ASHLAND, Ore. – A project to re-shape and upgrade the landmark plaza in downtown Ashland is focusing new attention and interest on the popular tourist attraction, but it’s not the first time the plaza has gone through a make-over.
For more than a hundred years, the Ashland Plaza has been something of a gateway to the Lithia City. At first, it was part of the main road through town, leading to the Ashland Mills where wagons loaded with grain came to have their products ground, and to take away the finished products.
“We don’t know exactly why it started, but most people think it had to do with the fact that the Ashland mill was at the head of Lithia Park, and it’s a whole lot easier to d rive a horse through a loop than to back up a team loaded with flour or wood,” said Ashland Historian George Kramer.
The area around the plaza was the business center of Ashland for many years before the town gradually spread eastward, but it’s taken on many shapes and elements over the years, from a couple trees and a drive-around; to more trees; a lawn; a flagpole; two islands; and even a drive-through lane.
“For many, many years, all the way up until World War II, it was two islands; one little island,” explained Kramer, “And then it sort of grows and becomes another island with a roadway between them, and that changes significantly when they changed the road system and cut north main through, and knocked down the front of the buildings that used to face onto the north side of the Plaza.”
One of the landmarks on the Plaza since the early 20th century has been this cast iron fountain with a statue on top, nicknamed “Pioneer Mike.”
“I don’t know who the model was, but everybody locally has always referred to him as ‘Pioneer Mike’, and I don’t know if he was modeled after anybody. The Carter family that gave that statue and fountain to the city owned the First National Bank of Ashland, which was right behind the plaza. It is in honor of their parents,” said Kramer.
At the base of the carter fountain are also small basins for dogs to drink! Whether you like the taste of the water or not, another landmark fountain that has attracted tourists for nearly 90 years is the Lithia Water Fountain.
“Ashland passed a bond measure in 1914 and 1915 to pipe Lithia water all over town as a way to attract tourists. The slogan was ‘Ashland Grows When Lithia Flows’ and in the mid-20’s, 1926, the Chamber of Commerce came to the city council and said, ‘We’ve got Lithia water everywhere, but we don’t have it on the Plaza and we should.’ The city council agreed and they funded the construction of a new Lithia fountain out of Ashland granite, quarried right here in town and put the fountain up. It was open by 1927,” explained Kramer.
The fountain went through a rebuild several years ago and will be upgraded again once the current Plaza project is finished. Perhaps the biggest change in recent years came with the New Year’s Flood in January of 1997. Heavy rain on heavy mountain snows sent Ashland Creek over its banks, and water roared through the Plaza and the businesses facing the Plaza.
“It’s hard to imagine that prior to the 1940’s, 1946, every single car that was going through Ashland to the north or the south came straight down Main Street, made this loop around the Plaza, and continued,” reamrked Krammer. “If you think about how we resent slowing for a turn on I-5, try imagining that in a log truck! I don’t know of any other town that has anything called a Plaza. I don’t know of any other town the size of Ashland that has any kind of feature like this. It’s just a unique transportation feature because we had a mill.”
Now, the Plaza is undergoing another overhaul, including improvements to utilities serving the area, which should be done in time for the summer tourist season. The Ashland Plaza in downtown Ashland has changed quite a bit over the last hundred years or more. From a turnaround for horses for a mill, to one of the focal points for this historic city.
“It’s probably not at all what Abel Hellman intended it would be when he laid it out, but it’s worked out pretty well for Ashland,” Krammer said.
Ashland City Officials say they hope to have the plaza rebuild finished by the end of march. Archaeologist Jeff Lelande says excavations seem to reveal signs of a Native American village under the plaza area. Lelande says no specific artifacts or human remains have been found.