Ex-smokejumpers restore piece of history

CAVE JUNCTION — Former smokejumpers whose lives once depended on parachutes inspected, repaired and packed at the former Siskiyou Smokejumper Base are returning to help restore the nation's oldest smokejumper parachute loft.

The retired smokejumpers will be joined today by local volunteers in restoring the parachute loft at the former Siskiyou Smokejumper Base, according to Gary Buck, a retired smokejumper who made his first fire jump in 1966 from the base.

Located at the Illinois Valley Airport, half a dozen miles south of Cave Junction, the base was established in 1943.

The first smokejumper base was established in 1940 in Montana, a year after the first experimental jumps were made at Winthrop, Wash. Another base was built in McCall, Idaho, the same year as the Siskiyou base. The bases in Montana, Idaho and Washington were moved and the original buildings were destroyed, according to Buck.

The Siskiyou base is the last of the original smokejumper bases in American history still standing in its original location with its original buildings, he said.

The parachute loft, built in 1948, is the oldest of any smokejumper base in North America.

Buck is the president of the nonprofit Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum Project, a group whose mission is to establish a smokejumper museum at the base, which closed in 1981. Thanks to the group's efforts, the base has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About 20 former smokejumpers are expected to show up this week to help restore the old loft, said project secretary Roger Brandt. That includes Cave Junction residents Bob Nolan and Paul Block, two smokejumpers who helped build structures on the base in 1950, he said.

Anyone who wants to help is encouraged to stop by, he said.

"We're also hoping to get some volunteers from the community," Brandt said. "We need to fix the window frames and panes on the south side of the building. We were just going to prepare it for painting, but we also want to paint the building."

A color photograph taken a year after it was built shows the building was tan with a dark brown trim, he said.

Throughout the week, photographs and memorabilia relating to the smokejumper loft and base will be displayed next to the building.

When the base was in operation, smokejumpers based there would jump fires from Alaska to Virginia, although most of their battles were in the West.

Over the years, smokejumpers from the base would become everything from astronauts to teachers, attorneys to loggers.

A smokejumper named Stuart Roosa, who would become an astronaut and the command pilot on Apollo 13, spent the summer of 1953 working out of the base. Willie Unsoeld was a Siskiyou smokejumper in 1950, before he gained fame as the first climber to scale Mount Everest in 1964 via the treacherous west ridge route.

One of the most famous people in the smokejumping community was Allen D. "Mouse" Owen, a 4-foot-10-inch tall former Marine who served three tours in Vietnam. Owen had to get a congressional waiver to join both the Corps and the smokejumpers. An article in Life magazine described him as "a small person to look up to." Owen, who jumped out of the Siskiyou base for a dozen seasons, died Sept. 9, 1981, in a skydiving accident near North Pole, Alaska.

The airport and former base belong to Josephine County, which has approved the preservation work being organized and funded by community volunteers. The Oregon State Historic Preservation Office provided consultation and advice for the parachute loft work.

The project's long-term plans include establishing a cultural heritage tourist attraction at the base. That would include building a visitor center and gift store in the historic smokejumper mess hall, establishing waysides around the grounds for self-guided tours of the base, and creating a museum about smokejumping.

For more information about the project, check out Highway199.org.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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