Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Christmas by the River: Maddax Woods

In 1941, Virgil and Dorothy Maddax paddled a canoe on the Willamette River looking for just the right piece of property. Virgil, a commercial fisherman and boat builder, needed a waterside site where he could construct boats; Dorothy wanted a garden. They purchased a beautiful section of shoreline near a small island and Virgil began to build their house. By himself. With cement blocks that he formed by hand on the property. But when building had commenced Virgil was asked to build a boat, so the couple ended up living in a toolshed on the property until the house was completed.

Lights take the place of dormant flowers
in Dorothy's garden
Virgil was well-known for his boats, generally from 40 to 60 feet in length and most of them constructed of wood. Robust seagoing craft, these boats were mainly meant for hard-working fishermen, and to this day a quick online search will locate a number of them, still out there fishing and crabbing.

Dorothy was an accomplished gardener and prize-winning flower arranger. When not accompanying Virgil on his voyages, she maintained the grounds surrounding their home. She lived in the house that they had made until her death in 1999, several years after Virgil's passing. They left their beloved property to the city of West Linn so that others could visit this peaceful place beside the river.

Today, the cement-block house still stands above the river, and Dorothy's gardens are still blooming. It's hard to imagine a 40- or 60-foot boat in the modest yard, but this is, in fact, where Virgil's boat shop once stood, and there is hope of rebuilding it as an interpretative center. The crucial link, of course, is how Virgil got those boats down the bank and into the river; that puzzle is easily answered by a set of rails leading river-ward down a slope.

This seven-acre property is worth a visit any time of the year. While the house is not open to the public, it is a charming, sturdy building, and the blocks made onsite are clearly visible. Signage gives an extensive history of the property and its former owners. The park is a quiet place with picnic tables and a beautiful view of Goat Island, the second-largest blue heron rookery in the state; in fact, you might want to plan a visit during the first Sunday of the months of March through June for the Blue Heron Watch as the majestic birds return to their summer grounds to raise their families. During the summer and early fall the little beach near the end of the boat rails invites a picnic, and this whole stretch of the river is still popular with paddlers. To make a longer visit, consider exploring adjacent Burnside Park; click here for a hike that encompasses both parks. A wide, smooth trail connects them at a bridge over a small creek. Follow the path through mixed woodland to a small riverside meadow with a view of the Willamette and the tip of Goat Island.

But it's Christmas time, which means that it's time for the Lighting of Maddax Woods. Volunteers set up in mid-November, and the lights go on every evening until December 31. While this is a small park, and while the trails are not extensive, its quiet beauty makes it a perfect holiday destination. Lights run from the access road at the end of River Street, through Dorothy's garden, the river viewing area, and up the gravel pathway to the bridge into Burnside Park. Pick up a brochure and watch for the 50 woodland and river animals depicted by wooden cutouts. A boat made of lights harks back to Virgil's boatbuilding days. Consider coming before dusk to learn about the history of the property and view the Willamette, then wait for dark and the lighting of the lush Oregon woodland. This is a wonderful place to bring the kids (watch them beside the river, of course). On our recent visit we met with numerous delighted children, smiling parents, talkative groups of older folks, and young couples holding hands as they wandered together among the lights.

If you go: Please note that this is not an ordinary park. It is a home site in a quiet West Linn neighborhood, and as such it is not set up as a big tourist destination. Please be respectful; the neighbors don't want their driveways blocked any more than you do yours, and they don't need visitors' dogs running through their flowerbeds.

That being said, if you are unfamiliar with the area, it's easiest to access the park from the end of River Street. From I-205, take Exit 8 and drive toward West Linn on Highway 43/Willamette Drive. Turn right on Burns Street, swing left to stay on Burns Street, and then turn left onto River Street, which ends without much ceremony and with limited parking. You have arrived! Grab your flashlight and a camera and follow the lights! Do note that, while much of the park is accessible, some of the paths are not as wheelchair-friendly as others, so be cautious if you bring one. There is no fee to visit Maddax Woods.

This tranquil park is an unsung gem with a bit of something for everyone. The site is a part of  Oregon's history, hailing from a time when our country was coming out of the Great Depression and lives were being rebuilt. It's part of Oregon's fishing industry and our maritime roots. It is also home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, foxes, otters, and waterfowl; in fact, Dorothy and Virgil were passionate wildlife lovers and bought feed by the truckful for the resident ducks and geese. Wildflower lovers should visit in the springtime and take the hiking trails that explore the woods and Burnside Park. And of course, don't miss the lighting of the woods during the holiday season. Come visit the home where Dorothy and Virgil spent a lifetime together, the place they loved so much that they wanted to share it with everyone. Come see the Lighting of Maddax Woods.

Virgil and Dorothy welcome you!

Site of the boat shop, with signs detailing the whole Maddox story

Part of the railing system that Virgil used to transport his completed boats to the river

More of the railing system, Goat Island in the background

Great Blue Heron nests on Goat Island

Trail from Maddox Woods to Burnside Park

Scenic viewpoint in Burnside Park, shortly after you cross the bridge from Maddox Woods

Burnside Park

Beach at Burnside Park

Overview of the old boat shop, lighted version of the "Mar Azul" in the foreground

Lights take the place of dormant flowers in Dorothy's garden

Merry Christmas from the Cases, we'll see you in 2020!

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