In the spring of 1926, word spread quickly that Buster Keaton was scouting the Cottage Grove area as a possible location for a film idea he was working on. Buster Keaton in The General
Over the winter, Keaton had read a story about the “Andrews Raid”, a stirring chapter in Civil War history, whereby a confederate locomotive was stolen behind enemy lines. The penetration into enemy territory gave the Northerners a great opportunity to tear up the enemy’s railroad line and to cut telegraph wires.
Also known as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” the Andrew’s Raid has been called the one of the greatest stories of the American Civil War. Buster was intrigued by how he might present the story on the big screen.
After initially scouting the actual Civil War locations in and around Georgia, Buster discovered after 60 years, that the Southern sites had changed too much to present an authentic Civil War look. While thinking of suitable locations, he remembered how much Oregon reminded him of the South when he traveled across the country during his Vaudeville days. As he scouted the state, he heard of a short line railroad in Cottage Grove. Buster explored the area thoroughly and liked what he saw.
Back in Hollywood he completed a shooting outline. So anxious to start filming, Buster did not have a real storyboard or even a completed script. Few directors could work in this fashion, but Buster was by most accounts brilliant in his ability to improvise with the roughest of ideas. In his hands even the simplest idea could be fleshed out on the screen with great skill and precision.
Buster wrote, directed, and starred in The General. Today the film is considered to be one of the greatest films in movie history. The American Film Institute lists The General at #18 on their list of funniest films ever made. The highest rating of any comedy produced during the Silent era.
The citizens of Cottage Grove followed progress of the shooting through the summer of 1926 in the pages of the Cottage Grove Sentinel. The cast and crew became common sights around town. It was not uncommon to see Marion Mack riding her bicycle down Main Street or Buster jogging over to Kelly field for a quick baseball game with the Lions Club or group of guys he just met downtown. The cast and crew particularly enjoyed seeing shows at the Arcade Theatre when new films came to town.
Hundreds of locals were employed as extras. When shooting was completed in August, there was a huge party in what is now called Coiner Park. The town was truly saddened to know that the fun they had experienced over that summer was coming to an end. But over the years, it was common family lore in Cottage Grove to include stories by a family member who worked for Buster during the filming of The General.
The Cottage Grove Historical Society is dedicated to preserving this unique piece of Cottage Grove history by annually celebrating Buster Keaton Days. Every five years, the Society invites the International Buster Keaton Society to come to Cottage Grove for tours of the film sites, discussion groups, and, of course, Keaton films including The General. In the four off-years, a celebration is held at the Cottage Grove Community Center the third Saturday in October with various Keaton films and other fun things.