Before our beautiful Ashland, Oregon was the thriving city we know today, the land was home to the Shasta people dating back over 7,000 years. It was a typical tribe of hunters and gatherers, focusing on hunting elk, deer, and other small animals while also fishing for salmon and shellfish and gathering nuts, seeds, and berries. Years of working the land led to the formation of trails that they frequented while on the hunt, which was later used by trappers and hunters who arrived in the area in the early 1800s.
More and more newcomers began to pass through the area as the wild west was being explored. Early Hudson’s Bay Company hunters and trappers followed the Siskiyou Trail passing through the site in the 1820s. American settlers following the Applegate Trail passed through the area again in the 1840s, and by the early 1850s, the Donation Land Claim Act brought many settlers into the Rogue Valley. However, this would not be without conflict with violent clashes among settlers and the Native Tribes that would continue until 1856 and become known as the Rogue River Wars.
The rush to settle in the area intensified in 1851 when gold was discovered at Rich Gulch that would cause a tent city to grow on its bank and become what is today Jacksonville. Abel D. Helman and Robert B. Hargadine left their home in Ashland County, Ohio, thinking they might strike it rich after learning of the gold. They arrived in January of 1852, and they quickly found out it wasn’t as easy as they thought after several failed attempts to strike gold.
Helman remembered passing what looked to be a fertile valley on his travels to the area, and the duo doubled back to the location soon after, filing the first donation land claims in what would become Ashland. Together they decided that supplying miners would be far more lucrative than actually mining itself and built a lumber mill on the ruins of the Shasta village. Thus, the city began as Ashland Mills as a community was built around Helman’s sawmill and flour mill built on Mill Creek, which is now known as Ashland Creek. Eventually, a post office was added in Ashland Mills in 1855, with Helman taking on the job of postmaster.
During this year in the city’s early history, Helman donated 12 building sites around the mill to create a central business district. Since then, The Plaza has always been a significant hub for the city’s gatherings and activities. The community continued to grow during the 1860s and into the 1870s, with a school, churches, businesses, and a large employer added to the mix. The employer was Ashland Woolen Mills which produced clothing and blankets from local wool, giving many community members a stable job and income other than mining.
As the city grew, it eventually outgrew its name of Ashland Mills in 1871, and the post office decided to drop the “Mills” from the title. Now that the city’s primary needs were taken care of with the addition of businesses, a thread began to weave within the town that would lead it into the future. Focused shifted to culture and education. In 1872 Reverend J. H. Skidmore opened a college called Ashland Academy, a predecessor to Southern Oregon University. Students, faculty, and staff would contribute to the Ashland region’s economy, culture, and educational and intellectual development for decades to come. Work on a library followed suit in 1879, with the Ashland Library and Reading Room Association, and in 1912 the Carnegie Library was built and still serves the city today.
Ashland further solidified its role as the state’s cultural center by hosting southern Oregon’s annual Chautauqua festival in the 1890s. When the traveling Chautauqua arrived, many people from the surrounding rural areas descended upon the town to participate in the festivities. This cultural movement featured speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and humorists of the day. This festival would be held in Ashland for the next two decades in an impressive beehive-shaped building overlooking what later became Lithia Park.
The Ganiard Opera House was built in 1889 following the festival as citizens had been exposed to many plays during the ten-day extravaganza and were thirsty for more. It quickly became known as the finest opera house between San Francisco and Portland, further solidifying Ashland’s cultural impact on the newly developing wild west.
The discovery of lithia water near Emigrant Lake in the early 1900s further inspired residents in the area. Settlers who initially came out for gold now had other ideas in mind for using the land to their advantage. Native Americans before them had used the lithia mineral water for its “health-giving” properties, often using it on the sick and elderly. A plan was quickly hatched to build a mineral spa at the newly created Ashland Canyon Park, and voters approved the bonds to pay for the project. However, the spa plans proved too expensive for local taxpayers, and the project was subsequently abandoned. However, this didn’t deter local entrepreneurs who took up bottling and selling mineral waters from the area’s springs.
The area would continue to experience times of considerable prosperity as the years continued. The town’s first Shakespeare Festival in 1935 would grow into an award-winning and internationally-known regional theater company. The construction of the Angus Bowmer indoor theater in 1970 would begin to drastically shift the dynamic of the city to a tourism-dominated economy. By the 1990s, Ashland had become a high-end tourism town. Today, Ashland is one of the most religiously diverse communities in the region, with a legacy of counter-culture eccentricities, municipally owned services, and liberal politics. Though it started as a piece of land where Abel Helman rushed off to and struck no gold, the city itself that would develop would prove to be the real gold all along.