It was, locals proclaimed, "Oregon's Best-Kept Secret."

CLOVERDALE — Hard as it may be to imagine, this little town on a bend in U.S. 101 was once a hopping place.

Ask anyone here. There were two grocery stores, a barber shop and beauty parlor, two filling stations, an art gallery, a fine dress shop, a restaurant, the pharmacy and a bank — all tucked within rock-skipping distance of the Nestucca River, and surrounded by acres of dairy farms thick and pungent with spotted cows.

It was, locals proclaimed, "Oregon's Best-Kept Secret."

But these days, though its location remains idyllic, its population holds, and the cows graze as contentedly as ever, some fear this is one secret too well kept, and if something doesn't give, Cloverdale, population 300 or so, may cease to exist at all.

"As more and more businesses move on, before long there really will be no reason to stop in Cloverdale," says Howard Goodman, a builder and developer who's spent most of his 40 years in Tillamook County. "Right now it is particularly weak, the grocery store is closed, the hardware store is closing and there was a fire at the Dory Restaurant. There is nothing going on."

John Griggs arrived in town 33 years ago, a young pharmacist ready to take over the Cloverdale Pharmacy, which has been in continuous operation since about 1900.

Griggs arrived in the town's heyday. He and a couple of other businessmen formed a merchants group that evolved into the Chamber of Commerce. They founded the annual parade and gave the town its proud title, posting signs measuring 8 feet tall by 4 feet wide on the edge of town featuring "Clover" the cow.

Now, they figured, anyone driving 101 would know they were about to enter one special town.

But it wasn't to last. As it turned out, the state of Oregon didn't allow such signs at unincorporated towns and Cloverdale was ordered to take them down.

The town agreed, but not without a proper fuss.

Griggs got his in-laws, who owned a limousine service in Portland, to bring a few of the cars to town. The women dressed in their funeral finery and filled the cars, then formed a procession to the cemetery behind a group carrying the sign.

"We buried the signs in a building out at the cemetery," says Griggs. "It actually made the newspapers in Florida." It also drew a fair amount of local newspaper and TV coverage and eventually, the state relented. "Then we had a resurrection and the signs went back up," Griggs says. "That was the start of a lot of attitude."

But perhaps not enough. About 15 years ago, first one store closed, then another, and another.

"Like slow motion dominos," says Steve Dotson, a retired tree trimmer for the Tillamook County PUD. "I think some people just got old, and no one wanted to take over the businesses."

A year and a half ago, the last grocery store closed, leaving the town with the pharmacy, which also includes a liquor store, soda fountain and gift shop; a bank; the feed store; a coffee shop and the Dory Restaurant, where the dairymen gather each weekday morning to talk about life on the farm. Or they did.

Last month came more bad news — a fire in the kitchen shut the restaurant indefinitely.

But despite the empty storefronts and vacant littered lots, there remains a twinkle of hope and the steadfast devotion to those traditions formed in Cloverdale's better days.

On the Fourth of July, the town held its 29th annual Clover's Day festival, themed "Red, White and Moo." The local kids colored posters for the coloring contest and the merchants posted them prominently in their windows. There was an all-you-can-eat breakfast at the VFW and the annual Clover's Day Runs, a 5-kilometer and an 8-kilometer, through the heart of dairy country. The parade was led by the latest "Clover," a red and white Holstein, making it, locals think, possibly the only parade in the country with the distinction of being led by a cow.

Construction on the new Noble Wayside, a little park by the river in the place once occupied by a dilapidated old service station, is under way, there's a new tenant in the old grocery store and locals have formed a group to help clean up the deserted streets and persuade county planners to give them a break on the parking regulations that make it nearly impossible for anyone to do meaningful work on the tumbledown buildings.

If they can get some of those county regulations eased, persuade new businesses to give the town a chance and get more of the younger crowd involved, then maybe, goes the thinking, they can save Cloverdale.

Sandra Porter, owner of the Blacktail Coffee Shop, and at 28, one of the younger business owners in town, thinks it can be done. She's spruced up her lot with dozens of flowers and has set more around town.

"People stop, because they notice my flowers," says Porter. The daughter of dairy farmers, Porter was born and raised here, and says she never gave much thought to leaving.

She married Waylon Porter, who was once a hired hand on her parents' farm, and still spends her free time with old school friends, also born and raised here with no plans to leave. They are young enough to envision a new future, old enough to remember when.

"I remember Cloverdale — there was always people," says Porter. "I remember a lot of tourists and this one really cool shop where you could buy agates. The pretty ones were a quarter, the ugly ones a nickel. There were always people stopping by.

"Right now people go right on through town. They don't even realize what Cloverdale has to offer. I want to see people wandering around and enjoying Cloverdale. It is so beautiful here."