A Place of Family Memories

By Craig Reed

Donald Billick, 94, doesn’t seem to mind the raindrops that fall on his hood as he sits quietly in his wheelchair and looks out over the Umpqua River from a wooden deck on his family’s property.

Donald and Barbara Billick have spent time together along the Umpqua River since they married in 1946. Photo by Craig Reed.

Not a man of many words these days, Donald’s health is failing. This may be his last visit to this special place a few miles downriver from the Elkton community.

Donald’s lips ease into a smile as he looks at the swollen river and the greenery stretching out along both banks. That smile is enough to show he is enjoying these minutes on the deck, despite the rain, even if it is a struggle to verbalize his thoughts.

This trip, made along with Barbara, his wife of 76 years, has made his day. Their son, Gary, drove the couple from their Cottage Grove residence.

“It’s a place with lots of memories,” Barbara says.

Donald’s father, Warren, bought 82 acres—some on the river side of Highway 138 and some on the mountain side—in 1930 and moved his family from Southern California. Donald was 1 year old at the time.

“There’s been a passing down of memories and stories,” Gary says. “A lot of people don’t have a special place like this to go to.”

Donald and Barbara met in high school and married shortly after graduation.

Barbara and Donald have 3 grown children: Nancy, Gary and Jim; 5 grandchildren; 8 great-grandchildren; and 11 great-great grandchildren. Their fourth child, son Linn, died as an infant.

Through the years, the riverfront property has provided the extended Billick family with salmon and smallmouth bass fishing opportunities, summertime swimming and splashing, and a warm, and sometimes rainy, gathering place.

Even though most of the memories are of fun times, Barbara and Gary describe a scary event on Donald’s behalf. He listens and smiles while the other two provide the details.

Donald, at age 75, was in his boat, fishing by himself near his property’s shoreline just above Sawyer’s Rapids. The trouble began when the boat’s anchor got stuck on the river’s bottom. Donald got his knife out and went over the side of the boat with the intent of cutting the anchor rope. Just about the time he cut through the rope, the boat turned sideways in the river and rolled over on top of him. That sent Donald underwater and down through Sawyer’s Rapids.

Fortunately, neighbors across the river from the Billick property saw Donald’s dilemma and saw him go under through the rapids. They raced to the river’s edge to help him out of the cold water after he popped up and was able to get to the shore. He was still holding his knife.

Donald’s shoulder was dislocated, having been yanked out by the anchor rope when his boat rolled, and he was suffering from hypothermia. The neighbors quickly got him covered, an ambulance arrived and he was taken to a clinic in Drain, where he recovered.

“It was quite a ride,” Barbara says. Donald and Barbara almost always fished together, launching their boat from their shoreline. Their favorite fishery was the spring chinook run. Barbara is proud to say of the two of them she caught the biggest springer—a 22 pounder—and the most fish. She admits she caught more fish because Donald was running the boat.

As a teenager, Donald helped his father, who grew and harvested daffodil, lily and iris bulbs during the 1940s and ’50s. They took blooming daffodils to Eugene, where they were shipped by air to national markets or by bus to Los Angeles.

Barbara and Donald met while students at Elkton High School. They graduated in 1946 and were married later that year.

Donald soon began working in the woods and became a heavy equipment operator. For more logging opportunities, the couple moved their family to McKenzie Bridge east of Eugene in 1959.

Eventually, the family sold 20 acres of the original 82 Warren bought. The remaining 62 have stayed in the Billick family and are now in a family trust.

Even while living at McKenzie Bridge for about 30 years and then in Springfield for several years before becoming Cottage Grove residents, Barbara, Donald and family members spent many weekends, holidays and vacation days on and alongside the Umpqua River.

“It’s a place where the family can come to regroup and spend time together,” Barbara says. “It’s been a fun place for everybody, and we want it to continue to be.”

Gary says the property is in a trust to keep it in the family.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he says. “It’s here for the family.”