TALENT — The stretch of South Pacific Highway that runs past the remnants of Jim’s Better Buys is symbolic of the changes Jim Walker has observed in his hometown.
The once dusty, two-lane road not only linked Ashland and Medford but virtually everything outside the Rogue Valley.
It was on seven acres straddling Highway 99 that Walker built his business and raised six children with his wife, Diana, in a house adjacent to his shop.
After 54 years of buying and selling cars, Jim Walker made his final deal earlier this month.
This week the 80-year-old looked back on the past 76 years, a stretch when Talent emerged from its edge-of-nowhere feel to become a trendy locale attracting people who would never have considered the community where he was raised. It was a tiny town of a few hundred souls during his formative years, and not much had changed by the time he graduated from Talent High School in 1956.
Walker grew up just a bit down the road in an unincorporated area south of Talent.
He was 4 when his father, Lester, packed up his family and moved from Wisconsin to the Rogue Valley in 1942. World War II was on and Uncle Sam was building training posts, including Camp White.
As a side pursuit, Lester Walker operated a wrecking yard, planting seeds in young Jim’s head that would germinate in the early 1960s.
“I was kind of born in a wrecking yard actually,” he said. “I was selling used cars at his lot (presently occupied by Star Towing). Not long after Jim married Diana Maddux in 1963, he found a couple acres along the old highway and started building inventory.
“It was just a pasture with a little old house on it,” he recalled.
The business grew incrementally and then mushroomed to seven acres. Walker still remembers the first car he bought, a 1947 Studebaker, followed by a 1940 Ford pickup. He made his rounds of the local car dealerships and auctions assembling what eventually grew to an inventory of more than 500 autos, trucks and buses.
Walker and his sons — Jim Jr., Tom and Tony — handled transmission and other maintenance work by day. The 24-hour towing service meant frequently being on the road at night, mopping up after accidents and hauling wrecked vehicles back to the shop. Over the years, the rush of emergency-services calls morphed into the mundane.
“It was fun for a while,” he said. “Then it became just a job.”
Walker bartered with the best, paying out cash and sometimes taking accessories in lieu of cash from clients.
“Attitudes in town haven’t changed in the four decades I’ve been here,” he told the Mail Tribune in a January 1985 interview.
Within two decades, however, Talent began seeing a housing boom as home buyers saw the town as a low-cost alternative to Ashland. Office buildings began popping up on vacant lots and City Hall was dealing with growth issues. Talent, a city of about 400 in his youth, is nearing 7,000.
“It used to be a neat little town, everybody knew everybody,” he said this week. “Now you don’t. There are lot of people coming from California that want to change things to California styles.”
At the car lot, with the advent of the state-imposed inspection and maintenance program in the Rogue Valley, older vehicles became less attractive, Walker said, and inventory more expensive.
The final car Walker sold earlier this month was a maroon 1998 Buick Regal.
“Of course, we crushed thousands of cars,” he said. “When it got to the point where it was too expensive to fix it, we crushed it.”
Walker didn’t really harbor political ambitions, but when the south end of Talent was annexed into the city, one thing led to another.
“The city came out and said we need to annex you in,” Walker said. “I told them I wanted to have a wrecking yard, and I don’t want a law to go through that says I can’t have one if I join. They said that’s no problem. Well, that all changed, my next door neighbor put up a racket about it and they took my license away.”
Eventually, an ordinance was passed allowing him to have wrecking license.
“It was just one thing after another,” he said.
From the early 1970s into the mid-1980s, Walker held appointed and elected city posts. Then-Mayor Granvil Brittsan tried to persuade Walker to serve on the City Council in 1970, but he declined.
“I said, ‘Gee that scares me,’ ” Walker recalled. “ ‘How about applying for the Planning Commission position?’ ”
He applied and was appointed to the Planning Commission. In 1976 he was elected to the City Council. When Mayor Chuck Graham abruptly resigned in April 1985, the council weighed its options — for all of three minutes — the following Thursday night before unanimously electing Walker, who was council president at the time.
Walker said at the time that his first goal as mayor was to boost the city’s morale following an elongated legal row between Graham and the city.
“We need someone strong enough to get everyone working together,” Walker said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
It wasn’t. Nonetheless, Walker served out the term, but declined to seek another.
“I think everyone should take a whack at it,” Walker said in his final days as mayor. “It’s so easy for people to sit back and complain. But once you get into it, you get wised-up about what money is there and where it comes from.”
Walker was dedicated in his effort to preserve Talent’s small-town atmosphere, knowing everybody and stopping to talk with residents about his kids. He lamented the inability of the city to energize Talent Industrial Park during his watch, but he successfully strengthened ties with neighboring Phoenix.
As was the case with several Talent mayors and city officials, Walker encountered the wrath of local eccentric Cedric “Tig” Dunham. Emboldened by a District Court decision allowing him to keep his “free speech” signs, Dunham shared his displeasure with one and all with a series of pink, green and orange signs north of the auto sales business.
“Tig bought a couple, three cars from me, and I got a long really good with him,” Walker said. “Then all the sudden, he got on this rampage that all mayors and city employees were crooks and cheating everybody. I kind of turned the page and went the other way.”
At the end of Walker’s run as mayor, Brittsan, who died in 1988, still held the used-car dealer in high regard.
“In a city like Talent, there is a scarce selection of knowledgeable, honest and concerned people, Brittsan told the Mail Tribune in 1986. “In my opinion, he served in all those offices with honesty and concern.”
There have been plenty of success stories in the Walker family.
In 1980, Walker was named “Outstanding Citizen” during the Talent Harvest Festival. His daughter, Chris Walker, is the present Jackson County clerk. Tom Walker, who attended the Air Force Academy, is now CEO of Adroit Construction in Ashland.
Jack Walker, Jim’s younger brother, was a Phoenix city councilor and went on to serve as a Jackson County commissioner for 16 years before passing away in 2014.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Jim Walker Jr. was among the top drivers at the old Medford Speedway and later at the Jackson County track in White City.
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.