“The home of the most lighthearted, liberal, and enterprising people on earth.” P.W. Croake, 1891.Publisher of a booklet about the beauties of the Rogue Valley, with the goal of attracting commerce to the town.
A lot has happened since 1854 when Abel Helman and Eber Emery staked claims to a fertile valley in southern Oregon, sheltered by the Siskiyou Mountains with a creek running through it. Here they gambled on supplying miners instead of mining and started a saw mill. Ashland Flouring Mills was founded and thus the long history of character, risk and spirit of enterprise that has always infused the people and endeavors of Ashland. After the mill was abandoned, Mr Helman donated 12 building sites surrounding the mill to create a central business district called the Plaza. This was and continues to be the area for civic activities and social gatherings.
Local guide, Peter Finkle with Walk Ashland, took my group of writers around the Plaza area and told us the history- which has been transforming for the past 100 years.
Lithia water is famous in the Rogue Valley going back to the Native Americans who used the mineral waters to care for the sick and aged. The current water fountain, built in 1911, with the hope that Ashland would become a renowned and profitable spa similar to those in Europe, sits in the middle of the Plaza bringing water three miles east of Ashland. It is said that there is only one other spring in the world with a higher concentration of Lithium and that spring is in Europe. Erected in 1911 with the hope that Ashland would become a renowned and profitable spa similar to those in Europe. According to local lore “Ashlanders took perpetual delight at the sight of tourists gagging at Lithia Water’s bitter taste and then returning to bottle and take it home for its digestive and medicinal qualities”.
Ashland Mills was eventually abandoned and became an eye sore in the Plaza. It became used as an area to bring entertainment and culture to Southern Oregon and in 1908 The Women’s Civic Improvement Club succeeded in having the land designated a city park. Thus 93 acres were cultivated for this lovely park that stretches from the plaza up toward Mount Ashland. I was there in the Fall and the colors were spectacular. The self-guided tour begins at the entrance to the park, meanders to the upper duck pond, and then heads over to the Japanese Garden and winds down to the Rose Garden. The trail is approximately a mile long and will take about 1.5 to 2 hours to complete. Take your time and enjoy the walk.
Anchored on one side by the picturesque Lithia Park is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival theater complex. What started as Chautauqua walkway where people would go to hear orators and watch entertainment in the Chautauqua Tabernacle with its big, round dome and the floor was dirt with sawdust and wooden benches. Founded by Angus L Bowmer, the first plays of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival were performed on July 2-4, 1935. Today the Elizabethan and Bowmer Theaters produce 800-850 matinee and evening performances of a wide range of classic and contemporary plays not limited to Shakespeare performances.
I was fortunate enough to see Hairspray with showstopper Greta Oglesby as Motormouth Maybelle, the matriarch of the black community. This is the only time I’ve attended a play (and I’ve attended many, many plays) when the audience gave a huge standing ovation, in the middle of the second act for her anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been”. Absolute goose-bumps.
Walking around the Elizabethan Theater, the outdoor theater that focuses on Shakespeare plays of love, tragedy and spiritual transformation, was overwhelming. One can imagine the multitude of plays performed here since 1935. The talented actors who have graced the stage. Standing on the stage and looking out at the seating put me in the place of an actor and what it must feel like to perform for a large audience. It gave me goosebumps. Oh and did I mention that our guide was Greta Oglesby- the amazing actress that I mentioned from Hairspray. And, she’s just a normal person! But boy is she talented.
My next article will focus more on downtown, the railroad district and the food scene- which is pretty fantastic.