Jim Thompson is a throwback to a time when Bend was a hardy Western mill town. He doesn’t need a tourist kiosk or a memorial plaque to tell him what it was like.
Thompson, a broad-shouldered 87-year-old great-grandfather, spent three decades repairing giant bandsaws for the Brooks-Scanlon Lumber Company. He would work long days welding the cracks in the bandsaws and returning them to the mill operation. Back then, he’ll tell you, when someone floated down the Deschutes River, it was on a log, not an inner tube.
So it’s surreal for Thompson to see his old workplace transformed into a shopping center in the Old Mill District, and the three iconic smokestacks now adorning an REI, an outdoor recreation store.
“I drove through there the other day,” he said. “I don’t even recognize that place.”
This has been his town since the 1950s, but it doesn’t feel that way now.
“I just don’t know my way around anymore,” he said. “I don’t know the streets like I used to.”
Thompson has lived in the same house on Georgia Avenue for the past 60 years and can often be found on the front porch smoking a cigarette and talking to his neighbors. The house is full of memories from raising his three children, Roxanne, James and Dan. And his wife, Sally.
But last week, as he stood amid a growing pile of boxes, those memories became more poignant. It’s only been five weeks since Sally died. They would have been married 65 years this month.
Sally Thompson was born in Bend’s Mill hospital and was raised in the mill yard by a large extended family. Later in life, she worked at Wagner’s grocery store and got to know many people in the community.
Last week, Thompson’s daughter and son-in-law, Roxanne and Greg Stephens, visited from their home in Las Vegas to help Thompson organize his late wife’s belongings. The effort turned into a walk down memory lane as they found old mementos and pictures that span decades.
There’s a photo of Thompson, all of 18 and newly enlisted in the Army. He has a full head of dark hair. In another photo, he’s standing inside the giant blade of a bandsaw. It looks like the mouth of something prehistoric. And he has a photo of him and Sally, taken just last year.
“We’ve been going through 65 years of stuff,” said Thompson’s daughter, Roxanne Stephens. “There are pictures in boxes in every room in the house.”
Thompson, who is originally from Tennessee, served in the Army for three years after high school and then moved to the Willamette Valley where he worked construction. After being laid off, he decided to join his brother, George, who was living in Bend. Shortly after moving to Bend and working in the mills, Thompson met Sally.
His brother had told Thompson to knock on her front door, that he might like her.
“Eleven weeks later we went to Reno and got married,” Thompson said.
Thompson still knows many of his neighbors, but he is part of a fading generation in the downtown neighborhood. He remembers when the homes were mill shacks and the neighborhood kids would play outside all day.
“I would walk from here to downtown and it would take two hours,” Thompson said. “You knew everybody on the street and you would stop and talk to all these people.”
When he wasn’t working in the mills, Thompson would take his family on outdoor adventures. In the spring, they fished. In the summer, they water skied, and in the fall they went deer hunting. Come winter, they spent many days skiing Mt. Bachelor.
The family enjoyed Bend’s outdoor offerings before the town became a tourist destination.
Thompson said the population of Bend is the biggest change he’s noticed since moving to town in the 1950s.
“It went up about 80,000,” he said.
Even though his wife is gone, Thompson doesn’t plan to be recluse. Thompson is as sturdy as the house he’s lived in for six decades. He plans to keep himself busy by volunteering at local senior centers, and helping people his own age.
Thompson isn’t one to brag, but he’s proud of the life he’s built in Bend.
“I’m an old working man,” he said. “Raised my family and that’s it.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, firstname.lastname@example.org