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Medford in 1981

In Oregon: An Adman's Call of the Wild
By Timothy Foote

    "Write, Fish & Enjoy Shakespeare." There the headline is, back in the classified section of the Atlantic Monthly, along with those two-line ads for items like "Cookie Beef Stew" and pleas for companionship from "caring" bachelors who love long walks and Mantovani. Under the headline is a fat, two-column come-on from the Bear Creek Corp. in Medford, Ore. In the country round Medford, it declares, "trees outnumber people." The place is "15 miles from Ashland (home of the summer Shakespearean Festival) in the valley of the Rogue River, beloved by demented steelhead and salmon anglers. Excellent skiing, hiking, boating and swimming at your back door." The Bear Creek people need someone to wax poetic in prose about things they sell. Writers are invited to send in and tell about their qualifications.
    The Eastern householder and father thinks of his rarely used fly rod and his 13-year-old son. Maybe the boy will yet grow up with more trees than people. Oregonians are supposed to be like New Englanders: liberals in politics, but personally conservative. He has heard they can still leave their cars and houses unlocked. Now he finds himself remembering that the battery has twice been stolen out of his car, in his own garage on his own street. And recalling a recent New York headline: CITY READY TO UNLEASH SUBWAY DOG PATROL! So he heads west with his son to explore. It is June.
    From the air Medford at first looks fairly familiar, a blacktop and stucco fantasia of gas stations and fast-fooderies sprawling out along a meandering, not-too-clean creek. But the mountains that rim the valley are tipped with snow and trimmed with dark firs that wipe the skyline like distant eyelashes. "Gee, Dad," the boy says, nose pressed to the window, "could we really move out here?"
    The Bear Creek Corp. turns out to be a kind of down-home conglomerate. It owns several companies, including the Fruit-of-the-Month Club and Jackson & Perkins, one of the country's best rose breeders The fruit, the roses, various fancy foods and dwarf pines are sold by mail order all over the world. The ENJOY SHAKESPEARE ad was dreamed up by a celebrated fisherman named David Bascom, John Holmes, Bear Creek's president, and Vice President David Stump, an escapee from Orange County, Calif. The job offered is for Bear Creek's in-house advertising agency. "When we set up the agency back in 1961," says Stump, "we had to keep it down in Newport Beach, Calif. We simply couldn't get anybody creative to come up here." Times have changed. The ad brought answers from all over. Deans of colleges. Poets. Newspaper editors. East Coast ad-agency directors. A philosophy major now teaching history. The creative director of a national rock-music corporation.
    The philosophy major wanted to move west to stay ahead of "the nastiness that is taking place in the East." He was also afraid he might "wake one day to gaze into the mirrored face of a 60-year-old who had done nothing but teach." He had heard Oregonians lack humor, though. "Please tell me it isn't so," he implored Stump by mail. Stump was kind. Many Oregonians, he pointed out, are transplants from California. In fact, Oregon has increased in population 25% in the past ten years and, despite efforts to hold down the influx, is one of the twelve fastest-growing states in the Union.
    The candidates had to display their skill at writing mail-order copy--filling in blanks opposite catalogue pictures of rich chocolate cakes, golden Oregon peaches and those dwarf Christmas pines. The blend of gush and gusto that makes Bear Creek so successful is hard to match. Of the dwarf pine, one applicant writes, "A tree-mendous way to remember Christmas." Holmes and Stump groan. And groan again when confronted by "It's love at first bite"--about the nine-layer chocolate cake ($18.95 delivered).
    Candidates also got to look the town over. Comfortable family houses, 15 or 20 minutes away in the green foothills by car--and thus the equivalent of an Eastern suburb--are not cheap. But even with a little wooded acreage, their prices are dramatically lower than large houses without land in Westchester County, N.Y. The really good news is that owners pay proportionately far less in property and school taxes. Medford schools are harder to assess. Real estate agent Billie Powers recalls that when she moved up from California, her children had to be tutored to catch up to Oregon classmates. But a high school sophomore whose family just came from the Dakotas has a different idea. "Much easier here," he says. "Too many electives. Back home everybody had to take algebra, science and a foreign language." A business executive in town says: "The public high school? That's a place where you learn to take drugs and stab people." Stab people? Take drugs? How about not locking your cars, the Eastern householder suddenly wonders. "Oh, we still do that," says Billie Powers, "but it's asking for trouble. We're getting the same element here as everywhere else."
    In some ways Medford seems like a throwback to a 1940s movie. The path leading up to the public library is lined with rosebushes. Ask the young waitress at the Copper Kettle if they can put you up with a couple of box lunches for a fishing trip, and the reply is a cheerful, "Sure can!" Cars seem miraculously well preserved. There is almost no snow in the valleys of southern Oregon. No snow, no rock salt to eat away fenders and underbodies.
    The vaunted Shakespeare at nearby Ashland threatens to be a disaster. "It's Saturday night, Dad," the boy whines, embalmed in his motel bed, watching TV. "Besides, I've already seen Shakespeare." But when they get to the theater, he laughs out loud at a splendid production of Love's Labour's Lost. Next day the visitors drive up a looping highway known as Dead Indian Road, toward a mountain lake full of rainbow trout. The way leads past a succession of hills, mostly covered with grass and dotted with scrub oak, that rise higher and higher. Wind ruffles the grass. "Wouldn't Pam love it here," the boys says, talking about his retriever. "All these hills to run in." "Your mother would be lonely," says the Eastern householder.
    In Medford even the drugstore offers rods for sale. It also stocks Ball of Fire salmon eggs at $1.69 the bottle. When Chinook salmon run up the famous Rogue River, they are on their way to spawn and then die. They cannot feed, but sometimes they strike at salmon eggs, tied to a red-tagged hook. Northeast of the town, the river runs narrow and deep, rolling in gray-green coils past strands of ponderosa pine. It is fished mostly from special aluminum rowboats curved up fore and aft like a slice of honeydew melon--to reduce the wetted surface. At the foot of a pool under a cliff the boy gets a strike. Not until well down in the next pool, five minutes later, can the Chinook be netted. Held up by the guide, the salmon weighs 19 lbs., looks so perfectly designed for swimming and power that for a moment nobody says anything. Finally the boy reaches out, touches the fish and says, "It's good he was going to die anyway."
    Later the river curves out of the woods and up against Highway 62 for the first time. From the roadside, dozens of rods fling a barrage of sinkers out over the churning Rogue. There is a constant chunk of lead hitting water. The shore is dark with dogs and pickup trucks and motorcycles, young wives toting babies, whole families unwrapping sandwiches and tipping up beer bottles. "You should see it on weekends," says the guide. "Saturdays, I don't even come out any more. I'd rather sell in the sporting-goods store."
    Some of the Bear Creek candidates want more money than the job offers. Many fail the writing tests. One likely applicant, a New York adman who grows fine roses as a hobby, withdraws; his new wife would prefer to live in Ireland. A few, like the Eastern householder, eventually become non-candidates because they have, or think they have, lives too complicated to wrap up in one workable bundle and ship west. After some months Bear Creek hires a gifted young newspaper editor from Arkansas who felt that to go further in that profession he would have to move to a big city like Chicago.
    The Medford airport is being expanded to handle more flights to and from San Francisco. Flying home, the householder has a melancholy sense that in Oregon, as elsewhere, the trees may not long outnumber the people. He recalls a most un-American remark from Walker Percy's novel The Last Gentleman that one of the candidates quoted to Dave Stump: "Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him."
Time magazine, February 9, 1981, page 8 



Last revised May 11, 2015