The roots of Ashland's beautiful Lithia Park, the first public park in Southern Oregon, trace back to the mid-1800s when the city was founded. That's when (folklore has it) a Chinese cook, working for the owner of the flour mill on Ashland Creek, planted a giant Tree-of-Heaven he had brought over from the Orient. The tree stood for nearly a century and a half before it had to be cut down in March 2006 because it was dying from disease.
But setting aside land for what would become today's park, with its 98 acres of green grass, placid ponds, wondrous woodlands and peaceful paths that draw nearly half a million visitors annually, didn't happen until summer 1892.
The city was already 40 years old, having been established in 1852 on donation land claims. In her 1986 booklet on the history of the park, historian Marjorie O'Harra noted that miners and settlers wanted to create a community offering schools, churches and all the amenities of society.
Grants Pass Methodist minister J.B. Smith apparently figured the good people of Ashland could also use a little intellectual nourishment. With a core group of 45 people, he was instrumental in forming the Southern Oregon Chautauqua Association in September 1892.
Smith sold a bond issue of $2,500 to purchase eight acres that are now home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Using lumber delivered from Grants Pass, a large volunteer army built a domed wooden building big enough to hold 1,000 people to hear summer lectures from the likes of William Jennings Bryan and rousing entertainment from John Philip Sousa.
In 1903, Ashlander J.K. Van Sant was elected superintendent of grounds for the Chautauqua property. He started landscaping.
The following year the Ladies' Chautauqua Club formed. Working closely with Van Sant, the women began maintaining the property.
"The park-like area that the club had developed was opened to the general public and, in reality, became Ashland's first city park," longtime Ashland Parks Commissioner Charles Eldon Scripter wrote in a 1975 article for the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
"It was the first park in Southern Oregon and was used for all public celebrations," he added. "As a result of this the park soon became heavily used and Ashland was soon known not only for its Chautauqua entertainment but for its beauty."
In 1908, at the urging of the Woman's Civic Improvement Club, city residents voted to create a park commission and to tax themselves for its improvements and maintenance. The city property bordering Ashland Creek from the Plaza to the national forest reserve was dedicated forever as a park. An additional 40 acres was also purchased for the park.
The park was formally dedicated July 4, 1916, during a three-day celebration that drew more than 50,000 people.
When America began to hit the highways, the park was the site of an automobile campground where thousands could park and stay for free.
By 1925, care of the park was turned over to the Ashland Parks Commission.
In 1935, college professor Angus Bowmer added three days of Shakespearean plays to the annual Fourth of July celebration, drawing park visitors to the small beginning of Ashland's festival.
In 1937, Chet Corry was named park superintendent, launching a 32-year career of care for the public park. He would trek into the local mountains looking for native shrubs and trees for the park. He also traveled the world seeking exotic additions.
The result is everything from local incense cedar to deodar cedar from the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a monkey puzzle tree from Chile to an ancient ginkgo from China.
But as local residents built upon the park, Mother Nature periodically threw a couple of curve balls. The 1974 Christmas flood sent melted snowpack raging through Ashland Creek, damaging the park and the plaza. The 1997 New Year's Day flood also eroded portions of the park.
But it was restored each time. Recent repairs included construction of a creek culvert and a bridge aimed at withstanding future floods.
The park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 for its outstanding example of distinctive American landscape architecture.