Pioneers used renewable energy

Renewable energy seems like a modern answer to today's fossil fuel woes, but more than 100 years ago, the pioneers who settled the Rogue Valley relied on solar, wind and hydro-power.

In fact, it was Ashland Creek's hydro-power appeal that convinced Abel Helman and his partners to build a sawmill in a glade next to the creek in 1852. That was the genesis for the town of Ashland.

Helman and Eber Emery dug ditches &

known as "mill races" &

to divert creek water to their mill, where it was used to turn a waterwheel and power a saw blade, according to the Helman Family Home Page Web site and local historic preservation consultant George Kramer.

The remnants of those mill races can still be seen in Lithia Park.

Creek water was later used to power the Ashland Flouring Mills and to churn butter at a creamery, Kramer said.

Ashland Creek still powers a turbine built in 1909 near the city's water treatment plant above Lithia Park. That generates enough electricity to run the plant, with the excess feeding into a main transmission line on Ashland Loop Road, said city of Ashland Associate Engineer Pieter Smeenk.

As seen in historic photos, the settlers who followed Helman essentially clearcut the trees in town to provide lumber for building and wood to cook and heat their homes.

But they did orient their houses to take advantage of the sun's heat and light, Kramer said.

"They didn't live in a gridded street system like we have now," he said.

Homes were built to allow cooling breezes to pass through during the summer. Many families spent the night outdoors on sleeping porches during the hottest time of the summer. Women often had a summer kitchen in a small separate building to keep the oven's heat out of the house, Kramer said.

Naturally cool brick vaults were used to store food.

In some of Ashland's older homes, screened cabinets can still be seen that once held potatoes, onions and fruit. The air flow kept the fruit and vegetables fresh, he said.

Long before there were refrigerators, an enterprising businessman cut ice from a frozen pond out on Dead Indian Memorial Road, stored it in sawdust, and then sold it to townspeople, said city of Ashland Conservation Analyst Larry Giardina.

In fact, one of America's earliest millionaires was a New Yorker who shipped pond ice all over the world, including to India and the Caribbean, he said.

Many farmhouses in the Rogue Valley used windmill power to pump up well water and store it in holding tanks high above the ground. Gravity would then provide the pressure to bring the water to homes, Giardina said.

Although it's no longer operating, a windmill and water tower can still be seen at the Southern Oregon Historical Society's Hanley Farm, said Harley Patrick, public relations and marketing coordinator for the society.

The farm is also home to an ambitious organic gardening project. Products and produce were sold at farmers' markets in Ashland and Medford in 2007, Patrick said.

Located at 1053 Hanley Rd. outside Jacksonville, the farm hosts special events for the public during December and in the spring and summer, he said.

Chemical fertilizers were not available to the Rogue Valley's farmers and gardeners in the 1800s. They mainly relied on livestock manure, said Donn Todt, head gardener for the Ashland Parks Recreation Department.

Todt has been studying the diaries of Peter Britt, who arrived in Jacksonville in 1852 and became a renowned photographer, orchardist and wine-maker. References to organic farming methods appear in the diaries.

One technique was to pile horse manure and leaves together, enclose the pile's sides with a frame and then sprinkle on about six inches of soil.

Fermentation created heat, Todt said.

"It was used as a heated medium for starting seeds or rooting cuttings, especially grape cuttings," he said.

Ashland parks department workers use electrically heated mats in a greenhouse to accomplish the same job, Todt said.

Britt's favorite vegetable to plant was the pea. Pea plants boost nitrogen levels in the soil, Todt said.

Of course, not all of the early agriculture was benign.

American Indians probably looked on with dismay at the settlers who were ripping up the earth when they tilled the soil. Pigs likely damaged traditional camus fields, Todt said.

"When pigs were brought in, they probably rooted up a lot of camus. Pigs are known rooters. They turn over the soil to get at roots. They are noted for damaging a lot of camus bulbs," said Todt, who has spent years studying traditional wild foods.

Settlers also didn't follow the American Indian practice of regularly burning underbrush to improve the habitat for acorn-bearing oak trees, spur new plant growth for deer and reduce the risk of massive wildfires.

One of the settlers' most destructive early industries was mining, Kramer said.

"To them, the natural world was an opponent &

something they used in a callous way," he said.

Pioneer miners developed hydraulic mining in which they blasted away mountainsides with giant water hoses. They used mercury, lead and arsenic in their efforts to recover precious metals without realizing that they were poisoning themselves and the environment, Kramer said.

Miners washed away topsoil and left behind piles of stones known as tailings that can still be seen around Jacksonville and in the Applegate Valley, he said.

Yet Kramer said people today can learn a lot from the way the settlers used the resources and natural energy sources that were available. Because they had so little, they wasted practically nothing.

"It's incorrect to look at pioneering Oregonians as some sort of environmental leaders. Many of the things they did were incredibly environmentally sustainable, but I think they did it because there was no other choice and it was the traditional way of settling the land," Kramer said.

He added, "It's also incorrect to look at them as complete anti-environmentalists. It was a completely different mind-set. We have huge opportunities that they couldn't even imagine."

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or

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