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Local historians remember Atwood's impact on region

Fans of Southern Oregon history are mourning the loss of Kay Atwood, who brought the past alive through exhaustive research and vividly written books.

Katherine "Kay" Conlee Atwood, 71, passed away at her Ashland home on Saturday.

Born in Bakersfield, Calif., Atwood earned degrees in theater design and theater before moving to Ashland in 1969 to work for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She soon began preparing exhibits for the Southern Oregon Historical Society and eventually became a history consultant and author.

"Kay had an amazing impact," said historic preservation consultant George Kramer of Kramer & Company in Ashland. "She was able to take history in Southern Oregon and transform it from dry and dusty things in a library into books people bought and read and enjoyed."

Whether writing or speaking before audiences of all ages, Atwood had an approachable style but still managed to convey large volumes of information, Kramer said.

She wrote about everything from settlement along the lower Rogue River to the medical profession in Jackson County to Chinese people in Southern Oregon.

"It's hard to write about Southern Oregon without citing Kay Atwood," Kramer said. "Kay is probably the best known figure in Southern Oregon history in the last 30 years. She was the experts' expert. I would call Kay up and she just knew the answers. She was incredibly generous with providing that knowledge."

A skilled researcher, Atwood could find documents and discover the most obscure details, such as how many chickens a settler owned and how much he had paid for his horses, Kramer said.

Kramer said if a subject piqued Atwood's curiosity, she would research it and write a book.

Her books include "Mill Creek Journal: Ashland, Oregon 1850-1860," "Illahee: The Story of Settlement in the Rogue River Canyon" and, most recently, "Chaining Oregon: Surveying the Public Lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855."

Atwood opened her early history of Ashland with a murder mystery. Dr. David Sisson, owner of land that would become key property in the developed town of Ashland, was shot and killed in 1858.

His daughter was only 8 days old at the time of the murder, but 21 years later, she accused noted Ashland pioneer Abel Helman of having a financial interest in having her father killed. A lawsuit she filed was dismissed.

Although the case was never solved, Atwood discovered a letter from an eyewitness who was afraid to name the person he saw fleeing from the murder scene — perhaps because the person behind the murder was a powerful figure in Ashland.

In her book about the Rogue River Canyon, Atwood detailed the hardships, isolation and deadly floods faced by miners, packers, farmers and families in the 1860s.

"She was a great storyteller. She blended facts with human interest and told about common people," said Kathy Enright, registrar for the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Atwood served as a mentor for other researchers, showing them how to dig deeper and search for information rather than making assumptions, Enright said.

"She would look in out-of-the-way places. She would connect the dots. She wasn't satisfied with one resource," Enright said.

Ashland historian Terry Skibby said Atwood's work will be preserved forever in the books she wrote.

"We're lucky she's put it down in books," he said. "It is a loss. It's sad she's gone. She will be missed."

Reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Local historians remember Atwood's impact on region