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Fire claims 1850s farmhouse

Ahuman-caused fire burned a 150-year-old historic farmhouse in the Rogue Valley's first commercial pear orchard early Thursday.

The vacant, boarded-up home at 2440 S. Voorhies Road likely had been burning for some time before a driver on South Pacific Highway spotted flames shooting through the roof into the foggy morning, Medford Fire Inspector John Patterson said.

His investigation concluded that the fire was intentionally set, possibly as a warming fire by a homeless person.

The home was the original donation land claim house built in the 1850s by Addison and Martha Justus Ball, said Anne Root, one of the owners of the historic property, which includes Eden Valley Orchards, EdenVale Winery and the Voorhies Mansion.

The blaze was reported at 4:37 a.m. Thursday, the Medford Fire Department reported. The caller estimated the fire was near South Stage Road, but a misunderstanding initially sent crews toward Sage Road in north Medford rather than South Stage to the south, said Randy Horner, a Medford firefighter who fought the blaze.

Because the Sage Road area has hydrants, Horner said, the department sent engines rather than water-filled tankers to fight the blaze. When it became clear the fire was near South Stage, tankers were sent, but the flames already had engulfed the home.

Crews arrived at the burning building at 4:45 a.m. and battled the blaze from outside, but weren't able to get into the home.

The rear portion of the home burned to the ground, but the front facade facing the road remained standing when the flames were doused. The house is a total loss, but no one was injured in the fire, officials said.

"It's a real loss to Southern Oregon because of its unique construction," Root said.

The home featured board-and-batten construction, sandstone corner blocks for the foundation and lacy, hand-milled "gingerbread" trim around the eaves and windows and other decorative details, she said. It and other buildings on the property, including the showcase Voorhies Mansion just to the north through the orchards, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"That little house served many purposes," Root said.

The Balls built it to claim land under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which encouraged settlement of Oregon through homesteading. A second home was pulled in by mules and attached to the rear of the original structure in the 1870s, Root said.

Joseph H. Stewart, a nurseryman and fruit dealer from Chicago, bought the property in 1885 and lived there while he planted the orchard and shipped out the valley's first commercial pears in 1890. Then he built the larger Voorhies Mansion, which takes its name from the family he sold the property to in 1899, a history prepared by Root said.

The original home then served as a kitchen for crews who lived in a nearby bunkhouse and worked at the 800-acre orchard, Root said. It had cork- and dirt-filled walls in a food-storage area to keep ice blocks for cooling. A well on the porch later was outfitted with an electric pump.

The home had been moth-balled, with the windows boarded up to protect the old glass from vandalism and was used to store antique furniture and other items used for events at the Voorhies Mansion, Root said. One of the pieces lost was a bench from the original Jackson County Courthouse in Jacksonville, she said.

The owners had hoped to turn the historic structure into a museum chronicling the history of the Rogue Valley pear industry.

Patterson said the electrical service to the home was shut off at the breaker box when people weren't there. His investigation ruled out an electrical problem, lightning, or spontaneous combustion as possible causes of the fire.

He also said the fire at the vacant house didn't show warning signs investigators look for in arson cases.

The building was about a half mile from hairdresser Thom Martin's South Stage Road home and business that burned in July. Investigators never determined the cause of that blaze.

Patterson said there were "fundamental differences" between Thursday's fire and the one at Mr. Thom's, as well as a September fire that destroyed the Colver House in Phoenix, another structure dating to the 1850s. The biggest difference, he said, was that the old farmhouse was vacant and used for storage, while the other two were occupied.

The blaze also didn't appear to be related to grass fire this summer that investigators linked to a person, Patterson said.

Anyone with information about this fire or people seen in the area around the time it started is asked to call the Medford Fire Department at 774-2300.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.

Medford Fire's Dennis Macey sprays water on smoldering parts of a house that burned on Voorhies Road early Thursday. Jim Craven 12/4/2008 - Jim Craven