The newly restored High Desert Ranger Station is open for business at the High Desert Museum, looking very much the way it did in 1962 when museum volunteer Les Joslin, 66, first set foot inside the small wooden building.
The 15-by-18-foot building is a self-contained exhibit. Its wood desks, vintage typewriter, specially made glass windows and new green linoleum floor conjure a 1940s U.S. Forest Service ranger station.
Just as the museum’s homestead and sawmill speak to life in the 19th century, the humble but sturdy former ranger office is part of a planned mid-20th century Forest Service complex, “one that speaks to … the study and thoughtful care in beginning to manage resources,” says the High Desert Museum’s Western history curator, Bob Boyd.
Boyd stresses that such a complex is a “very long-term ambition … but you’ve got to gather the pieces.”
When the building was erected in 1933, “the Forest Service was not even 30 years old. Everything was still a work in progress,” explains Boyd. “Whether it was studying range management, fire suppression, watershed management, these were all sciences that were being invented on the ground by those who were doing it. And this is where they were doing it.”
For Joslin, the building is a kind of portal back to 1962, when he was new to the Forest Service, working a summer job after his first year of college. In his memoir about those five summers, “Toiyabe Patrol,” Joslin recalls leaving the town of Bridgeport, Calif., where the station was located in the Toiyabe National Forest, after his first summer there.
As he headed back to school and the rest of his life, he caught sight of the building — then called the Bridgeport Ranger Station — out the bus window.
“My eyes stung, and I quickly wiped away unexpected tears. It had been a more meaningful summer than I could begin to understand then or explain now,” he writes.
Joslin would go on to work in fire prevention in the Toiyabe seasonally until 1966, when he embarked on a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy. After retiring from his career in naval intelligence, he moved to Central Oregon in 1988. In 1990, he returned to the Forest Service before retiring in 2005; that’s loosely “retired,” as he also teaches.
After Joslin’s first summer in the Toiyabe, the office was moved 250 miles away to central Nevada, where it became the Reese River Ranger Station office building. And there it would remain for 46 years, eventually falling into disuse.
“I knew where it went, through the district ranger,” Joslin explains, standing inside the restored building.
Planning the move
The path to moving the station to Bend began around 2003, when Joslin and Boyd sat to discuss plans for the museum’s 2005 exhibit, “Century of Service,” about the Forest Service’s 100th anniversary.
“That was a very good night,” Joslin recalls. “This gentleman and I discovered … that we both had an interest in this building. He said, ‘There’s this old Forest Service building down in central Nevada that I’m interested in bringing up here.’
“I said, ‘Is it about 40 miles south of Austin at Reese River?’
“He said, ‘Yeah.’
“I said, ‘I know the building.’”
The next year, Joslin and his wife were heading across Nevada after a trip east. Around the town of Austin, he said to his wife, ‘Hey, let’s go see the old Bridgeport Ranger Station building. It’s only 40 miles off the road here.’ So we went down and there it was. I walked in, and it was pretty messed up.”
Vandals had broken windows, exposing it to weather. Still, the original paneling was intact, says Joslin, rapping on the walls, and the frame was sturdy. Revisiting it had been “a pretty emotional experience for me,” he says, just as it had been for him when he saw it from that bus window at 19.
“I came back and said, ‘Hey Bob, it’s in pretty good shape, and we could move it.’”
What’s more, “it was available,” says Joslin, still sounding surprised.
“It’s historic, but it wasn’t all that historic. Because it wasn’t in its original location, it wasn’t eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places or anything like that.”
Joslin and Boyd were two of the people critical in moving the building 550 miles to the museum. A four-man crew including Joslin and Boyd went down to Nevada one year ago, removed the roof of the building and numbered its component parts.
The top of the building was sheeted with plywood to stabilize it, “so we had kind of a big white box,” as Boyd describes it. The front porch was also removed and, eventually, the “box” was loaded, via a rail system, to slide it onto a “lowboy” trailer.
The move and restoration was completed with funding donated by the Pacific Northwest Forest Service Association, the association for Pacific Northwest Forest Service retirees. The group contributed almost $10,000, and individual members contributed more, providing a budget for the move.
Those retirees also “preserved a lot of the everyday, workaday tools of the trade of Forest Service history,” says Boyd. A lot of times when equipment was being retired, a thoughtful worker would hang on to it, perhaps stow it in an attic. That kind of equipment — including old skis and backpacks — is now a part of the exhibit.
Members of the organization are called “OldSmokeys,” a fitting term for Joslin, who heard the true story of “Smokey Bear” on the radio in 1950. “Heard this radio report about a little bear being rescued from a forest fire in New Mexico. That really captured my imagination,” he says. “That I think is what really inspired me to go to work with this outfit, to the extent that I did.”
Needless to say, the project of moving and preserving the building was highly important to Joslin.
“I’d say obsession is understatement,” says a laughing Boyd.
Says Joslin, “the National Forest system is something that I’ve lived in all my life. And its proper management by the Forest Service is something that I have striven for all my life.”
“And this,” he says, “always represented to me all of that. And so that’s what drives my interest.”
But there’s also a larger mission to the High Desert Ranger Station: educating the public about forest safety and preventing forest fires.
“The whole idea, other than to give them a feel for the job of administering national forests, is making it both a history lesson and a citizenship lesson,” Joslin says. “Because everybody plays a role in this: They’re the owners of the National Forest System, not the Forest Service.”
At the High Desert Museum
If you go
What: Historic ranger station
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Where: High Desert Museum, 59800 S. U.S. Highway 97, Bend
Cost: Included with museum admission; $15 for adults, $12 ages 65 and older, $9 ages 5-12, free ages 4 and younger
Contact: 541-382-4754 or www.highdesertmuseum.org