Hundreds of thousands of pioneers traveled west on the Oregon Trail in the 19th century and landed in The Dalles (then called Dalles City), the end of the primary land route. Here, they either decided to settle, raft the Columbia River farther west or later risk a treacherous trip by wagon on the Barlow Trail. Among the pioneers was a young girl named Matilda Hendricks, who settled with her family in The Dalles to farm wheat and raise cattle in the fertile Fifteenmile Creek Valley.
Five generations later, Hendricks’ great-granddaughter, Laurie Petroff-Light, is pioneering her own path in The Dalles, a rising community 90 miles east of Portland along the warmer, drier part of the Columbia River Gorge. Along with her husband, Steve, Petroff-Light co-owns Freebridge Brewing — the city’s first brewery to open since the repeal of Prohibition. With its hearty sandwiches using local meats and produce, house-brewed kombucha and 10 taps of handcrafted Northwest and German ales and lagers, Freebridge is part of The Dalles’ craft-brewing and culinary revolution.
“There’s definitely been a seed of change in town,” says Petroff-Light, who grew up in The Dalles in the midst of its bustling aluminum industries, which faded away in the Great Recession. “It feels like The Dalles is really getting ready to spark back to life.”
After spending two decades in Bend — where Laurie worked in technology and Steve was a fly-fishing guide on the Deschutes River — the couple returned to The Dalles in 2010. They settled on Laurie’s family farm, a rehabilitated ranch house built in the 1800s. “I fell in love with The Dalles,” says Steve, an avid homebrewer who is now brewmaster at Freebridge. “We just felt this call to come back.” Opening a brewery was a natural progression for their skills.
In partnership with the city, Freebridge held its grand opening in 2016. The brewery is located in a two-story fortress-like structure built in 1864 with hand-hewn stone brought from nearby Mill Creek by wagon. It was intended to be a branch of the U.S. Mint for gold discovered in the area, but construction was delayed. By the late 1860s, the gold rush was over, civil war broke out, the would-be mint commissioner died in a shipwreck on the Columbia River and the mint never opened.
Still, there are sections of the Freebridge building with evidence of its history: There are 17 small vault rooms in the cellar area, with stunning original architecture. Steve and Laurie hope to develop the area and open it to the public. Visitors can see the original facade with detailed brickwork and quarried stone masonry at the entrance to the pub, and a few original photos of the building on display.
The highlight, of course, is the beer. Freebridge serves only their own brews on tap, from their award-winning Pulpit Rock Pilsner to their signature cherry Berliner Weisse, which uses 50 pounds of local cherry puree. It’s released each year just in time for the Northwest Cherry Festival (April 26-28, 2019) — a major event in The Dalles that marks its 40th anniversary in 2019 with three days of cherry food sampling, live music, carnival rides and a parade.
“We welcome more breweries and pubs [in The Dalles],” Steve says. “It creates a destination. The city is burgeoning; we’d like to be part of that history.”