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Where is this window ... and why?

This column is called Histories & Mysteries, and today I am bringing you a little of both. Let’s start with the history part.

Those of us who look around town in 2019 and feel overwhelmed by the young “home-free travelers” passing through would not want to go back in time to late 1800s or early 1900s Ashland.

Here is a quote from the Jacksonville newspaper in 1893: “Ashland, Or., Dec. 17.--One hundred and seventy-five hobo tourists came in from the north this evening on a freight train on top of box cars. The town has refused to feed them, and there is some fear they will resort to violence, though appearing to be a peaceable set of men. All are bound for the warmer climate of California.” (Democratic Times, Jacksonville, Dec. 22, 1893)

175 hobos in one day! In addition to bringing prosperity and “welcome guests” to Ashland, the completion of the West Coast railroad line in 1887 also brought with it “unwelcome guests.” Some of the train-hopping hobos were migrant agricultural workers who followed the harvests from Southern California to Washington and back again. Others were panhandlers and petty thieves — or for the more creative ones, “after-dinner speakers” like the man quoted in the introduction to this article.

Ashland and Medford tried many strategies to deal with the ongoing hobo problem. Hobos were run out of town. They were jailed. They were paid to work. They were forced to work. They were even fed and given a place a sleep overnight.

In 1914, the Medford police chief made these complaints about hobos who refused to work: “Every hobo in the county wants to congregate in Medford,” said Chief Hittson this morning. “They all wanted to stay in Ashland last winter when they were giving them free soup there. Now there is work on the Pacific Highway, close to that city, and what do they do but come up here.” (Medford Mail Tribune, April 8, 1914)

Now I am ready to clear up the “mystery of the window” in the photo for those who can’t place it.

In 1908, Ashland built a second fire station at 264 4th Street to serve the booming Railroad District. With many single men in the Railroad District — who tended to get into trouble — and with the constant influx of hobos hopping off trains at the Ashland depot, a jail cell was added in the back of the new fire station.

That’s the jail cell window in the photo. You can see it on the alley side of the building, which now houses Revive, an eclectic collection of “revived” furniture and home decor.

According to newspapers of the era, hobos grabbed clothes drying outside on clotheslines, snatched chickens from chicken coops, and generally caused a nuisance begging for food door to door. This is where the Fourth Street fire station/jail came into play, but not how you would think.

A Jan. 22, 1914, Ashland Tidings article, which calls the hobos “transient unemployed,” explains it well.

“The city police department have cared for 480 transient unemployed from December thirteenth to January first and 349 from January first to the twentieth. The Fourth street fire station is used for the place of shelter and most of them come in during the night, showing up after the arrival in the yards of freight trains. They are fed on soup and bread about midnight and are started out of town in the morning in squads. Sometimes a breakfast on coffee and sandwiches is needed for those that get in after the main meal. The food is secured from the restaurant nearby and the price paid for it in bulk is very reasonable. The program is satisfactory to the unemployed and kept them from soliciting about town, which would be a large sized nuisance considering the large number passing through at this season of the year when employment is impossible.”

Two factors in the late 1920s led to a decline in Ashland’s transient hobo problem.

One was Southern Pacific’s decision to re-route most of its trains through Klamath Falls in 1927. The other was the convenience of auto travel. In 1929, the Ashland Daily Tidings quoted Phil Eiker, a director of the Oregon State Motor Association: “’Weary Willie,’ the wanderlust citizen who formerly traveled in discomfort on the rods of a freight train, now stands by the roadside and begs a ride from passing motorists. ...” (Ashland Daily Tidings, Sept. 17, 1929)

As the number of hobos declined, Ashlanders were happy to have fewer incidents like this one: “ Some of [the tramps] thought to demolish Tom Roberts’ saloon at Ashland one night last week, because he refused them drink, but he made it very lively for them, wounding two or three of them with his pistol.” (Democratic Times, Jacksonville, Dece. 8, 1893)

As his contribution to building community, writer and herbal health researcher Peter Finkle is walking every street in Ashland and writing an article with photos about every street. Visit WalkAshland.com to see and read about local people, history, yard art, architecture, gardens and more. Peter’s email: WalkAshland@ashlandhome.net

In 1908, Ashland built a second fire station at 264 4th Street to serve the booming Railroad District. With many single men in the Railroad District — who tended to get into trouble — and with the constant influx of hobos hopping off trains at the Ashland depot, a jail cell was added in the back of the new fire station.