Cycling through history

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“I’m going to get paid to ride my bike!” That was the first thought when my editor suggested profiling local history rides for a feature article.

Anyone who knows me well understands I have a passion for exercise, and I’m also intrigued by most anything historical.

Although I’m new to cycling, I was pretty certain I could keep up with the other riders on the 15 to 20 mile jaunt, which includes several stops to visit local areas of interest.

The Camas History Stroll, as its called, is led by Joseph Blanco. Given the amount of information he knows about the area, you’d think he’d lived here for several years.

Nope. Try seven months. The man knows more about the local area than most people I’ve met, including myself. He’s immersed himself in the area and is also offering downtown walking tours, in addition to cycling tours.

Blanco began coordinating the free rides through the Vancouver Bicycle Club a few months ago, as a way to combine his love of history and cycling. He has a master’s degree as well as a doctorate in history.

“Cycling allows me to take riders beyond the confines of my walking tours and see more,” he said. “Whereas a walking tour is usually limited to a mile or so, I can lead a history tour by bike for 15 to 20 miles and still do interpretation with my portable mic.”

Blanco scoured the internet, national archives, local historical societies, the library and interviewed longtime residents to develop his history rides.

Much of his tour focuses on local builder John Roffler, who designed more than 200 homes in the area between 1906 and 1924, never having had formal training as an architect. Several of these homes are on the National Register of Historic Places.

How Roffler died remains a mystery: He passed away at the age of 45, but all that is known is that he was forced to live in a nursing home against his will.

“I even went to the death records and cannot find the reason,” Blanco said.

The history rides are held periodically, and are free of charge. Riders must sign up in advance and follow all rules of the road. Helmets are worn on all rides. The pace is between 12 to 14 mph with several stops. No one is left behind.

“I enjoy seeing and feeling the enthusiasm of my cycling participants when I interpret the local history flavor,” Blanco said. “Many have questions and want to know more.”

On a recent Friday ride, several of us meet at Caffe Piccolo coffee shop in downtown Camas. It’s a friendly group of cyclists, and they all seem to know each other from one event or another. However, everyone does their best to include me in the discussions, which I appreciate.

After hearing a brief safety orientation and signing a waiver form, we head to our first point of interest, the Farrell Building in downtown Camas. The Farrell family were early Camas, or “La Camas” pioneers, as it was known then. Charlie Farrell worked at the paper mill, saved his money and bought the Glenn Ranch General Store with his wife, Rose (who was Roffler’s sister), in 1903. The Farrell & Eddy Department Store, believed to be the county’s second oldest retail business, closed in 1998. Roffler stone was used in the construction.

The next stop on the tour is right next door, at the Liberty Theatre, which is still owned by members of the Farrell family.

“Everything in this town is connected,” Blanco said. “In the 1920s, it was known as the Granada Theater and it showed first-run movies until 2009.”

Now renovated, the Liberty Theatre offers second-run movies for $3.25 and is in the process of adding a sandwich and ice cream shop, he added.

Next we stop by The Eddy House, located on Fifth Avenue, built in 1920 by Roffler for his sister, Anna Eddy.

“It is the only home he built in ‘prairie style,’” Blanco said. “It is not huge, but it is big on quality.”

Two other homes built by Roffler for various wealthy members of the Camas community are just a block away.

“Back then, this was all forest, but people were still close enough to walk into town,” Blanco said.

From there, we head up to Roffler’s most well-known creation, the Farrell House, built for Charlie and Rose Farrell in 1915. It is a large square neoclassical structure with a wide veranda, two story columns and balustrades at both levels. The cast concrete blocks were made by Roffler and used in its construction. These became known as “Roffler stone.”

“Roffler learned a lot from working on the Pittock-Leadbetter house in 1902 and used that knowledge when building this house,” Blanco said.

After admiring the Farrell House and surrounding property for a bit, we head down to First Avenue, where Roffler built his second family home when his wife, Ethel, was pregnant with their second child.

“She wanted to live closer to town and in a larger home, so Roffler built this one for her,” Blanco said.

Ironically, it is my favorite house in all of Camas, and I’ve often walked by and admired its unique construction.

A tour of the Camas Cemetery to see where Roffler and his family are buried is next. There’s a bit of a hill to climb, and I struggle to look like one of the “cool kids” and not stand up on my bike to pedal. However, my burning quads won’t let me sit, so I huff and puff my way to the top of the hill. Phew.

We then head to Lacamas Lake and climb up to Leadbetter Road for an up close and personal view of the historic Pittock-Leadbetter house, where Roffler first honed his skills as a carpenter. From there, we cycle around the lake, up Friberg Strunk Road and dip down on Lake Road before heading back up Everett Street to look at Roffler’s first family home. It is a Queen Anne Victorian with a parlor and arched doorways, built in 1905.

The tour concludes where it began, at Caffe Piccolo. I chat with other riders to get their perspectives.

“I thought it was very interesting and fun,” Chris Kramer of Vancouver said. “I loved learning more about the houses and people here.”

Mike and Carolyn Kalish are retirees who moved to Washougal two years ago. They’ve been cycling since 1987 and enjoy its physical challenges and social opportunities.

“I really enjoyed the ride today because we got to meet new people and seeing new places,” Mike said.The two heard about the ride after browsing the VBC website, and decided to check it out.

“I just loved learning more about where I live,” Carolyn said.

Mike added that this ride was unique because of the historical aspect.

“On many of the rides we go on, we don’t really look and pay attention to the sights around us,” he said. “Here, it’s all about a fun experience.”