Cottage Grove, Oregon seems like an unlikely cinematic hub if, give or take, four movies merit that kind of descriptor. Yet consider how Kate Hudson, Ernest Borgnine or Lee Marvin, John Belushi and Buster Keaton have the makings for a Hollywood meets Cottage Grove Mt. Rushmore of sorts. If these names are not familiar you are youthful beyond your years and you’re probably not fanatical about film. These stars were part of a personal mystique originating with Keaton’s use of the area for his silent movie “The General” while the homecoming parade scene from “Animal House” also made an impression on me and had me wanting to see the town.
I had considered a trip to South Lane County in the spring of 2021 to gawk, soak up, and seek any remnants of movie magic that happened a long time ago. As luck would have it, this year’s bike camping trip used Cottage Grove as a departure point, a convenient way to experience traces of this film history first hand.
Cottage Grove has a quaint downtown of a couple of blocks. I counted three book stores in my jaunts through Main Street. On a weekend that featured a car show as part of a Heritage Day’s Celebration and a Saturday farmer’s market too, I began my search for signs of past cinematic glory.
A wild haired, wild eyed image stares out from a mural on the wall of the Cottage Grove Hotel. Those large, melancholy Buster Keaton eyes are extra resonant from the scale of the work. I was just as struck by the Death Mobile–a prop from the movie “Animal House” parked on top of a trailer. That vehicle had a celebrity all its own.
The story isn’t complete until you see the site where Keaton wrecked the train. It’s somewhere in the area but it wasn’t on the agenda for this trip. I’m saving it all up for the 100th anniversary of the filming which is sure to feature a screening of the movie and set location visits. That celebration is expected in 2026 so I’m already planning for that blog post.
I went searching for a plaque on the wall of the hotel where Keaton stayed during filming. I fully expected to find it on the wall of the hotel. After bumbling around, someone noticed and asked if I needed anything. Then a group outside the hotel pointed to the ground and I realize the plaque was in the sidewalk where it was getting ground away from foot traffic. Oh well, now we know Buster Keaton slept in Cottage Grove
The downtown, while not huge, is dotted with murals along with a couple of official signs documenting the filming that went on for the two best known movies, “The General” and “Animal House,” that were filmed in the area.
The homecoming parade scene from “Animal House” is epic. Further scrutiny from the always reliable YouTube gave me access to the parade scene, noting a few inconsistent hairstyles and seeing a section of Main Street that doesn’t resemble the current Main Street much. Things have changed in the over 40 years since the movie was made. I did catch one image from a still from Animal House that revealed a business, or perhaps a neon sign, that has stood the test of time.
Unless you’re a film scholar who has had a recent screening of “The General” you may feel a bit lost. There’s a sign on the outskirts of town that could lead you to more set locations. An image of the crumbling train on the bridge showed up on a kiosk outside of one of the area’s many covered bridges. Here’s where this piece turns into a travel log.
There’s not much that really stands out from a film screening with the exception of an iconic location like a house so getting a true sense of a set from a film isn’t the only reason for visiting Cottage Grove. The town is idyllic, offering us an opportunity to take a pleasant ride on a nice bike trail that lead to a lakeside campsite. In town we ran into a chatty, former Portland resident and book store owner. Even the police were friendly.
Josh G., from our bike camping party, talked about lesser known movies filmed in the area. The early 2000’s Kate Hudson vehicle was called “Ricochet River.” It’s proving tough to track down but a trailer revealed very little in the way of a recognizable Cottage Grove establishing shot. The Ernest Borgnine hobo/train movie from the 70’s, Emperor of the North, which also features Lee Marvin and Keith Carradine, took advantage of Cottage Grove’s rail infrastructure.
If you’ve read to this point, I have to say there’s more there there then I let on. I would have enjoyed a day hanging out in Cottage Grove going from bookstore to bookstore, seeming overly touristy and possibly hearing an old story or two about any time Hollywood took over the town. It’s cool to watch an “Animal House” clip and see John Belushi get out of the Death Mobile in a pirate costume and start climbing up a Cottage Grove building. It happened, in this little Oregon town. Cottage Grove is worth a visit when you can spend more time there based on what I experienced during my brief stop over. You might not see the Death Mobile but you can bet that Buster Keaton will be watching you.