FELIKS BANEL

All Over The Map: Gold Mines, Old Forts and other Northwest history mapped by Oregon man

Jun 10, 2022, 7:15 AM | Updated: 1:11 pm

An Oregon service station owner loved old maps so much, he launched a family business that’s still going strong more than 50 years later.

Ralph Preston passed away in 2019 at age 92. Preston never became a household name, but a series of large-format atlases he published beginning around 1970 became well-known in the Pacific Northwest and around the American West, with vintage editions still sought after by collectors.

The volumes that cover the Pacific Northwest – Early Washington, Historical Oregon, and Early Idaho – have been out of print for many years, but copies can often be found for sale at online auction sites or from used booksellers. Or, if you’re lucky, you might find one on your parents’ or grandparents’ bookshelf.

Preston’s old atlases remain a valuable and distinctive resource because each volume features an assortment of public domain vintage maps originally published by governments, railroads, and other entities from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Users can flip through the pages of different maps from different eras and readily see and compare the changes over the decades – and perhaps even find, as language on the front covers tease, “Overland Stage Routes . . . Old Military Roads . . . Indian Battle Grounds . . . Old Forts . . . Old Gold Mines.”

The atlases make no promises or guarantees of lost treasure, but the whiff of forgotten places and things waiting to be found is a kind of historic catnip to a certain demographic or armchair explorer. And, as if the old maps weren’t enough, Preston’s books are also packed with vintage photos, and often a poem or two.

However, by far the coolest feature of the old atlases is a section that includes a clear plastic overlay printed with a current map – “current” meaning the 1970s in the case of these old atlases, which, unbelievably, is already half a century ago. The clear plastic map folds down over a vintage map printed on paper, so you can see exactly where towns, roads, and railroads have changed. It’s a very analog means of doing what can nowadays be readily done with digital technology, but the concept, and even a certain amount of “wow factor,” still stands the test of time.

And that time goes back nearly a century, to when Ralph Preston was born of modest means on a farm just outside of Lebanon, Oregon in February 1926. His father died when Ralph was just a boy, so pretty soon, Ralph had to quit school and get a job.

Sue Ramus is Ralph Preston’s daughter. She told KIRO Newsradio that because her dad had to go to work at such a young age, he never finished high school.

“He went to work at 14 driving a delivery truck for groceries,” Ramus said. “And he said the local policeman knew [he] was only 14, but he just turned the other way because all the able-bodied guys were at war. He made $12 a week and he gave his mother half for groceries.”

After serving in the Navy in World War II and then working for a time as a logger, Ralph Preston got into the service station business in his hometown. By the 1960s, with help from his wife, he was running his own service station in Corvallis, Oregon. And it was there – sometime in the late 1960s – when an old map changed the course of his life.

“One of his customers at the time showed him a map of Oregon from 1878, and he was absolutely enthralled,” Sue Ramus said. It gave also her father an idea.

“He took it to a print shop, and they reproduced this map,” Ramus said. “And he set up a little company at the time called Treasure Chest Maps, and sold them, one map at a time, to bookstores or gift shops or whatever he could talk people into purchasing for two dollars.”

It wasn’t long before that single 1878 map expanded in the first Historical Oregon atlas, with other states following in short order.

In those early years of the vintage map business, Preston and his wife built a network of dealers around the Northwest at gift shops in museums and general stores. For many summers, the couple would hit the road in a motorhome to visit those dealers and sell them more copies of the maps and atlases.

“He was just the most interesting effervescent outgoing personality,” Sue Ramus said of her father. “I mean, he could sell anybody anything.” Ramus says many of those same dealers are still carrying the descendants of Ralph Preston’s earliest products.

After helping out with her father’s business for many years, Ramus now runs the company, now known as Northwest Distributors, herself. They don’t publish the atlases anymore, but they do sell packets of old maps that can be folded out individually and examined – and that have the same clear plastic overlay feature first introduced by Ralph Preston more than 50 years ago.

Like other Oregonians with a sense of history who compiled priceless data about geographic names or about Washington post offices, Ralph Preston deserves to be recognized for his contribution to published history in the Pacific Northwest.

He also sounds like he was a pretty good dad, too.

“For a guy who didn’t go to high school, he always was employed,” Sue Ramus said. “We always had a home and food and clothes, and he provided for a wife who only was a stay-at-home mom, and she did all of his bookkeeping for his service station.”

And Ralph Preston definitely had a love of history – and for the vintage, historic materials be brought back to life with help from a printing press and a motorhome, and a supportive family.

“Even at 86, he was still hauling boxes of maps,” Ramus said. “He had a storage unit and he’d [pack] 50 boxes of maps in the back of his car, and haul them home and unload them.”

“He just loved history, and he loved ghost towns, and just loved all of the stories,” she said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Gold Mines, Old Forts and other Northwest history mapped by Oregon man