The city that isn't
White City, that thriving industrial complex north of Medford, sprang into being immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew America into World War II.
Though the United States had been reluctant to get dragged into the war, the U.S. Army already had been busy checking out potential sites for a giant camp to train soldiers just in case.
The Agate Desert, as the area was called, had flopped as orchard land and was marginal for ranching, so local businessmen and the Medford Chamber of Commerce promoted it as a training area with every type of terrain — mountains, river (the Rogue), desert, forest — plus it was accessible by rail, highway and plane (with the Medford airport just a few miles away).
The Army loved it, said Ashland historian George Kramer, and within weeks of Pearl Harbor the military had condemned the land for Camp White, named after Adjutant Gen. George White of the Oregon National Guard. The name lives on as White City, and so do the sturdy, rapidly constructed, squarish military buildings that now house Jackson County roads and parks crews.
After the war, many of those handy structures also went to area schools, churches and governments and still can be found there.
“The Dom,” a giant hospital for veterans, survives as Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics. Now, 75 years later, part of the old base is the Camp White Military Museum.
“The Army came in and just took the area by eminent domain, paying fair market value. It was huge, 77 square miles,” said Kramer. “They were busy building the first streets in January 1942 and naming them, military style, with the letters A through G. They still have those names. For a while, it was the second-largest city in Oregon.”
The big impact of Camp White was the fact that the Army dropped 40,000 raw recruits in the middle of a “kind of isolated, rural, insular valley that didn’t have a lot of dealings with the rest of the world," Kramer said. "It would be like dropping the city of Eugene (pop. 160,000) on us today. They built 1,300 buildings. We could never go back to what we were.”
In the 2002 documentary “Camp White: World War II in the Rogue Valley,” by Southern Oregon Public Television, Kramer said, “It was pandemonium. People were thrilled. It was a huge job to undertake. … People from all over the West flooded in. Anyone with a restaurant had 10,000 new mouths to feed. People lived in tents. Single men used the hot-bed system, rented rooms together and beds were full 24 hours a day. When one would come home, someone would go off to work.”
Many fell in love with the valley, married locals before going off to war and returned here when it was over. This included many nurses and WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps). After training soldiers, the camp shut down and morphed into a prisoner-of-war camp for enlisted German fighters. They worked in local orchards, made friends and some of them came back here to live, too.
In the documentary, Medford soda-fountain worker Betty Zander described meeting her ardent suitor, soldier Ed Zander, noting, “He was an MP (military police), and he kept coming in and wanting a chocolate malt and winking at me. It embarrassed me to death. I made it a little richer each time. He walked me home at midnight and we sat by the library. We got engaged on our second or third date, and that December we were married.”
Our valley had to shake hands with the modern world in a big hurry, Kramer noted.
“The military drafted many African-Americans, mostly from the South, and it was the classic story: Racism was rampant, merchants refusing to serve blacks. They were not allowed to be on streets after dark, not just here, but in all Western Oregon," Kramer said.
“The commanding general of the 91st Division at Camp White basically told the chambers of commerce of Medford and Ashland: ‘If you want to serve my troops, you’ll serve all my troops, and if not, your whole city will be put off-limits to all of them.’ The merchants got over it fast.”
Another positive step, little known in regional history, is that locals found many of those young soldiers were barely literate, took them in and changed their lives by teaching them to read and write proficiently even as the men were learning to become warriors, Kramer said.
With peacetime, White City, an unincorporated area then and now, strapped on its new moniker and made itself into a vast industrial area with timber products — Boise-Cascade, Weyerhaeuser, Burrill Lumber — at its core. Later came 3-M.
“Obviously, Camp White was very good for the valley, economically,” said former Jackson County Commissioner Tam Moore of Medford. “But the most significant thing was its development after the war. Glenn Jackson, an executive with California-Oregon Power Co., was the developer. It resulted in a tremendous amount of mostly forest products employment. Mills sprouted. The old Camp White steam plant became the source of power for the mills."
“What it did was give us a running start in the postwar era,” said Kramer, “exposing us to new people, new ways of dealing with things — and growth. We pulled it off, and Medford was never the same. The impacts are still felt. Few things in the valley’s history were as big and all-encompassing. It changed everything.”
White City is overseen by Jackson County and has its various districts, such as a street-lighting district and law-enforcement district, but, added Moore, it should be made into a municipality for the good of the people who live and work there.
“It needs that direct governance, and the county commission is doing a lot of other things,” said Moore. “But given how we develop in the West, it probably will never be a city, as we think of cities.”
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.