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Lew Applebaker's father was among those who tried to find gold on his city property during the Great Depression. Two mine shafts produced no gold for Applebaker, but for a lucky few in town, small amounts of backyard gold helped them get through the tough times. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell

Mining their own business

When the economy slowed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Jacksonville residents turned to their backyards for help — but they weren't all growing vegetable gardens. Many residents instead dug gold mines on their property in search of the precious metal.

"A big story in the Portland Oregonian came out and it said there was no Depression in Jacksonville because everyone was working at mining," said 94-year-old Lew Applebaker. He still lives on the same North Third Street property where his father allowed a miner to dig for gold behind his blacksmith shop.

Applebaker's recollections of the Depression can be found in a recently recorded and transcribed oral history compiled by researcher Chelsea Rose. The history is available through the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Applebaker's father, Joe, signed a contract with Blackie Wilson, who agreed to perform all the work, give Applebaker 10 percent of any gold and fill in the hole when he was done. The contract stipulated that Wilson was forbidden from digging under the shop because Applebaker feared it could cause the building to sink.

The mine shafts typically measured about 4-by-6 feet, said Applebaker. Miners would dig until they struck bedrock, which in much of Jacksonville is 16 to 20 feet below ground. Then they would process the dirt from the lower levels in sluice boxes. Godward Mercantile Company would purchase the gold dust in town and pay in cash or groceries.

"In the morning when you'd wake up you'd hear gas engines all over town to pump out the holes. They had to get the water off to dig down and get more dirt," Applebaker said. "Then they'd use that water to run the sluice boxes."

When the first hole Wilson dug didn't yield gold he dug another next to Third Street. It, too, failed to yield any of the precious metal. A slight depression just south of Applebaker's driveway is the only remnant of the old shaft. The first shaft is now under his garage.

"I mined in town, too. A bunch of us kids would go up Jackson Creek, dig out dirt and wash it in a rocker box," said Applebaker.

His efforts never yielded anywhere close to a ounce of dust, which at that time was worth $20 to $30. Gold was selling for $940 per ounce Thursday.

One time Art Johnson, whom Applebaker described as "a digging fool," struck a rich deposit after digging a 4-by-4-foot hole in Jackson Creek. Applebaker recalled that Johnson pulled out nearly $800 worth of gold, a tidy sum in those days, before the city forced him to stop mining in the creek.

City mine inspector Wesley Hartman was responsible for ensuring that miners didn't dig laterally beyond property limits. But he didn't uncover all the illegal shafts, and the town experienced sunken roads and property for decades.

Applebaker, who served as the town's fire chief, recalled that the department's pumper engine broke through the road on the corner of Fifth and C streets and fell into a mine shaft. In 1982 a hole up to 10 feet deep and approximately 12 by 30 feet opened up on Fourth Street just off California Street.

Sunken grades and cave-ins decreased as the years passed, said L. Scott Clary, city planner and historic preservation officer. Today anyone interested in backyard mining would need permission to move more than 30 cubic yards of soil.

"We wouldn't even know about (small-scale excavations), but a provision in the codes talks about significant excavation," said Clay. "You'd have to go through an application process."

Clay said his great-uncle, Rupert Maddox, used to talk about subsistence mining as just one of many ways residents tried to make ends meet. Maddox also ran trap lines during the Depression, Clay said.

A few miners made enough to buy Model A Fords, but they were the exceptions, said Applebaker. "I think that (mining) was just a means to put food on the table. When jobs came back people quit mining for subsistence."

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboom8929@charter.net.

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