Tonight in Ashland Cemetery, you can wander about and listen to the stories of train robbers, Ku Klux Klansmen, a spiritualist, a Chinese pioneer and other notable characters, in costume, from Ashland's fascinating and sometimes spotty past.
It's an annual tour called "Meet the Ashland Pioneers." It's organized by the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum (and benefits both), and, being well-researched and acted, is bringing in hundreds of spectators who are experiencing many "gee whiz" moments.
One highlight is a street argument between Klansman William Phipps, editor of the opinionated and racist Clarion newspaper, and William Virgin, who started the valley's first radio stations, making him a leading business promoter and voice of reason.
Standing by his gravestone, Virgin, played by Ed Fermium, expresses a mix of reason and disgust about the Klan's "night riding" and near-lynchings (to teach a lesson to thieves), as well as accusations that the "Roman Church is indoctrinating our children — when you forget all the nuns did during the smallpox epidemic."
Phipps counters with Prohibitionist rhetoric,that "alcohol fuels all the political corruption in this town" and bootleggers are not being caught and punished. The near-lynchings scare offenders from criminal ways, says Phipps, but Virgin tells him the "invisible empire" of the Klan is trashing Ashland's reputation as a hub of tolerance and justice and will soon be just that — invisible.
Southern Pacific Railway porter Caleb Porter, played by Dave Baker, convincingly takes infamous train robber Ray D'Autremont (Roy Kindell) to task for the needless murders carried out by him and his two brothers in tunnel 13 of the Siskiyous in October 1923 — all for nothing.
"There were 68 people in that train that left Ashland that morning. What a terrible crime," recounts Porter, as he ticks off the fateful bad choices made by the wayward siblings as they blew up the mail car then gunned down three crewmen simply because they might have been witnesses. Finally, the trainman demands an explanation.
D'Autremont, who got life in prison with his brothers (after a four-year, global manhunt and trial in Jacksonville), stands in black-and-white striped prison garb and says simply, "If I could erase one day from my life..."
It doesn't take long before spectators get the understanding that Ashland's reputation as a diverse stewpot of clashing ideas in not something new.
Once upon a time in Ashland, there was the Temple of Truth (where the fire station parking lot is now), a center of spiritualism, represented by Minne Coolidge Ogg, who is buried in an unmarked gave in Ashland Cemetery.
Ogg, portrayed by Annette Lewis, explains how the once-popular spiritualist movement confirmed the existence of God by seances with the departed, who retained their earthly personalities.
"We believe God is in everything," she proclaims. "When the body dies, the personality remains and can be contacted by mediums, who bring us messages ... but it was ruined by sensationalism and the membership declined."
Across the graveyard, Army Capt. Thomas Smith (Caleb Brambly) tells of his battles, subduing the Indians in the 1853 to 1856 Indian Wars in order to protect settlers, while at his side John Beeson (Archie Koenig), the author of "A Plea for the Indians," praises the 12,000 years of peaceful native life in the Rogue Valley, all wiped away in three years.
Mrs. Wah Chung, wife of a railroad labor broker on A Street, tells the story of her bound feet and how she was one of a small number of Chinese women allowed to emigrate to the U.S. with her husband because he was a merchant, not a laborer — laborers being expected to return to China and their families after making enough money.
The performance is inspired, says its director Delores Nims, by the living history events of Jacksonville, with costumes supplies by local theaters.
Performances are from 4 to 7 p.m., with tours leaving until 6 p.m. today and on July 10 and 11. Many local history books are on sale at the cemetery, which is next to Safeway. Researchers and script writers include Victoria Law, director of the Railroad Museum, Dr. Suzanne Marshall, a historian-author, historic tour leader and authority on the KKK, and 12 others.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.