Most masterpieces can be attributed to a single artist, but Lithia Park, which has been dazzling eyeballs for more than a century, is truly an ensemble piece.
The 93-acre gem in the heart of Ashland goes back to the efforts of Grants Pass minister J.B. Smith, who used the land in the 1890s for a series of summer lectures called Chautauquas, a move that brought in the likes of Susan B. Anthony and William Jennings Bryan.
A spin-off from the Chautauqua movement was the Women's Civic Improvement Club, which fought for a tax levy that created a city-owned park in 1908.
About that same time, Bert Greer, owner of the Ashland Tidings — and the man who put "Daily" in the newspaper's name — had a vision to create a health spa focused on the medicinal properties of the park's lithia water. Although the spa never materialized, Greer helped pass the bond to commission esteemed horticulturist John McLaren.
The Scottish-born McLaren, who designed San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, created arguably the most visible pieces of the park's puzzle, including two ponds, a Japanese garden and tennis courts.
Jesse Winburn also gets a spot in the cast credits for purchasing six swans for the park in the early 1920s.
While all these individuals helped birth Southern Oregon's premier city park and nurture it into adolescence, it was during the 33-year tenure of parks superintendent Chester "Chet" Corry, from 1937 to 1969, that Lithia Park matured into the fixture it is today.
Corry was born in Columbia, N.C., and grew up tending his father's orange grove in Glendora, Calif. His experience at Mount Lassen National Park and Portland's Lambert Gardens were the credentials needed to become Ashland's assistant parks superintendent in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression.
"It was a tough time, I tell ya," Corry said in a 1986 interview in the Tidings. "At that time, you'd fall in love with anything that spelled work."
The budget was tight during the early years of Corry's tenure. With no money to hire a crew, he operated the park and fertilized plants by himself using his own beat-up Ford dump truck.
The "assistant" part of his title was dropped in 1937, and as parks superintendent he utilized the Works Progress Administration to help with various construction projects, including installation of irrigation systems and the planting of the park's rose garden.
"I would do everything, even clean restrooms, so the boys would know they could follow and not just be told. It paid off, though. We got along well," he said in 1986.
In the 1940s, Corry faced a different kind of labor shortage.
"During the (World War II) years, we were short on hands to take care of things. I even had to hire a woman lawn mower, but she did a good job."
After the war, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival began drawing more people to Ashland, which increased the park's popularity. But the added attention also began to cause some wear and tear, so he fought for the development of a second recreational park with room for a ball field and parking — Hunter Park — "to keep Lithia Park from being overrun."
Corry's diligence in maintaining the park made him a fixture in the community.
"The council voted to fund whatever Chet Corry needed because he was a man of integrity who did his homework," former councilman David Kerr said in a 1964 interview mentioned in a Southern Oregon Heritage Today article.
Corry retired in 1969, but he remained a consultant until he died in 1989.
"Mr. Corry deserves the majority of the credit for what Lithia Park is today," former parks Superintendent Ken Mickelsen said after Corry's death. "During his tenure, he transformed the park into what it is today."
Three years before Corry's death, the city celebrated his contributions by naming him the grand marshal of the Ashland Fourth of July Parade. The 1986 theme was "Lithia Park: Ashland's Crown Jewel."