In another life, perhaps, I might have been a blacksmith in Clackamas County.
When Bob Denman picked up his mallet and tongs, and went to work hammering out a custom dandelion weeder on his anvil, I felt as though I were at home in the 19th century … or perhaps the 21st, given that the stove was propane-heated.
The 76-year-old Denman owns Red Pig Tools, in farm country outside the Portland-area village of Boring. In his barn he displays about 250 different items — “a greater variety … than you’ll see anywhere else in the country, maybe in the world,” he insists.
It’s not hard to take him at his word. Here, for instance, is a hori hori, a Japanese farmer’s knife that doubles as a trowel. Over there is a ridger, a furrowing tool that is “common in Europe, not so common here.” Denman keeps a “reference collection” of antique tools in an attic that is otherwise filled with the chirps of nesting birds.
“I only make stuff that I can’t get,” he said. “But over time, I’ve made a lot of really oddball tools” — including scores of his own custom design.
A former newspaper ad man, Denman apprenticed to a blacksmith at age 50 and moved from California to Oregon 12 years later. “It’s easy to learn the basics of blacksmithing in two or three weeks of immersion,” he said. “But just to learn how to hammer well takes two to three years of steady work. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument.”
As the author of an encyclopedia of garden tools, Denman credits the reemergence of organic gardening with reawakening interest in traditional tools that haven’t been seen for generations. “A lot of tools disappeared after World War II,” he said. “Before then, most agriculture was done with hand tools. Wartime needs showed manufacturers they didn’t need to make such a wide variety. Now, I think, gardening represents an escape from technology for many young people.”
And Boring, by the way, isn’t boring at all. The village even has its own brewpub and winery.
Bob’s Red Mill
Red Pig Tools was a good introduction to Clackamas County, one of the largest of Oregon’s counties (with nearly 400,000 residents), but so diverse that it is hard to profile.
Promoting itself as Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory, the county extends from Timberline Lodge to west of the Willamette River, just south and east of Portland. It incorporates more than a score of small and medium-sized communities, including historic Oregon City, the first capital of the Oregon Territory, and Lake Oswego, acknowledged as one of Portland’s most upscale suburban neighborhoods.
But Clackamas County is also an agricultural region, as Denman was quick to demonstrate.
Right in the suburban heart of Milwaukie, midway between Oregon City and Portland, is one of the world’s most famous grain stores, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods.
An employee-owned company, Bob’s Red Mill produces more than 400 grain-based products, 80 of them gluten-free, for sale in 80 different countries. Founded in 1978 by Bob and Charlee Moore, both of whom remain
in the business as they near their 90th birthdays, the company engages its public by offering 75-minute tours at 10 a.m. weekdays.
The entire product line is displayed here: milled whole grains, baking mixes, seeds, nuts, bans, dried fruits, spices and herbs. What makes the whole grains unique is that they are ground with quartz millstones from several late-1800s mills — again, a return to traditional methods.
Bob’s millstones were quarried in France and purchased from an old water-powered flour mill in North Carolina, which hadn’t used them in nearly a century. They had been phased out in the 1880s, replaced by high-speed roller mills that could make white flour much more quickly. But Bob’s was interested in the slow milling of whole-grain flours. An original French Buhr millstone is still on display within the 20-acre, 550,000-square-foot factory.
A mile away from the production facility, the Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Store & Visitors Center welcomes visitors from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Sunday. I recommend a soup-and-sandwich combo on multi-grain bread.
In search of food
I spent four nights exploring different parts of Clackamas County, and much of what I saw and experienced came back to food.
At Our Table Cooperative, a remote farmstead between Sherwood and Wilsonville, members share a weekly harvest of vegetables, fruits, dairy products and even beef. Classes in backyard farming, sourdough bread making and food preservation were hot topics in the farm’s surprisingly well-stocked grocery. And my Farm Friday happy hour (4 to 8 p.m.) dinner was so delicious, I’m inspired to return for OTC’s monthly Sunday brunch.
Outside of Canby, St. Josef’s Vineyards and Winery was a pioneer Oregon winery when it was planted 40 years ago by Hungarian-born Josef Fleischmann. Now the winery offers food and music events every summer weekend, opportunities to sample pinot noir, syrah, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and other varietals. All are sustainably farmed on the 60-acre Cascade foothills property, produced with no pesticides or irrigation. St. Josef’s is one of 14 wineries on the Mt. Hood Territory Wine Trail.
My favorite places to dine? I’ll name three. The Stone Cliff Inn, in a rural section of Oregon City overlooking the Clackamas River, offers stunning views from its outside deck. Chef Briant Garcia’s menu ranges from wild game (elk, boar, buffalo) to fresh seafood, salads and pastas.
Also in Oregon City, but on a bluff above the Willamette Falls is the Highland Stillhouse Pub. Owned by a Scotsman and serving greater Portland’s largest selection of single-malt scotch whiskey, this two-story, Old World pub serves fish and chips, bangers and mash, and cottage pie amid antique furnishings from the British Isles.
In Lake Oswego, I enjoyed the fare — and the service — at the 5 Spice Seafood & Wine Bar, overlooking the lake from Lake View Village. Among many dishes prepared with Asian flair, I loved the roasted sturgeon, served with black rice risotto, sautéed wild mushrooms and just a touch of tobiko to finish.
Several other fine restaurants are ensconced in Lake View Village, a recently developed residential and commercial area that faces Millennium Plaza Park, a community gathering place that hosts concerts, outdoor movies and farmers’ markets. It also has a fine view of waterfowl and watercraft on 405-acre Oswego Lake, the town’s 2.3-mile-long centerpiece.
Another highlight of Lake Oswego is its Gallery Without Walls, a rotating collection of 72 outdoor sculptures placed throughout the city of 39,000. A majority of the public art pieces are in the downtown area, within five blocks of Millennium Plaza Park, and offering a perfect opportunity for a self-guided walking tour.
I stayed nearby at the Lakeshore Inn, the only lakefront hotel in the lakeside community. From my second-floor balcony, I watched a great blue heron scout the shore for small minnows, apparently oblivious to the large catfish feeding nearby.
I had another great view, of a very different kind, in Sandy, an eastern Clackamas County town best known as a Portlander’s gateway to Mount Hood. Barely a mile north of the Best Western Sandy Inn on U.S. Highway 26, the Jonsrud Viewpoint offers a spectacular panorama — when the sun is shining — of the Sandy River Valley and 11,245-foot Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak. With the help of interpretive signs, you may be able to pick out the 1840s Barlow Road, the final section of the historic Oregon Trail.
The need for speed
One of the highlights of my Clackamas County visit had nothing to do with food. This was the World of Speed Motorsports Museum, a three-year-old Wilsonville museum whose new exhibit on the Porsche 911, one of the most iconic sports cars of all time, will run through December. From street cars to the 911 IROC of champion driver Emerson Fittipaldi, a dozen Porsches — made since 1963 in Stuttgart, Germany — are on display.
A permanent exhibit called “Zero to 1000 MPH” showcases the people and vehicles who have challenged and broken land speed records. I also found memories of the Portland International Raceway and Woodburn drag strip, a replica of the Daytona 500 banking wall with cars driven by NASCAR stars, and a section on road-race motorcycles.
“We want to make sure this exhibit is accessible to all people, to raise interest to preserve auto sports in the Pacific Northwest,” exhibit developer Matt Suplee told me.
Both are located on Boones Ferry Road, named for early settler Alphonso Boone, grandson of the famous Appalachian frontiersman Daniel Boone. I dare say the food options are better today than they were in his time.