Cheer on couch racing teams at Oregon’s only festival celebrating political cartoonist

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Dan Feller’s journey to racing victory began with his wife, Deanna, asking him to create a competitive road vehicle out of an old couch.

Twenty-four years later, Feller is still racking up ribbons with his rolling loveseat. He hopes to win again at the Davenport Races, a slice of high jinks offered at the Homer Davenport Community Festival in Silverton from August 5-7.

The race will begin, two teams at a time, at noon on Sunday, August 7 in the middle of East Main Street.

The one-block course, closed to other vehicles, is completed in about 15 seconds, unless someone trips, the moving craft overturns in a pothole, or the driver hits Something.

The rules are quite loose. But organizers passed an edict – the driver must be able to steer with a certain degree of precision – after spectators at previous races were forced to jump away from an out-of-control recliner onto a cart with casters wobbly and an Art Deco lounge chair that wouldn’t stay upright.

If people have ever seen couches in motion, it’s probably in explainer videos or at the art-focused Burning Man event in the Nevada desert.

The organizers of the Silverton competition, however, believe they introduced regulated couch racing three decades ago.

The distinction here: The piece of furniture is not motorized but human-powered. Behind each wheeled invention is a long bar allowing two to four people to stand firmly and push.

According to historian Gus Frederick, president of the Silverton Country Historical Society, the Davenport races began in 1990 as something of a parody of other small towns that held annual bed races.

Here, ‘Davenport’ works in two ways: as a nod to Silverton’s favorite son and as the term used to describe an old-fashioned sofa.

Davenport racer maker Rand Breitbach of the Silverton Flywheel Car Club stands in front of the Homer Davenport mural on the wall of Potter’s Collision and Auto Repair Shop on South 1st Street in Silverton.Janet Eastman / The Oregonian

The summer festival honors Homer C. Davenport, who went from starting out in Silverton to becoming the world’s highest-paid political cartoonist after deriding the 1896 US presidential race.

Humiliated politicians tried to pass a law banning caustic cartoons. Davenport responded with his most famous work, the “No Honest Man Need Fear Cartoons” cartoon. The bill failed.

Davenport, who returned to his hometown for solace in personal and professional defeats, was hailed as “Oregon’s first media superstar” by volunteers and members of Silverton Rotary, who organize the festival of several days since 1980.

A decade later, the exuberant runs were inspired by another davenport, an eponym for a large upholstered sofa like those made by furniture company AH Davenport Co. in East Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Historian Frederick’s research revealed that the designer was a distant relative of the furniture magnate.

The Homer Davenport Community Festival features arts activities, craft stalls, live music, a food court and a brew party at Coolidge McClaine Park in Silverton.

There is also a downtown community parade and cruiser car show on Saturday August 6th and a fun race on Sunday August 7th.

But unlike any other festival in its hometown, Silverton’s hosts a cartoon contest with participants from around the world and the Barb Rue Memorial Davenport races, named after the late organizer and longtime race coach.

People push a sofa and other home furniture on wheels during the Homer Davenport Community Festival in Silverton.  Homer Davenport, born near Silverton in 1867, was a political cartoonist, and a divan is a large upholstered sofa, usually capable of being converted into a bed.

Davenport racer makers Rand Breitbach of the Silverton Flywheel Car Club (left) and Dan Feller of the Silver Crest Rocket Club gather at Davenport race sponsor Silver Falls Brewery in Silverton.Janet Eastman / The Oregonian

“There are places that have weird runs, but no one specifically drives a sofa bed,” said mobile sofa maker Dan Feller, who has lived most of his life in Silverton. The town, northeast of Salem, has a population of about 10,500.

After creating his winning runner in 1998 to promote his father’s dental practice — the team was then called the Molar Mowers — Feller didn’t tinker with the used sofa much.

When the green and orange plaid fabric disintegrated from the wooden frame, he had it covered in a generic blue fabric. The equipment was donated to Feller’s new team, the Silver Crest Rocket Club, named after the Silver Crest Elementary School where he teaches science.

People push a sofa and other home furniture on wheels during the Homer Davenport Community Festival in Silverton.  Homer Davenport, born near Silverton in 1867, was a political cartoonist, and a divan is a large upholstered sofa, usually capable of being converted into a bed.

Members of the Silverton Flywheels Car Club show off their ride made from bike parts and a bucket seat from a Ford pickup truck. Arnie Marcoe is in the driver’s seat, and those in the “pusher” position are, left to right, Ken Gallagher, Carol Gallagher, Leon King, Bill Schmidt, Jerry Thomas and Rand Breitbach.Janet Eastman / The Oregonian

Some of the overstuffed hotrods like Feller’s are carefully stored and reintegrated into the annual festival. But there is always room for new competitors.

Members of the Silverton Flywheels Car Club spent countless hours this year gathering materials to convert old bucket seats from a Ford minivan into something that could be pushed over the finish line.

A week before the festival, the club donated two bucket speedsters to the Homer Race Committee, run by Barb Rue’s daughter, Tonya Rue.

To increase the number of entries, the committee lends stock riders to the teams vying for the grand prize: a steel trophy with a figurine hoisting a couch above its head. A prize also goes to the team with the best uniforms.

Flywheels President Rand Breitbach, a retired Salem firefighter who lives in Silverton, said he saw all types of furniture flying near him during races, including a hospital stretcher.

But these are mostly reconfigured sofas. He won’t call the davenports ugly, although they are usually along the road. “Let’s just say none of them just rolled out of an Ashley Furniture store,” he said.

This year’s two-bucket-seat racers were made with trade-in bikes donated by Fall Line Sports in Silverton. Club members welded the front of a bicycle — handlebar to front tire — to a steel frame. Then they tied the seat, two rear wheels and a push bar.

The biggest challenge of the race: getting young people involved, said Breitbach. The Flywheels have ties to high school students enrolled in an auto shop. In 2021, the club gave away $43,000 in scholarships with the money raised by auctioning off vintage beer signs.

Another challenge: to continue to avoid serious accidents. Hay bales are in position to prevent handy riders from careening well beyond the strip marking the finish line.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

jeastman@oregonian.com | @janeteastman

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