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Saturday, April 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Roleo queens: New documentary captures log-rolling glory days

Barbara Peterka Newbry’s past is no longer hidden away in boxes, a faded memory worth only a passing mention to grandkids who couldn’t comprehend that their grandmother was a world-class athlete in a sport representing the heritage of the entire region.

After 50 years, it took just one phone call to transport Newbry back to 1962, when she was a scrappy 17-year-old girl from the woods of North Idaho who could roll a log faster than any other woman in the country – earning her a world log rolling, or roleo, championship.

The call, from Bend, Oregon filmmaker Dave Jones, blew open Newbry’s memories of this time period when she and three other teenage girls from the Lewiston-Clarkston area won 11 world log rolling titles over 14 years, from 1958 to 1972.

Now the story of these teenagers, their coach and a sport that dates back to when men actually rode logs down rivers to mills, is the focus of a new feature-length documentary. And Newbry, who has lived in Cheney for 30 years, is once again feeling like a champion.

Her trophies, photos and birling shoes – bowling shoes retrofitted with cork soles and spikes to grip the logs – are out of the boxes and proudly displayed on a rough-cut, log mantel. It’s a project she always wanted to do, but life got in the way so they remained in boxes for decades.

“After all these umpteen years, all of a sudden there’s interest,” Newbry said, her eyes growing with excitement that birling is consuming her present. “It’s like wow!”

“Queens of the Roleo” premiered in Lewiston last month, with two full-house showings and appearances by the “queens” (Newbry, Bette Ellis Jordan, Cindy Cook Toste and Penni McCall Dixon) and their coach Roy Bartlett. Jones has entered the documentary in the 2015 Spokane International Film Festival (he’ll learn in January if the movie has been selected) in addition to other festivals around the region and hopes to sell DVDs. Currently he is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign, attempting to raise money for some of the production costs. He has footed the entire bill for this film that captured his heart and love of history and place.

Jones knew he had a story that, if not told, would die with this generation.

“It’s a culture that doesn’t exist anymore in this town and a lot of towns where this sport was popular,” Jones said.

The Lumberjack World Championships are still held each year in Hayward, Wisconsin, and the sport remains popular even as the logging industry weakens and embraces more technology. The workday skills perfected in the nation’s forests are now mostly sport, and regularly televised such as ESPN’s popular Great Outdoor Games.

Back in 1962, there was no cable sports and Newbry’s championship round was televised on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” for the first time. She also went to New York City to appear on “To Tell The Truth” and she and Jordan also were featured in Seventeen magazine.

During the documentary’s Lewiston premiere, a local log roller set up his portable pool that the fire department filled with water. The town closed the street in front of the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts and History building, to demonstrate the sport and give others a chance to try their skill at balancing on a log as it spins in the water.

Newbry didn’t take a spin on the log. She figures that after marriage and a couple babies, 1968 was her last performance. Jones didn’t get on the log either, fearful he would die before he gets the documentary distributed to a wide audience – acknowledgment that log rolling is difficult and requires skill, speed, endurance and balance.

In log rolling, two people step onto a floating log. Then they battle for control, spinning the log with their feet, often swiveling and switching directions. The goal is to dislodge your opponent, spinning them off into the water. Competitors start with a larger, slower log. The logs get smaller and faster every match. The winner is decided by the best three out of five.

“It’s what they call ‘dynamite,’ ” Newbry said, demonstrating her birling stance, looking over her left shoulder. “It just rolls so fast.”

For a petite, 5-foot-3 bone-thin teenager, Newbry said she had big, muscular legs that often drew attention. Her stature was highlighted during her appearance on “To Tell The Truth” where she said they put her up against other girls with spindly legs. This was the 1960s, before fitness and muscular women were in vogue. Besides endless practice, Newbry jumped rope to build endurance. That was long before weight lifting, cross training and running were normal and there were few girls sports in schools.

“Let’s face it, jogging wasn’t a thing,” Newbry said. “People would think you were crazy.”

Besides the big competitions, Newbry and the others competed all over the Northwest, Northeast and Canada, and participated in numerous exhibitions to showcase the sport. Newbry remembers competing in Priest River and in Coeur d’Alene, in the lake right near where the Coeur d’Alene Resort towers today. In March 1959, Bartlett and Newbry, age 14, performed an exhibition in the rooftop pool of the Davenport Hotel that was televised on a local station. Newbry’s father, the superintendent of the White Pine Lumber Co. in Orofino, emceed the event. She remembers practicing for the show in Lewiston’s mill pond in January and then the icy Davenport pool. She had her first hot fudge sundae in the historic hotel.

Jones, a former Lewiston television anchor, remembers a friend in the 1970s talking about a world champion birler girl from the area. At the time, Jones didn’t know what the buddy was talking about but the nugget stayed with him resurfacing decades later on a hike with his wife, who was raised in Lewiston and like most locals was familiar with lumber sports.

Before the ’80s, everyone knew about log rolling. Every kid in the Lewiston area could participate through the town’s parks and recreation program. The town pool was used for log rolling practice for years before a portion of the mill pond, where Potlatch corralled logs off the Clearwater River, was reserved for public log rolling practice.

So when Jones’ wife ran out on a log and started waving her arms, joking she was a birler, he got curious and went to Google, discovering that four women from the area won 11 world championships in just 14 years. He cold-called coach Bartlett, a former pond monkey who made his living pushing logs in the Potlatch pond. Bartlett said he would talk about log rolling – his life passion – with anyone, even a stranger who wanted to make a movie. After all Bartlett was so obsessed in those days that he built a log pond in his Clarkston backyard. One room in his modest home is filled with log-rolling memorabilia, a shrine to his life’s work.

After meeting with Bartlett and then the four women, Jones was in awe. Jordon, who was Newbry’s mentor and winner of five world championships, and Toste, a four-time champion, live in Lewiston; Dixon, who won in 1972, is in Milton, Wash. The group hadn’t seen each other in years and Newbry said it was the first time she met Dixon because she was married with kids by the time the younger woman won her title.

“They all are incredibly humble for the accomplishments they made,” he said. “I say this in my video (for a Kickstarter campaign) but they were the Michael Jordans of their sport. They were superstars.”

In an interview for the documentary, Bartlett, 87, tells Jones all the girls were talented and all had one thing in common: “The desire to win.”

While recalling his champions, Bartlett noted that Cindy Cook had the longest feet he’s even seen and was “as fast as greased lightning.” The athlete would get so keyed up she wouldn’t eat before competing.

He recalls Newbry wanting to win the world title to honor her father. Newbry counters with a laugh that she did it for herself and was thankful for her father’s support. After winning in 1962, Newbry quit competing but did do a two-month exhibition tour through Canada with Jordan, riding the train without chaperones. She said even the exhibitions made her nervous because it was more show business – hula hooping and jump roping on the logs.

Newbry still remembers her nerves and being so young and naïve. After all, she wasn’t a strong swimmer and the shoes are like heavy weights, especially after extended periods of running full out on a slippery, spinning log. It was extra incentive for not falling in the water, which was usually deep, cold and murky.

“It was a big deal to us and gave us lots of opportunities,” Newby said, while limping up her stairs.

Her left knee is bad and needs replacement. She attributes the damage and pain to her roleo days, especially practicing with dry logs mounted on axels in the backyard – logs that when you rolled off, had no give. Yet that’s the price of an athlete.

Newbry is just glad that her accomplishments and the logging heritage are getting recognition.

“It’s still logging country,” Newbry said of the Lewiston area. “People have long enough memories to remember. But I hope they can get it (the documentary) on PBS so everyone knows not just about us girls but that it was a really dangerous career for people.”

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