“HOPS: Historic Photographs of the Oregon Hopscape”: A Conversation with Kenneth Helphand

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Feature Stories

“HOPS: Historic Photographs of the Oregon Hopscape”: A Conversation with Kenneth Helphand

“HOPS: Historic Photographs of the Oregon Hopscape”: A Conversation with Kenneth Helphand
Nov 06, 2020


Editor’s note: This conversation with Kenneth I. Helphand, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon, was conducted via email in November 2020. Helphand’s recent book, HOPS: Historic Photographs of the Oregon Hopscape (Oregon State University Press, 2020), explores the history of the Oregon hops landscape through 85 high-quality photographs and accompanying text.

Can you begin by giving us a very brief overview of how hops came to be grown in the United States, and in Oregon specifically?

Hops have been cultivated since the eighth century. They were introduced to England in 1525, which became the world center of production until the early twentieth century. First grown in the British colonies, hops cultivation moved across the country from New York to California and then to Oregon, following the path of German migration and brewing expertise. Oregon’s Willamette Valley offered ideal growing conditions, and by 1900, Oregon led the nation in hops production. For the next decades it was proclaimed as the “Hops Center of the World.” The Pacific Northwest is still the center of hops cultivation in the United States.

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Cover of HOPS featuring pickers with men on poles, 1930 - Photo courtesy Kenneth Helphand and the Independence Heritage Museum

What are the defining features of a hops production landscape? How do they differ from other types of cultivated land, and what drew you to researching and documenting these landscapes?

Hops are a perennial plant that grows 20-25 feet per year. Hopyards are planned and designed to support this climbing plant. Arrayed in a dramatic geometry, a grand grid of wood poles extending up to 25 feet high are strung together by wires. These wire strings are manually tied and anchored to the ground to support the climbing hops. The dramatic quality of this landscape drew me to research how it came to be. I have described hopyards as “a vineyard on steroids” and an example of what I have termed “agritecture”, the various forms of small-scale architecture that support and protect growing plants.

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Pickers with hops basket, Wigrich Ranch, 1928 - Photo courtesy Kenneth Helphand and the Independence Heritage Museum

In your book, you forge a connection between “plants, place, and people,” emphasizing not only the human-scale process of growing and harvesting hops, but the social aspects of hops picking season. What are some ways in which people engaged with these landscapes, beyond the aforementioned formal harvesting process, and how has this impacted the land and its stewards over time?

The book explores the hops landscape beginning with the establishment of a hopyard, and then follows hops production through the annual cycle as hops are planted, picked, baled, dried and brought to market. Riding atop raised platforms, workers (called “stringers”) deftly tied strings to the wires. Until hop picking was mechanized around 1950, it was an incredibly labor-intensive enterprise, which is documented in the book’s photographs. Picking took three-to-four weeks and entailed tens of thousands of workers. It was “hop picking time.” Pickers, or “hoppers” as they were called, came from the local communities as well as from nearby Native American reservations. Actively recruited, they were even transported by special hops trains from Portland. Pickers came from all walks of life and from every ethnic group in the state. All ages picked. In the hopyards, temporary communities were created that offered places to camp, complete with services and entertainment. Many recall not only the work, but also the vibrant social life of the camps, where there were campfires, music, and dances. 

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Hops kiln and dryer, Lowell, Oregon, 1899 - Photo courtesy Kenneth Helphand and the Hops & Brewing Archive

Can you tell us a little bit more about what you learned while exploring the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives (OHBA) and other resources? Through the course of your research, did you discover any unexpected details or themes in these photographs?

I was initially attracted to this subject while doing research at the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives (OHBA) at Oregon State University in Corvallis, less than an hour from the University of Oregon where I taught for 45 years. In the archive, I discovered their extraordinary photograph collection of hops from the 1880s to now. That led me to explore every historic archive where hops were grown in Oregon. Collectively, the photographs tell a story of the creation of this distinctive landscape and people’s interaction with it. They engender questions about the history of Oregon’s farmers, its small towns and cities, and its sociology, technology, and economy. The photographs also communicate how people respond to being photographed, especially in groups celebrating their experience of working in the hopyards. While the book began at the OHBA, it is not about beer, but about the landscape that produces the plant that is a flavoring agent for beer. The rise of craft brewing in the country should certainly pique people’s interest in the topic.

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Stringers on horse-drawn cart, 1912 - Photo courtesy Kenneth Helphand and the Oregon Historical Society

Do you have a favorite photograph among those included in the book? What do you find compelling about the image?

One of the most striking group photographs is a 1930 photo of a hopyard in Molalla in the eastern Willamette Valley. People are posing in front of their tents in a grove of trees. There are 30 persons of all ages, representative of the variety of people engaged in picking. There is a woman holding an infant, young children, and men and women of all ages. In the foreground, a Walt Whitman lookalike is seated in a chair. One imagines he is the leader of this loose congregation. In the front are five boys, two with strings gathered from the hopyard tied around their wrists—perhaps as equipment for an informal game. This is a formal photograph. People are not coming directly from the fields, but are dressed for the occasion, including a few men with ties. In looking at the faces I can easily imagine myself being part of this group. It reminds me of photographs I have participated in: family gatherings, weddings, class photos, sports teams, and graduations.

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Multigenerational Pickers, Molalla, Oregon, 1930 - Photo courtesy Kenneth Helphand and the Hops & Brewing Archive

What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

I hope readers learn and appreciate the hops landscape. I have coined the term “hopscape,” which is the physical environment and the broader culture of hops. Like all landscapes, hopscapes are the product of human enterprise as people interact with the land. These photographs are all environmental portraits—people in the setting of their activity, often accompanied by the tools of their labor or craft. The landscape “background” in these pictures becomes a subject equal to the individuals. In a sense, the hopyard functions as the photographer’s studio.

I hope that readers/viewers will have an added appreciation of the artistry of the photographs as a form of documentation of this agricultural and cultural landscape, and an appreciation of the craft and skill that goes into the creation of the landscape. Hops are only one example, but there is a photographic history of every type of crop and the individuals who plant, nurture, harvest, and transport, and they all deserve to be preserved and studied.

This book is an appreciation of a culture that is now largely gone, although on any trip through the Willamette Valley one can follow the hopyard's seasonal transition from the striking grip of poles to a “forest of green vines.” It is a never ending delight.

Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, is Philip H. Knight emeritus professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, where he has taught courses in landscape history, theory, and design since 1974. He is the recipient of distinguished teaching awards from the University of Oregon and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture.