jail. But it does have a small museum and, more notably, the Sawdust Theatre, where a weekend melodrama is presented all summer long by a cast of volunteers. During my recent visit, it was auditioning its 2017 show: “The Perilous Passing of Prudence Proudwill,” or “A Gold Mine in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush.”

Myrtle Point, home to about 2,500 people, announces on a highway welcome sign that it is “in the heart of the myrtlewoods.” Its Coos County Logging Museum, built in 1910, is on the National Register of Historic Places: Built by the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints, its unusual shingled dome was modeled after the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

Open summers or by appointment, the museum’s exhibits include photos and memorabilia from the logging camps where many of its volunteers lived as children. “The flavor of our county, our figures of speech, our economy, and many aspects of our lifestyles are all salted and seasoned with the wood smoke and grease, pitch and sweat, and the backbreaking toil of harvesting timber,” the museum’s website declares.

Douglas fir was the mainstay of that logging economy. Broad stands continue to thrive south of here along Route 542, past the remote village of Powers. A Siskiyou National Forest ranger station has travel and camping information for adventurers proceeding from Powers to Agness, on the lower Rogue River. This route has a back-roads junction with the Elk River Road, which connects to U.S. 101 at Port Orford and accesses large groves of myrtle on the south bank of the Elk River.

I found ample stands between Myrtle Point and Powers, both at the Hoffman Memorial State Wayside on Route 42 and at the Coquille Myrtle Grove State Natural Site on Route 542. The 4-acre Hoffman wayside, deeded to the state in 1948, is the better developed of the two, with short trails marked with interpretive signs. The Natural Site, 7 acres purchased in 1950 by a group called Save the Myrtlewoods, boasts of a secluded swimming hole and a sandy beach near a shaded grove of myrtle trees. On my February visit, however, the South Fork of the Coquille River was at flood stage, and was not advised for either inner-tubing or fishing.

Both sites are administered by Oregon State Parks. They offer limited parking, picnic tables and pit toilets, but no drinking water.

They are, however, excellent places to get up close and personal with the Oregon myrtle — to look at its leaves, shiny in a light rainfall, and aromatic in a manner that repels fleas but seduces home chefs.

I’m sure it’s because of my few wooden “quarters” that I continue to be intrigued by myrtlewood. When I checked with the city of North Bend to see if I could redeem them, a representative of the financial department said she hadn’t ever seen any other than in a display case in their offices. She suggested that I consult a coin collector.

At inflationary rates, 25 cents in 1933 should be worth $4.60 in 2017. I think I’ll hold out for a little more.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com .

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