Priceless character behind items in auction

Ever since I was an urchin, Ben Bones has been a mysterious figure in my mind.

Among my father's friends, he stood out among the interesting characters who enlivened my childhood. Indeed, he was as colorful as the fields of bright gladiolus flowers he once grew.

He was intrigued by history, botany, geology and photography, all subjects that equally interested my father.

But Ben Bones has always hovered at the periphery of my childhood memories. Sadly, he died at age 77 when I was 10, before I had the chance to plumb his mind.

Had he lived longer, he definitely would have been high on my interview list of unique characters from those early years.

So my ears perked up when fellow MT newsy Damian Mann, a character in his own right who is doing time in an adjacent cubicle, mentioned he was working on a story concerning a Cheyenne war shirt that involved the late Benjamin R. Bones of Grants Pass.

Sure enough, it turned out to be old Ben Bones from my childhood.

As the lead story in today's paper relates, the artifacts Bones donated to the Southern Oregon Historical Society in 1957 will be offered for auction on Monday in San Francisco.

In addition to the Cheyenne war shirt, native artifacts to be auctioned that once belonged to him include a Cheyenne tobacco bag, a Sioux pipe and a bow case, quiver and arrows. Other items include a mourning dress worn by one of Ben's ancestors in the 19th century.

The financially strapped historical society, which is raising funds by selling some items not connected with regional history, hopes to fetch as much as half a million bucks from the auction.

As to the provenance of the war shirt, Bones submitted a signed statement to SOHS declaring it had belonged to Spotted Tail, a well-regarded Lakota Sioux chief. Moreover, he indicated the items had been handed down through his family whose ancestry has roots in southwestern Nebraska where Spotted Tail once lived.

Given the fact my father didn't take kindly to anyone who tampered with the truth, I suspect the SOHS can take his word to the bank.

Yet Damian was spot on when describing Bones as eccentric. I'm hoping to locate his book, "Ben Roland Gospels," a 116-page perspective on his religious beliefs which was published by Pageant Press in New York in 1956. "Roland" was Bones' middle name, by the way.

The Ben Bones I distantly remember was a lean fellow with a nervous intensity and a professorial air, particularly when he got fired up over the subject at hand.

He and Queen — I always thought she came from royalty — had no children but they had a huge cat. I recall Queen being kid-friendly, but her husband was a bit more skittish when it came to having urchins underfoot.

Like my parents, they were members of the Rogue Gem & Geology Club, founded back in 1949 in Grants Pass. In addition to monthly meetings, there were summer field trips to places such as the lava beds south of Klamath Falls or to hunt for agates near Lakeview. It was fun times of camping and hiking for me and my four siblings.

Ben Bones invariably had a rock hammer in his hand as he talked about earth sciences during those excursions. As a wide-eyed youngster listening to him, I figured he was a scientist who knew just about everything there was to know about the third rock from the sun.

He had a vast collection of unusual rocks he had gathered over the years, some of which he periodically displayed at club meetings. I remember being fascinated by his small collection of meteorites.

In fact, in 1967, some five years after he died, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries displayed the Bones' meteorite collection at communities around the state in an attempt to educate folks about how to identify rocks that had flown in from outer space. His traveling meteorite collection was mentioned in an article in the August 1967 edition of The Ore Bin, a DOGAMI publication.

But he was best known as the gladiolus pioneer in Josephine County, shipping out his first train car load of cut flowers in 1928. Before viruses began cutting them down in the late 1950s, gladiolus in bloom each summer filled the fields just south of Grants Pass with every color of the rainbow.

He was already widowed and ailing when he attended my father's funeral in February of 1961. Ben Bones died on June 17, 1962, which happened to be the anniversary of my father's birth.

In his will, Bones left my mother $500, not a small amount to a jobless widow with five young children in 1962.

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

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