Seventy-five years ago Angus Bowmer, who taught drama at the Southern Oregon Normal School in Ashland, noticed that the ruins of the old chautauqua building in town resembled an Elizabethan theater. It was 1935, the midst of the Great Depression, but undaunted he approached the City Council to ask if he could present a Shakespeare Festival as part of the Fourth of July celebration.
Money was tight, but the council was intrigued and told him he could spend no more than $400 for the project, and must include boxing matches between plays to boost attendance. For Angus, it was no problem; Elizabethans easily combined their plays and their sports.
Little did the councilmen know what they were unleashing. Today the Oregon Shakespeare Festival lures approximately 400,000 people a year and its budget for the 780 performances given from February to October is in the neighborhood of $25 million. The old chautauqua building has been transformed into a complex covering four acres with three theaters, including an Elizabethan outdoor theater built on the site of the old ruins. The Bard and Bowmer definitely put Ashland on the map.
It’s in the Water
And so did lithium. Yep, that psychotropic drug. There are hot springs near Ashland that contain natural amounts of lithium. People came from far away to bathe in it, and, in fact, one spa still uses the lithium springs for treatments. It was piped down to fountains in the center of town. Since one thing lithium is known for is calming the manic side of bipolar disorder, the locals quip that’s the reason why everyone in Ashland is so mellow. The beautiful park next to the Shakespeare theater complex is called Lithia Park.
Today, Ashland does not lack for spas—they abound, offering pampering for the travel weary—but while everyone tastes the lithium water at the town fountains, very few go back for seconds.
While Shakespeare draws people to Ashland, it’s not the only thing making them stay. In fact, the problem isn’t finding something to do in Ashland and its immediate area, it’s deciding among a host of choices. There are festivals in and around Ashland constantly. In fact, there’s at least one for each month in the year and some like the Shakespeare Festival last for several months.
• January: the Rogue River Blues Festival.
• February: Opening of the Shakespeare Festival.
• March: Chocolate Festival.
• April: Independent Film Festival and the Taste of Ashland.
• May: Lithia Artisans Market begins four-month run of weekly arts and crafts shows.
• June: A Midsummer’s Night Dream Festival.
• July: Fourth of July Celebration. Nearby Medford hosts Oregon Green Expo.
• August: Ashland Hullabaloo.
• September: Varsity Foreign Film Week and Nations Day.
• October: Brews and Boogie Festival.
• November: Food and Wine Classic.
• December: Festival of Lights and Christmas Parade.
In addition to all that, the Britt Festival brings world-class music of all genres to Ashland and the nearby historic town of Jacksonville each summer. And the Ashland Gallery Association sponsors a monthly First Friday Artwalk in the historical downtown and railroad districts.
Visitors are challenged to get bored with all that going on.
Southern Oregon has become a foodie and wine lover’s Mecca. There are gourmet restaurants featuring local products turned into art by well-known chefs, and wine trails in lovely valleys. There are several breweries in the area and if that were not enough, world-famous Dagoba chocolates are made nearby.
For the Gortex Crowd
The area offers a host of outdoor activities: skiing on Mt. Ashland, rafting and jet boating on the Rogue River, fishing everywhere, and bike races, including the Table Rock Road Race. Mountain biking is especially popular, and trail maps are available.
Running is another popular activity, and each year the USA Trail Marathon Run takes place on the Lithia Loop Trail on the same November weekend as the Food and Wine Classic (one guesses that the runners need that refueling after their efforts).
For jet boating, visitors go to Grant’s Pass, north of Ashland. There the Hells Gate boats take people on an exciting ride through Hells Gate Canyon made famous by the Meryl Streep film The River Wild. It’s fast, exuberant and wet.
Rafting trips can range from an afternoon to three or more days, during which rafters camp or stay at the wilderness lodges along the Rogue River. Rogue Wilderness Adventures (wildrogue.com) offers the full gamut.
The area is known for its fishing. There are chinook salmon runs in spring and fall, and steelhead trout fishing offers excitement in the summer. Some RV parks are located near lakes and streams where fishing is available.
For History Buffs
Jacksonville is the historical center of the Rogue Valley. Located just a few miles northwest of Ashland and south of Medford, it was a gold mining town. Some enterprising folks discovered they could grow excellent pears there as well, and when the miners got lonely they advertised for brides back East, promising them an orchard and a Victorian home. To be sure of the latter, they purchased prefabricated homes that came out on the same trains that brought the women to Oregon. These lovely Victorian homes still grace the streets of pretty Jacksonville.
Once the county government was relocated away from Jacksonville, the county courthouse was turned into a museum. Many of the displays are centered on Peter Britt, a photographer, and his work. The world famous Britt Music Festival is named after him.
Ashland was a major shipping center in the heyday of the railroads. While passenger trains no longer come through, the railroad line is now the heart of Ashland’s historic district, with many new shops, cafes, and art studios luring in those strolling its colorful streets.
Another interesting part of the history was the attempt after World War II to create another state made up of southern Oregon and part of northern California. The locals felt they had more in common with each other than the rest of either state. They proposed calling the new state Jefferson. While the states and federal government put an end to the incipient secession, local radio personalities still refer to their locality as Jefferson State, and scientists use the term to refer to the bioregion.
All in all, southern Oregon has much going for it. The beautiful, often snowcapped mountains, and the Rogue River, which is one of the “wild and scenic rivers” protected by Congress, add a beautiful backdrop to the wide diversity of activities available. As I said, you stand no chance of being bored.
Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.