You could call him Ashland's ultimate patriarch, the oldest living descendant of a family whose tenure here dates to the mid-19th century, when the town was called Ashland Mills.
Ninety years ago, a young boy moved into a farmhouse on the north end of town. Ninety years later, that young boy, John Billings, still lives in the house he's called home since 1919.
You could call him Ashland's ultimate patriarch, the oldest living descendant of a family whose tenure here dates to the mid-19th century, when the town was called Ashland Mills. His community service includes six decades of work with the Ashland Rotary Club, and his fundraising efforts have generated more than $1 million in scholarship money for local students.
But before he was John Billings, he was John Clarence Stannard, born in Gold Beach on Oct. 13, 1911. That changed when he lost his birth parents in the worldwide flu pandemic. Just 7 years old, he was taken in by a pair of Ashland farmers, Ralph and Myrtle Billings, whose ties to the community reached back to its founding. "This land has been here all the time, since I came," said Billings, sitting at the edge of his family's 140-acre farm. "I've been to other places, but this has always been considered my home."
There is no saying for sure who Ashland's longest-running resident is. But Billings would be a safe bet. Through 17 presidential administrations and countless moments that shaped history, Billings watched it all unfold from his farm on the hill. Now 97 years old, he has stood watch for decades as Ashland grew from a hillside settlement in the early 20th century to a tourist destination at the turn of the 21st.
"Back then," Billings said of his first years in Ashland, "we were related to most of the people that were living here. My grandpa lived in the other side of the railroad tracks. My uncle lived around here, too."
He would come to know the land well, playing baseball with friends while attending Washington School — renamed Briscoe School after World War II. Free time in those days was spent playing baseball and heading with friends to the Helman Baths or Twin Plunges swimming holes. Billings played football for the Grizzlies and graduated from Ashland High School in 1929.
"There weren't many teachers around back then, so they would bring in teachers from other areas," he recalled. "But as time went on more people came."
The same year Billings was graduating high school, the nation plunged into a Great Depression. Needed by his family, he stayed around, working in the fields behind his home. He remembers those years as some of the most difficult times in his life.
"We raised any crops we could," he said. "Sometimes nothing would grow."
Billings never lost sight of the role of a proper education. Weathering the Depression on his family farm, he learned valuable skills such as agriculture and mechanics. As he grew older and the town grew larger, his focus turned to parlaying his technical knowledge into wisdom his peers could benefit from. When the Ashland Rotary Club launched in 1941, joining with Rotary International to promote peace and humanitarianism among business leaders, Billings quickly jumped on board.
"I was one of the first Rotarians in Ashland, one of the early members," he said. He would attend Rotary meetings — not missing a single one — for the next 62 years.
In 1971 he established the Ashland Rotary Foundation, which each year awards scholarships to high school seniors. The foundation has raised nearly $1 million for local students since 1990. Anyone who donates $1,000 or more to the foundation is named a John Billings Fellow.
Today he spends time in his backyard, watching the goats, chickens and peacocks he shares an old but still thriving farm with. He saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival open in 1935, and his beloved Twin Plunges filled with cement to make way for new development in 1979.
With his wife, Gladys, who has since passed away, Billings had four children: Stan, Mary, Tim and Ginny. Except for Stan, the Billings clan has set its roots permanently in the town John rode into on a wagon 90 years ago.
In looking back on his work for the community, he said he hopes to be remembered as someone who cared about the land and people around him. Most of all, he said, he wants to be remembered as an educator.
"I tried to help get people interested in civic maneuvering," Billings said. "Education served to do that for me, and helped me try to improve things. We need to improve on life bit by bit."
Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 335-9152.