We’ve all heard it, the oft-repeated “statistic” that Bend and Central Oregon have 300 days of sunshine a year, so much so that it shows up in travel guides and promotional materials and just about anything else you read about the region. This came to mind to me again recently when a friend visiting from Portland asked about it. I had to tell him no, it’s not true. It’s a great myth, with a lot of traction, but the problem is just that—it’s a myth, as anyone who’s lived here for more than a year can attest.
Well okay, maybe, and maybe not entirely. The Bend Chamber of Commerce’s website clarifies: “With an average of 158 days clear days per year and an additional 105 days that are mostly sunny. Many of the remaining days provide substantial sunshine.” Fair enough, that gives us 263 days of sun. But where did this idea that there are “300 days” of sunshine each year come from originally?
A few years back The Source Weekly tackled the question:
Short answer: Nope – it’s exaggerated by more than 60%.
“According to George Taylor, who wrote the book ‘Climate of Oregon,’ for a sunny day we need 15% or less of the sky to be covered by clouds over the 24-hour period,” [meteorologist Adam] Clark explains. “A mostly sunny day is indicated by 15-30% cloud coverage [or less], and this type of coverage totals 51% of the days we see here in Central Oregon. After doing the math, the total number of days recorded as ‘sunny’ is 186. So there you have it.”
The catch here is that the claim as typically stated is not that Bend has 300 sunny days per year; it’s that Bend has 300 days of sunshine – a subtle but very important distinction.
According to The Wandering Eye’s anonymous but highly reliable sources, a sophisticated scientific procedure was employed to establish that Bend enjoys “300 days of sunshine.”
Back in the 1950s, a special high-tech sensory device (a pencil stuck vertically into the top of a cardboard box) was placed on the roof of the old Bend post office building for one year and constantly monitored by a small boy who recorded every time that the sun shone brightly enough to make the pencil cast a shadow for at least 10 consecutive seconds. Whenever that occurred at least once in any 24-hour period – voila! – a “day of sunshine.”
The pencil-in-the-box is a cute story but it’s fake—made up by H. Bruce Miller, who wrote that post. But there’s an important point made in that article, the distinction of “sunny days” versus “days of sunshine”—the “10 seconds of pencil shadow” argument for a “day of sunshine” might even be valid in that case. But of course, when people… particularly tourists, or those planning on moving to Bend… hear that statistic, they expect 300 days of pure sun.
In the course of researching Bend’s history for my Bend Beer book I’d come across much earlier references to this 300 days number than the Source’s fake story about the 1950s. I don’t remember if I came across the actual origin (I was researching for beer, not sunshine), but it predates the 1920s, as these (online) sources show that it was already well-established by that time:
This advertisement for Bend’s tourism potential, targeting Realtors, is from the Bulletin’s August 1, 1927 issue, and claims “Over 300 Days of Sunshine Every Year.”
In the March 10, 1921 edition of “The Shorthorn World” (a farm and cattle magazine, found on Google Books), an article on “Progress in Central Oregon” matter-of-factly refers to the region’s “over 300 days of sunshine a year.”
The December 30, 1922 edition of “Oregon Voter” magazine (also found via Google Books) also repeats this claim on Central Oregon.
But wait! Doing more digging around in the online newspaper archives, I found this gem from the July 3, 1912 edition of the Bulletin, in a guest column by W.D. Cheney on “Why Bend Will Be A Big City”:
320 days! That same number can be found in the June 26, 1912 edition (left column, bottom paragraph) as well, and there seems to be a March 2011 instance of 320 and one in April 1912. This appears to be a repeated claim around this time, though I don’t know who measured 320 days; this number seems to usually be associated with “facts for the homeseeker” and the like—in other words, marketing. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)
Back in the earliest years of the 20th century, Bend was a rough-and-tumble frontier town on the edge of a wilderness frontier considered “remote” even by Central Oregon standards—where Prineville was the region’s political, economic, and cultural center. It was one of the last true frontiers, with a lot of empty land all around it, and many of the people who came here were seeking opportunity and saw potential, be it in the form of irrigating the desert, exploiting the vast timber reserves, acquiring land, or even just getting a piece of the seedier action that was plentiful and profitable in the town (Bond Street was the seedy red-light district back in the day).
Naturally, development and promotion of Bend was of great interest to the businessmen and “boosters” of the town—particularly in the years before 1911, as hopes ran high that the railroad would soon arrive which was sure to open the region up to the outside world and result in an economic boom. (Which is basically what happened when the railroad did reach Bend in late 1911—bypassing Prineville entirely, and paving the way for Bend to become the most important town in Central Oregon.) As part of this boosterism the Bulletin frequently ran articles and editorials proclaiming the railroad was surely to be built soon, and extolling the virtues of the region—much of which naturally focused on the healthy climate, beautiful weather, and abundant agricultural possibilities.
So, too, were other less-than-altruistic but just as opportunistic types interested in boosting the town and the climate for their own gain—for instance, the land “locators” who would, for a healthy fee, “help” incoming homesteaders locate “ideal” tracts of land upon which to claim and build their homesteads. (This took off when the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 increased the amount of public land available to individuals to 320 acres and opened up much of Central and Eastern Oregon for settlement.) Never mind most of these newcomers had no experience farming and were ignorant of the realities of life on the high desert—in fact, much of of the publicity from the newspapers and especially the locators themselves promoted the opposite, that the lands of the region were fertile (“Best Wheat Land in Central Oregon”) with ideal weather and climate for dry farming. Not to mention, how healthful and beneficial the dry air, mild temperatures, and abundant sunshine were, which catered to visitors (tourists) and immigrants alike. This type of propaganda ventures from “marketing” nearly into outright fraud.
In fact W.D. Cheney, whose article I found above, was one of the biggest boosters of Bend and (I believe) was the founder of the Bend Emblem Club whose purpose was essentially to promote Bend and make a ton of money doing it. I have no evidence to support it, but I would not be surprised if he was the one who coined the 300 (or 320) days of sunshine as a marketing ploy. (Supposedly Cheney did have the best intentions of the town in mind for heavily promoting Bend, and as far as I am aware he himself seems not to be associated with the homestead locating scams of the day.)
Now let’s be honest, we are fortunate to experience a large number of sunshine-y days each year and perhaps even in the oddball freaky-weather type of year we’ve hit 300 or more such days. So it’s easy to see why the town’s early boosters would jump on such a claim early on to help promote the town. (And perhaps there was a year with 300+ days of sunshine.)
And who knows—with our warm winter and early summer, perhaps this year we’ll see sunshine hitting the 300 days mark!