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Those were the days

This past weekend our collective attention was focused on history as towns throughout the valley celebrated the Fourth of July. Recollections of the early beginnings of our nation helped turn our thoughts to the profound vision of our country's founders and our responsibility today to keep that vision alive.

So it was with some amount of civic pride that my wife and I headed over to the historic Ashland Cemetery at East Main and Morton streets to "Meet the Ashland Pioneers" who are buried there.

Twenty men, women and children dressed in period costumes stood near the graves of the folks they were portraying. The cemetery was well-shaded and a nice breeze kept us all cool on the otherwise sweltering weekend.

There was nothing macabre about the hourlong walking tour that had participants weaving in and out of the old tombstones, looking for recognizable names and listening to the actors tell us about life back in the 1800s.

The actors were very credible as the pioneers, which is no small achievement. I recognized a few faces from our local theater companies, but most of the actors were unfamiliar to me and could just as well have been the pioneers they were portraying. They spoke in the first person and, in a straightforward relaxed tone, told us a bit about their lives.

And what lives they led. The overall feeling you get from hearing their stories is one of admiration for their self-reliance.

These people came in wagons from the Midwest and further east. Missouri seems to have been a source for many of Ashland's first residents.

Just getting here was a life-challenging adventure, the likes of which we can barely imagine. The early settlers crossed rivers, scaled mountains, fought off Indian attacks, lost family members and friends and endured all kinds of physical and mental hardship.

Once they arrived, they had to build their own homes, start their own businesses and raise their families while adjusting to the somewhat primitive conditions they encountered. They built flour mills, wood mills, shops, schools and many fine residences. They served in the military, in the state government and worked to keep slavery out of what would become the state of Oregon. They were doctors, teachers, merchants and entrepreneurs.

And for their efforts, there are streets, creeks and buildings named after them today. The city of Ashland was given its name from some of these folks since that was the name of their hometown back East.

Among those being portrayed were Lindsay Applegate; his wife, Elizabeth and daughter, Theresa Rose; Abel Helman; Gen. John McCall and his wife, Lizzie; Henry Chapman and his sister, Victoria Chapman; James Thornton; James Tolman; Helen Wagner; and Dr. Henry T. Inlow and his daughter, Armilda.

A team of six women provided the research. Several descendents of the early pioneers also contributed to the research. Whoever wrote the script is to be commended for its realistic, conversational style that conveyed many historical anecdotes without sounding like an entry in an encyclopedia.

The costumes added to the authenticity. They looked as if they were something people wore every day and not something out of a costume shop.

Jacksonville has long presented a similar event every fall at its historical cemetery. It has become so popular that it is advisable to book your tour well in advance. The folks involved in that project lent their considerable expertise to the people of the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, who put together the Ashland version.

"Meet the Ashland Pioneers" will take place one more weekend, Saturday and Sunday, July 11-12. Tours begin every 15 minutes between 4 and 6 p.m. Tickets cost $25 per family or $10 for adults, $5 for children 11 and younger, and are available at Paddington Station, Ashland.

Fifty percent of the proceeds will benefit Art in the Schools throughout the Rogue Valley. And an equally compelling benefit is the opportunity to connect with a piece of history that has much to tell us about the tenacity of the human spirit.