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John Wayne slept here

SELMA — His lever-action Winchester rifle in his hand, the Duke greets visitors in the spacious living room at the Deer Creek Ranch.

While the cardboard cutout may seem incongruous at first to newcomers to what is now home to the fledgling Deer Creek Center for Field Research and Education, it is appropriate: The late actor John Wayne was once part owner of the historic ranch.

"He's our ice-breaker — everyone who comes here has something to say about John Wayne," said Sue Parrish, executive director of the Siskiyou Field Institute.

The institute and Southern Oregon University are acquiring the 850-acre spread with its 6,000-square-foot ranch house where Wayne once slept to create a nonprofit, scientific center bordering Deer Creek just west of Selma.

The goal is to create a facility where all people are welcome, be they botanists or bulldozer operators, stressed Donna Chickering, the center's development coordinator.

"The center is for education, not for activism," she said. "We want as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible to become involved. We want people of all ages, all socioeconomic backgrounds. Part of the learning process is learning from one another."

Made possible by a $3 million anonymous donation, the purchase of the property will provide an ideal site for research and field classes, giving SOU a much-needed field station, Parrish said.

Since it was founded a decade ago, the institute has worked closely with the university, offering natural history courses each spring and summer with many taught by SOU professors, she noted.

The center will fulfill a strong recommendation in the last external review of SOU's science departments to establish a field station to allow students to conduct research in the field, said Joe Graf, dean of sciences.

"When the institute started talking about this facility, it felt like a win-win for us since we do have a strong field-based biology program," said Graf, who is also president of the center's 10-member board.

"We will be able to work together in a place where we can develop the research plots," he added. "We will have control of the land for ongoing teaching and research projects."

In the past, the university's research plots have been at the mercy of private property owners or public agencies where the use of the land could change in mid-research, he explained.

The land has a variety of environments in which to study. Eight Dollar Mountain, which rises some 5,000 feet to the immediate south, has serpentine soils, including darlingtonia fens. Some of the area has been logged. Other sections were burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire.

"It is a wonderful spot to study and teach science," he said. "But we also want to get our business school involved as well as education and social sciences. I see this as an excellent opportunity for all of us."

Some of the research projects already under way include a botanical survey of the entire ranch by an SOU graduate student for his thesis. Another graduate student from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., is developing an alternative energy plan for the center. Still another graduate student from the University of California-Davis is resampling the serpentine areas that a scientist first sampled around 1950.

However, there is also an effort to work with junior high and high school students from the Illinois Valley.

"We want to engage students from the area in the research that will be happening at the center," Parrish said. "What happened before is that scientists from around the world would come here and study this place because it is unusual. But there have been no facilities that support their research.

"So they would gather their data and go somewhere," she added. "This community would never hear anything about their research."

The point, said Parrish, who has a master's degree in wilderness psychology, is that the center would provide a support facility where the information can be shared locally.

"It will help the public understand what research is, why it is done and how it is utilized," said Chickering, who has a master's degree in outdoor education and wildland recreation management. "Most people who don't live near universities and who aren't involved in academia don't understand that."

There is also a conscious effort to link the sciences with the culture, Parrish said.

"We tend to make a separation between cultural history and natural history in our culture," she said. "I think that is a mistake. Cultural history and natural history are intertwined. We all live here. One of the things I love about this place is that it brings the two together in a strong and profound way."

John Wayne, who would have turned 100 on May 22, is part of the local culture. The actor apparently grew fond of southwestern Oregon while filming "Rooster Cogburn," the 1975 western featuring co-star Katharine Hepburn that was filmed along the Rogue River.

"This was one of his getaway places," Parrish said. "We had some guys fixing the heater system who said they had been fixing it a long time ago when he was here. They were sitting on the floor eating their lunch. He told them, 'You boys don't have anywhere to sit.'

"They came in the next day and there was a brand new picnic table with benches for them to sit on during lunch," she added.

Among the interesting features in the ranch house is a huge bathroom off Chickering's office that includes a porcelain bidet.

"My thought was we should find out if John Wayne actually used some of these things and sell them on e-Bay and pay for all the new fixtures," Parrish said, half-seriously.

"There is a level of elegance that is really nice in some of the rooms but not really functional for large groups," she added.

Wayne and business partner George "Chick" Iverson bought the ranch in the mid-1970s from Bill and Sally Thayer, according to Carol Thayer of White Salmon, Wash. A 1972 graduate of Illinois Valley High School, she was one of the Thayers' six children.

Her parents had purchased the ranch in 1967, she said in a telephone interview. She met Wayne briefly.

"He was very polite, very quiet," she recalled. "My mom loved him. She wasn't one to ogle but she ogled him. He played a game of chess with my little brother Billy (a future lawyer). John Wayne won."

It was a working ranch where they raised about 500 cattle, said Carol Thayer, who became a registered nurse.

"We really enjoyed those years at the ranch — our family grew very close there," she said. "Our parents are thrilled with what is happening to the ranch now. It's so peaceful for Dad to know it will be preserved."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

The front porch of the house overlooks a large pasture. Jim Craven 3/13/2007