A new audio walking tour will give locals and visitors alike a better way to connect with Ashland's colorful history and learn about its many historic buildings.

A new audio walking tour will give locals and visitors alike a better way to connect with Ashland's colorful history and learn about its many historic buildings.

For $7.50, anyone can get a handset from the desk at the Lithia Springs Hotel and follow a mapped tour that includes the Plaza, Lithia Park, and a string of historic homes on Granite Street.

"The Essential Ashland" tour was developed by Paul Christensen, executive director of the nonprofit organization called Ashland Audiowalks and The Imagine Project, and financed with a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was endorsed by the Ashland Historic Commission, Southern Oregon Historical Society and Southern Oregon Visitors Association.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg, who made the inaugural tour, described it as "fabulous."

"It really tells our story, even for people who live here," he said.

Stromberg said the tour will help connect successive generations of Ashlanders, including newcomers who need to be knitted into the fabric of what came before them.

The route can be covered at any pace. A button on the handset starts and stops the narration at each numbered site.

The tour is narrated by Michael J. Hume, a veteran Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor. The text minces no words about the displacement of American Indians from the valley and the diseases brought by settlers that killed most of them.

It calls the Ashland pioneers "stickers," people who came to stick with a place, unlike the "boomers," who came to "make a killing and end up on Easy Street."

Christensen said Ashland was settled by conservative farmers from the Midwest, while Jacksonville saw constant change as miners came and went.

"Ashland started with 24 people and, little by little, became a cultural center," he said.

The tour introduces premier pioneer Abel Helman, with text that describes his original homestead claim.

"You're standing on Helman's land claim right now," the narration says. "If you look downhill, you can see a flat stretch of Main Street. A creek runs under the road there..."

The second stop introduces the Plaza and its two big brick buildings, erected after a disastrous fire in 1879 razed half the town's wooden buildings. Townsfolk cleared the debris and built a new town, one that was soon connected with the railroad.

The one-mile tour does what books can't, by putting a listener in the scene with a voice dramatizing the times. Christensen said he wanted people "to get a longer view and a deeper sense of the community going on here."

There are also stops for Ashland's Chautauqua hall and Shakespeare theater, the Lithia band shell, the Butler-Perozzi Fountain and half a dozen homes along Granite Street.

"With this tour, you get to see how our town grew out of the wilderness," said Don Anway, general manager of the Lithia Springs Hotel. "It moves at your own pace and you can stop anytime. It has sound effects of horses and townsfolk from a very creative time."

The audio tour will be available through Nov. 8, then restart in April with two new tours, "Adventures on Main Street" and "The Big, Wide World Comes to Town."

"Adventures on Main Street" first covers Ashland's old opera house, grand hotel, spiritualist society and early department store, along with everything else that happened on Main Street in its first century.

"The Big, Wide World Comes to Town" is about life after the railroad came in 1887, the new fashions and changing attitudes.

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