Book delves into Ashland's history — good and bad

Ashland, which prides itself as a "cultural oasis" of progressive-minded people, had a long history as a conservative small town that until the 1970s routinely tore down historic buildings and practiced racial segregation, according to a new book about 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, found the key to a thriving tourist economy and laid a foundation of diversity, says historian Joe Peterson, in "Ashland," an illustrated, 126-page paperback book just published by Arcadia Publishing.

The book includes more than 200 photos of the town covering 157 years, including rough pioneer days, the revolutionizing effect of the railroad, the beginnings of 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, 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," says 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, Peterson 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, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and downtown revitalization that started in the 1970s.

The presence of a college, local 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 Negroes and Japanese." As late as 1950, writes Peterson, the Shakespeare festival's first black actor had trouble being served in Ashland restaurants unless accompanied by other festival members.

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.

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, says he 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 bulldozing of the E.K. Anderson house (in the same Main Street 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 streers, 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, ran down the street shouting, "No, no, no!"

The book also 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.

Far from anyone objecting to his 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

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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