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LITHIA PARK, ASHLAND

(541) 488-5340 (Ashland Parks & Recreation). Open daylight hours. Shakespeare Group Touring: (541) 488-5406; Box Office: (541) 482-4331. Located in downtown Ashland, about 15 minutes from Medford. Take I-5 exit #19 in Ashland. Travel west on Valley View Road; turn left on Highway 99. Drive 3 miles to the "Plaza." Follow the sign to Lithia Park. The Shakespeare Festival is located to the left at the Lithia Park entrance.

Pause at the entrance of Lithia Park and you can perhaps hear voices whispering in the wind, for this is a place that has heard the voices of the ages. The glen where Ashland Creek comes down the canyon was a natural camping place for Native American hunter-gatherers. Fish, deer, acorns and other food sources were abundant in the area. The discovery of a Clovis point arrowhead near the Park in December 1996 tells us habitation probably dates back to the Ice Age.

In 1850, at the height of the California gold rush, Abel D. Helman left his partner, Eber Emery, on the North Fork of the Salmon River to get supplies from the Willamette Valley. On the way he rested in this enchanted grove situated where a creek flows into the fertile valley below. It would be a good place to raise a family. He committed the place to memory and vowed to return.

Back in California, when Abel mentioned the valley just north of the Mountains, he, Emery, and James A. Cardwell decided to quit prospecting and try their fortune at building a sawmill as miners pouring into Jacksonville were sorely in need of lumber. By January 1852, Helman, Emery and Cardwell were falling trees to build a cabin along Ashland Creek. They used logs for the walls, shakes for the roof and rocks from the streambed for the chimney.

The sawmill was built upstream from the cabin, and within four months Ashland Sawmill, named for Emery and Helman's home county in Ohio and the first sawmill in the valley, was in operation. "We could sell all we could make at $80 per thousand," Cardwell wrote.

In the winter of 1852, Helman went to Ohio to bring out his wife and daughter, as well as Emery's family. Upon his return, the exorbitant price of imported flour and the success of the sawmill encouraged the men to build a flour mill. On August 25, 1854, Ashland Flouring Mill, a three-story, barn-shaped building with a gambrel roof, was completed.

Today, going up to the theaters from the lower duck pond, you cross the millrace that Helman and Emery dug to power the mill. In Helman's time, that millrace fed into a wooden flume attached to the flour mill at the second story level, where it turned the millstone to grind the first flour south of Roseburg.

Anxious to encourage settlement in this area, Helman parceled off 12 lots from his homestead in 1855 and dedicated them for a city to be called Ashland Mills. Today, the building to the left of the park entrance is City Hall, built on that land. The city was called Ashland Mills until 1871 when it became simply Ashland.

By 1893 Ashland was a bustling city of over 1000 civicminded citizens. On June 14 the city began construction of a dome large enough to house 1000 people for the Chautauqua series, a national program of traveling lectures and entertainment. A $2,500 bond was quickly passed to pay for the project. Up to 40 men at a time worked swiftly to complete the 80-foot wide and 40-foot high dome-shaped building by July 5. With a dirt floor, canvas-covered windows and shingled from top to bottom, it was called the Chautauqua Tabernacle.

Musicians, politicians, actors, educators and orators were all grist for Ashland's cultural mill. People from as far away as Klamath Falls and Grants Pass came to hear such luminaries as John Philip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan.

In the early 1900's the Ashland Flouring Mill fell on hard times and was abandoned. Visitors to Chautauqua had to look down on the accumulating debris with its attendant smells. The Women's Civic Improvement Club was formed to clean up the area and create a city park.

The old mill was torn down the following summer and landscaping began. By 1911 Ashland, with a population of 3,500, was one of the few West Coast communities with its own city-owned park. Picnics, Fourth of July celebrations and band concerts became part of summer in Lithia Park.

Years later, in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, a young English/Drama professor from Southern Oregon Normal School, now Southern Oregon University, wandered into the abandoned shell of the old Chautauqua Dome. All that remained was an 'O' of cement walls. However, Angus Bowmer didn't see ruins. He saw an Elizabethan Theater, open to the sky with a stage where Shakespeare's plays could be presented just as the playwright intended.

So was born the Ashland Shakespeare Festival on the foundation of the Chautauqua dome, right above where Abel Helman built the Ashland Flouring Mill at the entrance of today's Lithia Park and where the Native Americans gathered acorns and fished. The rest is history.

Reprinted with permission from the Southern Oregon Historical Society from their brochure "Historic Discovery Drives - Your guide to Jackson County's Past"

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