Memories of a royal visit: When the Duke came riding into town

    Joe Wilson remembers the time he and Marion Morrison sauntered into the old Selma General Store.

    "Nobody recognized him," recalls the Cave Junction resident. "You really wouldn't have known who he was unless he spoke to you."

    Yup, there was no mistaking Duke's voice, pilgrim.

    We're talking about John Wayne, the movie icon born 100 years ago on May 26. The big man with a voice that sounded like gravel slowly sliding down a metal roof arrived in this world as little Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa.

    Wilson, a 1976 graduate of Illinois Valley High School, met Duke when Wilson started working as a ranch hand at the Deer Creek Ranch in Selma a year after he graduated. Wayne's friend and business partner, George "Chick" Iverson, had just bought the ranch from Bill and Sally Thayer.

    Wilson, who turns 49 next month, was still in his teens when Wayne came to the ranch in 1977. It was one of Duke's many visits to the beautiful ranch saddling Deer Creek.

    You just know the actor must have loved looking up at Eight Dollar Mountain, a rugged geological feature that would have tested the mettle of even Rooster Cogburn.

    "I remember I had to go to the airport (in Medford) and pick him up," Wilson says. "I drove him out to the ranch. There was just the two of us. We had a good-old-boy kind of talk."

    The fact everyone at the general store, a comfortable-old-shoe kind of country store that could have been drawn by Norman Rockwell, failed to recognize the actor didn't surprise Wilson.

    "He was an older gentlemen then," Wilson says. "He looked a lot different in person than he did in the movies."

    By this time in 1977, Wayne would be turning 70. He was ill, having had his left lung removed in 1964 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He died June 11, 1979.

    The Academy Award winner with the famous hitch in his gait apparently developed a hankering for the area while filming "Rooster Cogburn." The 1975 western featuring co-star Katharine Hepburn was filmed along the Rogue River.

    The 850-acre ranch in Selma is now the home of the Deer Creek Center for Field Research and Education, which was acquired recently by the Siskiyou Field Institute and Southern Oregon University. The 6,000-square-foot ranch house where the Duke once slept is now a nonprofit center for scientific study.

    "We had some guys fixing the heater system who said they had been fixing it a long time ago when he was here," institute director Sue Parrish noted in an interview when the institute opened to the public earlier this year. "They were sitting on the floor eating their lunch. He told them, 'You boys don't have anywhere to sit.'

    "They came in the next day and there was a brand new picnic table with benches for them to sit on during lunch," she adds.

    Carol Thayer of White Salmon, Wash., a 1972 graduate of Illinois Valley High School and one of six children of the previous owners, remembers meeting the Duke when her parents sold the ranch.

    "He was very polite, very quiet," she says. "My mom loved him. She wasn't one to ogle but she ogled him. He played a game of chess with my little brother Billy (a future lawyer). John Wayne won."

    When the Thayers sold the place, it was a working ranch with about 500 head of cattle, she adds.

    The ranch work continued after the Duke arrived, observes Wilson, who eventually became ranch foreman.

    "They had a show horse of his they kept there," he says. "They called him 'Handsome Boy.' But John Wayne never did any riding at the ranch that I know of.

    "When he was around, they mostly hung around the ranch house and shot the s—- while I worked," he adds with a chuckle.

    But the actor made several commercials for a Southern California-based savings and loan at the ranch in 1977, Wilson says.

    "I had his grandson up there for a while working for me," he says. "They wanted me to work him nearly to death so he would go back to college. I kept him working hard. As far as I know, he went back to college."

    When it came to the silver screen, Wilson figures Wayne was hard to beat. In fact, a Harris Poll earlier this year placed him third among America's favorite film stars.

    "I've watched nearly every movie the man ever made," Wilson says. "'Rooster Cogburn' with him and Katharine Hepburn was hard to beat. 'The Cowboys' was a good movie. So was 'The Sons of Katie Elder.'

    "I really enjoyed meeting the man," he adds. "He was an interesting fellow who I would have liked to have met when he was younger. Not many like him around anymore."

    In the words of Hondo Lane, the character Wayne played in the movie, "Hondo": "Yup. The end of a way of life ... ."

    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at

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