The Oldest House in Ashland (and the banister that saved it)

This is an 1884 lithograph of 1521 East Main Street in Ashland [Walling 1884]

1856 – The man Walker School is named after builds the house
1959 – The 23-year President of Southern Oregon University buys the house
1973 – The 29-year Ashland High School science teacher renovates the house
2019 – I interview Lance Locke and his daughter Teresa Locke Benson

This is the banister that saved the oldest house in Ashland from demolition. Keep reading to find out how it saved the house. (photo by Peter Finkle)

Three people are associated in special ways with the oldest house in Ashland: (1) the man Walker School and Walker Street are named after; (2) a 23-year President of Southern Oregon College; (3) an Ashland High School science teacher for 29 years who also coached the football team for seven years.

Since it is set back from the street, you may have driven by 1521 East Main Street many times and hardly noticed it. If you stop and look (across East Main Street from ScienceWorks Museum), you will see the oldest house in Ashland, a white two-story house that looks almost the same today as when it was built in the late 1850s. Note: This is a private home, so please do not disturb the residents.

The three Ashland citizens we will learn about are John Walker, Elmo Stevenson and Lance Locke. Let’s take them one at a time.

John Walker

Close-up of Walker house photo hanging at Lance Locke’s house. It was probably taken in the late 1880s per Terry Skibby. John Walker was born in 1822, so he is most likely the man with beard in this photo. (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

John P. Walker took the Applegate Trail to Ashland in 1853. He purchased a donation land claim from Samuel and Elizabeth Grubb in 1856, and may have begun building his large house that year. (When the house was renovated, the owner found newspapers from the year 1856 used as insulation. More on that later.) The house is 1 ½ miles from the Ashland Plaza, which at the time he built it was “out in the country.” It is still surrounded by acres of open land. 

School classes were first taught in Ashland in 1854 at Eber Emery’s house, with Miss Lizzie Anderson the teacher. This informal arrangement continued until April 3, 1857, when the small community held a meeting to elect three directors and a clerk for the new Jackson County School District No. 5. Walker was dedicated to education and wanted to be a school director.

He was chosen, along with Asa G. Fordyce and Bennett Million, while Robert B. Hargadine was the clerk. In October of 1857, the school board authorized a tax on each property owner, according to the value of his property. As the owner of the largest, most valuable piece of property in Ashland, John Walker willingly paid the highest taxes — $10.00 that first year. There were ten boys and eleven girls in the all-grades school that year.

In 1860, when the first dedicated school house was built, Walker’s school taxes were again the highest, and they had increased significantly to $170.42. This was slightly more than double the second-highest taxes, which were paid by R.B. Hargadine. No wonder the citizens of Ashland named a school after John Walker.

Elmo Stevenson

Long-time SOC/SOU President Elmo Stevenson at home with his wife Caroline and grand-daughter Stephanie in 1971 (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

When Elmo Stevenson was hired as President of Southern Oregon College in 1946, only 45 students were enrolled, and the college was in danger of being closed. As World War II veterans entered higher education in the next few years, Stevenson stabilized and then strengthened the college. During his tenure, he “flew” around the state in his Oldsmobile, driving anywhere he could find high school students to recruit. By the time he retired in 1969, student enrollment was over 3,700. 

President Stevenson was very ambitious, and oversaw a major expansion of the college, including new student residence halls, new academic buildings and new athletic facilities. He even had a long-range plan for Southern Oregon College to grow to 10,000 students. 

In addition to education, Stevenson also loved family, hunting and cattle ranching. In 1959, he bought the Walker house and 50 acres of property that went with it. His interest was in the land he could use for grazing cattle, so he left the empty house alone and it continued to deteriorate. According to Lance Locke, Stevenson had 100 acres of land and about 100 head of cattle by the early 1970s.

Lance Locke

Lance and Vivian Locke (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

Raymond Lance Locke (Lance) married Elmo Stevenson’s daughter Vivian, with whom he had two daughters. Vivian and Lance were both professional educators. Vivian passed away in 2017. I was able to interview Lance, and his daughter Teresa, in 2019.

Locke taught science at Ashland Junior High School for three years in the early 1960s. Locke told me that in the 1960s the Junior High School students would cross the street from the school to the abandoned John Walker house to hide and smoke cigarettes. He then taught science at Ashland High School for 29 years. 

He was Ashland High’s head football coach from 1968 to 1975. Football was Lance’s sport, but I found a surprising article that said he coached the Ashland High School ski team’s first season at Mt. Ashland. [Rogue News] When I told Lance about the school newspaper article I had found, he laughed and told me a story. In the mid-1960s, the ski area had been open only a few years. Several Ashland School Board members had daughters who were into skiing, so they told Ashland High principal Gaylord “Snuffy” Smith to organize a ski team. One day at a high school faculty meeting, Lance was chatting with a friend, not paying much attention. He heard Snuffy Smith say, “Has anyone here ever skied?” Reflexively, Lance raised his hand, and the next thing he heard was the principal telling him, “Great, you’re the ski team coach.” What makes this especially funny is to know that Lance hand-made his skis from blanks at the Junior High School wood shop, and had only been on them a few times.

When Lance had extra time, he helped his father-in-law Stevenson with the cattle. Though he didn’t have much “extra” time.

A life-changing day

 In the early 1970s, Locke started clearing debris out of the Walker house in preparation for eventually demolishing it. In January 1973, he tore down the rickety two-story porch in back of the house. One day during the tear-down, Stevenson was burning a huge patch of blackberry bushes on the property in order to get rid of them once and for all. Locke brought pieces of wood from his demolition project over to the blackberry patch to feed the flames.

Locke clearly remembers that day, because it changed his life. Just hours later, his father-in-law had a fatal heart attack during dinner. The next morning Locke became responsible for taking care of Stevenson’s 100 head of cattle, in addition to full-time teaching, being the high school football coach, and raising two daughters. 

On top of all that responsibility, Locke and his wife Vivian became owners of the empty, dilapidated 1856 house and responsible for 100 acres of cattle-raising property. 

An Aside…100 head of cattle, “Cowboy” Murphy and the 1916 Ashland Roundup

As a novice at raising cattle, Locke had to learn fast. When he ran into problems on the cattle ranch, he turned to Ray Murphy, or “Cowboy” as he was called in Ashland. Cowboy was born in 1893 and was raised on a cattle ranch just outside Ashland. In Ashland’s 3-day 1916 Ashland Roundup rodeo, which was attended by 30,000 people July 4-6, Cowboy won the horse relay race. He competed in rodeos for decades. He even won a calf-roping contest in a rodeo at the San Francisco Cow Palace at age 72! 

1916 Ashland Roundup rodeo, photo of Cowboy Ray Murphy winning the relay race (photo courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society)

When Locke was learning the cattle ranch ropes in the mid-1970s, Cowboy lived at the Columbia Hotel on East Main Street. He spent his afternoons across the street at the Elks Lodge, where he had a seat of honor at the end of the bar. When Locke had questions, he would head over to the Elks Lodge, pick up Cowboy and take him out to the cattle ranch, where Cowboy would give him tips. Sadly, Locke lost his cattle-raising mentor with Cowboy Murphy’s death in 1976.

You just read about two connections between the Walker house at 1521 East Main Street and Cowboy Murphy. One was that Cowboy helped Locke through a difficult time by giving him tips about cattle raising. The second was that the 1916 Roundup rodeo took place in the current hay field right next door to the Walker house. Take a look at the two photos below, one taken in 1916 and the other taken in 2019.

Photo of Ashland Roundup, probably taken 1916 or 1917, looking east from 1521 East Main Street (picture hanging at Lance Locke’s house, courtesy of Lance Locke)
Photo of field where the 1916-1917 Ashland Roundup was held, looking east from 1521 East Main Street in November 2019 (photo by Peter Finkle)

The banister that saved the house

Walking through the abandoned house one day in early 1973, with bulldozer demolition still on his mind, Locke stopped and took a long, careful look at the hand-carved front stairway bannister.

Detail of front stairway banister (photo by Peter Finkle)

The strength and solidity of the bannister spoke to him. The skill of the 1850s woodworker, who created a solid wood bannister that curved as it climbed the stairway, spoke to him. The beauty of the wood spoke to him. That bannister changed his mind, and his life changed again.

See how the solid wood banister curves as it climbs the stairway (photo by Peter Finkle)

The Locke family decided to renovate the house instead of demolishing it and starting over. It turned out to be a two-year project, with a lot of help from his good friend (and building contractor) Ken Krumdieck. In the early stages of the renovation, Locke did much of the work himself. 

Ken Krumdieck helps Locke renovate the house, photo taken 1973 or 1974 (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

“My greatest skill is destruction”

Locke described how Krumdieck created a blueprint based on the “bones” of the historical house to guide the renovation. Krumdieck would come over each morning and tell Locke what needed to be done that day. Locke admitted that “My greatest skill is destruction.” That skill was actually useful, because he spent endless hours during 1973 taking the interior of the 117-year-old house down to the studs. On some of the doors, Locke estimated that he removed six layers of paint. 

Upstairs bedroom before renovation, photo taken c1973 (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

Built in the 1850s and never renovated, the old house had no plumbing, an outhouse for a bathroom and a wood stove in the kitchen. So once it was down to the studs, the rebuilding process was comprehensive but slow, with help from friends and skilled workers.

Through the years 1973 and 1974, Locke somehow found the time (after family time, high school teaching time, football coaching time and caring for cattle time) to make a little progress each day. 

Front porch columns during renovation, photo c1974 (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

Writing on the walls

One upstairs bedroom has fir walls that were too special to destroy. Lance and Vivian Locke found notes dated late 1800s and early 1900s written right on the walls. Some listed the births and deaths of calves, showing that the farm had been a cattle ranch for more than 100 years. 

The fir wall rectangle above the light switch has been preserved in its original form (photo by Peter Finkle)
Close-up showing 1895 writing on the bedroom wall (photo by Peter Finkle)

No fiberglass insulation back in the 1850s! Tacked to the bedroom fir wall, Locke found about an inch-thick layer of insulation made of old blankets and intact newspapers. It wasn’t pretty, but it kept the wind out. Dating to 1856, the newspapers indicate that the Walker house construction may have started in that year.

The original house contained four fireplaces and two staircases. The four fireplaces make sense, and show that John Walker, who had the house built, was a wealthy man. When Locke began renovation, he found a grill in the ceiling above the large living room fireplace. He described the purpose of the grill – to channel heat rising from the fireplace into the upstairs bedroom above the living room.

Living room after renovation; prior to renovation, there was a grill in the ceiling above the fireplace to channel heat to an upstairs bedroom (photo by Peter Finkle)

The purpose of two staircases is less clear. Yes, there were four bedrooms upstairs. But why build one staircase for the two front bedrooms, and then a second staircase in back for the two back bedrooms? Wouldn’t it have been simpler and less expensive to have one staircase and then a hallway to link the four bedrooms upstairs? We don’t have John Walker here to answer that question, so we have to live with not knowing.

Quilts on the walls

As I walked out of fir-wall bedroom, I was struck by large quilts hanging on the hallway walls. First, I noticed their beauty. Then, as Lance told me who did the quilting, I marveled at the history I was seeing.

The traditional Basket Pattern quilt was made by Elmo Stevenson’s great-grandmother, probably in the 1850s. To put that in perspective, that would be Teresa’s great-great-great-grandmother!

Another quilt in the hallway was made by Elmo’s wife Caroline Stevenson’s great-grandmother in the first half of the 19th century.

Traditional basket pattern quilt made by Elmo Stevenson’s great-grandmother, probably in the 1850s (photo by Peter Finkle)
Quilt made by Caroline Stevenson’s great-grandmother, possibly in the 1820s (photo by Peter Finkle)

The window renovation party

Lance and Vivian Locke were committed to saving as many of the original windows and doors of the house as possible. The windows were especially a challenge, about 115 years old and neglected for decades. It was too much for Locke to take on by himself. He and his wife decided to have a “window renovation party” and invite all their friends over. They provided burgers and drinks and got the windows done the old-fashioned community way. Among their friends who helped were the Mike Morgan family and the Ken Grebner family.

The window renovation “party” in progress, 1973 or 1974 (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

Door renovation details

Most of the original doors were saved and renovated. These photos tell the story, and are worth “a thousand words.”

Front door

This is the original front door after renovation, photo taken 2019 (photo by Peter Finkle)
This close-up photo shows the thickness of the solid wood original front door (photo by Peter Finkle)

Interior door

This photo was taken in 1973 or 1974, as layers of paint were being removed from an interior door (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)
Here is the same interior door after renovation, in 2019 (photo by Peter Finkle)

French toast on the floor

Locke told me the family officially moved into the renovated house on January 1, 1975. There was no furniture in the house, but there was family, there was food and there was a floor. When I interviewed Lance Locke, his daughter Teresa was with us. She added, “Our first meal was French toast on the floor!” Sure enough, as I turned the pages of their family photo album, I came upon a photo dated January 1, 1975 of six-year-old Teresa and her 8-year-old sister Stephanie eating French toast while sitting on the floor. 

On January 1, 1975, Teresa and Stephanie Locke ate their first meal in the newly renovated house (photo courtesy of Lance Locke)

Above and beyond

The Locke’s went “above and beyond” in their historic renovation.  They even rebuilt the picket fence in front and the Captain’s walk on top of the roof. Compare the lithograph from Walling’s 1884 History of Southern Oregon with the house today. 

Lithograph from Walling, 1884 (courtesy of Lance Locke)
Front of the house in 2019 (photo by Peter Finkle)

Locke has been a careful steward of the house and property since 1975. He told me, “I was 35 when I started on it, and it has been a life project.” 

Ashland is fortunate

Ashland is fortunate to have so many residents who have committed their time and money to renovate historic homes, churches and businesses, both for our enjoyment and for the historical education of generations to come. As an Ashland history buff, I am grateful to Lance Locke and his family for choosing to renovate the oldest house in Ashland, rather than demolishing it and starting over. Beyond that, he and his wife did an incredible job, as we can all see today.

Our last photo will be of Teresa’s favorite rose bush in the front yard (photo by Peter Finkle)

Selected References:

J. Campbell, M. Lahr, C. Sweet, R. Lewis. “The Murphy Family of Ashland,” The Table Rock Sentinel (Southern Oregon Historical Society magazine), April 1987, pages 19-28.

Darling, John. “John P. Walker House,” December 18, 2005, MMT.

Dermott Cedar Face, Mary Jane & Battistella, Maureen Flanagan. Southern Oregon University, Arcadia Press, 2019.

Green, Giles. A Heritage of Loyalty: The History of the Ashland, Oregon, Public Schools, School District No. 5, 1966.

Locke, Lance and Benson, Teresa Locke. Author personal interview, July 28, 2019.

Locke, Vivian. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form,” October 1977.

National Register of Historic Places website, October 18, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/ashland/wal.htm

Rogue News, March 24, 1967

Walling, A.G. History of Southern Oregon, Portland, Oregon, 1884.

Author: Peter Finkle

My name is Peter Finkle. I moved to Ashland in 1991. My email is walkashland-at-ashlandhome.net. I am a Husband, Father, Poet, Writer and Herbal Health Researcher.

14 thoughts on “The Oldest House in Ashland (and the banister that saved it)”

  1. My husband’s family had an old homeplace in Virginia built in the 1800’s. Their explanation for 2 staircases was always that they were trying to keep the boys and the girls separate, for modesty and protection.

  2. What a fascinating and well documented piece of Ashland history! Lance Locke was my husband’s (Mel Clements) Junior high school science teacher.
    Ashland owes a debt of gratitude to Peter Finkle for capturing this piece of local history.

      1. It was built originally in 1852 by Abel Helmen. It was expanded upon in the 1880’s (and various other times). The title shows the date and has Helmen’s signature on it. My grandparents sold the house or I would give you a photo copy for your files. Again, great article and I am not trying to take away from the nice work. Thanks Peter.

      2. Josh,
        Thanks for the additional info. Do you have any suggestions where I can find a copy of the title?
        Do you have any family stories about the house or about Ashland?
        I will do some more research.
        Peter

  3. Thank you do much for this informative article. I loved reading about this historical home. Now I’ll have to check it out for myself.

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