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Vibrant man will be missed

With John Black telling the story of the 1920 census, you could almost see the census taker riding up the dusty road to the Black Ranch on Forest Creek a few miles southwest of Jacksonville.

"James Davies — he lived just down the creek here — came around on his old horse, Bonny, and took the census," Black recalled, noting he carried a big ledger in which he carefully entered names, ages and occupations.

"James Davies came around and talked to everyone when he took the census," he added. "He was a Welshman. Naturalized. He come over here to Jackass Creek — it's Forest Creek now — to mine. He married a woman over there on South Forest."

Those comments are from an early 2001 interview I had with Black shortly after the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2000 census statistics. He was lamenting it was all forms now, that no census takers — today they go by the sterile term "enumerator" — come by these days to shoot the breeze.

Happily, it would be one of several interviews I would have with Black about local history over the years beginning in 1993. He had a keen memory with a gift for detail.

Sadly, he died March 10 on the Black Ranch where he was born more than 95 years ago on June 14, 1911. A memorial was held Saturday at the Upper Applegate Grange.

His passing did not register on the media meter. After all, he was not a powerful politician, a captain of industry or a star athlete.

But he was more than that in my book. He was a pleasant fellow whose pioneer roots made him an increasingly rare reservoir of Southwest Oregon history. Interviewing him about some facet of local history was invariably fascinating, educational and just plain fun.

Perhaps I was spoiled by the luxury of having spent countless childhood hours listening to tales of local history spun by old-timers visiting our Kerby home in the late 1950s. These were blue-collar folks born in the 1800s, the sons and daughters of Oregon settlers.

Black was cut from the same cloth. His grandfather, John M. Black, filed a homestead in 1866 on the east bank of the Rogue River roughly a mile south of what is now Shady Cove. The "Lonesome Hickory" heritage tree you see near milepost 18 on Highway 62 was planted in 1866 by his grandmother, Mary Louisa Black, from nuts she carried over the Oregon Trail from Missouri.

His father, Lee Black, was born on the family homestead in 1869, living there until he established the Black Ranch around 1908.

Like his ancestors, John Black was the genuine article. He worked as a full-time farmer and rancher ever since he could handle a horse. He bucked hay and fed cattle well into his 80s. He could also tell you about working as a logger, a miner and fire lookout.

He and his wife, Marguerite, 96, a retired school teacher, were married 73 years. The two wrote a well-regarded history book, "Ruch and the Upper Applegate Valley," to help educate us all on local history.

Their four children would all graduate from college, including one with a doctoral degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the 2000 census, the Blacks dutifully filled out the required form.

"But, heck, I never saw the census taker," he said in the interview. "The form was mailed out to us. The wife and I just filled it out and sent it back. That was it."

His point was that life was becoming impersonal.

"The thing is, we've changed," he said. "Used to be, most everybody had a mining claim, but they'd have a milk cow or two. They'd also have a garden."

Local residents traded produce with each other and were there to lend a hand when needed, he said.

"We traded work with one another up and down the creek," he recalled. "If you went to town — Jacksonville was the main town then — you'd bring the mail back for everybody up and down the creek."

The Blacks' mail box was an old kerosene can with one end cut out. No name or number was needed on the mail box nailed to a fir tree, he said.

"But times change, I guess," he said. "We're getting down to where we don't do anything in person anymore. I kind of hate to see that."

No more than those who knew him hate the thought of not ever hearing again his stories of those distant days when James Davies rode up the dirt road on Bonny.

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