We call it the Denman Wildlife Area today, but as impossible as it was to farm, the pioneers always called it the Agate Desert — a worthless wasteland. That gravel plain, littered with agate rocks, spring wildflowers and prairie grasses, might as well have been a real desert in most people's minds.
Nothing much changed until 1942, when the U.S. Army decided that the desert was a perfect location for a military training base. In less than a year, it converted more than 43,000 acres of the Agate Desert into Camp White. The camp deactivated after the war.
Most of buildings were sold and hauled away, except for those that became the Department of Veterans Affairs Domiciliary. The government was then ready to sell the rest of the camp's real estate.
Kenneth Denman, a Medford attorney, conservationist and avid sportsman who had run retriever dogs in the desert ponds before the war, wanted the area set aside as a wildlife preserve and took his case to legislators in Salem.
"My dad thought that it would be a great deal to acquire that property at no cost," said Don Denman. "Even though no one thought that the desert area near White City would ever be worth anything, he thought it might be someday, and he talked the state into it."
The Denmans were in Oregon because of Kenneth Denman's grandfather, Thomas, a native of England who settled in Independence just before 1880. The family stayed there for a few years, then moved to Corvallis.
Thomas Denman was a brick mason by trade, and he and his wife raised four children, all of whom became teachers.
Their youngest son, George Washington Denman, graduated from the Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State University, in 1893. He was an outstanding baseball pitcher and friends remembered him as an "outdoor lover."
In 1901, George, who was then Benton County superintendent of schools, married Minnie Hodes and began to study law. Their second son, Kenneth G., was born in 1904 and one year later, George received his law degree, beginning a practice that would span 45 years.
At 17, as Kenneth Denman was preparing to enter Oregon State in pursuit of his own law degree, his mother died.
Denman continued his studies and after graduating from Willamette University with a law degree in 1930, he married a Salem French teacher, Margaret Bolt. The couple promptly headed south to Medford.
"They didn't really have any ties down here," said Don Denman. "Dad just thought there were some good opportunities for lawyers in Medford and he quickly found a job.
"He really loved the Rogue River, too, because he enjoyed salmon and steelhead fishing so much."
Kenneth Denman quickly took an active part in the community.
He co-founded the Rogue Snowmen, an organization dedicated to skiing that had put together plans for a recreational ski area near today's Mount Ashland ski area.
He helped organize the Rogue River Sportsmen's Club, which later became an affiliate of the Izaak Walton League, a national conservationist group. Denman served as director of both the state and local organizations.
By the end of the 1930s, the Denman family included Don and two daughters, Margaret Ann and Carol.
Kenneth Denman was chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee during World War II, escorting party notables on fishing trips along the Rogue River. But in reality, when it came to fishing, an angler's politics really didn't matter.
In 1944, Oregon Gov. Earl Snell appointed Denman to fill a vacancy on the State Game Commission, now the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. It was only for a year and a half, but it also was just the beginning.
After the war, Charlie Hoover, an old family friend, bought some of the old Camp White property near today's sports park and carved out three manmade ponds filled with runoff irrigation water. It was where the Rogue River Retriever Club trained their dogs and held competitions.
"We had a champion retriever named Kip," said Don Denman. "My dad and I were duck hunting fools and Kip had retrieved many ducks for both of us."
He remembers a day in the early 1950s when his father was running Kip in a competition. The dog must have picked up the wrong scent and "returned the bird to me instead of dad.
"I'll never forget the look in Kip's eyes," Don Denman said with a laugh. "He knew he had made a big mistake. That's a memory of that area and my dad that will always stand out."
Kenneth Denman was reappointed to the Game Commission in 1951 and became chairman a year later. "I have fished and hunted since I was big enough to carry a rod or a firearm," he said then. "I take this responsibility because I am anxious to save these wildlife resources for all of our kids."
In April 1954, Denman accepted the remaining 1,760 acres of Camp White from the federal government for the state. The land was given at no charge to the Game Commission, as long as it was used as a wildlife management area.
Five years later, after 10 years on the Game Commission, Kenneth Denman stepped down, retiring to the outdoor life he loved. Then in September 1962, a month after he had suffered a mild heart attack, he died at his Medford home. He had just turned 58.
There was no doubt who was most responsible for the Rogue River Game Management Area at White City, and so, in March 1963, the area was renamed the Denman Wildlife Area.
Don Denman followed his father's example, became an attorney, and served 91/2; years on the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
"I think we all have an obligation to give something back and help sustain the resources," Don Denman said. "That's been my philosophy for years."
Like father, like son.
Bill Miller is a freelance writer living in Shady Cove. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.