Butte Falls students pen town's history

Photos and displays of the city's logging heyday will be displayed around Medford
Butte Falls Charter School ninth-grade students, from left, Kyleigh Nelms, Dakota Keuchel, Hanna Kuykendall and Ryan Buma, sit in front of their history project on Tuesday in Butte Falls.

BUTTE FALLS — Using oral histories and artifacts from local residents, along with photos and display cases from the Southern Oregon Historical Society, the ninth-grade students of Butte Falls Charter School have created a history of their tiny city, to be displayed in prominent spots around Medford.

Months of hard work, research and writing display cards have produced a profile of the 103-year-old town that is centered around a job-rich lumber mill and a state-run fish hatchery, both now gone, says student Tony Tacchini — and the jobs with them.

The main relic in the display is a choker, used to loop around big logs so they could be dragged to a logging deck for the trip to the mill. There, they would be sawn into boards and studs for the building of houses. The choker and a bull hook (part of the choker chain) came from LeRoy Thompson, who worked for Owen Oregon, which ran the mill, says Tacchini, in rapt fascination with the huge and rusting objects.

The mill necessitated a railroad spur to Medford and, he explains, it ran right through where his garage is now. Part of the display is a rusty railroad spike he found by his driveway. The railroad is also long gone.

Another town resident donated an ancient double-bitted ax that was abandoned when it got stuck in a tree, he adds.

The crown jewel of the display is a carved-wood bas-relief called "The Rigging Crew," which shows three men wrestling an old-growth tree to the logging deck. It's by Bill Edmondson, a local artist featured in the E.W. Smith & Bill Edmondson Museum in Butte Falls.

"This was a lot of work. It was our final for regional research," says Hanna Kuykendall, adding that much information came from "Medford Corporation, a History," by retired U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Jeff LaLande, and from a huge box of photos loaned by SOHS as part of its "History Made By You" program.

The display, in two large cases from SOHS, details artifacts from the Takelma and Klamath tribes, which inhabited the region for thousands of years. Much settlement happened after President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1862 Homestead Act, granting adults 160 acres if they settled the land and built a house.

Many did, said Buma, often leaving the bark on the trees of their hastily built cabins so they could market them as soon as possible to timber companies.

The exhibit shows photos of the 1910 Cat Hill Burn, which scorched 12,000 acres and took the lives of firefighters from the U.S. Army.

"We learned a lot about our history, especially logging," says student Ryan Buma, who researched that subject.

"We learned about the mill and how the owner was so in debt that he sold it all," says Kuykendall. "It sat empty, then became infested with honeybees, so in the 1950s, a bunch of kids went in there to smoke them out but accidentally burned it all down."

Student Kyleigh Nelms researched the Butte Falls Fish Hatchery, run by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, noting, "It was a big part of our town and provided a lot of jobs. People were upset when it was gone in 2009."

The exhibit will be staged by SOHS in several spots, including the Medford airport and Medford library. The teacher for the class was Joe Sixta.

The "History Made By You" program, overseen by Amy Drake of SOHS, provides research, displays and locations, she says. This exhibit will be at the airport July to mid-August and the Medford library from mid-August through September.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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