Witness Marks

Rosie Day

2017 - Ongoing

The population of Shaniko has dropped 95% in the last 100 years. Once a bustling trade hub and home to more than 600 residents, it now has a population of merely 30. Shaniko is one of several small towns located in Central Oregon’s high desert, an area where the population density falls as low as one person per square mile, making the region one of the least populated areas in America. This project, titled 'Witness Marks', explores life in frontier communities that face challenges of isolation, declining populations, and limited resources.

Witness Marks is a term used in carpentry and construction. It describes a notch, groove or scratch which indicates where a fixture has previously been, leaving an indentation that can be used as a guide for future assembly. Stretches of abandoned homes, schools, and businesses show the framework for what could have been a prosperous way of life in central Oregon. These skeletons represent a time where the American West held the potential to be a place of growth and opportunity.

The towns that do have residents are separated by hours of open road and vast landscapes that call for reflection on the self-sufficiency and resilience it takes to live in this part of the country. Although geographically distant, the towns are held together by community. 'Witness Marks' aims to document this increasingly rare way of life in a manner that challenges stereotypes and misconceptions about both the American West and white working-class communities.

In August of this year, I relocated to Wheeler County to focus on this project. Wheeler County is Oregon’s poorest, least populated and fastest shrinking county. The low number of residents, combined with an aging population, means that the number of young people living in this region is extremely small. Last year, Wheeler High School had a graduating class of just three students. Each of them has since left to attend college, with no plans to return. Over the coming months I aim to closely document the experiences of youth in this region. The trusting, collaborative relationship I have founded with the residents here allowing me to present an intimate portrayal of life in Oregon’s remaining frontier communities.

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  • The road into Antelope, Oregon (Pop. 47)

  • Hunter Woods, Dufur, Oregon (Pop.604).

    Hunter (age 11) plays computer games at his step father Josh’s house in Dufur. The mounted elk above him was killed by Josh when he was 14 years old, and the small buck to the left when he was Hunter’s age.

  • Wild deer roam the streets of Antelope, Oregon (Pop. 47)

  • Lone Elk Market, Spray Oregon (Pop. 160).

    Lone Elk Market is the one of the only remaining businesses in Spray, operating as a grocery store, cafe and gas station.

  • Meliney (Age 5) on the front porch. Dufur, Oregon (Pop. 604)

  • Keegan. Shaniko, Oregon (Pop. 28)

    Keegan (age 14) prepares for a black powder gun performance at the annual Shaniko Days Festival.

  • Richard’s Trailer. Antelope, Oregon (Pop. 47)

  • Glen at his partner Selina’s second hand store in Shaniko, Oregon (Pop. 28)

  • Safety Training. Shaniko, Oregon (Pop. 28)

    Hugh teaches his granddaughter, Kayla, how to shoot at a black powder gunfight in Shaniko.

  • Dio the dog in Josh’s taxidermy workshop and band practice space. Dufur, Oregon (Pop. 604)

  • Abandoned barn on the outskirts of Spray, Oregon. (Pop. 160)

  • Larry hosts a garage sale at his house in Dufur, Oregon (Pop. 604)

  • A teenage girl rides a minibike through the streets of Shaniko (Pop. 28)

  • 2 Rivers Ranch before a thunderstorm. Dayville, Oregon (Pop. 149)

  • Emma (Age 13) collects blue belly lizards to sell for $1 each. Wamic, Oregon (Pop. 36)

  • Letty (age 5) under a heat lighting sky. Mitchell, Oregon (Pop.120)