Early Ashland pioneers set stage for progressive values

BY VICTORIA LAW

Nestled tightly in the arms of the Siskiyou Mountains, Ashland,Oregon sparkles on those clear autumn and spring mornings where the sun hits the dew drops just right. The drive on Interstate 5 at those times can be arresting as the little town in the mountain glows against its green backdrop. It is no surprise to the people who love this town that across time Ashland has always been special.

At the narrow end of the Bear-Creek Valley, Ashland is only one-and two-thirds miles wide and four-and-a-half miles long but the diversity and beauty of the region belies the small size. The Siskiyou Mountains with heights of over 7500 feet were created from an ancient island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At that time Ashland was the beach on this ancient wandering island, facing east towards the Pacific Coast. When the island chain collided and was swept under the Pacific Coast, great mountains were extruded from deep within the earth to form the Siskiyou Mountain Range.

Water cascaded down the new mountains carving river valleys and creating fertile soils from eroded mountain tops.  Forests of fir and oak grew tall in the rich soil and shaded streams full of salmon and steelhead.  Deer, elk, and beaver were plentiful. The first peoples arrived in the Ashland area at least 15,000 years ago.  In this rich valley full of game, fish, fruit and acorns they made their imprint, dancing the great “White Deer Dance” and managing the landscape with the controlled use of fire. The Takelma and Shasta Indians still lived and flourished in this valley when the first Europeans arrived.

The first Anglo-European settlers in Ashland were a different sort of pioneer from those that settled the rest of southern Oregon. Most of the Ashland settlers came from farm families in the Midwest. They had tried their hand at gold-mining in California but decided they would have more luck selling goods to miners than panning for gold. Thus they became retailers, merchants, carpenters and millers as well as farmers and orchardists. In Ashland’s lush and rich landscape they saw not only the beauty of the rushing Ashland Creek but the power. Power that could provide the energy to run sawmills, flour mills and finally a woolen mill.

Many of these early settlers came from either Ashland, Ohio or Ashland, Kentucky.

Most of the men were Whigs, an early political party that favored “internal improvements” and education. Many of the men were fans of Senator Henry Clay, known as “the Great Compromiser” whose estate in Kentucky was named “Ashland.” Straws were drawn and the Ashland, Ohio men won the contest. Ashland Mills, the new town, would be named for Ashland, Ohio.

Over time the “Mills” would be dropped from the town name and become simply, “Ashland.”

By that time in 1871, much of the character of what Ashland would be had already been

established. Early pioneer, Abel Helman, had subdivided his donation land claim centered on the Ashland Flour Mill and helped create a fledgling, business district that came to be known as the “Plaza.” The progressive values of the early Ashland pioneers inspired them to create schools and the first “Normal School”, or teacher’s college, in Southern Oregon.

Progressive values continued to attract new businesses and innovative thinkers, like a young drama teacher named Angus Bowmer who helped create the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the middle of the Great Depression. In the twenty-first century, Ashland holds to its early progressive values and with good stewardship of the land remains the beautiful mountain town, surrounded by glorious nature, that continues to attract the progressive and the innovative.

Victoria Law is the Executive Director of the Ashland History and Railroad Museum.