John Powell of White City pulls nails out of boards removed from Wes Howard’s old house on Ross Lane in Medford. He and other members of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Railway Historical Society are salvaging the old wood before the home is demolished to make way for a sports park. Jim Craven 12/20/2007 - Jim Craven

Preserving a bit of history

MEDFORD — After most of its wood was salvaged for rebuilding the old trains and a depot at the Medford Railroad Park, the historic, 117-year old Wesley Howard house on Ross Lane was ready for demolition today — making way for the 68-acre Medford Sports Park.

The weathered house, bequeathed by millionaire Wesley Howard, was in disrepair and lacked basic electricity and plumbing, so it was not considered for restoration, said Rep. Sal Esquivel, a member of the Wesley Howard Memorial Foundation, which is overseeing the park's creation.

"The infrastructure was so bad and Wes didn't put much money into it when he lived in it. Windows were broken, it didn't have a foundation — by the time we would have restored it, the cost would have been astronomical, hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Esquivel.

Foundation board member and land-use planner Dennis Hoffbuhr said, "I wouldn't agree it's a historic house and it's not on the Historic Register. It would have cost too much money to restore and the purpose of the Foundation is to use the resources to produce a sports park."

Still, Skip Geear, chairman of the Wood House Preservation Group in Eagle Point, called the razing a "disgrace," adding "that house was in good restorable condition. The Wood House on Highway 62 was in a lot worse condition, even after we fixed it up — and it was sitting on stones and didn't have electricity till the late '40s."

The Howard house had full-dimension (actual 2x4) timbers and straight-grain (no knotholes) wood, Geear added, and "we hate to see those treasures go away, although it's a lot of work to save one. Pretty soon the Wood House is going to be the only one left."

Ashland historian George Kramer, chairman of the Oregon Heritage Commission and a strong advocate for preserving historic structures, said, "I'm always sorry to see a 100-year-old house torn down, but I don't know if it was the wrong thing to do. The house had a lot of character and it would have been a great idea to save it and use it as a park office, but a lot of times, historic structures have to be traded for other community interests."

The house won't go to waste and instead will be reborn in another preservation effort. Crews from the five railway organizations that run the Medford Railroad Park have been busy in past weeks carefully removing old square nails and stacking rare, tongue-and-groove flooring and lap siding for use in rebuilding a 1934 Great Northern caboose, a 1925 Willamette steam locomotive used by Medco and the 1884 Woodville (now Rogue River) depot.

The railroaders disassembled the Woodville depot two years ago and as early as next year, plan to reassemble it as a museum, using the Howard House wood, which is a perfect match for the period, said Tony Johnson of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

The popular nonprofit park for 26 years has given free rides on miniature trains to 21,000 people a year and is a big attraction for parents with small children.

"We felt bad about the house being torn down, but we're saving the wood for restoration, instead of taking it to Biomass and having it turned into fuel," said Rick Walch, another Railway Historic Society member. "We think Wes Howard would approve that we're using all this to restore some other piece of history."

Railroaders planned intense work all weekend, removing all the wood they could safely get at, leaving many valuable studs, joists, beams and lath for the bulldozers later today. In the walls, they found many 1917 issues of the Medford Sun, a predecessor of the Mail Tribune, used for insulation.

The house was built in 1890 and bought by Howard's grandparents in the early 1900s. He was born there and lived there all his life, never marrying. When he died at 87 in 2003, he left $1 million in assets in addition to land and the house, valued at $12 million.

The foundation in October 2006 announced a $30 million fund drive to create a sports park with a YMCA facility, indoor pool and an array of fields and courts — baseball, basketball, soccer, volleyball and tennis, plus a skate park and batting cages.

Brad Russell, Medford YMCA executive director said the Y is in the midst of a strategic planning process and hasn't decided if it's going to build a facility at the sports park — but it will be the lead agency in providing activities there.

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

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