Historian promises a taste of food past

Whether it's farms, orchards, cattle, flour mills, fish or fine restaurants, the Rogue Valley always has been about food.

Food has shaped the colorful story of the region, says Margery Winter, who will present "A History of Rogue Valley Farms and Foods" at 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 12, in the Ashland library's Gresham Room.

A presentation of the Ashland History and Railroad Museum, it will cover the diets of Native Americans, trappers and pioneers, the coming of the orchard era, and the evolution of modern farming, right up to the present controversy over genetically modified organisms. The talk is free.

In the 1800s, Hudson's Bay Co. fur trader Peter Skene Ogden — on expedition in what is now Southern Oregon — gained knowledge from local Indians, who helped him gather herbs and plants, and informed him which were edible, says Winter.

Later, farmers brought cattle from Missouri. They soon had ranches and farms on rich valley bottomland, Winter notes, with potatoes and wheat as favorite crops. They were motivated, in part, by the goal of "burying" British claims in Oregon Territory, she adds.

"After the harvest of 1854, there was enough grain and corn to keep three mills going in Ashland. Grazing was plentiful," she says. "Ashland House on Main Street had rooms, a flour mill and a market."

Grain was behind the founding of Ashland, initially called Ashland Mills because of its big mill on Ashland Creek, immediately south of the Plaza.

The dangerous Columbia River crossing on the Oregon Trail inspired many settlers to use the newer Applegate Trail, which went across deserts and fed them into the Rogue Valley.

Early settler Lindsay Applegate and his brother lost sons to the whitewaters of the Columbia and, after blazing the southern cutoff, Lindsay Applegate set up one of the first farms in the valley, covering most of Ashland's present Railroad District, says Winter.

Familiar Ashland street names go back to the earliest farmers — Robert Hargadine, a grocer and mill owner; Orlando Coolidge, who had the largest nursery in the region (on North Main); and Abel Helman, an agriculturist who in the 1870s brought orange, black walnut and paw paw trees to the valley.

Starved for coffee, early settlers ground dried carrots, parsnips and bread crumbs, she says, and found ways to purify dirty sugar after it had been shipped thousands of miles.

"Beef was plentiful and the main fare of settlers," says Winter, adding that they soon realized fruits and vegetables were essential to preventing disease, especially "consumption" (tuberculosis).

"They said you can pay for your vegetables now or pay the doctor later," she says.

The valley's Takelma and Shasta Indians had been shipped off to a coastal reservation, but Klamath Indians would cross the Cascades in the 1880s, she says, and camp on the east side of Bear Creek, trading their ponies for beets and other crops new to them.

When the railroad was completed in 1887, the door was open for easy shipment of the valley's pears, peaches and apples to far markets — the U.S. East Coast, Hawaii, Britain, India, Japan — and orchardists learned to time their harvests so their fruit would be at the peak of ripeness and flavor when it arrived.

"It was a miracle for them," Winter says. "Most of them had never seen a good peach or apple — and an orange was so rare and wonderful, children would get one as their only Christmas present."

Domingo Perozzi prospered with Ashland's first creamery, which sat where the ice rink is now in Lithia Park. Ranchers and farmers formed a cooperative to jointly own expensive threshers and other equipment. Grapes were grown for local wine only.

The turn of the century marked the end of organic food. Farmers started using arsenic, sulphur and lead as feed additives for chickens and swine, thinking it prevented disease in humans. In time, they realized their mistake and stopped doing it, says Winter, a historic preservationist who is retired from a career in financial development, auditing and social services.

Winter will trace food in the 20th century, including the struggles to eat during the Great Depression, the success of Harry & David and the boom in restaurants brought by the expansion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's season.

Recent years have seen a return of organic farms, growers markets and the growing pushback against genetically modified foods.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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