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Memories of a Sams Valley boy

As a teenager in Medford, Tom Wright recalls watching folks marching down Main Street during the only holiday in May.

"I remember well the annual Memorial Day parades and celebration in Medford, with World War I and Spanish-American War veterans among the celebrants, red poppies and all," he writes in an email. "My sixth-grade teacher at Table Rock was a Spanish-American War veteran.

"Good teacher, but his greatest contribution was turning Table Rock into a baseball competitor."

Of course, it didn't hurt that he could rely on the eight boys in the "Schoolhouse Wilson" family, including ace pitcher Harold "Skinny" Wilson and two athletic girls from the area, he notes.

The Schoolhouse Wilsons?

"We had the Schoolhouse Wilsons, who lived next door to the Table Rock School, the Rock House Wilsons, who lived farther north on a lane off Table Rock Road, and the Sams Valley Wilsons, who lived where the Tresham and Sams Valley roads intersected," he explains.

Retired journalist Wright, 91, was born Nov. 22, 1920, on his family's Sams Valley, 40-acre homestead about a quarter-mile east of the school and store. His career included working for The Eugene Register-Guard and later the Oregon Statesman, serving seven years as its state editor. Over the years, he also has been gathering material for a book on Chief Sam, the Indian for whom the valley is named.

Now living in Portland, the World War II combat veteran fondly recalls his Sams Valley days.

"Sams Valley had a grade school, high school and big general store with a grain hall on the second floor where Saturday-night dances drew a crowd and moonshiners," he says.

Back in the day, Sams Valley had a garage with a gasoline pump with the glass tank on top, he says.

He describes the three-room house as a board-and-batten structure built by his parents with a "shed/tent" adjacent for his sisters. An outhouse stood out back.

"We were hardscrabble most of my formative years," he says. "No electricity first three years. No radio until I was 12 or 13. No telephone until I was out of high school. TV didn't intrude into my life until the 1950s."

His father was an expert when it came to working as a teamster with horses and serving as a cowhand, he says. Cash crop for his mother came in the form of turkeys raised for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

His early memories include riding on a horse-drawn wagon with his father from the homestead to the "Pelton place" on Sams Valley Road.

"My father handled the cattle, moving them from Sams Valley in spring/summer to pastures up the Rogue near Union Creek," he says.

When his family moved to the Pelton place, he figured he was in heaven. Indeed, the two-story house even had indoor plumbing, he notes.

He has colorful memories of the Pelton place.

"A Sams Creek flood, salmon runs in Sams Creek, a huge ball of rattlers uncovered in winter a couple of hundred yards from the house," he observes.

In September of 1926, when he was 5 years old, his folks took him to Table Rock School to enroll.

"Two rooms, eight grades, two teachers, outhouses, belfry," he recalls of the picturesque school that still stands today. "Six kids in my grade, largest always in my 71/2; years there ... I was probably, next to Robert Sage, the smartest kid in school."

He was referring to a student, a year his senior, who would become a well-known school principal in Jackson County. A veteran of World War II's Battle of the Bulge, Sage would write a book, "Memories of a Table Rock Boy," published in 2008.

As a youngster, Wright came to know every nook and cranny of the Table Rocks. He spent countless hot summer days and evenings at a nearby swimming hole in the Rogue River near Bybee Bridge, where he learned to swim. He fished for trout and salmon.

With the Great Depression, his family moved to Lozier Lane in Medford.

"We had a cow, a pig, rabbits, a small orchard, three-room house with a pump in the kitchen," he says, then adds, "Outhouse again."

After graduating from Medford Senior High School in 1938, he attended Southern Oregon Normal School that fall, paying his way by picking cucumbers, pears and blackberries. When his parents moved to Eugene in 1939, he attended the University of Oregon for two years until he ran out of money again.

He was working for Harry & David on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Four days later, he was in the Army.

The young lieutenant, fresh out of officer candidate's school, was first deployed to North Africa, then on to Italy, where he was in Cassino and participated in the Anzio landing. He was wounded on the northeast coast of Italy near La Spezia. After exiting the war as a first lieutenant, he rose to lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves.

In addition to remembering his days in a young man's uniform, his thoughts will likely be on his Sams Valley years this Memorial Day.

"Great place to grow up," he concludes.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.