July 6, 2019 — Del Phelps loves real estate, and the history of it.
“It’s probably the most enjoyable profession I’ve ever had,” he said. “I get to help people find a home and make themselves happy. That’s the biggest thing for me, to have a happy customer. When I get a customer, if they allow me, they’ll be my customer for life. I’ll take care of them in any way they need. In fact, I’m still helping people I sold houses to five years ago.”
But Phelps also loves history — telling it, preserving it and making it. A former Florence First Citizen, the Berkshire Hathaway realtor has seen the area grow from a mill town — where he worked as a mill worker for over three decades — to the bustling retirement community it is today, with communities such as Florentine Estates, which he helped build.
“I think the kids who grow up in this town, and the people who live here, can always look where they’re going if they can see where they’ve been,” Phelps said. To learn where the community is going, he believes it’s vital to know where it has been.
His family has a long history in the Siuslaw region. A grandfather, a Civil War veteran, brought his family to the area in 1888.
“I don’t know how in the world they ever did it in those days,” Phelps said. “They came from the Indiana area with five kids by train to San Francisco, but then by schooner to Portland.”
After staying in Portland for a few years, homesteading was opened in the Siuslaw region. Not liking their lives in the city, the family applied for a homestead in Indian Creek.
“They went by covered wagon to Eugene, then from Eugene to Rain Rock, which is just above Mapleton. They went by buckboard. They couldn’t do a covered wagon because there is a place on Stagecoach Road called Beacher Rock that wasn’t high enough for a covered wagon. So they put everything they had in hand carts and pushed everything up eight miles to the Indian Creek Valley to set up their homestead.”
That is the area where Phelps grew up.
The main industry upriver was timber, and when Phelps graduated high school he got a job at a sawmill with Davidson Industries, where he worked for 33 years. Over the course of seven years, he worked his way up to the head sawyer position for 20 years. He then switched over to the planing mill.
Phelps helped institute educational opportunities for the workers, helping to cross-train employees and set up seminars. But during the 1980s, the industry began to wane.
“Don Lee Davidson, who owned the mill, began telling us in the early ‘80s that things were not looking good on the horizon for the industry. He told us that quite often in our meetings. He was always up front with us about the writing on the wall. It was going to go downhill.”
While there are multiple reasons for the decline of the logging industry, the Davidson Mill was threatened by government regulations. Around one-third of the timber being fed to the mill came from property owned by Davidson.
“But the other two-thirds had to come from Forest Service land,” Phelps said. “And that land is where they were starting to strict the environmental stuff, the spotted owl and so forth. He could see we weren’t going to win. It was a good time to switch gears.”
In the late ‘80s, Phelps’ then son-in-law came to him with the idea for a community which would come to be known as Florentine Estates, a 443-lot subdivision on 180 acres.
“He was kind of a visionary and wanted to do something. He started planting ideas. I had watched Greentrees Village introduced to the city council. He needed me because I had the contacts. So we sat down and decided what could be done. I said it was time we do another Greentrees, only bigger.”
At the time, there was a rush to change Florence from a small mill town to a retirement community, with revitalization occurring all over the area.
“We wanted to make it an upscale retirement community,” Phelps said.
Phelps incorporated Florentine Enterprises in 1987, and it took two years to get land, annex it into the city, and draw up plans.
“In 1989, we started doing our construction, brought in investor money, got our bank loans lined up,” Phelps said. “Then we actually started putting housing in.”
For the first two years, Phelps split up his day, working at the mill during the daytime, Florentine in the afternoon.
“I was burning the candle at both ends,” Phelps said. “I went into Mr. Davidson’s one day and said, ‘Don, I think I’m going to have to retire because I think this Florentine thing is something I really need to do.’ He did like he always did when he got to thinking. He put his feet on the desk, hands behind his head, looked up at the sky for a minute. ‘You know, I think you got to take the tiger by the tail,’ he said. ‘Run for it.’ He also said I could come back. So, I did. And it turned out to be very successful.”
In many ways, the construction business was not dissimilar from the mills for Phelps.
“When it came to getting on the ground and putting lots together, roadwork, etc., it wasn’t all that different then the experiences I had,” he said. “It was familiar, and I had a good engineer on board.”
Construction work was helpful to a lot of the mill workers who were losing their jobs.
“Not all of them, but a lot of them became regular tradesmen,” Phelps said. “It takes cement workers, plumbers, electricians. So the trades were building up to serve that subdivision. I know a lot of folks who transitioned from the mills to trade. My son was one of them, he became a painter. I’m really proud of that, because as the sawmill industry was going down and people were losing jobs, we were creating jobs.”
And they adapted well. Despite the monumental task, there were no major problems with construction, though “we did have one thing that hit the newspapers,” Phelps said. “I asked my engineer what would happen if the drainage way would not be able to hold water that comes from the north. He said, ‘Well, we’re going to design the streets so that if the drainage ways can’t handle the water, the streets will. And we’ll have a runoff area that goes into Munsel.’ So we did that. And that’s exactly the way it worked.”
When floods came in 1996 and 97, the Florentine streets were knee deep in water.
“Somebody got out there in the canoe with a fishing pole,” Phelps said. “But it worked as designed.”
Since then, the city has put a bypass around it and “so far we haven’t had that tested severely,” he added.
Homes were being sold as fast as they could be built. The first year, 40. The second, 60.
“I knew Florentine was going to sell out one day, and I knew we wouldn’t do it again. So in ‘98, I got my real estate license and started doing real estate.
And he’s been doing it ever since.
“When it comes to real estate, I serve my customers and I’m always here,” he said. “I’m 84 years old and I do it because I love it.”
And as a lover of history, he was also able to use his real estate skills to help bring the past to life for those in the present.
“In 2004, my good friend Bud Miles came to me and said, ‘I would really like you to come on my museum board and be my vice president. We need to find a way to get into Old Town.’”
At the time, the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum was located in a dilapidated building just south of the bridge. Visitors were scarce, and the museum was $20,000 in debt for a roof.
“He wanted someone he could trust to take over,” Phelps said. “He was the first guy I met when I moved into Florence in 1959.”
Phelps agreed to be on the board, and a year later, Miles stepped down and Phelps became president. It was around that time that the old school house on Maple Street in Historic Old Town Florence came up for sale.
“I immediately called a board meeting the next day, told them what I thought we should do. I wanted permission to be able to sit down and talk a deal with the owner. They allowed it, and I called the real estate company and said I would like a meeting to talk turkey.”
Phelps was honest, stating that the museum was in debt and disarray.
“I said, ‘I need time.’ They gave me a six-month option and it would cost me $1. And that’s what we did. I talked to the bank and brainstormed. The best thing we could do was put a consortium together, two banks and the Davidson family. Between the three of those, we got $710,000. And we went from there.”
The Siuslaw Pioneer Museum Board hit the ground fundraising, and with the help of interest free loans and a Western Lane Community Foundation grant of $200,000 at $20,000 a year over a 10-year period, the museum under Phelps’ direction was able to find a new home and pay off its debts.
This is what makes Phelps proud.
“People who live and visit here can look back and see how things were back then, and they get an appreciation to what they have now,” Phelps said. “It gives them ideas and they get visions about how things were. And it’s exciting to them. Those kids come in there and they are just mesmerized by what they see. The docents that work there will tell you that 99 percent of the people that come in here from anywhere, the last thing they say is, ‘Hmm, best little museum on the Oregon coast.’ And it makes me proud that I was able to be a part of that, with everybody’s help.”