Why our heritage is worth preserving

The Southern Oregon Historical Society wishes to cut through the political fog and correct the errors of fact — and clarify the omissions and misperceptions — surrounding the Dec. 19 Jackson County Budget Committee meeting. This includes the original and follow-up reporting, letters and commentaries in this and other media, and a recent Mail Tribune editorial ("Historic Buildings Belong to Public," Dec. 26).

SOHS is a private, not-for-profit educational organization. At one time, it was funded by a permanent county tax levy dedicated to history and passed by the voters in 1948. However, due to changes in Oregon's laws and because of a recent county budget committee decision to completely eliminate all funding for historical societies, SOHS no longer receives any county general fund revenues. Our $600,000 annual budget is generated entirely via private contributions and earned income.

So why the so-called "dust up" between SOHS and the county in recent weeks? Here are some answers:

Why did SOHS go to the county budget committee? SOHS, on behalf of the county's 15 historical societies, sought $375,000 this fiscal year from the county. SOHS has for years been under contract with Jackson County to maintain, preserve, and manage six important public historic structures in Jackson County. As of April, SOHS no longer receives any public funds. We are using privately raised funds to maintain publicly owned buildings, and the SOHS trustees, members and donors don't think that's right. We were encouraged by county officials, including committee Chairman Dick Rudisile, to pursue our request.

Which historic buildings are under discussion? In addition to those reported (the U.S. Hotel, Beekman House, Beekman Bank, and Catholic Rectory), the most important buildings we manage and maintain are the circa 1880s Jackson County Courthouse (now the Jacksonville Museum of Southern Oregon History — operated by SOHS), and the 1900 Jackson County Jail (now the Children's Museum). Both are of significant historic value. SOHS strongly objects to the possible sale and/or exclusive private use of those buildings.

Why is SOHS based in Jacksonville? SOHS was formed 62 years ago to save the old county courthouse. Jacksonville, a National Historic Landmark city, is of national importance and drives the heritage tourism of the county. Our roots are in Jacksonville.

Why should we preserve our common heritage? SOHS, with great expertise and at great expense, owns and preserves several million artifacts, photographs and documents donated to us over the decades. SOHS is the Smithsonian of the region. Our collections represent the heritage of the residents of the entire Southern Oregon region, from Shady Cove to the Applegate, Ashland to Wimer, Grants Pass to Klamath Falls.

What is SOHS doing to become self-sufficient? Starting in 2003, the society has moved aggressively to cut its staff and budget by 75 percent. We have raised fees and membership dues, increased rentals and promoted sales of products such as DVDs and books. We hold regular fundraisers, and in April raised more than $200,000 in pledges over five years. We also aggressively pursue grants, and gifts from private and corporate donors.

Why should SOHS continue its important mission?

Maintaining publicly owned historic buildings is one of the most important missions of the Southern Oregon Historical Society. Nevertheless, the SOHS Board of Trustees believes that private money is not sufficient to do the job as it should be done. In addition to preserving public buildings, SOHS also teaches Oregon history to the region's fourth-graders to meet state education standards, protects and conserves a large and amazing collection of artifacts, documents and photographs, and promotes — via technical assistance and public events and programs — an appreciation for history and heritage among the region's old-timers and newcomers alike.

Jackson County does a lot of things, but it does not do history and it is not in the preservation business.

What can you do to help preserve our history? Join and financially support the Southern Oregon Historical Society (sohs.org) and your local historical society. Speak out about funding for heritage. Volunteer your time. Support the "Our Heritage PAC" effort to promote a countywide heritage district that will, if successful, free heritage and preservation funding from the uncertainties of county budgeting. (Call 773-3606 for more information.)

Above all, support those who protect and preserve our heritage. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.

John Enders is executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

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