by Sandra Mizumoto Posey
Shirley Loepp used to live in paradise. That's how she describes her condominium by the shore in a Florida retirement community. So how did she end up in Oregon's high desert selling rock curios by the side of the road?
"We had been taking trips out to Oregon in our small motorhome to visit family," Shirley says, "and my husband thought he liked this part of the country." As for Shirley, well, it wasn't as if she disliked it per se, for vacations, but never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she'd live here. Actually, she thought the high desert was "pretty ugly" though interesting to explore. "This rock shop was open," she says, "and we just stopped because we were collecting pretty stones for our grandchildren's collections and the minute we walked into the door the gentleman who [owned it] was very gruff, kind of crotchety, he said 'This place is for sale.'"
"This place" consists of a two bedroom trailer home (with an enormous boulder balanced precariously on an awning), a small rock shop, and a single-wide trailer housing a rock museum. Inside its narrow corridor, glass cases on either side of you display small houses and toy trucks adorned with small stones. Outside, the remnants of a rock village lie scattered in the yard, never completed. Al Dornbush, the "crotchety" former owner of House of Rocks, had obviously planned for bigger things, probably inspired by the nearby Petersen Rock Gardens, an elaborate local attraction consisting of extensive stone constructions.
When they first visited, moving here was the last thing on Shirley's mind. "After we got back home my husband began to say silly things like 'Why don't we buy that rock shop out there?'" Shirley resisted initially, but after six months of saying "What?! Are you Nuts? Not me, never!" she gave in. "You can't fight forever," she says, shrugging.
It was an uphill battle at first. Shirley had to get herself used to winters that begin in the "middle of August and go 'til the first of June -- the middle of June." She and her husband also had to overcome a few obstacles left by ornery ol' Al: "Because he was so crotchety we had kind of a hard time. We left our new owner sign up for three years." Al would stop in time and again to check on his creation, but Shirley's tinkering with the place eventually got to him. "I began making too many changes. He finally had to tell me, 'that's too much. I can't come back anymore.'"
It's taken a while, but Shirley's become acclimated to the colder climate and desert terrain of eastern Oregon, and she's even become rather fond of rocks. When she's not working a seven-day week tinkering around the shop with her dogs Rocky and Stony, she's attending gem shows to find more things her customers might like. A lot of people stop to see the place because their kids want a closer look at the car with a boulder on it; so much so that flyers distributed around town advertise House of Rocks as "The Place with the Rock on the Car." Right then, as I spoke with Shirley, just such a family wandered in. They were traveling through when their daughter spotted the car. The parents stretched their legs and made small talk with Shirley while the little girl raced around the small shop looking at rings, small stone animals, and other trinkets.
They may not always stay here, says Shirley, but for now they've made friends and the House of Rocks seems to be home. They even sponsor a youth baseball team in town called the "Rockies." Rocky and Stony yip cheerfully at my heels as I leave; maybe it's because of the quartz kitten pendant I just bought that's nestled safely in my pocket.