Benton Valley Courthouse in Corvallis, Ore., has an 110-foot clock tower.
Corvallis may just be the perfect college town. Home of Oregon State University, this small hamlet is lively, sophisticated, and occasionally offbeat. It's also modest, with a strong rural flavor. Here you can eat strawberry pie at a diner that's been around since the Coolidge administration, browse through a world-class bookstore, have your chakras read, and feast on roast quail at a lovely bistro.
Despite its laid-back facade, there's always something happening in Corvallis, from chamber music recitals to da Vinci Days, a quirky science festival held in July that features kinetic sculpture races. In the fall, the OSU Beavers play football at Reser Stadium while the 16th century comes alive during the Shrewsbury Renaissance Faire.
Situated at the junction of the Willamette and Marys rivers roughly 80 miles south of Portland, Corvallis also happens to be a truly pretty town of wide streets lined with bungalows. It's surrounded by farms, forests, wetlands, and covered bridges; a 45-minute drive will take you out to Marys Peak, the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range, where on a clear day you can see the Pacific. "Westward the green hills rise gently into the lower slopes of the Coast Range and to the East beyond the Valley are the sharper crests of the Cascade Mountains" is how a Works Progress Administration guide described the region during the New Deal era.
Corvallis was founded in the late 1840s by settlers J.C. Avery and William Dixon. The pair arrived in the Oregon territory and were soon making plans for the town of Marysville. The community was renamed Corvallis (Latin for "heart of the valley") in 1853 to avoid confusion with Marysville, Calif. The settlement got its first store and hotel in 1850; a small school, Corvallis College, opened in 1858. The town was briefly a center of shipping after gold was discovered in southern Oregon, but it was the little school that would eventually become the heart of the Heart of the Valley.
Oregon State University—formerly Corvallis College—extends over a lush 422-acre campus and serves 19,000 students. The massive old granite school buildings still carry their antiquated labels: Pharmacy, Commerce, Home Economics. Stroll around the campus (maps are available at the Kerr Administration Building) or, better yet, take one of the tours geared to prospective attendees. Led by current students, the tours offer both a survey of OSU's most significant landmarks and an insider's view of campus life. Highlights include a visit to the sleek, modern Valley Library (and the raucous café in its basement) and the magnificent Memorial Union. Built in 1928 as the first student union in the state, Memorial features vaulted ceilings, elaborate chandeliers, and stained glass windows. You'll also find a regal hall of flags with students studying and sleeping in chairs.
Other recommended stops include the bookstore (for OSU shot glasses and tank tops) and the 7,000-acre McDonald Forest, a living laboratory for botanical research located four miles from campus.
Downtown Corvallis, 10 blocks from OSU, looks like any prosperous, sleepy American town. The most prominent building is the milk-white Benton County Courthouse with its 110-foot clock tower. Completed in 1889, it's the oldest courthouse in Oregon still used for its original purpose, and resembles, in the words of its architect, Delos Neer, "an Italian villa with military influence."
Corvallis has no cute commercial strip geared to tourists. But there are some fabulous shops, most notably the Book Bin. This former department store is now stuffed with used books and new magazines. You might find a long-out-of-print history of Oregon, a rare old copy of My Dog Tulip, or the lastest issue of Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology.
And then there's Burst's Candies. The selection at this Corvallis institution includes such endangered chocolate varieties as filbert fingers and rum Victoria creams.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of visiting a small town is the chance to taste foods that seem to have become extinct elsewhere. In this respect, Corvallis does not disappoint. At the Gables (which opened in 1958), the menu caters to formal, old-fashioned palates with a locally famous chicken bisque that tastes of nothing but chicken and cream. You will also be presented with a stainless steel relish tray containing black olives, carrot sticks, and celery kept crisp in ice water. The relish tray is a relic; enjoy it while it lasts. That also goes for the classic pies at 80-year-old Burton's Sunnybrook Restaurant. The berry pies are especially scrumptious.
This isn't to say that all the restaurants in town serve up living history. There are plenty of contemporary options, from the great sloppy burgers at McMenamins to the pavé de porc at Le Bistro. McGrath's Fish House features an extensive fresh seafood menu—Idaho trout, Oregon sole, and Alaskan razor clams.
Perhaps the inviting eclecticism of the Corvallis area is best reflected at the Benton County Historical Museum in nearby Philomath. Housed in an old brick building, the museum's assortment of artifacts contains basketwork skullcaps of the Kalapuya, who lived on acorns and crawfish, and an improbably fascinating collection of animal shoes, including an orthopedic horseshoe, a horse snowshoe, and shoes for an ox. Like the whole area, the museum is full of ostensibly ordinary things that become more interesting the longer you look.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are area code 541 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon/Washington TourBook and map. For more information, contact the Corvallis Convention and Visitors Bureau, 757-1544, (800) 334-8118, www.visitcorvallis.com.
Things to See and Do
Benton County Courthouse, 120 NW Fourth St. 766-6834.
Benton County Historical Museum, 1101 Main St., Philomath. 929-6230, www.peak.org/~lewisb/Museum.html.
The Book Bin, 215 SW Fourth St. 752-0040, www.bookbin.com.
OSU tours, (800) 291-4192, oregonstate.edu.
Burst's Candies, 353 SW Madison Ave. 753-2864, www.burstscandies.com.
Burton's Sunnybrook Restaurant, 119 SW Third St. 753-1248.
The Gables, 1121 NW Ninth St. 752-3364.
Le Bistro, 150 SW Madison Ave. 754-6680, www.lebistro.com.
McGrath's Fish House, 350 NE Circle Blvd. 752-3474.
McMenamins, 420 NW Third St. 758-6044, www.mcmenamins.com.
Best Western Grand Manor Inn, 925 NW Garfield Ave. Rates $69 to $150. 758-8571, (800) 626-1900, www.bestwestern.com.
Harrison House Bed and Breakfast, 2310 NW Harrison Blvd. Rates $90 to $140. 752-6248, www.corvallis-lodging.com.
Nutcracker Sweet Bed and Breakfast, 3407 NW Harrison Blvd. $95. 752-0702, www.nutcrackersweetinn.com.
Salbasgeon Suites, 1730 NW Ninth St. Rates $83 to $165. 753-4320, (800) 965-8808, www.salbasgeon.com.
Photography by Susan Seubert
This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.