‘If these walls could talk’
A brick house standing on a street corner in Medford was home to a murderer who conspired to burn ballots and take over Jackson County’s government during the Depression.
The Root-Banks House at West Main and Peach streets is just one of the local buildings historic preservationist George Kramer will discuss during his talk “If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from Southern Oregon’s National Register-listed Properties.” Part of the Windows in Time lecture series, his free presentation is from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, via the Zoom videoconference service.
“It’s a little part of Southern Oregon history,” Kramer said of the house.
The Root-Banks House was first owned by businessman John Root, but it was the second owner — Llewellyn Banks — who became one of Jackson County’s most notorious historical figures.
Mired in the Great Depression in the 1930s, many desperate Jackson County residents believed Banks’ claims that their economic woes were caused by villainous forces, including what he called The Gang of county elected leaders, according to historical accounts.
“Banks felt that government was not doing enough to help people get through the Depression. He said an evil cabal was taking their houses and jobs. It was incredibly tense. People were getting beat up in the streets,” Kramer said.
Banks and his friends launched the Good Government Congress movement. Thousands of their supporters would gather to hear their speeches at the Jackson County Courthouse. The group’s leaders were guarded by their own militia called the Green Springs Mountain Boys.
Banks’ friends won some of the key elected positions in the county, including sheriff and county judge. But the outgoing sheriff who lost the election asked the state to investigate claims of election fraud.
A crowd opposing a recount of election ballots gathered at the courthouse. A crew of Good Government Congress operatives revved a truck engine to cover the noise, broke a glass window and stole ballots that were due to be recounted the next day. Oregon State Police discovered charred ballots in the courthouse furnace, and more ballots were later found in the Rogue River.
With investigators closing in on the Good Government Congress leaders behind the burglary and stolen ballots, Banks spoke defiantly at the movement’s last political rally, vowing to lead a revolution.
But back at his house on the corner of West Main and Peach, Banks packed a valise and loaded his rifle as he prepared to sneak away to a log cabin deep in the forest.
Medford Police Constable George Prescott and other law enforcement arrived at the house to arrest Banks. When Prescott stuck his foot in the door, Banks shot him in the heart, killing him. Police later took Banks into custody.
Prescott Park in Medford is named after the fallen constable, Kramer noted.
Investigators later discovered that Banks and his supporters had made plans to kidnap the Jackson County District Attorney, who they hadn’t been able to defeat even with their election tampering. The group also had contingency plans to launch guerrilla warfare in Southern Oregon.
After the shooting of the police constable, the Good Government Congress movement faded away.
The Medford Mail Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize in 1934 for covering the rise and fall of the movement despite threats of violence.
Some of Banks’ opponents labeled him a would-be Hitler. Sentenced to life in prison, he wrote an anti-semitic memoir and died behind bars in 1945.
In addition to exploring the history of the Root-Banks house, Kramer will talk about other historic houses and buildings, including the Chandler Egan House in Medford.
A Harvard graduate and amateur golf champion who was sent West by his rich father to manage an orchard, Egan arrived in the Rogue Valley to find no golf courses.
“Chandler Egan realized that he was basically 300 miles from the nearest golf course because that was in Portland,” Kramer said. “So he built a golf course for himself, and anybody else who wanted to play golf, which is the basis for what’s now the Rogue Valley Country Club. In the process of doing that, he thought, ‘Well, gee. Designing these golf courses is kind of fun.’”
Egan went on to become a prolific designer of golf courses.
Kramer will also talk about the landmark 1911 Sparta Building in downtown Medford, which was used as an early car dealership and repair shop by Charles Gates.
“The automobile has come to stay,” Gates wrote in an article for the Mail Tribune about how to buy a car. “The demand for it has proven that it is not a fad that will die in time, as it is well known that when a man has once owned a machine, he will never do without one.”
In 1915, the Mail Tribune wrote that the “Gates garage has instituted a new Ford service whereby an auto is rented out by the hour the same as a horse and buggy. The owner furnishes everything but a driver. By this means people with auto driving inclinations but with no machine can be accommodated.”
Kramer said Gates was key in the development of the Big Butte Springs water supply that continues to provide Medford with water. Gates lived in a Dutch Colonial Revival-style house that still graces Medford on Queen Anne Avenue.
“People probably drive by his house and think, ‘Oh, what a nice house.’ But they don’t really understand who Pop was and what he did, even though we still benefit from it,” Kramer said. “That’s to me the importance of all this. These things connect us to how our community evolved way back when, before we were born.”
To register for the Zoom videoconference presentation of “If These Walls Could Talk,” visit jcls.libcal.com/calendar/jcls_event/WIT-Dec-2021.
A recording of the program will later be made available on the Jackson County Library Services YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/JCLSBeyond.
The monthly Windows in Time lunchtime lectures feature writers and historians who bring alive the people, values and events that shape Southern Oregon heritage. Lectures are jointly sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society and Jackson County Library Services.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.