Glenn's Hometown News: Hopping forward in progress in Milton-Fre - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Glenn's Hometown News: Hopping forward in progress in Milton-Freewater

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MILTON-FREEWATER, OR - For this edition of Hometown News, Glenn Cassie had the opportunity to visit a city in northeastern Oregon that's been on his bucket list for quite some time. And although it was largely because of some peculiar artwork scattered around town, he learned that this place not only has an interesting history, but an exciting future.

Milton-Freewater received its current name when the neighboring rival cities of Milton and Freewater voted to merge nearly 70 years ago. With a population of about 7,000, the City's economy has always been driven by agriculture, even billing itself at one time as the pea capitol of the world.

But as crop prices changed, the canneries began closing. Now, the area is home to a growing wine industry, which has slowly begun to change how this quaint little town looks.

"In those days, there were retail stores up and down the street, plus clothing stores, grocery stores, and anything," said Milton-Freewater's mayor, Lewis Key. "Four car dealerships, anything you needed - it was in town."

Key, a farmer himself who grew up here, has seen the town evolve over the years...but one constant has remained a staple the last few decades: the annual summer festival with the most unusual of names.

"There was a person on the city council that started the Milton-Freewater Festival, and somebody graffitiied the sign along the highway and changed it to Muddy Frogwater Festival," Key explained.

And that's how this favorite local festival got its name. But Glenn was curious to know how frogs fit into the picture, and why as he drove around town, frog sculptures popped up in the most random places like the library, hanging out on a street corner, and outside of a local business. Turns out, it all stems from the festival.

"We sponsored a frog carving contest," said Key. "We had a three-day event out here and people would come with chainsaws and carve frogs out of wood."

The frogs are made out of spruce, and people came from all over to carve them. The sculptors only had two hours to do it. And after the festival, local businesses could put up money to buy a frog along with some help from the Chamber of Commerce. But there was a problem with them.

"The sad part about it was that they would not, didn't stand up well to the weather as they were carved out of wood," explained Key. "They needed moisture in the wood to carve, but then they would dry up. They'd split and required a lot of maintenance."

As the sculptures deteriorated over time, many of the locals thought they were becoming an eyesore. Some didn't even want the town to be associated with the frogs at all anymore.

"There were two types of people in town about the frogs," Key said. "You either hated them or you loved them: there was no in between."

Numbers vary, but at one point the town was believed to have had as many as 50 wooden frog sculptures dotting the landscape. Recently, the City Council voted to try and re-brand the town by moving away from the frogs that have so long been synonymous with it, but it will take some time.

"So, we'd like to see some unique types of businesses, you know, niche things, so we can have more shopping and more people staying here and maybe some nice restaurants up on the hill," said Key.

The City is moving in the right direction. As the wine industry continues to grow here, they've added a new library and a new elementary school that is set to open in August. But Key hopes the charm of this place remains the same.

"You know everyone in town. My grand kids just love to come back to Milton-Freewater, cause they can walk to the pool and they walk downtown."

The annual late summer festival will not be taking place as usual this year, as they are re-branding, but there are plenty of great events planned in and around town this summer. You can check out the Chamber's website for more information here: http://mfchamber.com/ 

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