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Ashland History

It is clear that the land we call home has long, varied and fascinating roots.

Much of what we know is not written — it is lore passed on by people who have passed on beliefs, traditions and a value system, through storytelling and legends. Much of their message resonates today. Estimates based on carbon dating show that various tribes lived in our region as far back as 6,000 BC. The early Southwestern Oregon Native Americans were highly mobile hunters and traders. Many of their food resources, such as salmon, acorns, seeds, and berries were seasonal. Other species, such as shellfish, elk, deer and smaller ground animals, were available year-round. The original Native American hunting and trading trails became the fur trading routes of early trappers and explorers, and later the wagon train routes that would lead eventually to our current system of roads, such as I-5 freeway. In the pioneer settlement of the area, as in much of the nation, there were intense conflicts and battles with the Native Americans. Many members of the tribes that existed in the Rogue Valley were taken to reservations to live. Even though many who came to Southern Oregon and specifically Ashland to strike it rich on gold (in the 1850’s) found out that it wasn’t as easy as it sounded to find it here. Two of those men, Abel Helman and Eber Emery, both from Ashland County, Ohio, had tried their hands unsuccessfully. Helman, having crossed the Siskiyou Mountains remembered a creek that ran strong, sheltered by the mountains, in what looked to be a fertile valley. Upon his recommendation the two men decided to stake claims in that place. They decided that supplying miners would be far more lucrative than actually mining itself. They built a lumber mill first and did so well that they started a flour mill in 1854. Thus the town of Ashland Mills was born. The fledgling settlement gained some stability in 1855 when Helman donated twelve building sites around the mill to create a central business district. Wooden structures sprung up including a blacksmith, meat market, cabinet shop and livery. This gathering place soon became known as the Plaza. It is still called that today. The Plaza has always been an intersection and arena for civic activities and social gatherings. It was also a sought after meeting place for Ashland seniors, who gathered daily to soak up the sun, swap stories and sip the town’s healing elixir, Lithia Water. Prior to the immigration of settlers, Native Americans used the mineral waters surrounding Ashland in the care of the sick and the aged. At one time, in the 1930’s, there was hope that Ashland would become a renowned and profitable spa similar to those found in Europe. When the pipeline maintenance costs became prohibitive and with the advent of World War II, interest and enthusiasm waned.   

After the town of Ashland was established with mills, blacksmiths, shops and schools, the most striking thread weaving through the town’s past was its long-standing affinity for culture and education. Ashland College and Normal School was founded in 1872.  The name has changed over time to include Southern Oregon College, Southern Oregon State College and now known as Southern Oregon University (SOU).  Students, faculty and staff have contributed to the economy, culture, educational and intellectual development of Ashland and the region. SOU serves as a major draw for people and businesses interested in moving here. The Chamber has had a strong, enduring and mutually beneficial partnership with the University. When needed to rally for funding support, the Chamber and community have stepped forward. First, in 1905, the Board of Trade (predecessor to the Chamber) agreed to raise money to keep the college afloat when the state cut all funding. In 1928, Fuller Athletic Field was named for the Ashland Chamber manager who was a key figure in the establishment of the school and raising funds. Throughout the decades, the Chamber has supported initiatives to further the University’s goals and help raise funds for new buildings and developments, most recently with the support for the new Higher Education Center in Medford. Chamber leaders and staff serve on the advisory boards and the Foundation. Many faculty and administrators serve in leadership roles throughout the City including the Chamber Board and City Council.  

The first glimmers of a library began in 1879 with the Ashland Library and Reading Room Association. In 1912, the Carnegie Library was built and is still standing as one of our beautifully renovated buildings in Ashland today.  A major event in Ashland’s cultural history was the arrival of Chautauqua, a nationwide traveling program of lectures, seminars and entertainment that began in New York and came to Ashland in 1893, drawing people from all over Southern Oregon. A dome-shaped building, the “Chautauqua Tabernacle,” was constructed to house the events, and is clearly visible in many old photographs of the town. The Elizabethan Stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival now stands on that site. Ashlanders heard such notables as William Jennings Bryant, John Phillip Sousa and William Taft, and saw many plays and other forms of entertainment at the “Tabernacle” during the Ashland Chautauqua’s 10-day seasons. At the time of its construction in 1889, the Ganiard Opera House was said to be the finest opera house between San Francisco and Portland. As was the case with opera houses of that time, Ganiard was home to a variety of entertainment, including operas, plays and movies. It was also used for certain community events like graduations. In 1917 a round, dome-covered structure was erected in the place of the original Chautauqua building. The structure fell into disuse, however, when the Chautauqua movement died out in the early 1920s. The dome was torn down in 1933, but the cement walls remain standing today; covered with ivy, they surround the Elizabethan Stage. 

In 1935, the first Annual Shakespearean Festival began during the Ashland 4th of July Celebration with a boxing match.  Angus L. Bowmer, an enthusiastic young teacher from Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University), was struck by the resemblance between the Chautauqua walls and some sketches he had seen of Elizabethan theatres. He proposed producing a “festival” of two plays within the walls, in conjunction with Ashland’s Fourth of July celebration. The City cautiously advanced Bowmer a sum “not to exceed $400” for the project. SERA (State Emergency Relief Administration) funds provided a construction crew to build the stage and improve the grounds.  The Oregon Shakespearean Festival was officially born on July 2, 1935 with a production of Twelfth Night. The Festival presented The Merchant of Venice on the 3rd and Twelfth Night again on the 4th. Reserved seats cost $1, with general admission of $.50 for adults and $.25 for children. Even at these prices, the Festival covered its own expenses. The Festival also absorbed the losses of the daytime boxing match that the City, which feared that the plays would lose money,  held onstage. The early and on-going support of the Festival by the Chamber has been evident throughout the years.  During World War II, the Festival closed but the Chamber “urged” them to reopen in 1947.  The Festival accepted the $1,000 offer from the Chamber to reopen.  In 1950, due to the efforts of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, “travel editors” from large California publications came to write about the event.   – taken from the History of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Today, we have a strong and collaborative partnership in tourism promotion and community engagement. From the original three performances and two plays, the Festival has grown into a nine month season encompassing more than 780 performances of 11 plays in repertory with approximately 400,000 tickets sold each year.  Ashland’s long cultural history leads directly into the spirit of the town today — cultured yet down to earth, progressive yet traditional. That spirit is one of Ashland’s finest qualities. 

If you’re interested in local history, opportunities abound for you, primarily through the Southern Oregon Historical Society. The Society currently operates museums, a research library and public archives.

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