'Going further' with Kenneth Michael Roberts

Photo by Kenneth Roberts

Former City Councilor opens up to The Sentinel about his long, strange trip in The Grove

January 27 - On Jan. 9, Kenneth Michael Roberts resigned his seat from the Cottage Grove City Council after serving as Councilor-at-Large for eight years. During his tenure, he became a community leader and steadfast caretaker of Historic Downtown Cottage Grove.

Born in San Francisco, Calif., and raised in Marin County, Roberts said he lived the rock n’ roll lifestyle as a teenager, dropping out of high school at age 16 — three years after his father died in the line of duty. Living with his mother, he began searching for a father figure, following the Grateful Dead on tour in a Volkswagen van.

Roberts told The Sentinel that he felt love and kinship with many of the Grateful Dead followers and began to help the band unload its touring equipment. He became an official roadie for groups like New Riders of the Purple Sage, a psychedelic rock and country crossover band featuring Jerry Garcia and David Nelson.

New Years Eve and day in 1978 were two of rock music's legendary shows in San Francisco: The final concerts at the Winterland Ballroom organized by famed concert promoter Bill Graham. The final show would feature the New Riders, the Blues Brothers (featuring Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi), and the Grateful Dead, who played a six-hour set starting at midnight.

It was an event that Roberts attended and which changed his life.

“I had missed my bus and got there late. I had my ticket and was coming around the corner, running down the street,” he recalled. And there was this guy banging on the door [of the venue]. And right as I come running down the sidewalk, he turned around and said, “Hey, you! Help me carry this thing in here.”

The person banging on the doors of the venue and eager to get in was legendary author and self-appointed counterculture link between the Beat Generation of the 1950’s and the Hippie Generation of the 60sKen Kesey.

“He had this big ugly device that ended up being what's called The Thunder Machine,’ and I helped him carry it in,” Roberts said a bit whimsically.

The Thunder Machine was a sculpted cockpit made of sheet metal with a microphone, amplifier, speakers and a mixer attached. It was painted and used by Kesey’s Merry Pranksters as a “musical contraption” at Grateful Dead shows.

Roberts said that he remained in touch with Kesey but remembered heading into the 1980s in a lost weekend, blurred by addiction and the heavy loss of an important father figure among his close friends. He sought treatment and found success. It changed his life, prompting a personal promise with God for a chance at renewal.

“Once I got through that part, I went into job training. It was the Small Business Administration that came in and taught how to fill out resumes and job applications and all that stuff,” Roberts said. And that was before we had online accessibility.”

Sadly, after the program, Roberts said he suffered a relapse but was given an opportunity by a friend in Oregon who found out that Roberts needed help. “He said, ‘I'm going to send you $200 and I want you to come to Oregon for Christmas.”

That friend was Kesey, then living in Pleasant Hill, who gave Roberts the money to come to Cottage Grove on a bus from California in 1991.

“That bus dropped me off at Eighth and Main in Cottage Grove. Downtown. I got off the bus and had an address that was written on the back of a cocktail napkin,” said Roberts. “That's where I was going to stay for a little while; with the extended family that I had.”

He began walking down Main Street, all the way to Fifth, then to Adams. What was really weird was that there was Christmas music coming out of the speakers that are up on those light poles in historic downtown, he said. Roberts seemed to be in a different world. “There was not one car that passed me the whole time I walked, so for me to come out of where I did and be dropped off here, I was like Where am I?’”

Roberts recalled the experience like an episode of the Twilight Zone.It was a very dark, black and white walk. I was not sure where I was and if this town would work for me.

The contrast began to shift into color when Roberts met town personalities like former city councilman and Hollywood 1940s actor Pat Paterson, and Gary Williams, Cottage Grove’s longest-running mayor (2002 to 2012) and Bohemia Mining Days Festival Marshala position Roberts later was appointed after the passing of Councilor Bob Ehler.

Roberts began to do contract work for the Army Corps of Engineers in 1998. “For like 10 years, I drove around the lake, cleaning the bathrooms in the campsites. And through that I really got to meet a lot of people. So, my life was going really well. I really fell in love with this town, it turned into such a colorful place, he admitted.

Roberts also met Darryl Williams, former Cottage Grove mayor and owner of Pinocchio’s Pizza, and former Police Chief Mike Grover, who retired back in 2015. Both were also instrumental in sharing insights about the city with Roberts.

When Roberts was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, it was the group of friends he would regularly drink coffee with, friends around town and those that he saw as mentors from the city who came to his support — which he found to be “very cool” as the town showed its encouragement as he recovered.

The outpouring came as a shock to Roberts, and he made another deal with God and himself: To go back to church. He started attending services at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. By chance, as he was talking in the hall, his voice carried into the ear of KNND’s Diane O'Renick, who noted his voice could be on the radio which Roberts said had been.

A meeting was set up with Cameron Reiten, KNND’s owner and on-air personality. Unfortunately, that did not go well, according to Roberts. So, he tried getting Reiten’s attention instead at a Concert in the Park with a CD-R demo. This did not capture the radio personality’s attention either. So, O’Renick pushed for another meeting and Roberts finally got a call.

“I locked myself in an office with [Reiten] for about 45 minutes and we had a long discussion because he had heard some good things and bad things about me. He [Reiten] said, I tell you what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna give you a chance.’” Roberts began working at KNND with two shows per week featuring blues and bluegrass music.

With that opportunity came a seat on the weekday morning Beeper Show and Swap and Shop for a time. Then, one morning when Reiten felt sick, he asked Roberts to attend a city council meeting that evening in his place in order to report on it during the next day’s morning show.

Roberts was blown away. “There were seven people that were discussingnot debating but discussing in a nonpartisan way what was best for our community on all these different topics that were on the agenda that night. I was like ‘Wow, this is cool.’ It really opened my eyes that these people care.”

Two weeks later, another council meeting was scheduled, and Robert asked Cameron, “Can I go with you?” Roberts started going to every city council meeting with the KNND morning crew.

After city councilor Heather Murphy stepped down, Roberts felt he knew enough about city government to throw his hat in the ring. He applied for the position of Councilor at Large; having lived perched above Big Stuff BBQ restaurant, he saw firsthand how he could tackle different projects and maintenance on Main street and beyond.

When he was chosen out of a group of strong candidates including future councilor Greg Ervin, Roberts said he felt it was his obligation to be active in the community. I mean, physically active in the community. I was able to do that because I was on disability.” That's when he began doing things like weed whacking and cleaning out storm drains. I must have planted over 5,000 flowers all those years.”

Cottage Grove’s former mayor Tom Munroe was also dedicated to improving the downtown area with an all-volunteer event called “Tidy the Town with Tom,” a tradition that Roberts continued after Munroe completed his term.

With a team of local service clubs, students and everyday citizens that signed up at the library, Roberts and other locals would get together shortly before a holiday or town celebration to spruce up and improve the downtown area along with other nearby sites.

Eventually, Roberts was given keys to the city… cemetery. Lloyd Williams, Cottage Grove Historical Society board member and KNND disc jockey, met with Roberts at an event at the old McFarland Cemetery.

Roberts recalled that he looked around and saw a lot of deferred maintenance on the property. “Oh my God, who’s taking care of this?” Roberts asked. Williams explained that the last two caretakers had aged and no one was there to take their place.

“Well, jeez, have weed whacker, will travel,” was Roberts' response to Williams, and became the main caretaker of the McFarland Cemetery for the next six years. Roberts says he loved the job, a volunteer position that brought together other volunteers and sponsors; places like Shady Oaks and the Bookmine for plants, and Horner’s for other supplies.

His vote on the city council to proceed on the Highway 99 site for those unsheltered came with some caution. Roberts' own direct experience with unstable housing and dependance gave him valuable insight on how to possibly make a shelter safer and successful.

“I'm glad that we have a place in town on Hwy 99 where people can go and there are counselors, Roberts said. I knew what worked for meworking step by step, getting someone off their dependency and then getting them to the point where they can be ready to find a job.”

Roberts saw Carry it Forward as good potential for a program similar to the one he went through, which included a nutrition program and sobriety something he would eventually like to see at Highway 99.

Roberts also began to work with boards and committees to bring city projects together and help with promoting fundraisers. One of his favorites was the Cottage Grove Mural Committee, a branch of the Cottage Grove Historical Society. The first project with Roberts as chairman was to repaint the Buster Keaton mural at the corner of Main Street and Hwy 99.

He recruited Lloyd Williams, who was organizing a 95-year anniversary of Keaton enthusiasts called “Damfinos” who occasionally come to a film conference to share in silent film history. The General, filmed entirely in Cottage Grove in 1926, has become an iconic and world renowned movie, considered one of the greatest films of all time by cinema scholars.

The mural painted by Harold Tharpe was disintegrating and flaking off the brick wall. Thirty years of weathering rendered it in poor condition. Roberts would see the damage daily. So, when there was an announcement of the Keaton convention for the 95th anniversary of the movie's release, Roberts and Williams tapped Debra Monsive, Suzanne Hubner-Sannes, Dana Merryday and Gerald Santana to help fundraise for the mural’s repainting by Connie Huston.

The fundraiser was successful with an event at the Brewstation, which was held to raise money and awareness of the project. That and an additional grant helped complete the project, which was unveiled during the Buster Keaton film conference with dozens in attendance at the ribbon cutting in October 2021.

Its completion sparked Eva Davenport at The Bookmine to pursue a mural as well, also by Huston, which was unveiled in October 2022 during Art Walk. But after the mural's unveiling, Roberts suffered a very difficult battle with COVID. He eventually recovered, emerging changed and ready for the next stage in life.

On Dec. 6, 2022, the Cottage Grove Prospectors and Gold Diggers Club presented the Mural Committee with a civic award for its efforts and contributions to service in the community. Roberts was there with the mural committee and his life partner, Sarah Smith.

He first saw Sarah at a Southern Baptist church while staying with friends on Adams Street when he first came to Cottage Grove. After years of rubbing elbows with her at community events, Roberts finally captured her attention when he became deeply involved helping the community. Smith was the first paid female firefighter in the state of Oregon.

Roberts considers Smith “the best thing to ever happen” to him and, together, their relationship has flourished. Smith had a place in Lostine, Ore., but would often see another property nearbyone she saw as a storybook homestead with a red barn. She called Roberts and he advised her to make a low offer, which she did.

And surprisingly, the owners accepted.

Roberts announced on Dec. 12 that he would resign at the following city council meeting on Jan. 9. The sale for the homestead had gone through, he made his choice and was ready to move.

Roberts began to say goodbye to Cottage Grove with mixed emotions, but his feeling of love for Smith and their little slice of paradise was waiting in the Eastern mountains of Oregon.

Cue the Grateful Dead's 1970s song Ripple, “...If you should stand, then who's to guide you?”

Roberts says his parting from Cottage Grove is bittersweet but is now home in Lostine with Smith. “I'm truly going to miss this town. I've been joking with people that if things don't get better around here, then I'll just have to come backlike in one of those old western movies.”

"If I knew the way, I would take you home", sang Jerry Garcia...