Reluctant Sisters: The City’s incorporation
Last updated 6/8/2021 at Noon
In 1946, the year of Sisters’ incorporation, economic activity was booming, and with World War II ending in September 1945, soldiers began returning home to their community. It must have been at this point, when the Sisters community was coming back together and reevaluating its assets, that the subject of incorporation became prevalent.
Yet, with Sisters being platted by Alex and Robert Smith in 1901, why did it take 45 years to incorporate?
The conversation around incorporation had been stirring in the Sisters community as far back as April 1912. In the Sisters Herald newspaper, a tag line read, “Sisters may incorporate: There is a movement afoot to incorporate the town of Sisters.”
Karen Swank, of the Three Sisters Historical Society, shared that 1912 in Sisters was “all rosy.” There was significant new development, such as the railroad in Redmond, the Leithausers’ first grocery market, the beautiful Sisters Hotel, and the large Sisters School, all built within 1911 and 1912.
With the community growing, incorporation would “give the people control over the city and its affairs instead of being at the mercy of the [Crook] county officers,” stated the Sisters Herald.
The “progressive citizens,” wanted to ensure that the community had its own water supply for both domestic use and fire protection. “If this city puts in its own water system now… it will eliminate the possibility of private individuals securing a franchise and thereby causing the water consumers to pay a much higher rate.”
The citizens also wanted control over fire protection, street improvements, sidewalks, police protection, and the lighting system.
With all the excitement around incorporation in 1912, why did it take Sisters so long to incorporate?
Perhaps Mr. Pete Leithauser can offer some insight.
Pete came to Sisters, Oregon as a young boy with his family around 1915 and grew up to be a very civic-oriented man. Pete would go on to own the rodeo grounds, be a founder in the Sisters Rodeo Association, and serve on the Sisters School Board. In 1941, he became the owner of his grandfather PJ Leithauser’s grocery business (which sat where Sisters Bakery is today). Later, in 1950, he expanded the business to the Leithauser Grocery Supermarket, which included a variety store and a barbershop (now the Habitat for Humanity Thrift Store).
Pete Leithauser’s son, Floyd Leithauser, born and raised in Sisters, shared that Pete “knew everyone in town, which was about 600 people at the time.” Pete ran his store 24 hours a day, except on Christmas when the store was closed. “Even then, he would end up opening the store for a Sisters resident who forgot to get butter for their Christmas dinner.”
Pete cared deeply for his community and “wanted to make Sisters something it never was,” says Floyd.
So, how does Pete relate to Sisters’ incorporation in 1946?
On April 9, 1946, at the Sisters School (which sat where City Hall is today), an election was held to determine whether Sisters should be incorporated. By the time the polls were closed, with 176 total votes counted, it was a 2:1 vote supporting incorporation. It was determined that a fair election had been conducted, and the City of Sisters became an incorporated municipality.
However, on that day there had been a snowstorm – typical unpredictable spring weather for Sisters. Because of the snow, many voters who lived farther away had a hard time getting to the Sisters School. Thus, only 20 percent of eligible voters participated in deciding if Sisters would be incorporated.
Soon after, as the new City Council argued over whether their fire trucks could be used outside city limits to respond to fires in the Cloverdale community, Mr. Pete Leithauser requested their permission to circulate a petition to disincorporate the City.
Floyd Leithauser explains, “My dad might have voted for Sisters’ incorporation. I don’t know for sure. But if he had realized that it wasn’t in the best interest for the community as a whole, then he would bow his neck to make things right.”
On October 24, 1946, when Pete Leithauser returned to City Council with a successful petition for Sisters’ disincorporation, Mayor Earl Russel read a letter he had written to Mr. Pete Leithauser.
“Since the City of Sisters had warranted indebtedness at this time and since there is a State law which precludes the dissolving of a corporation while it is in debt, the measure could not therefore be placed on the ballot at this time.” The petition was returned to Pete. No further mention of disincorporation was reported in the City Council’s meeting minutes.
The answer to why it took Sisters 45 years to incorporate is most likely because the community didn’t feel the need to incorporate.
Through the Leithausers’ perspective of Sisters history, the town had always been a strong, deeply connected community that took care of one another. Despite the desire of “progressive citizens” to have local jurisdiction over the water supply and fire protection, perhaps the community as a whole was reluctant to the bureaucracy that came with incorporation.
We could call our community, the Reluctant Sisters.
Sisters’ residents in the 1990s resisted the sewer system because they knew it would cause rapid population growth. With its complete installation in 2002, the Census data shows that Sisters’ population went from 960 people in 2000 to over 2,000 people in 2010.
Even today, with the City of Sisters’ periodic update of the Comprehensive Plan that assesses for the next 20 years of growth, there is division in the community about if and how Sisters should grow.
Ultimately, this resistance to change comes from the desire to ensure that our community of Sisters will continue to steward this beautiful place we get to live in. The tension between community voices is important in making sure we continue to move forward and thrive yet preserve the small-town community feel and natural environment that makes Sisters so special.