Named after the river that flows through it, Alsea, Oregon is a lush, green, forested community nestled in a valley between Mary’s Peak and the Oregon Coast. Originally established as a logging town, Alsea is best known for its prime fishing conditions, particularly for steelhead. If you’ve driven Highway 34 to Waldport before, you’ve driven through this eccentric and unique little town, and if you blinked twice when you rode through, you would have missed the crown jewel of Alsea: John Boy’s Mercantile Store.
As I pulled up to park alongside the large historic building, I was immediately aware of the art that adorns the exterior—forest murals painted by local artist Dan Hitchcock. The front entrance features a long wooden porch and a well-worn bench serving as a resting place for locals to sit and watch the highway traffic. The inside of the store exemplifies a quirky Northwest feel, similar to the scenes in David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks.
Once inside, I saw a variety of mounted trophy animal heads that are hung around on the walls, their horns proudly pointing towards the ceiling. Located in the center of the store is a long, natural wooden table giving homage to the past primary industry of the region: logging. On top of the table is a genuine (and somewhat unsettling) black bear skin rug, whose dead beady eyes seemed to follow me everywhere as I wandered around the store. The most outrageous piece of taxidermy that I saw was a large, ferocious mountain lion which sits on a corner, high atop the walk-in beer cooler. The large feline glares down with a permanent snarl, seemingly awaiting an opportunity to pounce upon the human prey below.
Owner and local celebrity Matt Clark is quite the fascinating character. Everyone that lives in Alsea knows Clark, and most importantly, everyone knows that he enjoys pulling a prank or two on his customers. Upon my arrival at the mercantile store, he wasted no time in ensnaring me in one of his infamous booby-traps. After suggesting that I walk over to a particular area of the store, Clark smirked as I was surprised to feel a sudden bop on top of my head… Let’s just say I got Shreked!
I had long heard tales of a notorious fart machine that had been sneakily placed among the shelves, unleashing its sputtering noises upon unsuspecting visitors. When I asked where it was currently located, Clark said his store manager had hidden it from him. I must admit I was slightly relieved to learn that.
Snarky signs that say things such as “If the fishing’s bad, at least you can catch a buzz” and “What happens in Alsea…” hang from the ceiling and around the store, helping to promote the comedic feel. The stock in the store displays everything a rural market should carry, from fishing tackle and hardware to ammunition, food, and logo hoodies. The inventory the store sells most comes from the wide selection of domestic and local craft beers and an impressive line-up of 2 Towns Ciders. Locals jokingly refer to Alsea as the beginning of the Busch Trail, which is a jab at the number of beer cans one can see along the sides of the highway when driving through town. Clark admits that John Boys has been known to be one of the top sellers of particular beer brands in the state, as loggers and fisherman often stop by to stock up on beverages. Nevertheless, Clark quickly counterpointed that title with how he sponsors an annual highway clean-up. The project includes 12 miles of highway “from Alsea to the other side of the mountain. This year, over 30 people from the Alsea community volunteered to pitch in with the recent clean-up.”
Harmless pranks and jokes aside, Clark is a huge advocate for his community. John Boy’s is dedicated to supporting and offering many locally sourced products in the mercantile store. Not having an organized Scout Troop in Alsea, John Boy’s sponsors an annual Pine Wood Derby competition for the local kids, and all proceeds go to fund the preschool. It sells foods produced by Alsea residents including honey, jams, free-range eggs, and grass-fed beef. Alsea Acre Goat Cheese, another local company, makes a delicious cheese product named “party in a jar” that is wildly popular with tourists and locals alike.
When asked what he likes most about running the mercantile store, Clark said he has enjoyed “getting to know his customers and their families,” and that he values the “small town sense of community.” After my visit that day, I knew exactly what he meant, and I will always make it a point to stop by when in the area. So should you.
By Jennifer Moreland