Remembering Thetford Lodge

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • thetford entry
    Photo submitted by Director of Facilities Management Gary Grimm.
  • thetford keys
    Photo submitted by Web Communications Specialist Tonya Wheeler.
  • thetford view from deck
    Photo submitted by Grimm.
  • thetford old railing
    Thetford in 2000. Photo submitted by Grimm.
  • living room
    Living room in 2014. Photo submitted by Director of Campus Safety Ross Stout '85 MM'93.
  • thetford new railing
    In 2011, unofficial Thetford caretakers Steve Strong (left) and Mark Smith built a custom-designed wood stair railing for the cabin, while a friend of theirs carved the salmon and bear into the posts. Details of the post are shown on the left and right. Photo submitted by Stout.
  • language learning center group
    Jack Caplan ’16, second from left, submitted this 2015 photo from a Language Learning Center retreat. “Thetford meant a lot to us as a group,” he wrote. “During my tenure, we would stay a night or two at the cabin annually as a bonding event with both desk staff and language assistants who were also tutors from abroad.” Pictured from left: Lara Zetsche ’17, Caplan, Kristen Patterson ’16 and Lucia Baigorri Hauen, a Spanish language assistant from Argentina.
  • group around fire
    Photo submitted by Wheeler.
  • david craig group
    Professor of Biology David Craig frequently visited Thetford. In 2010, he brought his College Colloquium group, shown here. On Facebook, he recently wrote: “No photo can really capture the truth of my best memories with students, faculty, friends and family in the forest retreat that was part of Willamette University.”
  • biology faculty retreat
    Craig and biology faculty at a department retreat years ago to work on curriculum. Pictured: Associate Professor of Biology Emma Coddington, Professor Susan Kephart, Associate Professor of Biology Melissa Marks, Associate Professor of Biology Christopher Irwin Smith, Continuing Instructor of Biology Jennifer Butler, Craig and Associate Professor Barbara Stebbins-Boaz.
  • thetford guest book
    In the late 2000s, Craig decided to photocopy the lodge guest book, which had notes from many guests.
  • thetford guest book
    Thetford Lodge guest book.
  • jason duncan class
    In 2012, Associate Professor of Biology Jason Duncan led a molecular genetics retreat the weekend before the first day of class. For two days and two nights, students engaged in an intense primer in the theory and practice of the genetic manipulation of Drosophila. Photo submitted by Duncan.
  • thetford table
    A student leans over the infamous Thetford coffee table, which was designed with a deep inset below the glass depicting the bottom of a stream. “A somewhat ‘tacky’ piece of furniture — but at Thetford Lodge, it was a charming fixture!” said Associate Professor of Biology Jason Duncan. He also appreciated the old record player with a collection of albums visitors could bring and leave for others. His favorites were the Gordon Lightfoot classics. Photo submitted by Duncan.
  • autumn at thetford
    Photo submitted by Grimm.
  • bird detail
    Photo submitted by Duncan.
  • balcony
    Balcony view in March 2015. Photo submitted by Wheeler.

Extraordinary wildfires last month devastated thousands of Oregon homes and properties, including Willamette’s Thetford Lodge.  

For many decades, staff, students and faculty regularly flocked to the beloved lodge for retreats, class gatherings and even weddings, but above all, they sought refuge in its gorgeous location along the Little North Fork of the Santiam River, 35 miles east of campus in the foothills of the Cascades. 

Built in 1948 and designed by famed Portland architect Pietro Belluschi, the split-level lodge held four bedrooms, two bathrooms, vaulted ceilings, a full kitchen, a large fireplace and a wrap around porch that overlooked the river. Guests provided their own food, firewood and other amenities while the lodge had electricity and well water. 

Thetford was owned by former Oregon Gov. Charles Sprague, a Willamette trustee, who used it as his private mountain retreat. According to The Collegian, the name “Thetford” held historical and sentimental significance to the family — they named the lodge after the town of Thetford, Vermont, as a paternal ancestor of Sprague’s wife founded the town. 

In 1963, the family donated the lodge to the university for use as an educational and recreational facility. An article in The Statesman Journal celebrating the gift proclaimed “Willamette University isn’t the largest school in the land, nor the richest, but it’s among the best. And it’s now to have just about the most idyllic retreat any university ever had.” 

Sprague, who was also editor and publisher of The Statesman Journal, had strong ties to Willamette. He served on several committees and the university honored outstanding Collegian reporters with “The Charles A. Sprague Award,” a nod to Sprague’s decorated history in Oregon and Washington journalism, according to The Collegian. 

Willamette has decided not to rebuild Thetford. In the upcoming year, the university will likely clean the site and work on next steps with the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the property, said Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Dan Valles

Director of Campus Safety Ross Stout '85 MM'93, who led renovation of the lodge in 2000, said it’s a “huge cultural loss for the university. 

“For employees who either visited a few times or many times, to professors who took their classes up there, it was a shared experience many people had,” he said. “When you talked about it, people knew about it and would comment about what a marvelous experience it was.” 

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