photo of the old stage to Crescent City taken by John Valen

Faded picture brings memories into focus

The aging photograph of the historic stagecoach that once rolled between Grants Pass and Crescent City has a story to tell.

Judging from the tools lying on the ground, it appears that one of the men standing in front of the coach — probably the younger one in bib overalls — had just replaced a wooden wheel.

The lettering on the old barn in the background advertises the presence of a nearby saloon. Passengers likely ducked into the watering hole for a quick drink to wash down the trail dust.

With the rustic surroundings and the forested hill behind the barn, I suspect we are looking east from "downtown" Kerby over a century ago. But it was the photographer's name written across the lower right-hand corner that brought back memories of tales well told.

His name was John Valen, an old friend of my father's and a kindly gentleman who spun wonderful stories of yesteryear.

The photograph was emailed to me last week by Lloyd Smith of Vancouver, Wash., a 1958 graduate of Phoenix High School. The retired teacher collects historical photographs, focusing — pun intended — on Southern Oregon.

A fellow denizen of Kerby who lived a half-mile from our very humble abode, John "Johnny" Valen wore garters on his shirt sleeves. He could have just stepped out of central casting for an old Western flick.

He was one of several oldsters who would drop in to shoot the breeze at our place in the late 1950s.

My father was born in Ashland in 1906, but many of his friends had walked as young men in the previous century.

These were colorful characters skilled in the art of oral history. They were the keepers of stories, proudly preserving them for the next generation.

If they hadn't lived the story, they had been told the tale by those who had.

Of course, they were probably a bit like those of us who fish. As the years wear on, our fish tend to grow a bit bigger. We also thrash about more as the fight to haul in the lunker becomes increasingly dramatic.

But, like the fish stories, the stories of old were all based on an original catch.

When the weather was favorable, say a warm spring or summer evening, the gents would hold court on a few chairs set out back. In late summer, the nearby apple tree whose crown was intertwined with Thompson seedless grape vines provided dessert.

Because we didn't have a TV back in the day, the story sessions were events not to be missed.

Born in 1886, Johnny Valen invariably had a sparkle in his eye when he began talking about the early days. Many of his stories focused on Waldo, a lively old mining town that once stood on the southern end of the Illinois Valley.

One of his stories that comes to mind was a shooting in a Waldo saloon. It seems a young tough started bullying an old miner quietly drinking in a corner, knocking him to the floor because he wouldn't buy him a drink.

The white-whiskered sourdough got up, brushed himself off and walked out of the saloon to the laughing jeers of the bully. The miner came back a few minutes later, loaded for bear.

As the bully attempted to run out the swinging doors, the miner dispatched him with one shot through the neck, Valen said.

Then there was Roy Wells, born in 1883, a storyteller whose forte was reciting poetry. We're talking long verses by the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Service.

He liked to wet his whistle with a beer or two before he let the rhymes fly. He could also tell a great yarn, but his poetry was a favorite for his listeners.

And there was A. Donley "Don" Barnes, the former Josephine County sheriff who later served as the county clerk. His grandfather was Albert S. Barnes, Jackson County sheriff in the late 1800s.

Don Barnes, who served as sheriff from 1937 to 1943, liked to recall the story of the last hanging in Josephine County. In 1986, while writing for the Grants Pass Daily Courier, I asked the then 81-year-old to retell the story I recall him telling in my childhood days.

"That was the early 1900s, can't tell you just when," he said, adding that the story had been told to him by an eyewitness to the hanging near the old courthouse in Grants Pass.

"They built a special gibbet for him with a fence around it so the kids couldn't watch," he said. "His name was Charles Feaster. He had killed his wife, drowned her in a mud puddle."

The convicted wasn't too eager to be hung, so he feigned sickness just before his judgment day.

"Finally they strapped him to a board," he said. "Old George Russell (sheriff) pumped the pedal and said, 'Goodbye Charlie.' "

Not all stories end happily, even back in what was purported to be the good old days.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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