Called "the matriarch and patriarch" of one of the Rogue Valley's leading families, John "Red" and Eleanor Isola have left a colorful swath of history throughout Southern Oregon, Nevada and Northern California, culminating with the Isola Memorial Arena at the Jackson County Expo in Central Point.
The second largest horse arena in the Western United States (behind Reno's), the venue pays homage to a couple who were dedicated to family and community.
With roots reaching back to Red's early days in Oakland, Calif., where he commandeered a garbage wagon pulled by two old nags, the Isolas had been on the lookout for projects that could establish their family in the Rogue Valley, says granddaughter Toni Isola-Bayer of Eagle Point.
Red and Eleanor made their fortune in Las Vegas, where they rode the wave of its sudden boom as a gambling town in the 1940s.
The Isolas were owners of the only solid waste disposal business in southern Nevada.
His newfound success allowed Red to retire to a gentleman's ranch near Eagle Point dubbed Riverfront Farms. Each summer the Isolas' grandchildren would visit. Isola-Bayer, who moved to the ranch permanently with her husband and two daughters eight years ago, remembers those vacations fondly.
"Getting us out of the Las Vegas heat was our parents' major priority," she says. "We're a large, extremely close Italian family and our grandfather was very generous and loved to entertain and our grandmother was a wonderful cook who loved to take care of everybody."
Riverfront Farms quickly became the retreat for family gatherings, reunions, weddings and graduations. "And Red loved horses and decided we needed a horse because he had a ranch," says Isola-Bayer.
Then 8 years old, Isola-Bayer fell in love with riding, spending days trotting around the property's dirt trails. Soon her love turned into a passion for which she showed much promise. Within four years, Isola-Bayer was a national Arabian horse show champion; another four years found her sitting at the top of international competitions. Red encouraged her horsewomanship by being a diehard advocate for local children's programs.
"Part of our summer ritual was going to the county fair, buying steers and pigs, and my grandparents were very supportive of the local 4-H and kids in the valley," Isola-Bayer says. "And my dad, even though we didn't live here after my grandparents passed on, made sure somebody from the family was at the fair every year."
In 1998, 11 years after their family's matriarch and patriarch had died, the Isola clan sold the Las Vegas-based waste disposal business, turning part of the proceeds into the Red and Eleanor Isola Memorial Fund. A year later, having been approached by the Friends of the Fair Foundation, the family made a contribution of $700,000 from the fund to build the 1,500-seat, 37,000-square-foot Isola Memorial Arena, which is used for year-round equestrian events. The decision was based on Isola-Bayer's equestrian hobby and her late grandparents' support of community-minded, outdoor activities.
"It was my father, Richard Isola, who donated the money for the arena; he was Red and Eleanor's only son," Isola-Bayer explains. "When my grandparents passed away, we wanted to do something in the Rogue Valley because they loved it here so much."
Since Isola-Bayer moved with her husband and two daughters to Riverfront Farms in 1999, her mother, father, brother and his family have all converged to the area. To make way, the Isolas expanded the ranch from 45 to just over 200 acres and have split it into three lots, one for each family.
It is here, on the land first purchased by Red, that the Isolas carry on their patriarch's love of horses and family. Isola-Bayer still shows occasionally and her daughters are enthusiastic riders.
Seventeen-year-old Sara is a world finalist in showing quarterhorses and has been the Oregon State All-Around Champion several times. Her 14-year-old sister, Samantha, was two-time champion at this year's All-American QuarterHorse Congress held in Columbus, Ohio, and has received offers from Division I schools to attend and be part of their equestrian teams.
"It has been incredible," says Isola-Bayer. "It would have never happened without my grandfather moving here, getting the ranch and the horses. They always had fun and lived a great life and they were able to leave us with so much."
Although founding the arena has opened up networking opportunities in the horse show world for the Isolas, the family's main motivation for building the venue was to attract economic benefit to the region.
"It's been one of the most significant contributions we've ever received," says Chris Borovansky, director of the Jackson County Fairgrounds and Expo in Central Point. "We depend a lot on equestrian events and, during the fair, we have 4-H horse shows. Before the Isolas contributed the funds to cover the arena, the kids were having a tough time being out there for hours on end under the hot summer Southern Oregon sun."
Not only regional 4-H and Future Farmers of America members and their animals enjoy the shade and space, says Borovansky. For two years following the arena's completion, it drew the Oregon Reined Cowhorse Olympics, a high-profile working horse show that was broadcast over ESPN and brought more than $2 million annually into the community. And each summer, the venue hosts one of the largest quarterhorse shows in the country.
"Our kids are lucky enough to ride there, but it's not just a fair facility — it's used virtually every weekend during the summer," says Borovansky. "It's a tremendous contribution to the whole region."
Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Central Point. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.