A Temple + an Oasis + a Tour Bus = “Alt Kent”

“Hey, we’re kind of close to Temple Street, aren’t we?” Hard-packed snow covered the sidewalks. The larger thoroughfare beside us was busy with traffic. So walking and talking on a smaller side street seemed desirable. And I knew Nick had previously discovered this obscure avenue to a bygone era of Kent history — though I had never seen it for myself.

“Yes!” he confirmed. “It’s just ahead on the left.” We were in the middle of our weekly Wednesday Walk, but we didn’t have a destination in mind — other than personal connection. We usually talk while walking out to Standing Rock on the Portage Trail. But it seemed like the trail would be too snowbound on this particular winter morning. So we were just wandering through some of the side-streets in Nick’s part of town, as we caught up on life. So Temple Street happened to be a serendipitous sidebar. Following Nick’s lead, we turned off of Lake Street and started walking towards an unusual building at the end of the road.

The “Temple” at the end of Temple Street was low to the ground, comprised of cinder blocks painted the color of an avocado’s flesh. Its doors and windows were painted the color of an avocado pit. They didn’t look like they’d been opened for quite some time.

There was no signage indicating the history of the building. I’d guess it might go as far back as the 1920s or 1930s, but neither Nick nor I had any actual idea. Even the internet didn’t prove very helpful. We did, however, find a clue as to its current usage on a sign on the front of the building. The sign said Lucky Penny Farm Creamery. Supposedly a business selling cheese and ice cream made out of goats’ milk? Out of an old cinder-block temple? It was all a bit bizarre, but in a charming, quirky way.

In the end, there actually wasn’t much for Nick and me to see. So we turned around and walked the short distance back to Lake Street from Temple Street.

Back to the main road, I noticed another sign that I’ve passed a thousand times but never bothered to turn off the beaten path and observe: Smithers Oasis. The spirit of adventure was still strong in us. So I said, “Hey Nick!” I said, motioning to the sign on a telephone pole. “Do you want to go and check this place out? I’ve always wondered what it is.”

Nick quickly agreed, so we ran across Lake Street and ambled towards Smithers Oasis. I strongly suspected it was probably not a literal oasis, like a spring of water surrounded by palm trees in the middle of a desert. But I wondered if maybe it was a figurative oasis, like where semi-trucks are repaired and truckers can rest (I had previously observed a tendency for big rigs to turn from Lake Street right around the signs for Smithers Oasis). The closer we got, however, the more mysterious Smithers Oasis became.

It felt like an industrial park. Mustard-yellow, corrugated metal buildings low to the ground, with narrow alleyways between buildings. At the end of one of the alleyways, there was a building that looked kind of like a greenhouse, glowing a strange, fluorescent pink color from inside.

None of the signage was helpful in establishing the true purpose of Smithers Oasis. Some signs told us they were taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19. Other signs indicated there was a place for trucks to make deliveries. But even the logo on the signs was geometric and generic. It started to feel like we had stumbled across a secret munitions plant. Or maybe a nuclear waste dump. Nick seemed like he might be ready to turn around, but my curiosity got the best of me. “C’mon, let’s walk towards that greenhouse thing and see if we can figure out what this ‘Smithers Oasis’ actually is.”

As we walked up the alleyway, however, a strange, scuzzy-looking man stepped out from one of the buildings. His hair was stringy, salt-and-pepper colored, pulled back into a ponytail. His goatee was braided like a Viking warrior. He looked us up and down, with suspicion. And as I looked back, for some reason, my eyes landed on a set of three thin padlocks dangling from one of the belt loops on his stone-washed jeans. “What’re you guys doing here?” He asked.

I adopted my friendliest face and voice to respond. “Oh, we just saw the sign out on Lake Street and were curious to explore this part of town. I’ve lived in Kent for eight years and never been back here. Can you tell us anything about this place?”

“It’s Smithers Oasis,” he responded. No further explanation, just a reiteration of its mysterious name. “You guys can’t go this way; there’s chemicals back there.” His thumb pointed towards the greenhouse, where the pink fluorescent lights had suddenly gone out.

Later, I would get on the internet and learn that Smithers Oasis is not nearly as cool as the secret weapons manufacturer I imagined it to be, while walking away with Nick. The company is most known for the green, absorbant foam used by florists for floral arrangements. Which is kind of boring. Still, it’s a company that makes an interesting product with which I’m familiar. And it’s headquartered and produced right here in Kent! It also apparently has a cult following with the ASMR crowd on the internet. Who knew?!?

As we walked away from Smithers Oasis, Nick and I turned onto another couple of small side-streets that I’d never traversed previously: Starr Avenue to Lock Street. Shortly before we rejoined Lake Street, we found a fabulous old bus. It appeared to be the kind of bus used for a music group on tour in the 1970s, painted white, aqua, and rust, emblazoned with the words: “Ethel Delaney (and Her) Buckeye Strings” (I later found an album by this group on the internet). It was a beautiful old bus that seemed somehow perfectly synchronized with the quirky character of the Goat Dairy Temple and Pink Fluorescent Glow of Smithers Oasis.

The city of Kent has been looking to revitalize the northeast quadrant of its downtown area. They’re calling it the Mill District, and I’m pretty excited about what I’m seeing with all the new offices, restaurants, and brew-pubs. But they may also want to think about preserving and promoting the outer rim of this Mill District, where visitors can encounter a sort of “Alt Kent.” I don’t exactly know what type of crowd would be most inclined to view such places as a Temple, an Oasis, and a Tour Bus as tourist attractions… but I think there’s some kind of audience for these things.

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