A Couple’s Defining Moments
Here, in the very heart of the state, travelers headed east through the narrow passes of the Cascade Mountains abruptly leave behind the Pacific Northwest of Lewis and Clark and enter the Bavaria of two gay pioneers, Price and Rodgers.
They enter a town so concertedly Bavarian that the buildings are half-timbered, the benches are painted, there is a maypole and even a glockenspiel. It could be the Alps, except that, in Leavenworth, every occasion is a special occasion. Christmas lights burn until March. Easter is followed by “Maifest,” which is followed by a June accordion festival. July brings both “Kinderfest” and a sausage festival. A wine festival follows in August, the salmon and autumn leaf festivals in September, and next, naturally, is Oktoberfest. November, it’s time for Christkindlmarkt, or “Christ Child Market,” the Bavarian equivalent of Thanksgiving Day Sales. In December, it’s time to light up the town for Christmas all over again.
Not so long ago, the town of 2,500 was neither merry nor Bavarian. When Seattle residents Ted Price and Robert Rodgers first came through on holiday in the late 1950s, the railroad was long gone. The timber mill had closed. The local high school was condemned. The mayor was a janitor in the local hospital. Business after business along main street was boarded up. More than half of the population had disappeared. Those who remained hadn’t so much stayed as been stuck.
Price and Rodgers saw potential. The town, founded in the 1890s, already had an alpine-like setting. All it needed, they decided, was a make-over. Within 10 years, Price and Rodgers had given Leavenworth a new look and city planners a new verb: “Bavarianize.”
Inspired by the transformation of Leavenworth, a number of depressed rural towns from Oregon to Idaho to British Columbia turned to themes in a bid for survival. Some Bavarianized. Others became Wild West towns, mining towns, wine towns. Adopting a central city theme is now part of a survival strategy being promoted by the state of Washington.
But the pair who first convinced lumberjacks to don lederhosen left Leavenworth for Palm Springs in 1986. After nearly 30 years of teaching a place how to become what it wasn’t, Price and Rodgers finally fully acknowledged what they were: a couple. Both approaching the age of 80, they now live openly as gay partners.
They met in the late ‘50s, sunning themselves on Lake Washington. “We were goofing off from our jobs,” says Rodgers. He was a Seattle native who had joined the Army, served in Europe in World War II, then become a food and drug inspector for the state of Washington. Price was Oregon-born, a former Marine and drug company sales rep in Seattle. As they took to camping together east of the Cascades, neither man thought of himself as “gay.”
But by 1960, they were partners, living together and running a restaurant. On a trip to the mountains, they bought a log cabin-style building, called Cole’s Corner Cafe, 15 miles from Leavenworth. Price fancied doing it up in Wild West decor, but Rodgers thought a style he’d admired in Europe would be better suited to the mountain setting. They remodeled Cole’s with an Alpine theme, in a fashion they called “Swiss Bavarian.”
“It was like saying it was ‘English-French,’ ” says Rodgers. “But Ted was sensitive about anti-German sentiment from the war.” They put their waitresses in dirndl skirts and had oompah music and yodeling at every meal service. “It drove the waitresses nuts,” says Price, “but the customers loved it.” A “chalet"-style motel soon followed.
The cafe was far enough outside of Leavenworth for the couple’s living arrangements to escape the notice of most locals. Attempts by townspeople to introduce Price and Rodgers to their spinster sisters and daughters quietly bombed. Rodgers thinks locals must have realized that they were gay. “They were rednecks, not stupid,” he says. But Price doubts it. A police officer used to freely visit with them, he says. He doubts that would have happened if the officer had an idea that they were gay.
Plus, the town had its mind on other things. Leavenworth was dying. In a bid to attract new business, in 1962, residents formed “Project Life” to consider ideas about how to save the place.
Price joined the committee. Its ideas dismayed him, particularly the enthusiasm for a manufacturing plant along the town’s riverfront. He became convinced that what worked for Cole’s Corner Cafe might well work for all of Leavenworth: He envisioned a town with stuccoed buildings, scalloped trim, turrets, bell towers, covered bridges, Old World street lamps, hand-painted signs, bandstands, art shows, pedestrian promenades, fragrant bakeries and basket after basket overflowing with geraniums. He went to Solvang, Calif., to find out how a handful of canny shopkeepers there had converted the Santa Barbara County farm town to the Denmark of Southern California. He came back with tales of riches. In a Solvang shop, he said, $600 worth of business was a slow day.
Leavenworth decided to give Bavarianization a shot. An article in the local paper about the Alpine scheme attracted the Solvang designer, Earl Petersen. Petersen was soon joined by a German architect out of Seattle named Heinz Ulbricht. Between 1965 and 1967, what had been Chikamin Hotel became the Hotel Edelweiss. The Cascade Drug Store became Der Sportsman, the public utilities building became Hotel Europa, Watson Electric Building was transformed to Alpen Haus and the bakery became the Tannenbaum Building.
By now, the entire town was involved. Locals cleared more than 400 junked cars from the area. Price’s dream of an “autumn leaf” festival and art-in-the-park days took hold. The local newspaper created special tourism “sunshine editions.” By 1970, the town was hosting Christmas Lighting Festivals, and Leavenworth had received an All America City award -- and been featured in Look magazine.
At first, the Bavarianization of buildings was optional. But by 1971, Leavenworth had a Design Review Board, chaired by Rodgers, and every prominent building in the heart of town was expected to comply. One of the first new additions under the Board was a maypole. On the first May Day, Leavenworth grandees donned lederhosen for a grand march. It attracted 2,000 people.
Price found himself in demand to show visitors from other depressed towns how they might Bavarianize too. Business people from Kimberley, in British Columbia, came in 1972, hoping for a solution to the imminent closure of a local mine. They liked what they saw. They began Bavarianization with the installation of what residents now reckon is the West’s largest free-standing cuckoo clock. This was followed by building make-overs, accordion festivals and a tourism boom. “If it wasn’t for the Bavarian theme, we’d have been an old dead mining town right now,” says the clock’s engineer, Bill Spence, owner of a town electronics store and a historian with the Kimberley Bavarian Society Chamber of Commerce.
It wasn’t a foolproof cure. “White Salmon, a Washington town on the Columbia about 50 miles east of Portland, tried a Bavarian theme, but really didn’t do enough of a job,” says Price. In the late 1980s, Kellogg, Idaho, hoped that Bavarianization might cure its ills too. Its business owners Bavarianized 40 or 50 buildings before it switched its theme to the Old West last year. Unlike Leavenworth, it lacked the Cascade Mountains to give the alpine theme a convincing backdrop.
Robin Pollard, assistant director for economic development for Washington state, sees the genius of Leavenworth in the activism, not necessarily the specific theme. Leavenworth’s decision to Bavarianize was “a classic example of a community coming together and developing an economic strategy,” she says. She points to other successful make-overs around the state using other themes: the Wild-Westernization of Winthrop, the Arts and Crafts-ization of Toppenish, the Lewis and Clark-ization of Long Beach and the Napa Valley-ization of Walla Walla.
The Municipal Research and Services Center in Seattle is a nonprofit group that advises the state and city government on town planning. Its legal consultant, Jim Doherty, says Leavenworth’s Bavarianization worked because of the mountain setting, and because it was done with conviction. “I’m amazed at the architectural integrity,” he says.
Neither Price nor Rodgers is German. However, after Leavenworth was Bavarianized, Germans began moving there. Fruit-seller Rudy Prey’s family moved to Leavenworth from Germany in 1975. “There are actually quite a few German people in Leavenworth,” he says. The Chamber of Commerce says that a quarter of the town’s current residents claim a German connection.
These residents and others support four builders specializing in Bavarian-style homes. Prey’s brother-in-law, Vern Petersen, is one of them. He Bavarianized the Chevron station and builds chalet-style homes. The turrets, porches and beam-work add maybe 20% extra to the cost, reckons Petersen, but the homes are far superior to American A-frames.
“They’re very practical in snow country,” he says. “Your walkways are covered, your balconies are covered. They’re practical for summertime too. And they’re just pretty to look at.”
If there is a downside to Leavenworth, it is that it is of more use to the 2 million tourists who pass through every year than the 2,500 people who live there. While the town has 45 restaurants, perhaps 100 gift shops and an internationally regarded Nutcracker museum, there is neither a hardware store nor supermarket downtown.
“When we started it, we wanted to retain the drugstore, the grocery store and the hardware store,” says Price. “We wanted the owners to live above their stores. But the parking got so tight and the locals got so unhappy, most of the businesses serving locals moved to the outskirts.”
Leavenworth is not just attracting tourists intent on yodeling, says Jeff Parsons, who is moving there to head the Audubon Society’s new Audubon Center Project. It is being set up in a building that was once Price and Rodgers’ old home.
He sees the will to Bavarianize as a kind of environmentalism. “There’s a sense among neighbors that they have a common destiny and if they don’t cooperate with each other, the theme and the attractiveness of the area would be diminished,” he says.
As Leavenworth became a national success story, Price and Rodgers read with amusement in the national press as a number of people, but not them, were credited with the idea of Bavarianization. “We were outsiders,” says Price.
Up until 1980, both men say, they did not think much about being gay. But self-consciousness set in then. Price was working on the Reagan campaign for the Republican Party, which had begun courting the religious right.
Price says he remembers one chilling day when Rodgers answered the phone, and the caller, a party organizer, demanded to know what another man was doing picking up Price’s line. Price promptly quit the party. In 1986, after selling the last of their properties, they moved to California.
After almost 50 years together, both men have only recently come out to their families, says Price. They still have not come out to their old neighbors in Leavenworth.
There is not a trace of Bavaria in the decorations of their desert home. Price has to ferret around in both his bedroom and the kitchen to produce a single carving, and a painting, the last mementos of their Alpine phase. Their new home is done in white, with a minimum of modern furniture, a deep-pile carpet and plate glass window looking out onto a pool lined by lemon trees.
“When I’m through with something, I’m through with it,” says Rodgers. Still, he’s proud of Leavenworth’s Bavarianization. “When we leave something behind, we leave it better,” he says.
Times librarian Penny Love assisted with this report.