Remembering the Wagon Wheel
In its heyday during the late 1940s and 1950s, the Wagon Wheel Park skating rink and dance hall was the “rockin’ place to be” on Saturday nights in Camas.While the venue located on Northeast Third Avenue on the banks of the Washougal River was a skating rink on the weekdays, on Friday nights it began its transformation.
Willard Carroll worked at the venue owned by his uncle, Pat Mason, and remembers climbing up a ladder and changing the individual sheet metal letters outside each week from the word “S-K-A-T-E” to “D-A-N-C-E.”
He would then head inside to help set up the 20 by 30 foot stage, and put “dance wax” on the floor to prepare for the hundreds of people who would be descending on the hall for an evening of fun the next day.
“There could be as many as 500 to 600 people there on a Saturday night,” Carroll said during a recent interview.
A variety of bands, singers and dancers entertained the crowds. And these weren’t just small-time locally known acts. According to Carroll’s daughter, Sheri Phares, some of the guest performers included the era’s top names in country music like singer and actor Tex Ritter; pianist, composer and arranger Stan Kenton; Disney composer and tuba and brass instrumentalist George Bruns; and singer Willie Nelson, who at the time had also worked as a disc jockey at KVAN radio station in Portland.
“Willie got his start in the Wagon Wheel; then Pat became his agent,” Phares said.
Today, the building that was once a hot spot has been vacant since July 2007 and has fallen into severe disrepair. So much so that its current owners will have it leveled as part of a Saturday, March 24 training burn conducted by the Camas Fire Department. To date, no plans for the construction of a new structure on the site have been submitted to the City of Camas by owners Marwan and Jacqueline Bahu and Howard and Lorena Reser.
“It was a beautiful building.”
Mason, a former promoter with Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry road shows, began construction on the building in 1947. It was made of stripped fir logs cut to be uniform in size then stacked. When complete, it was quite a unique sight.
“It was a really beautiful building,” said Dalphyne Carroll, Willard’s wife.
Just as Mason, who had previously operated a skating rink at the nearby American Legion Hall in Camas and Holcomb’s skating rink in Vancouver, was preparing to open the new venue to the public in 1948, a major flood hit the area. The infamous “Memorial Day flood” destroyed Vanport city in Oregon and traumatized the Southwest Washington area.
According to the June 3, 1948, edition of the Post-Record, the Red Cross reported that more than 160 families, comprised of nearly 500 people, had evacuated the Camas-Washougal area due to flooding — a record number.
One Post-Record reporter was able to hop on a plane from what was then called “Groves air port” (now Grove Field in Fern Prairie) and get a bird’s-eye view of the damage, the worst of which was centered in the Vancouver area.
“Coming back to Camas, one could see the Oak Park school [now the Camas Community Center] still standing on its island of green and Midland Acres with the backed up Washougal River spread over roadway and around houses. At Washougal, the [Pendleton] woolen mill buildings stood knee-deep in water as had a part of the Crown Willamette mill and the newly improved athletic field.
“Only by seeing it from the air, spread out like that below, can anyone possibly begin to have a faint idea of the incalculable cost of a disaster as has been visited on this part of the country or the enormous clean-up job ahead.”
In response to the impending threat to his newly completed building, Willard Carroll said Mason led the construction of an 8 foot high dirt dike around his property topped with about two additional feet of sand bags, which kept water damage to a minimum. Dozens of volunteers from the community and the U.S. military helped build the blockade.
The dirt from the dike was later spread throughout the property, raising the ground height substantially.
“There are still about four steps that lead up to the entrance buried in the dike material,” Willard Carroll said.
Willard, 84, and Dalphyne, 81, met at the Wagon Wheel and married on Nov. 8, 1952. The raised their family and lived in Washougal until moving to Vancouver in 1991. The couple has many fond memories of time spent at the Camas landmark.
“When they first started holding the dances, there was nothing to do — no television or anything,” Dalphyne said. “The [dance hall and skating rink] were our highlights; it was a fun place. Those were our stomping grounds.”
It was when popular music styles began to shift in the late 1950s that country music lost its wide-spread popularity and attendance at the dance hall began to diminish.
“The business couldn’t survive just with the skating rink alone,” Willard said.
Wagon Wheel Park closed around 1957, and Mason and his wife Alta moved to Seaside, Ore., where he opened another successful dance hall. He lived in Seaside until his death in 2001.
In the late 1950s the Wagon Wheel Park building was purchased by a new owner, siding was placed over the fir logs that were beginning to rot, and it was re-opened as a bowling alley — a use that continued for the next several decades. Riverside Bowl closed nearly five years ago, and the building has been vacant ever since.
Memories remain on site
There are still some remnants of the building’s 1950s heyday left inside.
Today, the original river rock fireplace still stands, and Phares said she hopes to be able to go inside the building before it is torched to remove several agate rocks that were placed in its keystone by her father’s grandmother, the late Blanche Mason.
Phares also believes some of the original light fixtures made from actual wagon wheels may still be hidden above a false ceiling that was installed when the building became a bowling alley.
“It’s sorta sad,” Dalphyne said of the impending razing of the place that was once the heart of Camas social life. “We had a lot of good times there.”
“It was a pretty interesting place in its time,” Willard added. “But nothing’s forever.”