Americana: Oregon

Oregon's Forests and the American Home
January 18, 2011 to February 19, 2011

The "dream home" is an obsession in America. Home ownership symbolizes the material success of one of the basic forms of Western social organization, the family unit. The dream home also represents the ideal of luxury through space in square feet. Claiming space, economic success, and building a home go hand in hand in America. The state of Oregon is an excellent microcosm in which to examine the confluence of these priorities. In the 1800's the national ideology became fixated on the western frontier. Manifest Destiny justified western expansion in the national consciousness by claiming that divine providence required the nation to stretch from coast to coast. The vast ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest were earmarked as a resource fifty years before Oregon became a territory in 1848. These resources signified spaces that could be cultivated and became an object of interest to entrepreneurs, laborers, and homesteaders. Timber became an economic and social opportunity; the wood produced by this industry was an essential raw material for building new homes.

To understand how Oregon's forests became connected to the home building industry on a national scale it is important to look at the history of the area. Between 1804 and 1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled to the mouth of the Columbia River, exploring space for resources that could serve the nation. They noted the potential of the area's forests in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, assuring him that the region would be a valuable addition to the country. The first mills in the Pacific Northwest were built between 1827 and 1850 and began to turn trees into a product. These operations boomed in 1883 when the transcontinental railroad was established. Steam locomotives made it possible to export lumber and the system of tracks made distribution inland possible. The national market began to demand Western lumber in 1900 when the timber around the Great Lakes was exhausted. From this point on the state's lumber industry was a significant part of the national economy. By 1930 Oregon passed California and Washington as the primary lumber-producing state. Today the home building industry is one of the primary consumers of the products of Oregon's major lumber producers, linking a majority of the homes built in the United States to trees from Oregon.

The link between claiming space and building homes is apparent in Oregon's history but it is also evident in the history of the nation and in the desires and priorities of many US citizens. Oregon's Homestead Act of 1862 attracted settlers by offering 160 acres to white males who stayed and worked the land. Homesteaders such as Omund Jaastad moved from Norway to Oregon claiming the land through settling, logging, and farming. Jaastad's descendants, notably Dr. Donald Clare Jaastad, still live in Oregon and work in the forest industry today. Others never achieved the dream to own property and establish a home. Ironically, many of the laborers who worked in Oregon's early logging industry were not able to capitalize on this promise. Leading nomadic lifestyles and moving between jobs, these workers produced the raw materials from which others built their homes but were not able to build their own. In the 1950's the link between claiming space and building homes became iconic and shaped the American landscape; the suburbs were developed for working commuters who supported nuclear families in the nation's post-war prosperity. Since the 1950's the size of the average American home has tripled. The amount of space, in square feet, of one's home is a sign of social status. Buying property, building one's dream home, and customizing interior home decor are an American obsession which is apparent from the pages of Dwell Magazine to the programming on HG-TV.

-Erin Fletcher

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