Histories of Medford
The first three entries below are short histories of Medford I wrote or edited in 2010 for a walking tour brochure, historic markers and a video. The fourth is a speech I delivered February 24th of that year to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Medford's incorporation.
The walking tour brochure:
Explore Southern Oregon History In Medford
Medford, Oregon was established in 1883 when the Oregon and California (O&C) Railroad, a forerunner of the Southern Pacific, surveyed the most direct—and most economical—route through the Bear Creek Valley for their new railroad. To satisfy the need for a central depot in the valley, the O&C’s choice to locate it here was influenced by an offer from the site’s major landowners, Iradell Phipps and Charles Broback, of 20 acres of their land, as well as every other block of the “new town on the valley floor.”
The town was named Medford by David Loring, the railroad’s right-of-way agent. Casting about for inspiration and not noting any landmarks suitable for a name, he took the site’s location in the middle of the valley and combined it with the nearby McAndrews Ford, a half-mile north of town. The final form of the name was inspired by a city near Loring’s home town of Concord, Massachusetts: Medford. The town narrowly escaped being named “Grand Central” or “Phippstown.” When the first train pulled into Medford in January of 1884, wooden stores lined Front Street facing the tracks and ran down Seventh Street (today’s Main) to today’s Riverside, the county road that connected Medford to the surrounding towns. The depot, which was originally built in the middle of Main just west of the tracks, would not be completed for another month.
Incorporated in 1885, Medford prospered and its population grew, surpassing Jacksonville before 1900. Merchants replaced wood buildings with fine brick ones, and fancy homes were built near the commercial district. Medford’s first professional architect was W. J. Bennet, who spent a productive 18 months in Medford in the middle 1890s; the early 1900s saw the arrival of J. A. MacIntosh and then Frank Chamberlain Clark, who designed and remodeled many of the city’s most important structures over the next 50 years.
With the completion of the railroad, the Rogue Valley immediately found a regional market for its livestock and grain. As those crops were supplanted by more profitable fruit, those markets became national and even international. A very few orchards even realized the astounding income of $1000 an acre, which fact, spread by overzealous promoters, attracted an influx of investors, many from eastern cities. “Orchard tracts” were sold and resold to these wealthy “colonists,” inflating real estate prices to astronomical levels. Newcomers swelled Medford’s population by almost 400% between 1900 and 1910, making it the second fastest growing city in the U.S. The “Orchard Boom” brought new building and remodeling as Medford’s prospering downtown modernized. Phones and electric lines appeared, and Medford built its first publicly owned City Hall in 1908. By 1910 Medford’s population was 8,800, surpassing Ashland and making it the largest city in Southern Oregon.
Medford quickly adopted the automobile and not only boasted more than 18 miles of improved road by 1912, for a time it held the distinction of having the highest auto-to-population ratio in the world. Jackson County was the first county in Oregon to offer a paved route from end to end; soon Oregon would be the first state west of the Mississippi able to make such a claim.
One extraordinary year near the end of the Orchard Boom, 1911, saw the construction of the Hotel Medford, Hotel Holland, Roosevelt and Jackson schools, Sacred Heart Hospital, the Carnegie Library, the Medford Furniture & Hardware Co. building (Woolworth’s), the Cuthbert building at Sixth and Central and more. Construction of at least ten multi-story brick and masonry buildings in one year in a town of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants exemplifies the exuberance of the boom.
The Orchard Boom ended, as all booms do. The bust was apparent by 1913, the inevitable result of marketing all the valley’s land based on profits possible on only those few acres with the best soil and management. Despite record crops, the slide was triggered by instabilities in fruit markets and a tightening of capital. By 1920, Medford’s population had plummeted by almost 35%.
During the 1920s the city enjoyed renewed growth as its citizens struggled to pay for the infrastructure built during the boom years. By 1927 Medford could throw a Jubilee of Visions Realized, celebrating its 31 miles of pipeline to a source of pure water, its city airport (the first municipal airport in the state) and its new status as the Jackson County seat. Medford was prosperous again when the stock market crash of 1929 virtually halted all development other than the façade “improvement” programs of the New Deal, which offered federal stimulus funds to strip Medford’s historic buildings of their old-fashioned “gingerbread” and cover them with a layer of streamlined stucco.
Like much of the nation, Medford was slowly inching its way out of the Depression when huge government investments during World War II brought prosperity. Camp White, a U.S. Army training facility north of the city, brought 10,000 construction workers and over 40,000 military personnel. After the war, Camp White was closed, its hospital converted to a veterans domiciliary, and remaining camp infrastructure taken over by Southern Oregon’s growing lumber industry. The postwar housing boom created a huge demand for lumber and a growing economy and population, and Medford cemented its position as the primary financial, medical and professional service center for all of Southern Oregon.
By the early 1960s, downtown Medford no longer focused on the railroad and was bypassed by Interstate 5; competition from other shopping areas increased. No longer Medford’s primary shopping district, downtown remains a hub of specialty retailers emphasizing personal service and quality products, fine restaurants, and a performing arts center. Recognition of downtown’s significant role in Medford’s history led to a district nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
The Vogel Plaza markers:
A Town Is Born
Destined to become the region’s largest city and a major economic hub, Medford began in 1883 when the railroad came to Southern Oregon. In the fall of 1883, four property owners deeded part of their land to the Oregon and California Railroad for a depot and surrounding town. Before the year was over the unbroken prairie had been surveyed and a town site platted. Houses and commercial buildings rose as quickly as the short supply of lumber and brick allowed, and by early spring two hotels, a few saloons, a livery stable, and a dozen businesses already dotted the muddy streets of this rapidly growing railroad town. By mid-1884, a business district clustered on Front Street facing the depot and spread down 7th Street, known today as Main. Families settled into their newly built homes, women planted flowers in their gardens, and the fledgling town quickly became a community.
During that first year several babies were born, a fatal shoot-out took place, the first of many churches organized, a schoolhouse was built, and trains began shuttling freight and passengers to Portland. As if to say “we have arrived,” Medford’s citizens brashly hosted a Fourth of July gala for the whole Rogue Valley.
Medford incorporated in 1885. As the small town grew into a city, the board of trustees tackled the challenges of providing water and sewer systems, electric streetlights, and police and fire protection. With its central location and railroad connections to national and world markets, young Medford attracted forward-thinking individuals from other parts of the country. They swiftly joined local entrepreneurs in shaping the city’s future as it eagerly embraced the modern world of the 20th century.
Medford Boomed As Orchards Bloomed
With railroad access to distant markets, the orchard industry flourished. Hundreds of thousands of apple and pear trees were planted in the early 1900s, and commercial fruit became the Rogue Valley's major export.
Promoters widely advertised the Rogue Valley as an agricultural Mecca, and Medford became one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. By 1910, there was such a housing shortage that a tent city grew up on the edge of town.
Medford’s burgeoning population and an infusion of capital from wealthy easterners transformed the modest town into a sophisticated metropolis. Between 1909 and 1911, many of Medford’s most impressive buildings, including Sacred Heart Hospital on the city’s developing east side, were erected. By 1912, Medford supported a high school, three elementary schools, a city park, a new passenger depot, and a Carnegie library. A roller-skating rink, indoor swimming pool, several movie theaters, and an opera house provided entertainment. Over 21 miles of wooden pipe brought mountain water to the city. Residents had electricity and telephone service. Hundreds of automobiles rumbled over 18 miles of paved streets. Fruit warehouses and packing sheds were built near the train yard, and Medford became the shipping and commercial center of the county. The economy was strong, Medford’s four banks prospered, and life was good until the Orchard Boom went bust.
Inflated real estate prices and lack of water helped burst the orchard bubble. [I should have written "lack of irrigation." The story that drought killed the Orchard Boom is a myth.] Many novice orchardists took heavy losses, gave up their dreams and left. By the mid-teens, Medford’s population sharply declined as a local recession engulfed the area. Down but not out, the resourceful community maintained a progressive spirit and rescued its shattered economy.
Despite the economic setbacks that came with the end of the Orchard Boom, Medfordites found ways to move ahead. Slow and steady growth revived Medford’s economy, and in 1927 the community celebrated its recovery with a “Jubilee of Visions Realized.” By then several irrigation districts provided water which, along with the formation of cooperatives, helped stabilize the orchard industry. In 1922 a fairgrounds with five exhibition buildings and tracks for auto, motorcycle, and horse racing opened on Medford’s south side. A dirt landing strip inside the racetrack was part of the first public airport in Oregon. In 1926, this airport became the first and only airmail stop in Oregon, ranking Medford as an early commercial aviation leader. The next year, Medford became the county seat, making it a governmental as well as an economic and transportation center.
Medford slid into the Great Depression along with the rest of the country in the 1930s. Unemployment rose, renewed growth halted, and one of its four banks failed. During this desperate time, a heated political revolt resulted in stolen ballots from the new county courthouse and a constable’s murder. Yet Medford kept its face to the future. In 1930, the city dedicated a new state-of-the art airport designed for larger passenger aircraft, and beginning in 1936 building owners used “New Deal” money to modernize. As smooth stucco and tile covered outmoded brick and stone ornamentation, progressive Medford enthusiastically adopted the streamline architectural style of the era.
The War Brings Change
When the nation entered World War II, Medford transformed into a military town. Construction of Camp White, a nearby Army training post, began about six weeks after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The Army also took over the city airport, and Medford buzzed with wartime activity.
As construction began on Camp White, around 10,000 workers, followed by nearly 40,000 soldiers, flooded the area, bringing prosperity back to the city.
Increased demand for lumber during and after the war sparked a boom for Medford’s timber industry. With railroad access and several expanding mills, the city became the regional focus for wood products processing and shipping. From the 1940s until the mid-’70s, timber production drove Medford’s economy and became a way of life for many residents. Following earlier patterns of boom and bust, economic and environmental issues in the 1970s and ’80s eventually ended Medford’s timber reign.
As the lumber industry lagged, the health industry grew. The construction of two major hospitals, Rogue Valley Memorial in 1958 and Providence in 1966, set Medford well on its way to becoming the major regional medical center that it is today.
New neighborhoods built to meet the growing demand for post-war housing expanded Medford’s boundaries. Over the next several decades, shopping malls and suburban living pulled day-to-day activity away from the city center.
Today, support from the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, in cooperation with business and property owners, is rejuvenating the downtown historic district, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Restoration projects, infrastructure improvements, and community events are helping to build a downtown Medford grounded in its forward-looking and diverse past.
Standing at the center of downtown Medford, it would be easy to assume that the growth of this Southern Oregon city was inevitable--that all it really took was a beginning and Medford would just build itself. The Medford of today is here because of the vision and sacrifice of its citizens, who saw opportunities or made opportunities, and worked to make them real. The survival and development of Medford is an evolving testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens.
So how did Medford begin? What happened to transform this empty brush-covered spot in the middle of nowhere into the thriving metropolitan center of Southern Oregon? It starts with an ancient trail . . .
Medford sits in the middle of the Bear Creek Valley, astride an ancient north-south trade route. The Siskiyou Trail that cut across the territory of the native valley people, the Takelma, was already thousands of years old when Peter Skene Ogden’s party became the first Europeans to follow it in search of furs in 1826.
The trail was used again in 1846 when the Applegate party set out from the Willamette Valley to blaze what they hoped would be a shorter and safer final leg of the Oregon Trail. The controversial new Southern Route later became known as the Applegate Trail. Today, Riverside Avenue follows its route through downtown Medford.
In 1851 gold was discovered in Jackson Creek, and Jacksonville was founded by a rush of miners. The Southern Oregon gold rush lasted only a few years, after which the Bear Creek Valley settled down to a quiet existence as an out-of-the-way agricultural and mining area.
This quiet ended in 1883 when the Oregon and California Railroad began surveying a route, closely paralleling the ancient trade route, south from Roseburg to the Siskiyou Pass. Running the rails through Jacksonville, up against the hills, was out of the question, so the railroad company was faced with the problem of where to locate a central freight depot for the valley. Central Point was the logical place, being closest to Jacksonville. The railroad’s right-of-way agent, David Loring, asked Central Point to donate land for a station and rail yard.
But the farmers of Central Point were reluctant to give the Oregon & California Railroad the incentives and inducements--what they called back then the "bonus"--that the railroad needed to help pay for the expensive proposition of laying track through the valley.
But at the site of what would become Medford lived two farmers, Iradell Phipps and Charles Broback. They had the vision to see the opportunity the depot problem offered, and they acted upon it. Along with C.C Beekman and Conrad Mingus they approached the railroad with a proposition: the four would give the railroad 20 acres for their depot and yards, and if O&C railroad would survey a townsite they’d give the railroad every other block to sell. It was deal that the company couldn't pass up. The sale of their building lots made the four founders wealthy men, helped finance construction of the railroad, and began the first of Medford’s many booms. Before the year was over the unbroken prairie had been surveyed by Charles J. Howard, and construction of business buildings began even before the town plat was recorded on Dec 20. The depot was built in the middle of Seventh Street—what today we call Main Street--and a small town grew up around it.
The railroad’s right-of-way agent, a man named David Loring, had the job of naming the depot. There weren't any landmarks at this anonymous spot, but it was in the middle of the valley, and a half-mile out of town there was a ford, where McAndrews Road now crosses Bear Creek. Loring took the form of the name from a city he knew near his home town of Concord, Massachusetts: Medford.
The tracks reached Medford in early January of 1884, and passenger service began February 24. By spring two hotels, a few saloons, livery stables and a dozen stores and businesses dotted the muddy streets. During that first year several babies were born, a fatal shoot-out took place, the first of many churches organized, a schoolhouse was built, and trains began shuttling freight and passengers to Portland.
Most of Medford’s early stores were wood frame structures, like the Railroad Exchange Saloon, though John Byers and Abraham Jacobs had enough confidence in the boomtown to build two buildings of brick. This confidence soon defined the town, and Medford hosted the entire valley--ten times Medford’s 200 residents showed up--for its 1884 Fourth of July celebration.
The railroad gave Medford its start, but it was the business pioneers who brought industry and developed the town. What convinced these forward-thinking entrepreneurs to take a chance on Medford?
Young Medford‘s central location made it the place to be if you were a doctor or lawyer, and its railroad connection made it the place to be if you were shipping the valley’s products to the outside world. Medford attracted professionals, businessmen and entrepreneurial individuals from other parts of the country.
But when George Horatio Chick came to the Rogue Valley in 1885 to build a gold ore smelter, he didn't have to build it on Fir Street in Medford. But no other town would offer him the bonus he asked for. Medford investors did, and Medford got the smelter. Chick turned out to be a bit of con artist and got little gold out of the ore he milled, but while the investors lost their shirts Medford profited by gaining a reputation as a forward-looking town.
And when Ansel Davis came to the valley with the ambition to build a flour mill, he came to Medford. Medford gave him incentives, and this is where he built his mill, at the corner of Ninth and Front. When William Barnum came to the valley to build a planing mill, he came to Medford too. Medford residents raised a bonus, and he built his mill over by Bear Creek.
Medford had incorporated in 1885, and as the town grew, town leaders tackled the problems of turning prairie into a city, juggling the challenges of simultaneously building streets and water and sewer systems, while providing police and fire protection. Soon its residents demanded electric power, and the city government found a way to do that, too.
Medford’s businessmen allied into a Commercial Club, the predecessor of today’s Chamber of Commerce. The club’s boosters spread the gospel of Medford and the Rogue River Valley far and wide, placing informational ads in national magazines and advertising Orchard Land for Sale in metropolitan newspapers. In the first decade of the century visions of a life as a gentleman farmer amongst the orchards of the valley attracted investors from Chicago and other parts of the country. They brought money that turned the town into the valley’s metropolis, fueling what would later be called the Orchard Boom.
The Bear Creek Valley's potential as a fruit-growing region had long been recognized, but it was the railroad's more efficient transportation that made commercial orchards viable.
Joseph H. Stewart arrived in the valley in February 1885 and purchased what is now known as the Gordon Voorhies ranch just south of the city. He planted the farm to fruit and brought commercial orcharding to the valley. He wasn’t the first to plant an orchard, and he wasn’t the first to ship fruit, but before Stewart arrived, farmers planted orchards of mixed varieties, and sold their produce to middlemen. Five years after Stewart’s arrival he was the first to ship a carload of his own fruit to out-of-state markets. He was the man who introduced scientific horticulture and efficient marketing to Rogue Valley orchardry. By 1893 Stewart had 100 acres planted to apples and pears.
By 1897 Bear Creek Orchard, now owned by Stewart’s son-in-law, Arthur Weeks and his brothers, had 15,000 trees, all of which were bearing, on 150 acres.
But it is perhaps Sam Rosenberg who is most responsible for making Medford one of the pear capitals of the world. A prosperous clothier and hotel owner, Rosenberg built the luxury Hotel Sorrento in Seattle in 1909, but one year later he bought the Weeks Brothers’ 237 acres of Comice pear trees for $300,000.
The Rogue River valley, with its rich volcanic soils and sunny climate, proved better suited to the fickle and delicate Comice pear than its birthplace in France. Under Rosenberg's management, the pears took first place twice at the annual New York pear show.
After Rosenberg died in 1914, his sons, Harry and David, took over the family business. Bear Creek Orchards flourished. When they built their first cold storage warehouse in 1924 it was the only one in the valley owned by a single firm.
After the stock market crash in 1929, when other pear growers in the region considered ripping out their orchards in favor of more mainstream crops, the Rosenbergs innovated and found new ways to promote their fruit.
By 1934, the brothers were enjoying a modest success with their fruit baskets, mailed "right from the orchard," and through continued hard work and innovation became one of the most successful mail order fruit businesses in the world.
All this innovation just south of town built a valley-wide fruit industry, served by the packing houses, cold storage plants and freight yards of Medford.
So what did the enterprising citizens of Medford do when business and farming struggled? What they always did: they embraced the new and turned obstacle into opportunity.
Even with early economic success, the question of whether Medford would survive was hardly settled. In the 1880s the new town had a small problem, and that problem was mud. Before paved roads it wasn’t uncommon, when traveling in the winter and spring, for the axle of a wagon to drag on the surface of the mud for the entire journey to town. Sometimes the horses would become so exhausted by the effort the driver would have to abandon the wagon and ride the muddy team to town. Farmers on the edges of the valley would have to stock up for winter and resign themselves to do without city goods and services until the roads dried up again. The roads were so bad that buildings in early Medford were built from lumber milled in Grants Pass--because it was easier to haul lumber 30 miles by rail than a few miles through the mud.
The railroad conquered the mud, linking all the towns along Bear Creek with steel. But there was one town it didn’t link. So Medford set about improving their road to the county seat of Jacksonville, across some of the deepest, muddiest soil in the valley. It took them years to make it work, in the days when every scoop of gravel had to be shoveled by hand. Taking advantage of these hard-won roads, Medford’s orchardists and boom time real estate agents adopted the automobile early, and by 1905 Medford boasted more automobiles per capita than any other city in the country.
By 1912 Medford had more than 18 miles of paved road.. Soon Jackson County was the first county in Oregon to offer a paved route from end to end, and Oregon was the first state west of the Mississippi able to make such a claim. That route, initially called the Pacific Highway and later Highway 99, followed the same ancient trade route along Riverside Avenue, through downtown. To the north, it ran to British Columbia and, to the south, all the way to Mexico. Over 2,000 miles long, by 1926 this Road of Three Nations was the longest paved road in the world.
Medford’s section of that highway, Riverside Avenue, became known as “Auto Row,” lined with auto dealers, service stations, parts dealers (and, in the outskirts, junk yards), serving the automotive needs of the entire valley and the tourists that passed through it.
And other ways to get to Medford were being dreamed of by its forward-thinking citizens. Seely Hall dreamed of bringing the first airplane to Medford. Instructed in aviation during his tour in the army in 1917, Hall raised money to purchase an airplane by promising a ride to every patron who invested in his venture. Hall, in partnership with Floyd Hart, purchased a Curtiss Jenny in Sacramento in 1919, formed the Medford Aircraft Company, and made good on those promised rides. His Jenny, christened “The Mayfly,” was the first civilian aircraft to fly over the Siskiyou Mountains.
In 1922, the City of Medford and the county purchased a field at the south edge of town next to the old fairgrounds for use by the U.S. Forest Service. Newell Barber Field became the state’s first municipal airport and headquarters for the Forest Service Air Patrol.
Three years later Vern Gorst, who ran the bus line between Medford and Jacksonville, came to town to discuss a bid on the US airmail contract with Seely Hall. Gorst wanted advice on beacons and a landing field for fuel and passengers in Ashland, not Medford. Hall was instrumental in persuading Gorst to instead locate the airmail stop in Medford, incorporating Pacific Air Transport in 1926. Five years later, Pacific Air Transport was one of the air carriers that united to form United Air Lines, and Hall remained a manager for United through his entire career. United remains a primary carrier at today’s Rogue Valley International--Medford Airport.
But there were more obstacles ahead for Medford and the rest of the nation. The biggest bust of all: The Great Depression, a time of local challenge and local heroes.
After World War I, with much of the valley now irrigated, the valley enjoyed more stable growth. Reflecting its status as the commercial center of the valley, Medford became the Jackson County seat in 1927 and cemented its position as the political and commercial center of the valley. The good times ended in 1929 when the New York stock market crashed, and the whole country began its three-year slide to the bottom of the Great Depression.
Long-simmering political tensions surfaced under the pressures of the depression. As banks closed, businesses failed, and workers lost jobs, orchardist and newspaperman Llewellyn Banks capitalized on this unrest and formed a movement called the Good Government Congress. Banks’ message of reform reverberated among citizens who resented the entrenched political order. Unfortunately, the Good Government Congress quickly devolved into political insurgency, intimidation and violence.
Robert Ruhl, publisher and editor of the Medford Mail Tribune, was the archetypal crusading small-town newspaperman. His newspaper was a voice for progressive reform and an opponent of political machinations.
Ruhl’s editorials in the Mail Tribune consistently condemned the character assassination and intimidation methods of the Good Government Congress and advised calm, urging citizens to stand by their government. As a result, the Mail Tribune was boycotted by some and threatened with sabotage. The Tribune’s printers stood night guard at the press armed with shotguns.
The insurgency came to a head when thieves stole an estimated 10,000 ballots from the Jackson County Courthouse vault to prevent a vote recount. Authorities suspected Llewellyn Banks. On March 16, 1933, Constable George Prescott went to the Banks home to serve an arrest warrant. Banks shot Prescott, who died instantly. The insurgency faded away after Banks’ imprisonment.
In 1934, when it came time to award the Pulitzer Prize for "meritorious public service," the judges selected the Medford Mail Tribune for "its campaign against unscrupulous politicians in Jackson County, Oregon."
The building at which the fatal shooting occurred, the Root-Banks House, still stands today on the northwest corner of Main and Peach streets. The Pulitzer gold medal hangs in the Publisher’s office at the Mail Tribune.
As the nation began to prosper again after the Depression, Medford was eager for a new opportunity. President Roosevelt’s New Deal brought Medford’s first federal stimulus funds, and the 1940s brought World War II to the Rogue Valley.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated several New Deal programs to solve the immediate problem of relief for the unemployed. Among these, the Civilian Conservation Corps played an important role in combating Southern Oregon’s economic crisis. Between 1933 and 1941, the CCC put young men to work on fire suppression, road construction and park development. A CCC camp on the slopes of Medford’s Roxy Ann Peak worked to turn the peak into a park, among other projects. Construction materials purchased from local businesses helped keep Medford’s economy afloat.
As the 1930s continued, growing tensions in Europe and Asia brought a need for military preparedness in America. In early 1941 an article in the Medford Mail Tribune announced that the War Department was considering the “Agate Desert,” the area north of Medford, for an army training facility. An intense lobbying effort by Medford and county officials pointed out that the area’s flat topography would be perfect for the buildings and parade grounds the army would need. The Medford Corporation's lumber mill could provide the lumber, and Medford’s rail and air connections could provide the access to the outside world. A large architectural firm was set up in the Medford Armory and got busy designing the plans.
Three days after the engineering office finished plans for the Medford camp, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. War was declared on December 7, 1941, and one month later the camp in Medford received the green light. Medford transformed into a military town.
Work proceeded around the clock under huge lights. Traffic on Crater Lake Avenue was so heavy it was converted to a one way road coming out from Medford, with Table Rock Road becoming the one way road going the other direction. What we now call the Crater Lake Highway was built by the Army to take the load off Table Rock Road during construction. More than 10,000 workers flooded into the area, many living in trailers and tent cities.
On September 15, 1942, the camp was officially dedicated as “Camp George A. White” after the former adjutant general of the Oregon National Guard, who had recently died. Camp White became the second largest city in the state. It covered 77 square miles and trained 40,000 troops at a time.
Camp White trained the Army’s 96th Division as well as engineering, medical, and artillery units between 1942 and 1945. But Camp White was first the home of the 91st "Fir Tree" Division under Major General Charles Gerhardt.
Under Gerhardt’s tough leadership and the rugged conditions of the Rogue Valley’s mountainous landscape, heavy forests and arid plains, Camp White earned the nickname of the “Alcatraz" of training camps.
Medford became the recreation center for those 40,000 trainees, requiring conversion of buildings into three separate USOs, one of them among the largest on the West Coast. Medford volunteers kept the soldiers busy with dances and socials, and in 1942 local families began an “Adopt-a-Soldier” program, inviting servicemen to their homes for “a real honest-to-goodness home-cooked meal.”
The Army Air Corps took over the city airport, and skies above Medford also buzzed with wartime activities, as did the radio airways. The war gave radio station KMED the opportunity to program from, and for, the large military community at Camp White. Sgt. Jimmy Dunlevy served as MC for the many programs broadcast over NBC from Camp White. Dunlevy became the “voice of Camp White.” He stayed on after the war, continuing as a radio personality and eventually was elected Mayor of Medford, and served two terms.
In the wake of Camp White, prosperity returned to Medford. After the war, the federal investment in the military cantonment, in wages and in improvements in valley highways and water and waste treatment, help set the area for future growth. Camp White's building core provided the infrastructure for the White City Industrial Park, supporting the post-war expansion of southern Oregon's timber industry. Along with the unincorporated community surrounding the industrial area, the former Camp White area was renamed White City in 1960.
After the war ended, Medford was ready to seize its next opportunity. Another resource from Southern Oregon’s fertile soil allowed business leaders to turn the closure of Camp White into another boom.
The closing of Camp White after World War II provided space for a growing lumber industry that fed the nation's postwar construction boom, milling lumber to build new homes for returning GIs. Timber overtook agriculture as a major economic force in southwestern Oregon, as advancing technology and new roads allowed logging in the high country.
From the 1940s until the mid-’70s, timber production drove Medford’s economy and became a way of life for many residents. Local companies like Medco and Burrill worked alongside large lumber companies such as Georgia-Pacific, U.S. Plywood, and Weyerhaeuser to provide most cutting and lumber production.
Timber companies hired large workforces to log and haul millions of board feet of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and other trees from public and private lands. Timber companies trucked large log shipments to modern milling facilities in Medford for conversion into lumber, plywood, veneer, and other products.
Following earlier patterns of boom and bust, economic and environmental issues in the 1970s and ’80s eventually ended Medford’s timber reign. Southern Oregon’s timber industry changed markedly following implementation of long-term forest planning programs and the placement of the northern spotted owl on the endangered species list.
Massive reduction in the federal timber harvest resulted in slashed revenue for timber companies, and mills closed throughout the region. Since 1980, at least twenty sawmills, veneer, or plywood mills have shut down in Southern Oregon, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.
But another industry that had seen a more modest boom after World War II continued to gain in economic viability for Medford and Southern Oregon.
Thousands of additional visitors explored southwestern Oregon destinations in the years following World War II. Passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 and subsequent listing of the Rogue, Illinois, Chetco, and North Fork Smith rivers raised public awareness and recreational use of these waterways. Visitors flock to these river canyons to fish for salmon and steelhead, raft the white water, camp, and hike. Tourists take mail boat day trips and jet boat excursions up the Rogue River.
In recent years, protection of wild and scenic areas has grown as more people recognize the importance of natural resource preservation to the area’s beauty, livability, and economy. Debate continues, however, between conservation proponents, property-rights advocates, and timber industry representatives over wild areas and wetlands.
Creating little debate is the expanding Southern Oregon wine industry, estimated as a $100 million business.
Medford and the surrounding region has approximately 150 vineyards growing over 40 different varieties of grapes. The Rogue Valley’s rich soil is ideal for Bordelaise, Rhone, and Burgundian varietals. And unlike the rest of Oregon, the region has also enjoyed success with the two rare varietals Tempranillo, the red grape known best as the foundation of Spanish Rioja, and Viognier, a white grape previously found only in isolated parts of the Rhone region.
Always proud of its character as a forward-looking city, after World War II downtown Medford wholeheartedly embraced the new ultramodern International Style. For good or bad, art deco and the interstate changed the face of downtown Medford, bringing new growth and new challenge.
Medford is only thirty years younger than Jacksonville, and at one time the two towns looked much the same. Jacksonville, however, could never keep pace with Medford’s economic growth--and with prosperity comes the commercial imperative to keep up with the times. Medford always strove to be modern or, better, ultramodern. The architectural trend started before World War II, when New Deal redevelopment funds helped building owners modernize and streamline their outmoded architecture with new styles like Art Deco and Chicago Style.
After several stops and restarts, southern Oregon’s railroad passenger service finally ended in 1955, as America turned to the automobile. In the late 1950s Medford pushed hard to be on the route of the new “Interstate Highway,” even lobbying to have it built through the center of town. Business leaders argued that, of all the alternative routes, the downtown route would remove the least orchard land from production. In 1964 Interstate 5 and the Viaduct were completed adjacent to downtown Medford, replacing the old Pacific Highway, and the freeway became the main route through the valley.
Then in 1986, the Rogue Valley Mall opened. Major retail stores that anchored downtown moved to the Mall. Downtown became a place of decline and empty spaces. Downtown revitalization became another challenge for Medford.
In the 1990s, the Medford Urban Renewal Agency was formed to meet this challenge. MURA, in cooperation with business and property owners, dedicated an appreciable amount of resources to urban renewal in an attempt to revitalize the downtown area.
Part of its vision was to protect the historic buildings and promote downtown vitality. MURA created a popular façade improvement program to help owners restore their buildings.
Several old buildings were restored, including the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater. MURA built new sidewalks, traffic signals, and bicycle lanes. Parking garages were built. Downtown Medford also received a new library building to replace the historic Medford Carnegie Library and now boasts satellite campuses for both Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University
In 1997, Medford’s downtown district was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places and was accepted.
Today economic, environmental, and political conflicts again bring challenge and opportunity. These aren't the first challenging times Medford has faced. Throughout its history Medford has always kept its face to the future, looking for that new opportunity in the midst of the challenge.
As Medford meets today's challenges, we can maintain our town’s enterprising history by keeping one eye to how the people of Medford met the challenges of the past. Now it’s up to us to decide what we want Medford to be.
Looking around us this gray afternoon, 127 years after Medford got its start, at the tall buildings and the self-propelled vehicles on our paved streets, it would be easy to mislead ourselves into thinking that all this was inevitable, that all it really took was a start, a beginning, and Medford would just build itself. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Medford was never a foregone conclusion. Medford is here for one reason only, and that's through the vision and sacrifice of our predecessors, the people who lived here before us, who saw opportunities or made opportunities, and worked and sacrificed to make them real.
It started in 1883, when the railroad was looking for a place to put what Jacksonville called "our depot." Actually putting the depot in Jacksonville, up next to the hills, was out of the question. Central Point was the logical place; Central Point is actually closer to Jacksonville than was this brush-covered spot in the middle of nowhere. But the good farmers of Central Point were reluctant to give the Oregon & California Railroad the incentives and inducements--what they called back then the "bonus"--that the railroad needed to pay for the expensive proposition of laying track through their part of the state.
There was no town on the site of Medford in those days, there were only two farmers, Ide Phipps and Charley Broback, who lived along what we now call Riverside Avenue--the county road, the old Applegate Trail, the old Siskiyou Trail. And those two had the vision to see the opportunity and the willingness to make a sacrifice to realize that vision. They approached the railroad with an offer: We'll give you 20 acres for your depot, and if you survey a town we'll give you every other block to sell.
The O&C railroad couldn't pass this up. They built the depot, in the middle of Seventh Street, and a small town immediately grew up around it. This doesn't mean that the question of whether Medford would survive was settled. Because the new town had a small problem, and that problem was that people couldn't get to it in the winter. Before paved roads, it wasn't uncommon for the axle of your wagon to drag on the surface of the mud for much of your trip to town. It wasn't uncommon for a wagon to get stuck in the mud, the horses exhausted. The driver would have to abandon the wagon and ride the muddy team to town. The roads were so bad that buildings in early Medford were built from lumber milled near Grants Pass--because it was easier to haul lumber 30 miles by rail than a few miles over muddy roads.
The roads were so bad that, since Jacksonville residents could barely get to Medford, and Central Point didn't have a depot, people started having their freight delivered at Phoenix. The issue of whether there would ever really be a Medford was in doubt. So the little town of Medford set about improving their road to the county seat of Jacksonville. It took them years to do it--in the days when every single speck of gravel had to be shoveled into the wagon by hand--but they did it.
And Medford grew. And other challenges and opportunities presented themselves. When George Horatio Chick came to town with the idea to build a gold ore smelter, he didn't have to built it on Fir Street in Medford. But no other town would offer him the bonus he asked. Medford did, and Medford got the smelter. Turned out, however, that Chick was somewhat of a charlatan, and the investors lost their shirts, but Medford profited nevertheless. Because of that failed smelter Medford gained the reputation as an enterprising town, a forward-looking town--so when Ansel Davis came to the valley with the ambition to build a flour mill, he came to Medford. Medford gave him incentives, and he built his mill in Medford, over on the corner of Ninth and Front. William Barnum came to the valley and wanted to build a planing mill, so he came to Medford. Medford gave him his bonus, and he built his planing mill over by the creek.
But the issue of Medford's survival was again in doubt when Jacksonville finally scraped the money together to build their own railroad, to connect their struggling town to the main line. By this time Central Point had a depot too, and Central Point was closer to Jacksonville. Medford was second in the running. If that line had been built to Central Point, Central Point would have sucked the life out of Jacksonville instead of Medford, Central Point would have become the metropolis of the valley, and we'd be standing in the Central Point Carnegie library today instead of in Medford. But Medford was the only town that came up with a bonus to secure that railroad from Jacksonville, the tracks of which ran right down the middle of Eighth Street behind us. A $35,000 bonus. In 1890 dollars. Worth about a million dollars today.
I could go on. Medford has met other challenges and opportunities. The challenge of finding a water source, which we finally found 31 miles away in the mountains. The challenge of establishing the state's first municipal airport. The challenge of bringing Camp White here and not only surviving its closure, but turning its closure into an opportunity for industry.
These are difficult times in 2010, but they aren't the first difficult times Medford has faced. I like to say that it's interesting how once a culture gets established it just doesn't change, no matter how much time or how many people flow through. Throughout its 127 years Medford has always kept its face to the future. The people of Medford have always looked for opportunity in Medford's challenges, and they've found it. As we meet today's challenges, we need to keep one eye to the future. And you and I need to decide what we want Medford to be, and what we are willing to sacrifice to get it.
Ben Truwe, delivered at the Carnegie Library, February 24, 2010, on the occasion of Medford’s 125th anniversary
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY.
The city of Medford stands in the center of a high valley between the Cascade and the Coast ranges in the southwest corner of the state of Oregon, the valley itself lying about thirty miles from the Oregon-California boundary and about seventy-five miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The valley floor is about fourteen hundred feet in elevation, about fifty miles in extent in any direction, and is surrounded by mountains varying in height from foothills to five thousand feet. The valley is drained by the Rogue River, which rises in the summit of the Cascades near Crater Lake, and takes its name from the river.
During the early westward movements the valley lay in the path of migration, and in the [early 'fifties] pioneers, attracted by the great fertility of the soil, took up the first donation claims. The first influx of numbers of people took place in 1851 with the discovery of gold in the western foothills. A mushroom mining town sprang up which was given the name of Jacksonville, and millions of dollars in gold dust were weighed in the scales of the old United States Hotel and the Beekman Bank. In the course of a generation, buildings were erected of such permanence as to be still in use. This town on the side of the valley stood on the main line of travel over the stage and post roads from California north, from the Willamette Valley south, and also from the Klamath Valley west.
As the natural resources of western Oregon were developed the [Oregon & California Railroad] began building from the north and from the south toward the Rogue River Valley. The thriving town of Jacksonville, either failing to see the commercial advantage of deflecting the railroad to a course within its limits, or considering it a ruthless, noisy invader greedy for gain, refused to grant a right of way. [The preceding sentence is supposition; see here and here.] Finally, in 1883, about twenty acres of privately owned land out in the center of the valley were offered to the [Oregon & California Railroad], were accepted, and the railroad built straight across the valley from the opening at the northwest to the high Siskiyou Pass a little to the southeast. About this right of a way a townsite of eighty-one acres was laid out, alternate blocks being held by the [Oregon & California Railroad] and four private holders.
This was the origin of the present city of Medford. The first incorporation as a town was two years later, in 1885. The railroad company sold and gave away their holdings, [some of] the old churches, for example, standing on land thus given. These four holders of the original townsite, together with some other pioneer families, and their descendants, carry down the historical traditions of Medford and the Rogue River Valley to the present generation and to the hundreds of newcomers. There is a pioneer association and a distinct interest in everything pertaining to the events of the earlier days and the people who were active in the upbuilding of the valley.
The development of orchards began immediately, and many a fortune drained away in the planting of trees and in the years of waiting for them to bear. Grain and hay were staple crops from the beginning, while the mines at Jacksonville and Gold Hill and the timber at Butte Falls formed a still more substantial economic raison d'etre of the new town. [Butte Falls timber couldn't be tapped until it was reached by the Pacific & Eastern Railroad in 1910. Until the 1920s, Medford's only lumber mills were either box mills or planing mills.] It continued to grow and in 1905 was incorporated as a city.
Excerpt, E. Fay Woolsey, "A Survey of the Library Services of the City of Medford, Oregon," 1931. Jackson County Library.
Last revised October 18, 2011