Mystery of the Peerless Hotel Marbles

The Peerless Hotel marbles (photo by Peter Finkle)

What is the mystery of the Peerless Hotel marbles? To find out, you have to delve into the early and more recent history of 243 4th Street in Ashland, Oregon. Now the Peerless Hotel, you can see from the sign painted on the alley side of the building that this building was once the Peerless Rooms. With fourteen small 10′ by 10′ rooms and one common bathroom, Peerless Rooms was one of several inexpensive boarding houses in the early 1900s Railroad District. Its roomers included single male railroad workers, traveling salesmen, a few single women, and local loggers looking for a monthly shower plus a comfortable bed.

When Southern Pacific shut down most passenger railway service in 1927, the Railroad District fell into a decades-long decline. So when Crissy Barnett Donovan bought the Peerless Rooms building in December 1990, it had been long vacant and was falling apart. Crissy acted as her own general contractor and undertook a huge 3-year renovation project.  

The Peerless Rooms original construction date was 1900. After renovation, it was reopened as the Peerless Hotel in 1994. These dates can be seen above the front doors. (photo by Peter Finkle)

She was able to save and renovate the original doors, windows and most of the interior woodwork. This was important because it allowed her to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and for another surprising reason I will come to in a moment.

During renovation, they had to excavate a foot below the ground-level floor to meet current code for adequate space below the floor. The only historical objects found in the excavated dirt were many glass and clay marbles, the kind kids may have played with 100 years ago. Crissy theorizes that children played with marbles on the wooden floor of the front room, and some fell through cracks. 

Speaking of marbles, they reappeared in Crissy’s life a few months later.  The floors were back in place, but the original tall baseboard along the walls was still missing so you could see through that empty space to the floor of the next room.

This photo (c1991) shows the missing baseboard area, as well as the poor condition of the building, before renovation. (photo on wall at the Peerless Hotel)

Toward the end of a workday, lost in thought, Crissy assumed she was alone in the building as she walked through the downstairs rooms.  She perked up as she heard the sound of a marble rolling nearby on a wood floor.  She looked down through the missing baseboard area and saw, in the next room, a large marble rolling on the floor.  She thought to herself, “One of the workers must still be here,” and went through the door into the next room.  No worker, no one, no marble, just an empty room. It was a mystery.

Late in the renovation process, standing in an upstairs room, she got into a heated discussion with her historical consultant.  Suddenly both of them heard the loud “Crack!” just like the sound of a marble that had been thrown hard hitting the floor right next to them. Startled, they looked around…and saw nothing. The tension between them dissolved in that moment. Yet the mystery deepened.

Lobby of the Peerless Hotel in 2019 (photo by Peter Finkle)

Fast forward to May 1994. With renovation complete, Crissy held an all-day open house for members of the Ashland community to walk through all the rooms of the Peerless Hotel before the first guests arrived. During the afternoon, Crissy noticed a white-haired, elderly woman who was spending a long time in the upstairs rooms. Toward the end of the open house, the elderly woman approached Crissy privately.  She said to Crissy, “Do you know you have a friend?” A bit confused by the question, Crissy responded, “I hope I have a lot of friends.” 

The woman chuckled and continued, “What I mean is you have a friend here in the Peerless and her name is Amelia. She is a spirit here and she told me she is very happy with what you have done with the building.” The elderly woman went on to tell Crissy that the spirit-Amelia was a young woman with red hair who had lived in the Peerless Rooms for many years when it was a boarding house.

Hearing this, Crissy was in a bit of shock.  Since she had already felt the presence of the playful spirit twice through the sight and sound of marbles, it kind of made sense. Though Crissy did tell me, “I am generally skeptical and I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me.” Crissy assured me (as she would assure all who are reading this) that Amelia is not a scary spirit but has only been playful in all of her appearances.

Crissy has received praise for her beautiful renovation from the Ashland Historic Commission, from the National Register of Historic Places and from many Ashland friends. But the most memorable praise for her dedication to the legacy of the Peerless Rooms building has to be the praise from a 100 year old spirit and former resident named Amelia.

Exterior of the Peerless Hotel in 2018 (photo by Peter Finkle

(This article is based on an interview with Crissy Barnett Donovan, May 17, 2019.)

A Street (Part 1): The History of OAK STREET TANK & STEEL

Painting of Oak Street Tank & Steel by Dorothy Nugent

In The Beginning…

To understand Oak Street Tank & Steel, you have to go back to the beginning of time
(well, Ashland time, anyway).  

In the year 1852, Abel Helman and Eber Emery were the first settlers to claim land along Ashland Creek. The two friends from Ohio had tried, and failed, to find gold together in California.  As a fallback, they used their carpentry skills to start a business, as they built the first sawmill in Southern Oregon on the creek.

Helman is remembered today by the names of Helman Street and Helman School.  I will tell you much more about Abel Helman when I write about the Ashland Plaza.  Emery hosted Ashland’s first school classes in his home.  Keep an eye out for his name later in this article in connection with Oak Street Tank & Steel.

Two years later, in 1854, Helman and Emery built a flourmill.  These two mills formed the nucleus of the brand new town of 23 people then called Ashland Mills.  

Founding of the Business

Ashland, Park Garage (original business name for Oak Street Tank)
Park Garage 1915 (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)

Fast-forward 60 years from the beginning of Ashland.  In 1912, the business now called Oak Street Tank & Steel began life as the Park Garage, founded by Sim Morris.   In the 1915 photo above, Sim Morris is the man on the right wearing a tall hat.  

If you had wanted to find Sim at the Park Garage in 1915, you would have walked across the street from the newly developed Lithia Park, which had its “Grand Opening” in 1916.  This address (now 51 Winburn Way) housed the Ashland Hillah Temple for decades, and is now home of Ashland’s Community Development department.  

In 1925, Sim Morris and his son Harry moved the business to a brand new building at 101 Oak Street. First called Oak Street Garage, it later became Oak Street Tank & Steel (AKA Oak Street Tank), a name they have kept through two additional moves.  

At 101 Oak Street, Sim and Harry expanded the business beyond auto repair to include a blacksmith and machine shop.  They finally found their niche in 1938 when they started making steel tanks, which they have now been doing for 80 years through many generations of the Morris family. 

Ashland, Oak Street Tank
(photo courtesy of Oak Street Tank & Steel)

The building at 101 Oak Street is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Long-time Ashlanders may remember it as the site of Pioneer Glass & Cabinet from 1953 to 1996.  It is now the site of popular brewpub Standing Stone Brewing Company.  

In 1945 they needed more room for their growing tank business, so Harry moved Oak Street Tank a short distance to a block-long building at the corner of A Street and Oak Street.  This building is still often called the Oak Street Tank building, even though the business moved out 18 years ago.  Next to the railroad tracks, the location was perfect for the expanding business that sent and received products by rail as well as by truck.

Harry Morris married the great-granddaughter of Ashland founder Eber Emery.  Harry’s son Gene Morris ran the company for decades.  It is now managed by Gene’s son Jim Morris and his daughter Chris Decker.  That makes Chris’ son Nick, who works in the business, the 5thgeneration family member (and a 6thgeneration Ashlander) to work at Oak Street Tank & Steel! 

Fascinating fact: Oak Street Tank is the third oldest business in Ashland, after the Ashland Daily Tidings (since 1876) and the Ashland Greenhouse (since 1906)  

The A Street location had been a successful fruit packing plant for Ashland’s orchards for many years. In the early 1900’s, each year hundreds of train cars full of peaches, apples, pears and other fruit would leave Ashland from that building for sale around the country.

Oak Street Tank Products

Ashland, Oak Street Tank
(photo of aluminum boat courtesy of Oak Street Tank & Steel)

Oak Street Tank stayed in business by adapting to the times.  They made many products through the years in addition to tanks: aluminum hulled boats (photo above), “wigwam” burners for local lumber mills, steam cleaners, steel boxes, bomb shelters, and more.  

Yes…even bomb shelters!

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Cave Junction resident Art Robinson exhibited at State and County fairs, where he found a market of “preppers” who wanted to purchase bomb shelters.  He contracted with Oak Street Tank to make the shelters for him.  Gene Morris’ daughter Sharon told me she estimated about 50 of them were made for Art, both a basic 8′ by 15′ size and a larger 9′ by 24′ size.  

Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of an Oak Street Tank bomb shelter, but here are photos of some of their other unusual products.

Ashland, Oak Street Tank
(brochure courtesy of Oak Street Tank & Steel)

As company office manager Chris (Morris) Decker was showing me some company historical documents, this brochure (date unknown) jumped out at me.  Look at the “Sunmate,” described in the brochure as “The First Aluminum Surf-Paddleboard in America.”  Do you see in the description: “For added sport – use a sail.”?   Yes, the Oak Street Tank surf-paddleboard could even be used for windsurfing! 

Modern windsurfing was invented in the 1960’s and took off in the 1980’s, when it became an Olympic sport for the first time in 1984.  The brochure states that Oak Street Tank has been building aluminum watercraft since 1937. Could this old-fashioned steel tank company in Ashland have been a pioneer in both windsurfing and SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard)?  

Ashland, Oak Street Tank
(photo courtesy of Oak Street Tank & Steel)

Chris (Morris) Decker told me this photo (date unknown) was taken in Ashland.  Based on the clothing people in the photo are wearing, my guess is the early 1950’s.  

Do you recognize the purpose of the white machine on wheels?  Chris said it’s a coin collection box for the City of Ashland parking department.  Oak Street Tank made the steel box that holds the coins.

Ashland, Oak Street Tank, Wigwam burner
(photo courtesy of Oak Street Tank & Steel)

This is one of the “wigwam burners” built of steel by Oak Street Tank.  It looks like it must be 50 feet tall.  They were used at lumber mills to dispose of wood scrap by burning.  The heavy (unfiltered) smoke that came out of the top was gradually recognized as a health hazard.  The last wigwam burners (also called beehive burners or teepee burners) were shut down in Oregon in the 1980’s for health and environmental reasons.  

Some Family Stories

When I interviewed Sharon (Morris) Laskos and her husband Ed for this article, she shared with me some family stories and old newspaper articles the family has kept.

Gene Morris (Sharon’s father) started welding at the company when he was 13 years old and later ran the company for decades.

Gayle Morris (Sharon’s aunt) started working at the old Oak Street Garage when she was 15 years old. She said: “I did anything they needed done.  I would meet with customers or run to the post office.”  After her high school graduation in 1946, she ran the office for the next 50 years!  That is dedication to a family business.

Sharon told me that as children, she and her four siblings would separate scrap metal at the company or help out in the office to make some spending money.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

How many more years, and how many more generations, can Oak Street Tank stay in business?  Based on their history, I think we would have to live a long, long time to find out!

Ashland, Oak Street Tank
This is the current home of Oak Street Tank & Steel on Jefferson Avenue,
part of a small industrial area in southern Ashland.

References:

Interview with Sharon (Morris) Laskos and Ed Laskos, September 24, 2018.

Interview with Sharon (Morris) Laskos and Ed Laskos, September 24, 2018.

Interview with Chris (Morris) Decker, December 10, 2018.

Kaltenbach, Jacob. “Oak Street Tank & Steel,” Lithiagraph, October 1993.

Nishball, Shirley Bender. “Firm has long history in Ashland,” Ashland Daily Tidings, June 15, 1989.

Panebaker, Alan. “Change keeps businesses constant,” Ashland Daily Tidings, June 14, 2006.

Watson, Louise. “Morris marks 50 years at Ashland firm,” Ashland Daily Tidings, January 21, 1995.

Liberty Street Walk

How can Liberty Street start and end at Siskiyou?

I walked Liberty Street on a windy, partly cloudy afternoon in April 2018.  Liberty Street has an Ashland Tree of the Year, architecture from historic to modern, not just one but two “Little Free Libraries,” and access to Ashland’s extensive trail system.

Here’s how Liberty Street can start and end at Siskiyou — it goes from Siskiyou Boulevard to the Siskiyou Mountain Range. 

You’ll find tiny Triangle Park where Liberty meets Siskiyou Blvd.

Triangle Park

Triangle Park

Triangle Park tends to be quiet.  You might see high school students eating lunch in the charming gazebo during the school year, or young people walking slack lines attached to the posts in the park.  The one day Triangle Park comes alive with a “boom” and a “bang” is the 4th of July.  When Ashland’s huge Independence Day celebration rolls around, parade headquarters is at Triangle Park.  It becomes a beehive of organizers, marching band members and honored guests ranging from locals, to Oregon’s U.S. Senators, to our Sister-City Queen and city council members from Guanajuato, Mexico.

A few steps from the park, you will see a historic bungalow-style house built in 1910, called the Grubbs Rental House.  There are many historic houses on Liberty Street, but this simple one caught my eye to share with you.

Historic 1910 bungalow

Lovely Garden and Healing Massage

At the corner of Alaska Street, Joseph and Janie enlisted some of their friends to turn a large lot into a beautiful cooperative vegetable and fruit garden.  Let’s see how many of the fruits in their garden I can remember: cherries, blueberries, raspberries, mulberries and gooseberries.  Yes, they like berries.  Sorry, they are not for public consumption!

Joseph and Janie are both massage therapists with the business name Advanced Myotherapy.  Janie also teaches Eden Energy Medicine all over the world, but I have benefited from her healing skills in both massage and energy medicine, without going any farther than Liberty Street.

They have the most amazing camellia bush I have seen in my life, and I have seen many.  Is it still a “bush” when it’s two stories tall?  The dramatic two-story camellia is hard to see from the street, so I am including photos of it here for you.

 

 

 

 

Anyone who walks or drives on Liberty Street will remember this colorful house.

Some people love it and some think it sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m in the “love it” camp. Traditional neighborhoods where all homes are built in the same style or similar colors can be aesthetically pleasing. But there is freshness that comes with variety, and Liberty Street has variety.

I would like to point out the beautiful, colorful tulip garden in the front yard of this colorful house.  Notice the deer fence, without which the tulip garden would not exist.

Short Ashland Deer Rant

I may go on a rant about the Ashland deer from time to time as I write my Walk Ashland articles.  The number of plants that Ashland deer do not eat seems to be shrinking from year to year.  For example, the first 15 years I lived in Ashland, the deer did not touch the Hypericum in my front yard.  Now they eat it regularly.  At least rosemary, lavender, daffodils and iris seem to be safe for the present.

Little Free Library

A few steps up the street, I came to the first of two “Little Free Library” stands on Liberty Street.  This book sharing movement began in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin placed the first Little Free Library in his front yard.  There are now over 65,000 registered Little Free Libraries in over 80 countries around the world!  (And many more not registered with the official group.)  Ashland has at least six in total.  I will find them all as I walk every street in town.

Little Free Library

Dramatic Trees

Liberty St is home to two striking trees that caught my eye.  The first, at 391 Liberty St., is Ashland’s 2001 Tree of the Year.  Each year residents nominate favorite trees around town, the Tree Commission narrows the selection to a few, and then residents vote for their top choice.  The 2001 choice is a majestic Blue Atlas Cedar.  My photo through the electric wires doesn’t do it justice.  You have to see it for yourself.

Blue Atlas Cedar, Ashland Tree of the Year 2001

The other tree, toward the top of Liberty, is a very unusual Ponderosa pine.  Before this, every Ponderosa pine I have ever seen was straight as an arrow, reaching for the sky.  Not this one.  It forks, and then forks again.  With tall trees, I have read that a lightning strike can destroy the crown of the tree and lead to a forked top as the tree strives to continue growing. This tree looks like it just decided to be different.

Ponderosa pine near top of Liberty St

Here is a close-up of the forked section of the Ponderosa pine.  Does anyone have an explanation how or why this tree is so different?  If you do, please leave a note in the comments.

Ponderosa pine near top of Liberty St

Architecture Old and New

Ascending Liberty Street, I took photos of two houses with contrasting architectural styles.  This is another example of the variety of houses on Liberty.  If you like traditional, here is one for you – on the 500 block.

If you prefer modern, you might like to view this one on the 600 block.

If you love bedtime stories, this one might be more to your liking.

“The Road Goes Ever On and On”

Finally, arriving at the top of Liberty Street, you have the option to leave the city streets for the world of trails.  From here, you can connect with a variety of trails and forest service roads that will take you almost anywhere.

End of Liberty Street, Ashland – start of mountain trails

As Bilbo said to Frodo in Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

From the top of Liberty Street, as well as from many other streets in Ashland, you can follow trails to the top of Mt. Ashland. If you are really swept off your feet, you could end up walking all the way to Canada or Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I hope you have enjoyed walking Liberty Street with me.  Stay tuned for the next installment.

Beach Street walk — Meet the “Beach Street bear”

Beach Street walk

by Peter Finkle

In addition to highlights of my Beach Street walk, you will read stories here about my up-close and personal encounter with the “Beach Street bear” and about the humans of Beach Street whom I encountered during my walk. Here is a sight that I believe is unique to Beach Street.

Beach Street Unique

Beach Street has imposing trees, interesting people, a former elementary school with a large open space, and proximity to many of the pleasures of Ashland.

This is my first “Walk Ashland” blog post, and it is about Beach Street.  Why?  Because I have lived on Beach Street for 27 years.

Walking Beach Street on Saturday April 7, 2018, here is what I saw and heard, people I met, plus garden, nature, animal, historical and architectural highlights.

Beach Street starts at Siskiyou Blvd and ends uphill at the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. You’ll find a mix of modest homes, large homes, apartments and condos as you walk Beach Street.  The street has open space at Lincoln School, plus many large Ponderosa pines, firs and oaks.

The “Beach Street Bear”

I saw five deer on my walk, but more interesting than deer is the “Beach Street bear,” which even had its photo in the Ashland Daily Tidings in 2006.  I have two “Beach Street bear” stories to tell you here.

The sad story involves a black bear and a beautiful large orange koi fish (see photo below taken by our neighbor in May 2015).  The bear was doing what bears love to do…go fishing, in this case in my backyard pond.

“Beach Street bear” with a koi

A Warm Summer Evening Bear Encounter

My other bear story was dramatic in a different way.  On a warm summer evening in 2006 shortly after the Daily Tidings article, I was stretched out in a lounge chair in my back yard reading the newspaper.  Our cuddly, chunky female cat GG was stretched out half-asleep next to me.  Ah, a nice relaxing Ashland summer evening.

Suddenly I saw a 5′ tall, 200 pound or so black bear climb over the low side-yard fence 35 feet away from me – way too close – and it was no longer a relaxing summer evening.  I stood up, holding the newspaper.  Then the bear saw me.  It stood up. GG-cat took off running back to the house cat door faster than she had ever run in her entire life.  My wife happened to be at the screen door nearest the bear when it appeared, so she started yelling at the bear. Meanwhile, I backed away slowly, newspaper in hand.

Fortunately, the bear was as afraid of us as we were of it, so it shot up the nearest tree.  After looking around from its perch ten feet up, it decided to leave, and lumbered off through two neighbors’ yards to Liberty Street and presumably uphill to the forest.

My Neighbor Brad’s Bear Story

Speaking of bears, during my walk I met my neighbor Brad as he was “playing with rocks,” – as he put it – building a no-mortar rock retaining wall.  We were discussing how all of upper Beach Street a century ago was likely a farm and orchard.  He told me about his old cherry and apple trees, and then declared his frustration with a bear that keeps crushing his chain-link fence in order to get in and enjoy the cherries each summer.

Nina’s Angels

Changing the subject from bears to angels, I met Nina as I was admiring her front yard full of angel sculptures.

Nina told me a “small world” story.  Decades ago, she worked as an intern for six months at Presidio Hill School in San Francisco.  When her new neighbor moved in recently, they found something in common.  The new neighbor had followed Nina as an intern at Presidio Hill School, but then stayed on the staff for 40 years…before retiring to Ashland, right next door to Nina!

Nina lives near Lincoln School, which was built in 1926.  The elementary school was originally used for the teacher training program at Southern Oregon State Normal School (now SOU) one block away. Due to declining elementary school enrollment, Lincoln was closed in 2006, but is still owned by the school district.

Lincoln School

On the edge of the Lincoln School grounds, I saw two young men with a slack line tied between two trees. I stopped to talk, and found out that Bryant was teaching his friend David how to walk a slack line.

Bryant teaching Dave how to walk the slack line

Do You Recognize the “Fortmiller” Name?

Up the street a bit, I met someone with a name that Ashland “old-timer” readers will recognize: Fortmiller.  I met Lisa Beach (formerly Lisa Fortmiller), the owner of A Midsummer’s Dream Bed & Breakfast at 496 Beach Street.  Her parents owned Fortmillers Department Store in downtown Ashland, at the current location of Earthly Goods.  She remembers being able to pick her favorite clothes off the racks as a child.

A Midsummer’s Dream B&B on Beach Street

Lisa left Ashland for 35 years, then moved back to run the beautiful B&B.  The five bedrooms are all charming.  Each comes with a marble fireplace, a relaxing spa tub and an elegant glass block shower.  The B&B was created in 2001 by restoring a 1901 Victorian farm house where the family that owned the old Beach Street farm/orchard had lived.

Some things change…like the old farm house becoming a new B&B.

Some things don’t change…like Lisa (Fortmiller) Beach still having the same reserved seats at Ashland High School football games that have been in her family for 50 years.

Garden Highlight

Here is my favorite garden highlight of the walk, beautiful daffodils, which the deer have left alone for us to enjoy.

I hope you have enjoyed this story.  Please sign up to receive an email each time I post a new story as I walk every street in Ashland.

I will close with a poem I wrote about Beach Street.

Beach Street

Beach Street is not by the sand
or even near the beach.

Named after Ashland pioneer
Henry Beach Carter, it is near
Southern Oregon University,
where thousands of students – and
their teacher/mentors – share
with Beach Street residents and the community
inspiring music, art, sports and learning.

To the north, Beach Street ends at
Siskiyou Boulevard and
Ashland High School,
where young actors, athletes and adults
are shaped and forged.

To the south, Beach Street ends at the
Siskiyou Mountain range,
where mountain hikers and mountain bikers
find a paradise to explore.

Actors, doctors, students, families, business people
and more all share Beach Street with
deer, bears, raccoons and
massive trees full of squirrels and jays.

Peter Finkle   April 7, 2018