Diane Goeres-Gardner authored six books from her home on the Umpqua River, including a pictorial history of Roseburg and a chronicle of 19th-century Oregon hangings.
Story by Jim Hays, Photos by Tom Boyd
Diane Goeres-Gardner is holding her own.
The 22-year resident of Douglas County is a prize-winning poet, an educator, a writer, a regional historian and a popular speaker who has frequently been invited to address civic and historical groups around Oregon.
From the home she shares with her husband Mike on the Umpqua River between Sutherlin and Elkton — and armed with knowledge gained from research field trips to every corner of the state — Goeres-Gardner has authored six books on Oregon’s past, including a pictorial history of Roseburg, published in 2010.
In the process, she has often been the first to delve deeply into little known, yet significant, episodes in what former Gov. Tom McCall once termed “The Oregon Story.”
Goeres-Gardner’s books are distinguished by thorough research and fact checking, as well as her particular knack for discovering rich, telling details that animate stories and characters that might otherwise stay hidden in seldom-read archives.
But since the 2014 publication of her most recent chronicle, a history of the Oregon State Penitentiary, Goeres-Gardner, 68, has been forced to abandon, at least temporarily, her writing career as she tries to make much more personal history — remaining a cancer survivor.
In May 2015, Goeres-Gardner was diagnosed with breast cancer and began extensive chemo and radiation therapy, as well as surgeries. It was during one of the latter procedures last February that doctors discovered the cancer had spread to her lungs.
The latest setback forced Goeres-Gardner to leave her home on the Umpqua — which she and Mike still own — and move to Eugene, where she is closer to her youngest daughter, Laurie, a psychologist who works at the Oregon State Hospital’s Junction City campus, and Reya, her 10-year-old granddaughter. The couple’s older daughter, Nicolle, works for the City of Portland.
Goeres-Gardner is a fifth-generation Oregonian, whose ancestors arrived in Tillamook County in 1852. She was raised there, got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Oregon and taught middle school and high school in Newberg and Portland.
In Eugene, she was offered a chance to work with UO professor and award-winning poet Ralph Salisbury.
“He asked me if I wanted to do some writing with him on a one-to-one basis,” she says.
The collaboration helped Goeres-Gardner become an award-winning poet in her own right. Her narrative work Racing the Antelope was awarded first prize in the 2002 Oregon Poetry Contest.
“I truly believe if you can write poetry well, you have the background to write just about anything else,” she says.
Her husband, now retired, worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation, which is how they ended up living in Douglas County. Mike Gardner had worked at several ODOT offices when he was transferred to Roseburg to take charge of the office there.
“Mike loved the area and decided that was where he wanted to retire,” Goeres-Gardner says. “I was ready to give up teaching by then and we moved there in 1995.”
The couple bought their property on the Umpqua River and built a home for themselves. It was from there that Goeres-Gardner, who had long had ambitions of becoming a full-time writer, began seeking ideas for books.
Three years of research and writing later, she finished her debut, Necktie Parties, a case-by-case chronicle of legal hangings in Oregon between 1851 and 1905. Caxton Press, an Idaho-based publisher of Western history, released the book in 2005.
“When people meet me, a question they always ask is ‘How do you write about something so macabre?’” she says.
The answer can be traced to the University of Oregon Library, where Goeres-Gardner was doing some research on her own family’s history.
“I was looking at old newspapers on file there and kept coming across articles about hangings in Oregon,” she says. “I had never heard of such a thing.”
Goeres-Gardner started digging in earnest, visiting courthouses and county archives around the state, reading century-old crime reports and whatever trial transcripts and summaries she could find.
She was also aided by reading A Tortured History, a seminal legal analysis of Oregon’s death penalty law by noted attorney and law professor William R. Long. Goeres-Gardner found the book helpful, but much different from the book she wanted to write.
“I wanted to tell the stories of the people involved,” she says. “Who were they? What were their backgrounds?”
Goeres-Gardner enjoyed the process.
“I wrote lots of letters, made lots of phone calls,” she says. “It was a pleasure to meet all these people who are also interested in preserving Oregon’s history and were so willing to help.”
To fact-check her own work, Goeres-Gardner sent a copy of her manuscript to Long, who wrote back that he found no errors and volunteered to write a back-cover endorsement of the book.
Research for her first book led to her second, Murder, Morality and Madness, which details the fate of female murderers in Oregon’s penal system. Oregon has never executed a woman, and for decades had no prison for women. Instead, after their conviction by juries that were exclusively male, women were housed in all-male prisons and often exposed to brutal conditions.
Goeres-Gardner’s Roseburg book was an installment in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series — soft-cover volumes of vintage photographs arranged and captioned to tell the story of a particular city or area of the country. A similar book on Sutherlin was published in 2011.
Compiled in collaboration with the Douglas County Museum, the Roseburg book was a different kind of assignment for Goeres-Gardner.
“Arcadia was looking for authors to do books on the West,” she recalls. “A friend of mine had done a book in California for them and thought it was a positive experience. I contacted them and got a contract.”
Goeres-Gardner was able to put the book together after a summer in which “I lived in the basement of the museum,” looking at historic photos and determining which would make the cut for the book.
“It’s not just a bunch of photos slapped on pages,” she says. “I try to group them to get continuity and establish a flow for the reader.”
The problem for Goeres-Gardner wasn’t finding material for the book, but culling the museum’s trove of vintage photos to a manageable number, then obtaining caption information that she could verify.
“I had an idea of what I wanted to do,” she says. “My choices ended up being the photos in which I could identify the most people.”
Some photos had names written on the back. But in many cases that was less than helpful. Women were often identified by their husband’s name. To get their own first names, Goeres-Gardner dug into the county’s marriage records, birth records, death records, published obituaries, property records and census reports.
Goeres-Gardner has also written two books on the Oregon State Hospital, one an Arcadia publication, the other published by History Press and both released in 2013. The latter book, titled Inside the Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph, tells the story of the Northwest’s oldest mental hospital and a parallel account of the evolution of treatment.
Her most-recent work, the 2014 Oregon State Penitentiary, another Arcadia publication, was co-authored with Salem historian John Ritter.
“I couldn’t have written the book without (Ritter),” she says. “I was kind of flailing around to get photos for it and I happened to meet him. He helped me find photos and identify things in them.”
Homebound by her health issues and using oxygen, Goeres-Gardner has put her writing career on hold. But that doesn’t mean she’s not thinking about it. She has a prospective seventh book in mind, this one on an epidemic of familicides in Oregon during the early part of the 20th century.
“I would love to write it, or find someone to write it,” she says. “I have file boxes full of research I’ve already done.”
Books by Diane Goeres-Gardner
Necktie Parties, Caxton Press, 2005
Murder, Morality and Madness, Caxton Press, 2009
Roseburg (Images of America), (with Douglas County Museum), Arcadia Publishing, 2010
Oregon Asylum (Images of America), Arcadia Publishing, 2013
Inside Oregon State Hospital, History Press, 2013
Oregon State Penitentiary (Images of America), (with John Ritter), Arcadia Publishing, 2014