Smokerjumpers seek museum at base south of Cave Junction

GRANTS PASS — They were a tight bunch of young men who worked summers jumping out of airplanes to fight forest fires in remote locations in Southern Oregon. From 1943 to 1981, they were based at the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base south of Cave Junction.

The dream to preserve the heritage of the base took a huge step closer to reality last week when Josephine County commissioners agreed to let museum-backers lease the premises, now part of the Illinois Valley Airport, for 10 years.

A few details in the lease agreement need to be worked out before its signing, said Roger Brandt, secretary of the nonprofit Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum board.

Project backers have $13,000 saved up, exhibits in the works and high hopes of making a new tourist attraction in the Illinois Valley. The old buildings are already on the National Register of Historic Places. The group also has close to 3,000 photos on file, said board President Gary Buck, a former smokejumper.

"It's been a long time coming, but everybody's on a really positive track right now," said Brandt, a local historian who is pursuing grants for the project. "Hopefully, by June, we can have some minimum services in place."

Former smokejumper Wes Brown, also on the board, said there are visions of restoring an old smokejumper plane for the site.

"It's got real historical interest, not just for this area," said Josephine County Commissioner Dave Toler. "It'll be a one-of-a-kind in the nation. It could be a boon to the airport and the community.

"We fully anticipate signing (the lease agreement) within the next month," Toler said.

The lease also calls for self-guided waysides, a gift shop and deli, and requires the museum to be open at least 520 hours a year.

A previous stumbling block was the Federal Aviation Administration's classification for the airport, which required instrument approach clearance standards.

But last fall the airport was downgraded to a B1 status, which made wingspan clearances smaller and allowed about 20 parking spots to remain in front of the old buildings of the base, said Alex Grossi, Josephine County airports director.

Proponents envision a day when private pilots can fly into the airport, grab a burger and check out the smokejumper museum.

Currently, only two or three planes land each day at the airport, which has a 5,200-foot runway but no on-site fuel station.

The proposed lease gives exclusive use of the old office building and the mess hall or restaurant building, and non-exclusive use of restrooms, picnic area and parking. It also calls for the museum to handle all maintenance of the facilities.

The old office building was built in the 1930s at the Forest Service ranger station in Cave Junction and hauled out to the base in 1943.

The most interesting building is the parachute loft, where jumpers sewed their parachutes and hung them in a special two-story end of the building. That building is being leased by Jack McCornack, owner of Kinetic Vehicles, which supplies parts for lightweight do-it-yourself sports cars.

He's also created vehicles for James Bond films, including the sleek glider with retractable wings seen in "Die Another Day" and the ultralight hybrid snowmobiles with parachutes in "The World is Not Enough.".

But the museum has first right to the lease if and when McCornack leaves the loft building.

The lease calls for $440 a month in rent to the county, plus payment of all utilities and taxes on any improvements.

But museum backers also get credit toward rent for work done on buildings, which is already $17,000, Brandt said.

Old smokejumpers spent a week working on buildings last year, and will do another week in June following the National Smokejumper Association reunion in Redding, Calif., set for June 11 to 13.

"By the end of the lease agreement we figured we will have donated $50,000 back to the county," Brandt said.

Backers are optimistic it will be a success.

"We've got old smokejumpers who jumped in the '40s and '50s, who are 85 years old, sending us money to protect it, save it and honor it," Buck said. "We've got support from around the nation."

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