Under a cold, gray sky in March, Concrete Town Councilman Jack Mears wandered among the almost 25 hangars scattered across the Concrete Airport.
Wearing a khaki Skagit Aero Education Museum hat, Mears, 75, poked his head into several hangars packed with so many one- and two-person airplanes that their wings overlapped.
The airport draws thousands of tourists and flyers every July to the Concrete Fly-In to see what the museum’s current director — Jim Jenkins — has restored since the last year.
Mears came to Concrete 18 years ago from Arlington for the small-town lifestyle and to take advantage of the recreational opportunities — primarily flying — against the backdrop of the Cascade Mountains and Skagit River.
He even joined the Concrete Town Council just to speak to the airport’s interests and keep it pure and simple. No stripes on the runway, no lights lining the tarmac.
Like Mears, fellow Councilman Jason Miller decided to move to Concrete five years ago to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Mears remembers how Miller came to the Town Council upset about a plan to log a hill behind his home.
Mears said he saw Miller as a “greeny” with an urban agenda for the 100-year-old rural town. Miller looked a little bit too big city, driving his Subaru Forester — covered in bumper stickers with messages about sustainability, gardening and community — and resembling a model from an Eddie Bauer catalog in his knit cap, khaki pants and sweaters.
But after five years watching Miller build gardens and revitalize the Concrete Herald newspaper, Mears began to change his mind about the young enthusiast. He saw that they shared a stubborn “stick to it” attitude, and Mears respected Miller’s refusal to take “no” for an answer.
“That guy has done more good for this town than any-body since I’ve been here,” Mears said. “If he isn’t mayor within five years, I’ll eat my hat.”
Miller, 44, is now the de facto head of Imagine Concrete, an advisory collective of old and new residents hoping to polish up the best the town has to offer — and clean out the worst.
Over the last year, the group has built a community garden, fenced in the play-ground in Silo Park, started what’s hoped to become an annual town cleanup, and cleared an old administrative building on Main Street that once housed offices of the Superior Portland Cement Company.
Decades after Concrete’s cement and logging industries have gone, a new kind of community has begun to emerge, with a mixture of those who cherish Concrete’s rural lifestyle and are content with its bedroom-community status, and those who want to bolster its assets and attract more tourism and industry while preserving its small-town character.
A 15-pound time capsule Mayor Judd Wilson and Albert’s Red Apple Market owner Rich Frank found in Concrete provides a glimpse of the fabric that has been its fortune and fall — less than 50 years ago, it was still considered a company town.
The steel box contained two glass vials of dry cement from Superior Portland; a chart covered in gold stars tabulating the company’s 1931 safety record; two flags tattered from years of flying over the plant — all relics of Concrete’s industrial past, a town built on the backs of cement factory workers and loggers.
Limestone in the Cascade Mountains lured the founders of the Superior Portland Cement Company up near the Baker River in 1906. Old photos of the area show the plant, quarry and transportation lines reaching across the town and up the mountains.
“It was a company town,” said Cheri Cook-Blodgett, a volunteer at the Concrete Heritage Museum.
Concrete School District Superintendent Barbara Hawkings grew up near Marblemount. She said she remembers the dust that plumed out of the smoke-stacks attached to kilns and how it settled across the town.
“The leaves are green now,” Hawkings said. “When I grew up, the leaves weren’t green. Everything was chalky gray.”
The dust left with the cement company in 1969, when obsolete equipment and tighter air quality regulations forced the company to close. Visitors can still see the community’s history towering over Highway 20 on the west side of town — concrete silos with a faded red “Welcome to Concrete” sign painted on when “This Boy’s Life” was filmed there in the early 1990s.
Standing in front of the Concrete Theatre on Main Street, owner Val Stafford sees the same Concrete she left in her mid-20s. After moving to various cities across western Washington, she came back to find the town looking exactly the same, with the history on its surface.
“You can’t escape it,” Stafford said. “It isn’t something in a book or library or stuck in a museum. It’s right here.”
‘Struggle and stagnation’
A quick stroll around Concrete shows not only the remnants of its past, but the struggles of its present.
The town’s Main Street — in its “uptown,” as locals call it — is relatively quiet on any day of the week. Through the years, “uptown” has evolved from a string of banks, taverns, hotels and shops selling merchandise for the workers in the area, to a struggling retail destination with a revolving door of small businesses.
Business owners have come to depend heavily on seasonal traffic from the North Cascade Highway. That highway closes during the winter and typically reopens in early spring, bringing more tourists through the area.
“Everybody waits for the pass to open,” said Cheryl Pitts, who in 2010 along with her husband, Harold, opened the cleaned-up and remodeled Hi Lo Bar & Grill and the Hi Lo Country Hotel on Main Street.
The newest businesses — including restaurants and gift shops — hope to find the same staying power as long-time restaurateur Anne Brussiere of Annie’s Pizza Station.
Brussiere said her 17-year success is a result of sticking to consistent hours and weathering the ups and downs of the winter slumps. She said you have to serve the tourists and locals with equal care.
“We’re the same with everybody,” Brussiere said.
Brussiere has an advantage being visible on Highway 20. Other restaurants on Main Street have trouble pulling drivers up the short two blocks from the highway.
It doesn’t help, they add, that segments of uptown are littered with junk, abandoned vehicles and crumbling buildings.
Walking down Main Street, Councilman Miller points out how new developments in the community have cropped up next to piles of rubble — an eerie picture of the town’s stagnation.
A new cedar fence lines the community garden Miller and other volunteers have been working on. Volunteers have constructed 22 raised beds ready for planting. Chalk lines mark where Mill-er wants to build a storage shed, gazebo and more beds.
A few yards west sits the Superior administration building, surrounded on one side by hunks of sidewalk torn from Main Street in 2010.
“What is this doing on our Main Street?” Miller said. “I hate it.”
Miller points up the road to the crushed concrete remains of the town’s old elementary school. The school had sat empty and unused for years. Someone had plans to remodel it, but never could finish the project. Then in the spring of 2008, three boys set fire to a mattress inside and it burned down to an empty shell.
Over the years, various groups have tried to turn the town around, attract new business and give Main Street a facelift. But Miller said none of the efforts have stuck.
“It just struck me that ever since the cement companies pulled up stakes and left town in the 1960s, Concrete has seemed to toggle back and forth between struggle and stagnation,” he said.
Unemployment is higher here — about 14 percent according to the American Community Survey.
Even Mayor Judd Wilson faces unemployment at the end of the year when the Unimin Corp. rock quarry and processing plant closes.
From his home, Miller points at five houses around him, noting foreclosures or families leaving the community.
Councilman Mears said that’s one of Concrete’s biggest problems — empty houses. The town had about 815 residents last year. That number has since dropped to just over 780.
“Behind every one of those homes is a tragedy,” Mears said.
Over the last year, locals have renewed their efforts to breathe life into the town. Much of that effort comes from enthusiastic newcomers.
Longtime resident Lou Hillman said residents who moved in over the last 10 years have picked up where longtime residents left off, sparking new energy and momentum.
“We have, for what-ever reason, attracted a lot of young, well-educated families with interpersonal bents,” Hillman said.
Miller, after five years, took over the defunct Concrete Herald in 2009 and now works out of his home on the end of a newer cul-de-sac as the publisher, editor, reporter, ad salesman and delivery boy.
The monthly newspaper that was once a weekly edited by Charles Dwelley has rejuvenated the town, reminding people about the community and events happening each month, Miller said.
Stephanie Morgareidge, another newcomer, said volunteering and working in a town like Concrete yields greater rewards than the same effort in a larger town like Mount Vernon.
She and her husband moved to Concrete around the same time as Miller, looking for an affordable home at the height of the housing bubble.
“I really, truly got to see how my efforts and how my actions make tangible differences.”
It’s those efforts that will allow Concrete to grow out of its old reputation as an undereducated community of working-class people without an industry. She said the town has done a lot to shake the term “upriver” and all that it stands for.
“That’s not us up here,” Hillman said. “We’re not backwards, we’re not under-educated. We have a bad reputation and we’re trying to fix that.”
Put to the test
Concrete still has hurdles to clear. Business continues to struggle; few industries have returned.
But every day the town is a little spiffier, a little cleaner.
And there are an increasing number of bright spots.
Stafford, who’s thrown herself into promoting Concrete since she moved back to town, reopened the Concrete Theatre in February 2010, which she said has become a community hang-out every weekend. Some nights there can be as few as seven people, other nights as many as 70.
“The choice is, you come here, pay less and see your friends, or drive to Burlington, pay three times as much and don’t see anyone you know,” Stafford said.
A lot of families come to the theater to watch a movie, and then head to a nearby restaurant, like Cascade Burgers on Highway 20. Owner Susan Taxdahl served a packed crowd April 16, on the business’ one-year anniversary. She said it’s even busier in the summer.
“When the pass opens, it’s another world up here,” Taxdahl said.
It’s the kind of world that locals say they’re proud to be a part of.
“How many towns do you know of that have a historic theater, their own newspaper, an airport and a dam inside the city limits?” Stafford said. “And it’s only three miles long.”