Ex-smokejumpers fix up old Oregon base for museum

CAVE JUNCTION — More than 50 former smokejumpers from across the nation have gathered to help turn the former Siskiyou Smokejumper Base into a museum about the airborne firefighters.

The restoration project began last week after the announcement that former jumpers would get the lease for the historic site at Illinois Valley Airport.

"We have jumpers here all the way from Pennsylvania," said Wes Brown, a former smokejumper at the base known as "The Gobi," after the Mongolian desert, because of its barren, rocky landscape.

"I think that was a giant boost to the morale of the whole organization," said Brown, who taught and coached at Illinois Valley High for years.

Earlier in the week, the whine of saws and pounding hammers filled the air. Inside the old administration building, Jim Cherry from Iowa worked on wiring. Up on a ladder, Doug Bucklew of The Dalles scraped paint and worked on the overhead light, where The Gobi emblem was planned.

Ron Lufkin scraped paint a few feet away. His father Francis made the second fire jump back in 1940, he said. Inside, Brown held up a photo of the building when it was moved from Cave Junction, where it was the Illinois Valley Ranger Station for the Forest Service.

Another photo showed Betty Stoltenberg manning the phone and radio back in the 1960s.

"We had 15 minutes to get them to the fire," recalled Stoltenberg, who came from Grants Pass this week to see the work, her first visit since former smokejumper Mick Swift's funeral years ago.

Last Friday, Hal Ewing, former smokejumper pilot, was memorialized with a pizza party that he had requested, and his ashes were flown to the Pacific and scattered. Ewing died March 9 in Grants Pass.

Don Bisson of Grants Pass helped bring an old, rotting light pole to the ground. Bisson was a jumper for four years at The Gobi just prior to its closing in 1981.

There was something about the hard work and the close quarters that made the jumpers tight.

"You just can't imagine chasing a fire up a hill, with nobody around," said Bisson, who dreamed of becoming a smokejumper after seeing a Walt Disney episode featuring them.

Roger Brandt, local historian on the museum board, said he has done about half of the displays, which will go into the former administration building. At some point, the former parachute loft, where jumpers sewed their own chutes, will be the focus of the museum.

It should be open to the public sometime this summer, Brandt said.

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