Cave Junction: A Town Making Do

Dec 3, 2013

Cave Junction is a small town struggling to support itself. It is one of two incorporated cities in once Timber-rich Josephine county. In Southern Oregon, residents are coping.

On the Friday before Veterans’ Day. The mayor of Cave Junction and some volunteers are unloading trucks full of army surplus clothing to give away the next morning. 

This is the second “Stand Down” breakfast mayor Carl Jacobsen has hosted. At 69, he’s been mayor for 3 years.

“There was nobody that would run. It’s a problem, not only just us, but in other counties. Cities have that. Getting people to volunteer; they want to complain, but they don’t want to do something about it.”

In the 70’s and 80’s, Cave Junction grew and thrived on the timber industry. Rough ‘N’ Ready Mill provided more than 200 jobs. Federal timber payments went to social and city services, leaving residents with very low taxes. Today, Jacobsen says the city is struggling and *resistant, to footing the bill.

“It’s the county commissioners, the previous ones, it’s their fault. They should’ve planned better. They shouldn’t have just kept spending, spend, spend, like it’s going to be there forever.”

Rough ‘N’ Ready Mill closed this year.  The town’s median household income is under half of what it is for the state. Carol Dickson is a retired police officer.

“There’s nothing left out here besides minimum wage jobs, or growing pot.”

Dickson lives three miles out of down. She’s like a lot of residents: retired, artistic, relaxing with her dogs in the woods of the Illinois Valley.

Cave Junction is in the mystical part of Oregon where it doesn’t rain that much. The Valley has gotten national attention lately. Not for its beauty, but for its lack of police patrols. The New York Times featured a vigilante group who’ve started patrolling with their own guns and trucks. NPR reported on a domestic violence call, where the victim was told “due to understaffing, police could not respond”.  

“We’ve had a number of different crimes here since we’ve had the drastic budget cuts”

Joel Heller is the only Deputy for Cave Junction, and one of two for the whole county. He says the decrease in patrols has made things “go crazy”.

“For instance, the post office burnt down. The post office has been standing a long time. All of a sudden it burns down.”

It was arson. State troopers now support the county law enforcement. Deputy Heller says they help, but they’re sometimes too far away. The Josephine County Deputy says when they first came down to help it was like they were “thrown into the lion’s den”.

Cave Junction has four stoplights along the Redwood Highway. It’s a winding, hilly 30 mile drive southwest of Grants Pass. At the last stoplight, a church sign reads “Where the grass is greener, the water bill is higher.” The veteran’s day stand down is nearby at the park.

Phil and his three-legged dog Einstein are getting breakfast. A Veteran Marine, Phil calls Cave Junction a place for people ‘in the evening of life’. But

“You can tell about a town by the animals that they have. And the animals out here are well taken care of!”

An 11-year-old boy scout brings Phil and Einstein biscuits and gravy – fresh from “Mama’s” kitchen.

“Everybody calls me mama. I’ve got people 70 years old callin’ me mama. I just like to take care of people.”

Mama, or Judy Thomas, owns one of the few restaurants in town.

Thomas and everyone helping this morning are volunteering their time. It’s not just today. In Cave Junction, the mayor is a volunteer. Most firefighters are. Even De, who coordinates the town’s two Veteran transportation vans, is a volunteer.

"I'm poor, and I would be poor anyway. It seems to me that you can sit around and bitch that the government doesn't take care of the warriors, or you can take care of the warriors."

There aren’t a lot of fancy houses in Cave Junction. Across from the elementary school where his grandson goes, the mayor points out a cluttered yard that needs to be picked up. (ambi)

The town has problems. Meth and cocaine are common assumptions for why some residents’ faces looks so worn. And with the law far away, some have begun to steal.

Carol Dickson, the retired police officer, started a virtual community watch last year.

“You know we live in a small town! Somebody knows who stole that tractor!”

Illinois Valley Facebook pages have very active users.  People chat about why there are a bunch of state patrol cars on the side of the road. Or they plan photography club meet ups. Dickson says her community watch page, “To Catch a Thief” has discouraged some criminal activity.

“I think it provided a cohesiveness. A sense of community again.”

No solutions have really been offered to Cave Junction besides the need to pass a public safety levy. It’s hard to separate lack of law with the city’s other struggles. It’s all a cycle of unemployment, drug use, crime and people trying to live on their own like they always have.

Cave Junction was founded as a gateway to the Oregon Caves. With timber out, there are some new things on the horizon. The nearby medical center plans to expand. A call center is supposed to move in. Taylor’s sausage is doing well. And tourism – from wineries to the caves to rafting – is a major draw.

Tristan Fiske, a local highschooler, wrote an award-winning essay titled “If I were mayor”.

Tristan proposed to rebuild the city skate park. Mayor Jacobson is working on it.

“We have an artist that’s going to build a sculpture that’s like a big stump. Some climbing, maybe some slalom courses through the trees.”

Whether they decide to fund more police or not, Cave Junction is still home to more than a thousand people. And with the Tony Hawk-funded skateboard park in the works, they certainly are not all over 65.