Jacksonville Boosters Club celebrates 50th anniversary

Fifty years after members rolled up their sleeves and got to work for the town they love, the Jacksonville Boosters Club will celebrate its golden anniversary Monday, June 10, with a picnic and ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark a half-century of achievement and the completion of its latest project, the first phase of the Peter Britt Gardens restoration.

"The Boosters Club was actually incorporated on June 11, 1963," said Lori Buerk, who is heading the club's 50th anniversary committee, "but that only means we're going to be a day early with our celebration."

The Jacksonville Boosters Club began when the late Robbie Collins decided that a club working "for the general welfare and improvement of the city of Jacksonville" was needed.

He wrote a simple recruitment pitch: "There are no dues, no assessments, but hard work will make you a member."

That has changed a little bit over the years. The 192 current members now pay dues ($15 yearly or $150 lifetime), but none of them worry about the money or, as their mission statement says, the hard work of "preserving Jacksonville's history and improving its livability."

Collins, who had just moved to Jacksonville from Central Point, was provoked by the city's official acceptance of a State Highway Department's 1963 plan to run a four-lane highway diagonally across eight blocks of Jacksonville.

"That stirred me," Collins wrote in his book, "A Disorderly Excursion."

"Not at that moment, I must admit, out of a sense of history, but just that I really didn't want a four-lane road that close to my new home."

When Collins and nine others founded the Jacksonville Boosters Club, Collins was elected president, a post he would hold for five years.

"We fought the highway department over that highway issue, and it was stopped," Collins said. "Then, local people we had been sparing with said, 'OK, you've saved the town, now what are you going to do with it?' "

That was when Collins realized what was at stake.

Jacksonville had lost population to Medford over the early half of the 20th century and many of its earliest buildings from the 1850s. The town seemed to have been frozen in time and in danger of destruction.

"The people of Jacksonville didn't have any pride," Collins said. "They thought they were living in a bad town ... a town that wasn't important. ... It became sort of a full-time commitment of ours ... because it meant taking a community that was not dead, but you might say dormant, and challenging it to develop its own sense of pride."

Rebuilding community pride began with the Jacksonville Boosters Club, which started with Halloween parties, Christmas-decoration contests, Easter-egg hunts, face-to-face fundraising lectures and community potluck dinners.

By February 1964, the group had begun its first major project, rehabilitation of the U.S. Hotel.

Club members were instrumental in the campaign that officially recognized Jacksonville as a National Historic Landmark City in 1966, and they participated in major projects to renovate the old library, the Methodist Church and Jacksonville's Old City Hall. They have restored bridges, placed benches, installed old-fashioned gaslights throughout the city, refurbished street signs, placed markers on historic buildings and volunteered whenever and wherever needed.

Jacksonville Mayor Paul Becker will open the 50th anniversary festivities by reading a proclamation declaring June 10 "Jacksonville Boosters Day."

Boosters President Steve Casaleggio said the club began exploring the Britt Gardens restoration project in 1999 with an attempt to identify the plants Peter Britt had planted around his hilltop home.

"We're still trying to figure out what's period appropriate," Casaleggio said, "because he was such a collector and had so many different varieties."

Britt was fascinated with plants and was constantly experimenting. If he could get a cutting, plant or seed, no matter where in the world it grew, he would plant it somewhere on his property, known as "Britt Park." An article in the July 1877 issue of West Shore Magazine proclaimed it the "Eden of Oregon."

Britt planted palms next to banana trees and sheltered them in the winter, along with chestnuts, olives, yucca, jasmine and fruit trees for every taste.

Casaleggio said the Boosters, working with the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Garden Club, compiled a list of Britt's plantings by poring over diaries, newspaper accounts, horticultural studies and historical photographs. From that list they have planted more than 100 specimens in the garden.

Casaleggio said they can't plant every Britt variety, especially those at risk from deer, but future phases will include planting of hundreds of additional shrubs, flowers, bulbs and trees, in an attempt to restore the area to an approximation of what it might have looked like in the late 1800s.

Hundreds of feet of new irrigation pipes have been installed, as well as 400 feet of brick pathways, including a walk that leads from the Garden's First Street entrance to the historic, 151-year-old Emil Britt Sequoia.

After the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, the club will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a picnic at Daisy Creek Vineyard. During the club's research, said Buerk, members discovered some little-known Booster history that they will share at the picnic.

"The Boosters are absolutely the best way to establish friends and relationships, especially if you're new in town," said Tony Hess, a Booster member for more than 12 years. "There is no better organization to be a part of. They are the most active in the community of any you're likely to find anywhere."

Mary Siedlecki agreed.

"It's really an amazing thing in a small town," she said, "to have this many people who are willing to volunteer. I think that really says something."

Before he died in 2003, Collins talked about what he thought was important in the life of a community.

"We have to realize that in our daily lives we are surrounded by things of quality and things of history," he said. "We should identify them and try to save them."

"The Jacksonville Boosters Club has been doing just that for half a century now," said Buerk, "and we're not done yet."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.

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