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The Joys of Jacksonville

Gold Rush history, fine wineries, and a musical festival. Who could ask for more?

a performance at the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Oregon, image
Photo caption
The crowd takes in a Britt Festival show on the stage below the lawn.

The Nunan Estate is the architectural pride of Jacksonville, Ore. The 1892 mansion—a turreted folly of stained glass, columned porches, and fancy brickwork—is a prime stop in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains. Some years ago, the private residence caught the eye of a couple from Whidbey Island, Wash., and when it later came on the market they took a tour. “Oh, honey, promise you’ll buy me this house one day,” Molly McPherson recalls saying.

“OK,” Derek Wolfe said. “I promise.”

Shortly afterward Wolfe stopped at Jacksonville’s only grocery, Ray’s Food Place, and bought a stack of lottery tickets. One was a winner: $7.4 million. Today, McPherson and Wolfe’s 16-room palace is an antique-bedecked bed-and-breakfast. The estate’s carriage house has become a restaurant where executive chef Tim Keller puts on an open-kitchen show worthy of Iron Chef America, creating artful plates of duck confit and risotto or roasted rack of lamb larded with vanilla beans.

The innkeepers’ story is a version of one that has been playing out in this town of 2,550 since 1851. That year a couple of muleteers spied a glint of yellow in Rich Gulch, off Jackson Creek. Before the ensuing rush ended, Jacksonville had grown into a prosperous county seat. In all, $34 million in gold dust—worth almost $2 billion today—tipped the scales at Cornelius Beekman’s bank.

The bank and Beekman’s modest house remain meticulously preserved. “It’s like Beek—that’s what everybody called him—went home from work one evening and didn’t come back,” says Terri Gieg, who narrates trolley tours that start at the bank. “The scales where he weighed all that gold are still there.”

At an 1875 yellow frame house on South Oregon Street, she tells of little Vance Colvig, son of a judge, who joined the circus and went on to become Bozo the Clown and the cartoon voices of Sleepy and Grumpy. Jacksonville’s most illustrious figure, though, is Peter Britt, a Swiss immigrant who arrived in 1852. Britt’s house and gardens are gone, victims of fire and neglect, yet his influence is everywhere. He planted the area’s first wine grapes and later lent his last name to the town’s renowned summer music festivals, staged on the grounds of his former estate. There are few pastimes here more pleasurable than spreading a blanket at dusk and savoring a “Brittnic” of local wines and foods while performers—classical pianist Emanuel Ax, country legend Willie Nelson—electrify the warm night air.

Britt wore many hats: horticulturist, vintner, painter, shrewd investor, and prolific photographer of Jacksonville’s settlers and streetscapes—a legacy that has proved crucial in recent preservation crusades. The whole of Jacksonville’s downtown has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Behind the authentic wood and brick facades of California Street are delights such as Scheffel’s Toys, where owner Bill Graham’s eyes light up when he shows off his windup toys. At Carefree Buffalo, artworks include flower vases fashioned from weathered fence posts. Down the street, Pico’s Worldwide offers block-printed Indian tablecloths and whimsical tin animals from Zimbabwe. And at the Jacksonville Mercantile, Constance or David Jesser will be happy to fill a linen-lined picnic basket with delicacies and a bottle of wine from the nearby Applegate Valley. Call, name a price, and your picnic will be ready in time for the evening’s Britt concert.

Want something fancier for a wine lover? The Jacksonville Inn’s shop has just the ticket: a magnum of 1997 Screaming Eagle cabernet for only $12,000. Alternatives? Budget-minded oenophiles will find plenty here too, or they can drop by the tasting rooms at South Stage Cellars or Quady North Winery, where local bottlings run from burly syrahs to floral viogniers. They may hear even more tales of Peter Britt, who declared the 1890 claret from his Valley View Vineyard “excellent.”

In that vintage year, Jacksonville turned 30; this year it hits 150. A celebratory parade through town and many other special events are planned for September. Revelers who find themselves coveting that magnum of cabernet will be happy to learn that lightning has struck twice at Ray’s: A Powerball ticket sold there paid $340 million. Or you can always poke around up in Rich Gulch. It’s gold country, after all. 

Photography by Josh Morell

This article was first published in September 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.