Ashland History ‘Firsts’ – Part 2

How did a 3-year-old help start Ashland School District No. 5?
Which Presidential candidate did Ashlanders vote for in 1860?
What year was the Ashland Tidings newspaper founded?
How many name changes has SOU had in its first 148 years?

Part 1 began with a brief introduction to a Native American village where Lithia Park is now located, as described by some of the first Americans who settled in Ashland. Part 1 ended with a description of the first formal schooling in Ashland. Classes began October 3, 1854 with a handful of children in the home of Eber Emery.

To begin Part 2, let’s pick up that story three years later with another surprising school story.

First Ashland School District

Three years after a handful of students began meeting for school in Eber Emery’s house, locals decided to organize a formal school district. This would enable Ashland to receive public funds to help with school expenses. Here’s how Marjorie O’Harra described what happened. “An enrollment of thirteen children was necessary to establish the district….  After a thorough scouring of the community only twelve children could be found. Pioneers being resourceful folks, three-year-old John Helman was pressed into service and School District No. 5 came into being.”

I guess you could say that John Helman was “small but mighty” with his power to bring School District No. 5 into being!

Ashland history, Abel and John Helman 1865
Abel Helman with son, probably John Helman, in 1865 (photo detail from http://wrightarchives.blogspot.com/2012/09/ashland-oregon-founders.html)

First Post Office

In the first three years of the tiny community, a local resident had to travel to Jacksonville’s post office once a week to get mail for Ashland, and then people picked up their mail in Abel and Martha Helman’s kitchen. 

Ashland graduated to an official Post Office in 1855. Mail still came only once a week, but the post “office” moved from Helman’s kitchen to the Ashland Flour Mill office. Abel Helman was Postmaster of Ashland for the first 27 years of the local Post Office. 

Ashland history, Abel Helman portrait
Abel Helman in his later years (from Portrait and Biographical Record….,1904)

First School Building

Ashland citizens built the first dedicated school house in 1860. About 18 students attended regularly, not many more than the 13 students enrolled back in 1857. In this photo, the students are with blind music instructor Professor Rutan, in front of the first school building.

Ashland history, first school
Ashland schoolchildren with music Professor Rutan, date unknown, 1860-1890 
(This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

First Ashland Presidential Election

“Ashlanders voted for Lincoln in 1860, while the remainder of the region strongly supported the pro-slavery candidate, and the town remained a dependably Republican island in a Democratic sea for decades thereafter.” [quote from LaLande, Oregon Encyclopedia]

First Residential Streets

Ashland’s first known map, drawn in 1860, showed the Plaza and one street, called “Street!” This one street was actually the Jacksonville-to-Yreka stage road.

Ashland history, 1860 map of Ashland
1860 map of Ashland (from Kay Atwood 1987)

By the time of B.F. Myer’s 1867 official map, Ashland had grown. Not only was the stage road through town now called “Stage Road,” but also there were nine residential streets shown on the map! The streets radiated out from the Ashland Plaza, and about four blocks west along what is now North Main Street. From East to West, the street names are Oak Street, Water Street, Granite Street, Church Street, Pine Street, Bush Street, Laurel Street, Manzanita Street and Factory Street (now Central Avenue).

Ashland history, 1867 map of Ashland
1867 map of Ashland (from City of Ashland website)

First College

Creating a college was a vision of Southern Oregon Methodists, which got a boost in 1869 when a Methodist conference was held in Ashland. Reverend Joseph H. Skidmore made it a reality in 1872. He used his carpentry skills to finish a half-built structure, then opened Ashland Academy for training teachers in the new building. After failing financially and then opening again in 1882, the renamed Ashland College and Normal School had 42 students and 4 teachers. At that time, it was located at what is now the Briscoe School site on North Main Street. 

Today, after a total of 10 name changes (!), Southern Oregon University has 6,000 students on a 175 acre campus and is one of the jewels of Ashland.

Ashland history, Ashland Academy building in 1900
This was the Ashland Academy building in 1900. According to Southern Oregon Digital Archives, Abel Helman sold the land for Ashland Academy to the Reverend Joseph Skidmore in 1872. 
(This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

First Fraternal Organization

Fraternal organizations were an important part of community life in frontier America. In Ashland, the first fraternal organization was formed in 1873 — Ashland Lodge No. 45 of the International Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.). 

After the Plaza fire of March 11, 1879, the Odd Fellows built a two-story structure with local bricks. To this day, their brick building anchors the corner of the Plaza, and still proudly identifies itself with “I.O.O.F. 1879” visible at the top of the building.

Ashland history, Ashland I.O.O.F. building in 1883
This 1883 drawing of the I.O.O.F. building is from West Shore Magazine
Ashland I.O.O.F. building in 2019
Detail photo of I.O.O.F. building in 2019 (photo by Peter Finkle)

First Newspaper

June 17, 1876 marked the day Ashland residents got their own newspaper, the Ashland Tidings. Before that, they got their news from Jacksonville newspapers. It began as a weekly paper and became a twice-weekly by 1896. Becoming a daily paper in 1912, the name was changed to the Ashland Daily Tidings. And what is the name now? Once again, it is the Ashland Tidings as of 2019. For a small-circulation newspaper in a small town, it is amazing that the Tidings has been able to survive for 144 years!

First City Band

According to the Ashland City Band website, an Ashland Brass Band came into being in 1876. It quotes the April 14, 1877 issue of the Ashland Tidings: “The article, about a musical program given at the Ashland Academy, ends with, ‘We cannot omit to mention the Ashland Brass Band whose valuable services were tendered without charge and enlivened the occasion with many pieces of music.’” Now the Ashland City Band, our community band has had four (and possibly six) names in the past 144 years.

The band became more prominent in town after 1890, when Otis Helman was named the conductor. Helman had attended and graduated from the Chicago School of Music, so he raised the quality of the music. Under Helman, this band was also known as the “Helman Red Suit Band.”

Ashland history, Ashland City Band plays at Lithia Park bandstand, possibly 1916
Ashland City Band at the Lithia Park bandstand, possibly 1916
(This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

The city band has marched in Ashland parades for more than 100 years. Even today, the Ashland City Band leads the 4th of July parade, immediately after the Color Guard.

Ashland City Band leads 4th of July parade
Ashland City Band leads the 2019 4th of July parade (photo by Peter Finkle)

I hope you are enjoying this series of brief vignettes of Ashland history “firsts.” 

Here is a link to Part 1 of the series: 

Part 3 will introduce you to the first United States President to visit Ashland, the first “shopping mall” in town, the first play performed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and more.

As his contribution to building community, Peter Finkle is walking every street in Ashland and writing an article with photos about every street.  Please subscribe with your email address, and you will be notified each time a new article is published.

References:

Anon. Portrait and Biographical Record of Western Oregon: Containing Original Sketches of many well known Citizens of the Past and Present, Chapman Publishing Company, Chicago, 1904.
Ashland Daily Tidings, February 26, 1927.
Atwood, Kay.  Jackson County Conversations, Jackson County Intermediate Education District, 1975.
Atwood, Kay. Mill Creek Journal: Ashland, Oregon 1850 – 1860, self-published 1987.
Enders, John. Lithia Park: The Heart & Soul of Ashland, 2016.
Green, Giles. A Heritage of Loyalty: The History of the Ashland, Oregon, Public Schools, School District No. 5, 1966.
LaLande, Jeff. from The Oregon Enyclopedia, https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/ashland/#.XdYMxi2ZM2I
Lewis, Raymond (possibly), “Abel D. Helman, Founder of Ashland,” Table Rock Sentinel, October 1981 (Southern Oregon Historical Society).
O’Harra, Marjorie. Ashland: the first 130 years, Northwest Passages Publishing Inc. 1986.

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.

Hundreds Stranded in Ashland during the Flood of 1927

Here is the front page of Ashland American newspaper from February 25, 1927 that described the flood (“Rain Deluge Works Havoc”) and the people stranded in Ashland for three days.

A version of this article was published in the Ashland Tidings newspaper on June 4, 2019. This WalkAshland post contains additional text and historical photos.

Were you in Ashland during the flood on January 1, 1997? Heavy snow followed by warm rain flooded the Plaza and knocked out our water treatment plant. Life was inconvenient because Ashlanders had to use Porta Potties for two weeks. But Ashland wasn’t cut off from the outside world as in 1927.

Ashland was thriving in 1927. The Lithia Springs Hotel, then the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland, had just opened on Main Street in 1925 (it’s now the Ashland Springs Hotel). The downtown Enders Department Store, where you could walk indoors from one store to the next for an entire city block, was considered a wonder. Lithia Park was eleven years old and already a tourist draw, though stormy February weather would not have been ideal for taking a stroll in the park.

The Lithia Springs Hotel on East Main Street as it looked in the late 1920s. (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby collection)

Then in February 1927, heavy snow followed by hours of warm rain led to “havoc.” In Ashland, though one bridge was destroyed and several damaged, there was less damage from the flood overall than in 1997. But the word “havoc” described what happened around Ashland.  

The road to Medford was impassable in 15 to 20 places. Highways over the Siskiyou Mountains and the Greensprings were covered with snow. At Jackson Hot Springs, water covered Highway 99 three feet deep when Bear Creek overflowed.  O. M. Franklin and his boat rescued people who were staying in cabins at the Hot Springs.  

Some of the worst damage was to the train tracks both north and south of Ashland.  Southern Pacific railway workers who had been with the company as long as 25 years told the Ashland American newspaper that “the storm has rendered unprecedented damage to their line” that was “the worst in history.”

With the tracks blocked both north and south, hundreds of passengers on two (or possibly four) long passenger trains at the Ashland depot were stranded in Ashland. 

Southern Pacific hired 40 to 50 men to clear and repair the tracks, but it was no easy task. In some places, huge rocks weighing hundreds of tons blocked the tracks. In others, the rushing waters had washed out the grade underneath the tracks. Dynamite was used to blast rocks free. A crane attached to a railway car lifted boulders off the tracks.  

Meanwhile, what to do with all the stranded passengers? The people of Ashland rose to the occasion and entertained the visitors. Ashland did have a lot to offer. There were hotels large and small, plus restaurants in both the Railroad District and downtown. Those of a scholarly bent could visit a public library and a brand new college (Churchill Hall, home of Southern Oregon Normal School, had just been completed the year before).

Scholarly visitors could have spent their days in the Ashland Public Library. This photo is from 1927! (This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

Several stranded passengers were home-seekers, so they had lots of time to view local real estate. One passenger was a fruit cannery man, so he could visit local orchards and canneries. Ashland growers packed and shipped apples, peaches, pears and more all over the United States. The large fruit packing plant building on A Street next to the railroad tracks is still there (currently home of Plexis Healthcare Systems software company).

Visitors wanting to get out of the Railroad District could have headed downtown to the Hotel Austin, at the corner of East Main Street and Oak Street. This large hotel had previously been called Hotel Oregon, and in the 1930s was renamed Hotel Ashland. (Photo from Terry Skibby Collection at SODA. This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

I’m not sure what the Standard Oil executive or the buyer for Skaggs-Safeway stores would have found entertaining, but the railroad company tried its best for them and all the passengers.

According to Maurice Bailey, a railroad employee for many years: “Southern Pacific installed radios in each train to provide entertainment for the stranded guests. At this time, Ashland’s depot was 3 stories high with a dining room, hotel, and offices, so Southern Pacific bedded down all the passengers free, and then hired an orchestra and put on a dance each of the 3 evenings for the benefit of the passengers.” 

Food, music and dancing…what more do you need? How about toilets that don’t stink? So on a practical level, Southern Pacific bought almost all the chloride of lime in Ashland hardware stores to keep the odors down in their railway car toilets.  

After three days, the tracks were finally repaired and passengers could go on their way. I wonder how many of them decided during those three days that they would come back to live in Ashland? If they were anything like current Ashland residents who have told me stories why they decided to move here, I bet a few of them did. 

This aerial view of Ashland was taken in the late 1920s. You can see the Public library lower right; Chautauqua dome top left; Main Street and the Ashland Springs Hotel in the center (then called Lithia Springs Hotel); old Baptist Church (now Oregon Cabaret Theatre) with rounded back up 1st at Hargadine; Twin Plunges and Natatorium towards top center; railroad yard along top. (Brubaker 6378. From the collection of the Ashland Public Library. This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

References:

Anon. Ashland American newspaper articles, Feb 25, 1927
Anon. Ashland Daily Tidings newspaper articles, Feb 21 & 24, 1927
Mr. & Mrs. Maurice Bailey interviewed by student Denise Atkinson in the book History of Ashland Oregon, written by 8thgrade students at Ashland Junior High School, published 1977. Teacher: Marjorie Lininger

Wah Chung and the Chinese Community in Ashland: Late 1800’s and Early 1900’s

Highlights:

When Ashland had a Chinatown (90 to 130 years ago)
The Chinese family that mixed with Ashland’s elite
The village cluster in China where Ashland’s Chinese residents were born
Chinese New Year in Ashland highlights
What was different about Chinese New Year in 1916?

“The well known local capitalist”

He was described in 1913 as “the well known local capitalist” by the Ashland Tidings newspaper.  Was he the owner of a local bank?  No.  Was he one of the big local landowners from a pioneer family?  No again. 

Here is a hint from a 1915 Ashland Tidings article: “Mr. and Mrs. Hum Pracht and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Provost were entertained at dinner Sunday evening by Mr. and Mrs. Wah Chung at their home on A street.”  

This wasn’t just any dinner and these weren’t just any guests. This was a Chinese New Year dinner. As for the guests, Hum Pracht had managed the bustling Ashland Depot Hotel, and his father Max Pracht had shipped peaches all over the country from his huge Ashland orchard. [Max Pracht article] Henry Provost was a former Mayor of Ashland and part of a prominent Ashland family.

His Real Name

These Tidings articles described a Chinese man who, along with his family, became part of the fabric of early 20thcentury Ashland.  He was known in Ashland as Wah Chung, which was the name of his business: Wah Chung and Company.  

For some reason, people found it easier to call him by his business name rather than learning his Chinese name.  That’s why in all the quotes from the Tidings his name is Wah Chung.  However, his birth name was Wong Quon Sue.  Out of respect for him and his culture, I will refer to Wah Chung primarily by his family name, Mr. Wong.

Wah Chung family, Ashland Chinese, Ashland
Mr. and Mrs. Wong and their daughter Jennie on the front porch of their home, date unknown (photo number 1147 courtesy of the Southern Oregon Historical Society)

Social Standing in Ashland

Here’s another glimpse of Mr. Wong’s social standing from an Ashland Tidings article about the 1916 Chinese New Year.  “The local celebration lacked some of the features of those of bygone years when the entire population of Ashland made a pilgrimage to Wah Chung’s on China New Year and partook of Chinese nuts and candies and watched the fireworks.” 

If you bear with me until the end of the article, I will explain why the people of Ashland could not enjoy the 1916 Chinese New Year with “rice wine, plum wine and other ancient drinks which go down like water but biteth like the serpent and kicketh like the mule….”

Mr. Wong, the Businessman

Mr. Wong made his money and his place in the community as the Chinese Labor Contractor for Southern Pacific (SP) railroad, a position he held more than 42 years.  Most of the workers who built the railroad line across the Siskiyou Mountains in the mid-1880s were Chinese laborers.  Some stayed on to maintain the tracks.

Mr. Wong was responsible for hiring, feeding and taking care of Chinese workers to maintain a section of the SP tracks in Oregon and Northern California.  That would be a big responsibility in itself.  But he also was responsible for finding, feeding and taking care of Chinese workers to maintain a section of SP tracks in the Salt Lake region! How did he find time for all of this plus a family, a grocery store, a restaurant, a mine in the Applegate, community activities and more?

Chinese Community in Ashland

Originally, Ashland’s Chinese community consisted mostly of railroad workers.  This was quite different than in Jacksonville, where most Chinese residents were active in gold mining, and where there were more conflicts between the Chinese and American residents.  

1887, Southern Pacific railroad, Chinese workers
Chinese workers building the Southern Pacific railroad through the Siskiyou Mountains, 1887 (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)

After the railroad’s completion in 1887, dozens of Chinese stayed on as railroad maintenance workers and used Ashland as a home base.  In addition to railroad work, “During the period from 1890 to 1940, many of the Chinese left were running laundries and cooking for hotels and families.”  [Atwood-2, page 9]  According to Henry Enders, the cooks and waiters at the Ashland Depot Hotel were Chinese men.  [Atwood-1, page 83]

Mr. Wong’s Roots in China

I am indebted to staff archeologist Chelsea Rose of SOULA (Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology) for telling me that Wah Chung’s birth name was Wong Quon Sue, and that he was born in Chun Lock village in China’s coastal Taishan county, Guangdong province.  

This is an aerial view of Chun Lock village in China, where most Ashland Chinese came from (photo courtesy of Chelsea Rose)

I read dozens of early 1900s newspaper articles and many other references about the early Ashland Chinese community, but never saw his birth name.  Ms. Rose pointed out to me that Mr. Wong may have named his store and business Wah Chung (which was a common Chinese-American store or business name) because it roughly translates as “Flower of Opportunity.”

In 2017, Chelsea Rose traveled to Chun Lock village in China as part of her research for the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project.  She has learned that not only Wah Chung, but also most of Ashland’s Chinese residents in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were from this same village cluster in China. 

Wah Chung, Ashland Chinese, Chelsea Rose, Chun Lock village
Chelsea Rose (third from left) with residents of Chun Lock village in 2017.  Many of the Chun Lock village residents in this photo are related to Ashland’s early 20th century Chinese residents. The man in the center, holding the American ginseng package Chelsea brought as a gift, is the village head, a position similar to our town Mayor.   (Photo by Chelsea Rose, Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology)
This photo shows the village head of Chun Lock village looking through a genealogy book during Chelsea Rose’s visit to China. (photo courtesy of Chelsea Rose)

Marriage, New Home and Ashland’s Chinatown

Mr. Wong started working for Southern Pacific as their Chinese Labor Agent in 1883.  He likely moved to Ashland in 1883 or 1884.  On September 13, 1901, he married “a San Francisco belle of China town” in a wedding that was attended by “many of the aristocratic circle” of San Francisco, as well as leading Chinese residents of Yreka.  His wife, Wong Soo Lue, was known in Ashland as Mrs. Wah Chung. 

Mr. Wong owned four lots in the railroad district.  At least three of them were at the corner of A Street and 2nd Street, the historic center of Ashland’s Chinatown.  Most Chinese in Ashland lived near A and 2nd Streets, or in houses or tents across the railroad tracks from there.

He built a new two-story house there.  Carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the house just in time for his 1901 wedding. A newspaper article described his house as having electric lights, a small but beautiful bedroom, and all modern conveniences. 

The Wongs’ Garden

The Wah Chung family raised vegetables and fish in their yard.  They grew “both vegetables of native variety and vegetables of Oriental variety,” according to the Ashland Tidings of September 6, 1915.  “The other day one of the employees of the Tidings office was shown over the patch.”  Mrs. Wah Chung gave the Tidings writer several Chinese cucumbers to try.  The writer was impressed with their “superior flavor” compared to American cucumbers.  He was most impressed by the Chinese string beans – 1 to 2 ½ feet long!   

As for fish, “Three large deep pools in the back yard supplied eels and a kind of shrimp which were often used in meal preparation…..”  [Dunlap 1964]

Why Ashlanders went to his Chinese Grocery

Mr. Wong owned a two-story Chinese grocery store on A Street next to his house, with a Chinese laundry in the building he owned next to that.  In addition to serving the local Chinese community, his store was a magnet for children in the railroad district.  Elizabeth Carter remembers going to Wah Chung’s store with her father and brother to buy firecrackers.  And Almeda Helman Coder said that “He [Wah Chung] used to give us Chinese nuts, funny little round Chinese nuts, more like a little dried up fruit.”  Archeologist Chelsea Rose told me these were lychee nuts.  It is interesting to note that she and colleagues found lychee nuts during a 2013 archeological excavation in the Jacksonville Chinatown.

In addition to buying firecrackers, adults in town had another reason to visit his store – the Chinese medicines available there.  On Jan. 9, 1910, the Medford Mail Tribune ran this ad: “Chow Young’s Chinese Medicines will cure rheumatism, asthma, paralysis, sores and private diseases.  These remedies may be procured at the store of Wah Chung on A street, Ashland, Oregon.”

Wah Chung & Co. included at least two other businesses.  At one point he owned a Chinese restaurant at 82 North Main Street (current site of Bluebird Park next to the Thai Pepper restaurant).  A 1913 newspaper article said it had been closed for some time and was being reopened by “a gentleman of Chinese lineage” named Charlie.  Beyond Ashland, Wah Chung & Co. bought a gold mine in 1896 for $600 from John O’Brien of Applegate.  

Mr. Wong was active in the larger community of Ashland.  He was a member of the Ashland Commercial Club, precursor to today’s Ashland Chamber of Commerce.  He and his wife were listed in the newspaper among the givers to the Ashland Red Cross Offering of 1917. 

Mrs. Wah Chung (Mrs. Wong) and the Children

Despite extensive research, I haven’t been able to learn much about the children.  Mr. and Mrs. Wong adopted a girl, Jennie, and several years later their son Sammy was born.

Mrs. Wah Chung with baby, Ashland Chinese, Ashland
Mrs. Wong with baby, probably Sammy, date unknown (photo number 1149 courtesy of the Southern Oregon Historical Society)

They also had a daughter Gin Tie, who sadly died of cholera at nine months of age. Victoria Kindell (who ran the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum for seven years) located Gin Tie Wah Chung’s unmarked grave at the Ashland Cemetery and paid for a grave marker to be placed there.

Gin Tie Wah Chung, Ashland Chinese
Grave marker at Ashland Cemetery for Mr. and Mrs. Wong’s daughter who died of cholera at nine months of age.  The Ashland Cemetery is at the corner of East Main Street and Morton Street.

Jennie and Sammy both attended public schools in Ashland.  According to the Mail Tribune, Sammy “was a bright boy and was well liked by both teachers and pupils.”  Elizabeth Carter, who grew up on Mountain Avenue next to the railroad tracks, remembers Sammy coming to her house many times to play. 

We also know that on Christmas 1921, Sammy was a guest at a “very merry Christmas party” at the home of Mr. and Mrs. G. C. Peebles on upper Liberty Street.  First Santa Claus arrived (by car, not sleigh) and then they had a feast.

Mabel Dunlap remembered that when Jennie was in elementary school, “Many of the children made fun of her and called her names.  Probably because of my defense of the bewildered Chinese girl, and because of our friendship, I became a special friend of her family.”  

“I often went to Jennie’s home with her and at times was asked to write letters for Mrs. Wah Chung, who could speak English but could not write it.”  “Sometimes I helped with her sewing and was always received with dignity and warmth.”  

Mabel Dunlap 1964

Marie Prescott remembers attending Jennie’s birthday party at the family home one year.  She was in Jennie’s class at school, and said the parents invited everyone in the class to the party and served them a full meal.

Jennie Wah Chung, Ashland Chinese, Ashland
Jennie Wah Chung with a doll (not her Chinese doll), date unknown (photo number 1151 courtesy of the Southern Oregon Historical Society)

Bridging Two Cultures

The Tidings in 1913 wrote warmly of the doll Jennie brought to her elementary school fair.  “A Chinese doll dressed and entered in a doll cab handsomely decorated with the Stars and Stripes and with the Chinese national colors, by Jennie Wah Chung, attracted much attention.”  

I think this doll perfectly encapsulates the way Mr. Wong and his family were able to successfully bridge two cultures.  On the one hand, Jennie had a Chinese doll. On the other hand, she entered it decorated with the Stars and Stripes.  That made it hard to judge her as a “foreigner.”  Yet she didn’t abandon her culture.  Along with the Stars and Stripes, she included the Chinese national colors in the doll cab.

Mr. Wong seems to have been able to adeptly live this balancing act.  

“Wah Chung was a perfect gentleman…everybody trusted him.”  

Ashland business owner Henry Enders

He was able to befriend and gain the trust of the powerful families and institutions of Ashland.  He and his wife mixed socially with “the cream of the crop” in town, and he did things like drive his patriotically decorated car in Ashland 4th of July parades.

Ashland Oregon, 4th of July parade, 1911
Here are decorated cars in Ashland’s 1911 4thof July parade. 
Sorry, this is not a photo of Mr. Wong’s car decorated for the parade! (photo from the Ashland library)

Mr. Wong’s stellar reputation allowed him to represent and help Ashland’s Chinese citizens, both locally and around the West Coast.

Anti-Chinese Discrimination

In this introduction to the Chinese community in Ashland, it is important to acknowledge the legal and social discrimination they lived with.

The Chinese faced tremendous discrimination and racism both in Oregon and throughout the United States for many decades.  Nationally, “The Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1882] prohibited further immigration of Chinese laborers, and barred those already living in the United States from bringing their wives and families over to join them. The law became increasingly more restrictive, and by 1892 Chinese individuals needed to carry proof of legal residence with them at all times or risk deportation (Voss and Allen 2008:12).” [Rose & Ruiz, page 194]

Wah Chung sometimes had to travel to San Francisco, Portland or Seattle to assist someone who needed help reentering the United States after making a trip home to visit family in China. Here is an example, from an actual document in the year 1900.

Ashland Oregon Chinese, Wah Chung
Wong Youe, in his 1900 re-entry to the United States file, is listed as an investor in Wah Chung Co store in Ashland.  He may have been an actual investor, or he may have been a “paper son,” a relative or friend whom Mr. Wong (Wah Chung) helped enter the country by saying he was part of the business.
Ashland Oregon Chinese, Wah Chung
This is the form that went with Wong Youe’s photo.

The City of Ashland had local discriminatory laws.  For example, in 1883, the Ashland city council passed an ordinance designed to keep out Chinese who might want to open a laundry business: “December 7, 1883: ‘China Washouse [sic] or laundry to pay a license of forty dollars per year or at the same rate for a shorter period.'”

The atmosphere in Ashland for Chinese seemed to improve in the last decade of the 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s.  Despite this, Wah Chung’s acceptance in the community was an exception.  The majority of the Chinese in Ashland either spent almost all their time out of town maintaining the railroad, or they seem to have been nameless and little known to the larger community.

Mabel Dunlap described “…Chinese families who lived in the houses clustered about the Wah Chungs. In these buildings the shades were always drawn and this appealed to my youthful curiosity.  Jennie once took me through some of the houses and although the rooms were in semi-darkness, I noted everything was spotless.  The women were sewing and doing their household chores and the children were well-behaved.” [Dunlap 1964]

Later Life and Death

Mr. Wong had an outstanding and astounding career with the Southern Pacific.  In 1925, the Southern Pacific Bulletin wrote:

“Wah Chung is now 82 years old, yet judging from his hale and hearty appearance he will probably continue for many more years to be of helpful service to the Company’s Maintenance of Way Department.”  

SP Bulletin

The article went on: “Wah Chung keeps these gangs [the Chinese track workers] up to maximum requirement, looks after the welfare of the men, takes care of their commissary, and has been a very valuable asset to this Company.  He enjoys a wide acquaintance and is always a welcome visitor, either in the office or on the line.  Although well along in years, he is still quite an active man and personally handles all the details of his work.”

Wah Chung and son Sammy, Ashland Chinese
Elderly Mr. Wong (Wah Chung) with his son Sammy (Photo from the Southern Pacific Bulletin, January 1925)

Mr. Wong died in a Portland hospital in 1927, two years after this glowing article was written. Tragically for Mrs. Wong (Mrs. Wah Chung), their son Sammy died only three months after his father, due to a drowning accident in the Willamette River.  

In her 1964 interview, Mabel Dunlap said: “The last time I saw Mrs. Wah Chung was on a summer day on a street corner in Ashland.  She had come to collect the last of the money due her late husband by the railroad.  She planned to return to China.  She wept as she told me of Sammy’s death.” 

Their daughter Jennie married, perhaps to a San Francisco Chinese businessman.  The 1925 Southern Pacific article states that Wah Chung “has a married daughter living in Boston.”  I have not been able to track her life after that point.

Back to Chinese New Year 1916

Rather than end this article with death, I’d like to add a bit of humor about Ashland life in 1916. Let’s circle back to my description of Ashland’s Chinese New Year 1916.  Why was it different than previous years “when the entire population of Ashland made a pilgrimage to Wah Chung’s on China New Year and partook of Chinese nuts and candies and watched the fireworks.”?  

The Tidings article goes on to say: “The great difference was in the banquet, which is the central feature of the New Year celebration, and at which every manner of dish from the Flowery Kingdom is served.”  

Now we get to the crux of the matter: “What’s the use of banqueting on bird’s nest soup, shark’s fin and other delicacies if the edibles can not be washed down with good old wine imported from Canton.” 

“Alas, rice wine, plum wine and other ancient drinks which go down like water but biteth like the serpent and kicketh like the mule, can not be served at the spreads. ‘Gum sing,’ which means ‘bottom’s up,’ is a toast that can not be drunk.  The white man’s prohibition law put a crimp in the celebration.” 

Ashland Tidings February 3, 1916

Many residents of Ashland were probably cheering when they read this article, due to the cultural clashes at the time around the subject of alcohol.  If you remember from your school days that Prohibition in the United States became law in 1920, you remember correctly.  So how did that affect Chinese New Year 1916 in Ashland, Oregon? Simply because voters in the State of Oregon “jumped the gun” on the national trend and voted 136,842 to 100,362 “to prohibit after January first, 1916 the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors within the State of Oregon….”

Sadly, this is why the people of Ashland could no longer enjoy Chinese New Year in 1916 with “rice wine, plum wine and other ancient drinks which go down like water but biteth like the serpent and kicketh like the mule….”  Thank you, Tidings columnist, for the colorful language.

Conclusion

In conclusion, here is an upbeat entry from the Ashland Tidings that says a lot about the man Mr. Wong and his relationship with the Ashland community.  

“Wah Chung, popular Chinese merchant, made his yearly round last week, distributing Chinese lily bulbs to his merchant friends.  The bulbs are supposed to have the peculiar property of bringing happiness and prosperity to those under whose care they bloom.”

Ashland Tidings December 14, 1916

References for this article:

Ashland Tidings 3/31/1913
Ashland Tidings 6/5/1913
Ashland Tidings 9/29/1913
Ashland Tidings 2/18/1915
Ashland Tidings 2/3/1916 
Ashland Tidings 12/14/1916
Ashland Tidings 6/28/1917
Ashland Tidings 6/3/1919
Ashland Tidings 1/4/1922
Atwood-1: Atwood, Kay.  Jackson County Conversations, Jackson County Intermediate Education District, 1975.
Atwood-2: Atwood, Kay. Minorities of Early Jackson County, Jackson County Intermediate Education District, 1976.
Dunlap, Mabel Roach, as told to Bernice Gillespie, "Local Woman Recalls Days of the Chinese in Ashland," Ashland Daily Tidings October 7, 1964.
Kindell, Victoria. Personal interview 2/16/2019.
Medford Mail 5/22/1896
Medford Mail Tribune 1/9/1910
Medford Mail Tribune 5/25/1927
Medford Mail Tribune 8/8/1927
Oregon Secretary of State website.   https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/highlights/Documents/proclamation-oswald-west-prohibition.pdf
Rose, Chelsea, M.A.  Personal interview 2/13/2019.  Chelsea is Staff Archeologist at SOULA (Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology).  Her research locally and around the state is part of the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project.
Rose, Chelsea and Ruiz, Chris. "Strangers in a Strange Land: Nation Building, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Oregon Territory," in ALIS VOLAT PROPRIIS: Tales from the Oregon Territory, 1848-1859, Association of Oregon Archaeologists, Occasional Papers No. 9, 2014.
Waldron, Sue. "Growing Up In Ashland's Railroad District," Table Rock Sentinel, SOHS, March 1988.

COLLABORATORS AND FRIENDS

The Southern Oregon Historical Society is a great resource.  (1) If you like history, SOHS can always use volunteers to help with research, digitizing and transcribing. Learn about SOHS here.  (2) Second, I encourage you to join SOHS as a member to support their work.  The JOIN link is here.

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OAK STREET TANK & STEEL: An Ashland family business since 1912

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.