New book details Ashland's checkered past

Ashland, which prides itself as a "cultural oasis" of progressive-minded people, in reality has a long history as a very ordinary, conservative small town that, until the 1970s, routinely tore down historic buildings and practiced racial segregation, according to a new book on the city.

However, by the end of the 1970s, with the creation of the Angus Bowmer Theater and the influx of a generation of "hippie entrepreneurs," Ashland had reinvented itself, sidestepped the logging decline, found the key to a thriving tourist economy, laid a foundation of diversity and acquired a majority Democratic registration for the first time, says historian Joe Peterson, in "Ashland," a heavily illustrated, 126-page paperback book just published by Arcadia Publishing.

Ashland lovers will be dazzled by more than 200 photos of the town, covering its 157 years through rough pioneer days, the revolutionizing effect of the railroad, the beginnings of its attempts to create a cultural mecca with the Chautauqua and Lithia Park, the improbable birth of a Shakespeare festival in the middle of the Great Depression, the city's stain of racism and the gentrification of the last 40 years.

A teacher in history and education at Southern Oregon University and a trainer of local teachers in how to teach history at Education Service District, Peterson avoids the chronological listing of events, instead focusing on the lives of average people and how Ashland has reflected the "national pageant" of cultural beliefs and changes.

"If you only read the Commercial Club publications, you'd believe that Ashland has always been an oasis of progressivism," said Peterson. "I'm trying to show it's had a traditional small town experience, with an incredible flow of boom and bust, but it had the tenacity to keep reinventing itself."

After the decline of logging in the 1970s, Ashland could have "blown away," like a lot of small towns but, he says, "it became a world-recognized Shakespeare town, has far better restaurants than it deserves, far more cultural opportunities than any town of 20,000 and always makes the 'Best Town' lists.

"Why is that? It's the ability to reinvent itself and that's always been done by the outsiders who came here," said Peterson, pointing to the Chautauqua, Lithia Park, Lithia water, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and downtown revitalization started in the 1970s.

The presence of a college, theater and Lithia Park have attracted progressive minds over the decades, but, the town's Commercial Club, in its publications of a century ago, boasted Ashland's desirability because of "the absence of (blacks) and Japanese" and — as late as 1950, writes Peterson, the Festival's first black actor had trouble getting served in Ashland restaurants unless accompanied by other Festival members.

In the 19th century, the notion of "above the boulevard" arose, indicating the better sort of people who kept their children away from the "below the boulevard" railroad district, where a brothel operated and many Chinese railroad workers lived, said Peterson.

One Depression-era photo shows the sign of the Palace Café boasting "All White Help." Other shots depict more than 100 hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan marching with a cross and flag in Ashland's Fourth of July parade in 1921.

OSF members were derisively called "Shakespeares," and "long-haired hippies" of the 1970s were often banned from restaurants, he notes.

In its discriminatory practices, Ashland was not special, says Peterson, but reflected the racism of America as a whole — and the state constitutional ban, from 1859 to 1927 on black immigration to Oregon.

Peterson, a resident of Ashland for 13 years, decided to write the book over the past eight years, "because there wasn't a book out there about Ashland and because it was an opportunity to put the town in a national context. Local history is a great vehicle for doing that."

The sagging, just-bulldozed E.K. Anderson house (in the same block as the present Evo's Coffee House) is depicted as the triggering event in the early 1970s, leading to formation of a Historic Preservation Committee and creation of historic districts.

Also shown is the elegant Ashland Hotel at East Main and Oak streets, pulled down in 1961 to make way for a squarish bank building, still standing. In his research, Peterson heard an anecdotal account that OSF founder Angus Bowmer, on seeing the wrecking ball hitting the multi-storied structure, randown the street shouting, "No, no no!"

Peterson writes that creation of the Angus Bowmer Theater in 1969 essentially saved the town, making it possible to extend the theater season from six weeks to eight-and-a-half months — and opening the doors for many tourist-oriented shops and restaurants to thrive over the past four decades.

Filling in what he calls a missing chapter of Ashland's history, the post-'60s era, Peterson writes, "Ashland had become a kind of mecca for counterculture folks looking for inexpensive rents and a place to try their hand at a kinder, gentler version of capitalism. This 'hippie' entrepreneurial invasion would result in a variety of interesting enterprises in previously vacant or under-used shops.

"Larger theater offerings also enhanced Ashland's image as a retirement haven. Real estate agents refer to a kind of self-selection process that resulted in an influx of well-educated, affluent, humanities-oriented retirees coming for theater, music and low crime rate."

The book depicts illustrious locals of the past, including Henry Giddings, a Siskiyou Pass stage coach driver put out of work by the railroad, Southern Pacific Railway labor boss Wah Chung and his mail-order bride (who attracted much curiosity because of her tiny, bound feet) and George McConnell, the only man in the region capable of throwing the game-changing "curved ball" in the 1880s.

Two of the six U.S. presidents who visited Ashland are depicted, with Teddy Roosevelt exhorting from the rear of a train and John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 campaign, signing autographs at Southern Oregon College.

While Ashland has evolved culturally and economically — and has a reputation of tolerance for gays — it hasn't become racially diverse, says Peterson.

"Small towns traditionally don't attract ethnic minorities. We attract people like us. It's the reality of it," he said. "My daughter, visiting here (from the East Coast), was struck by the homogeneity. It's a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) bastion. It was a politically conservative town till the 1970s."

Far from anyone objecting to spotlighting Ashland's past flaws, Peterson says, "I've gotten a lot of e-mails and comments that people really enjoyed it."

Peterson can be reached at He will be available to sign books Sept. 11 at the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum on A Street, on Sept. 12 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Costco in Medford and on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. at Bloomsbury Books in downtown Ashland.

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