Molly Ott didn’t realize she was a modern-day “homesteader” who would repeat a 150-year-old legacy when she moved her family from Phoenix, Arizona, in 2004 to the original end of the Oregon Trail—The Dalles, Oregon.
To her surprise, a dilapidated stone church was available for back taxes in the historic Bigelows Bluff neighborhood—named for Windsor S. Bigelow, who homesteaded this spot in 1853 and was the town’s pioneer supplier of groceries and liquor.
The church’s roof leaked, the upstairs had no plumbing or electricity, the orange shag carpet was moldy and the lawn was nothing but dead bushes.
“I fell in love with it,” she says. “I liked the arch of the stones. It was a plain church, but had great workmanship.”
She and her family lived in the basement that once housed Sunday School rooms and turned the upstairs sanctuary into a “community gathering” place.
“There’s no record of this church being officially built,” she says, but the black and grey stones look to be quarried nearby, dating the Church of Christ to the early 1900s at least. The church operated until 1999; it was a halfway house when Ott came along.
After Ott spent three years renovating the upstairs—with help from her three sons and then husband—the “Gathering Hall” hosted its first wedding in September 2007. In 2009, she added an Old World-stone courtyard to match the church.
One day, a friend suggested they walk six blocks to a food truck with good burritos. Ott was surprised to find the truck inundated with high school kids on their lunch break. Lights went off, she says: “I’m only a block from the high school, and these kids were going six blocks to a food truck, so maybe if I opened a café, they’d stop at my place.”
She named it the Riverenza Café, using an Italian word that means “to show honor with a bow or curtsey,” and fashioned a menu to suit high school students—nachos, hot dogs and paninis. She was open only during the school’s lunch break.
Then a friend said if Ott served good coffee and morning treats, adults might come. Ott expanded her hours, baked scones and brewed Portland’s Stumptown Coffee. Her café was a hit, and the adults wanted more, so she added salads and wraps.
She reserves the large sanctuary area for teens—from 70 to 120 students eat lunch there each school day. A side room added in 1945 for a choir is where the adults gather.
These days, Ott lives in a condo next door. She is ecstatic that she has brought the building full circle to Bigelow’s roots—she too is feeding the people around her who share her love for this Columbia River locale.
“I feel like any building standing this long, that has this kind of workmanship and history, has a lot of meaning to people,” she says. “We’ve now become a little community hub.”
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.