Native Americans from the Takelma, Shasta and Athabaskan groups began using these lakes and marshes for summer hunting and gathering and we now have evidence of year-round habitation. In the1850’s, European settlers forcibly removed indigenous people from their ancestral lands, first to the Table Rock Reservation in Medford and then into a forced walk to the Siletz or Grand Ronde Reservations on Oregon’s Trail of Tears. Those who tried to escape or hide were killed.
Emigrants from the Applegate Trail arriving in the present-day state of Oregon began driving cattle to these high mountain meadows for summer pasture before any homesteads were established.
In approximately 1860, the first 160-acre parcel on the property was developed, with a small house and timber-framed barn, the latter still standing in spring of 1985. The beams were hand-hewn with an adze; square nails and hand-split cedar shingles were part of the structure. Later additions to the barn show manufactured nails, consistent with the common practice of adding “wings” to barns long after the original construction.
Those first ‘settlers’ planted daffodils that still bloom today, they developed a holding area for water and planted an apple orchard for cider apples. Two trees from this orchard remain.
Nearby Shale City experienced its rapid rise and fall.
Shale City was a company town built to support the extraction of oil from shale, an effort led by H. W. Hartman; it was about 2 miles away from the ranch. Unfortunately Shale City was an effort beset by scandal, embezzlement, deconstruction and an ultimate meltdown at the grand opening.
Bill Ferreira, an Italian Swiss dairy farmer, built the current ranch house and barn using wood from the defunct Shale City.
Bill Ferreira was sponsored for immigration by Domingo Perozzi, the owner of the Ashland Creamery. Mr. Perozzi wanted to increase production of milk and cream in the Rogue Valley and said, “We’ll get some good stable Swiss in here and they’ll live on the place for next to nothing and they’ll cultivate this into a beautiful, fine place. And they did.” (Southern Oregon Historical Society interview with his daughter Lucile Perozzi)
Mr. Ferreira died and willed his 160 acres to his friend Henry Lanini. Mr. Lanini and his mother purchased the adjoining original 160-acre homestead and the contiguous 40- and 80-acre parcels to complete the 440 acre valley that Suzanne and Lanita would eventually find and purchase in 1985.
The house was used only as a summer ‘line shack’ to track the seasonal cattle grazing of the meadows and wetlands. Mr. Ferreira’s original pole barn remained intact, though unused.
Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt purchased the 440 acre property, updated the original house and moved in, along with their daughter Brooke, prioritizing ecological restoration, low-impact production, and sustainability in their land management practices.
In December 1984, Suzanne Willow, Lanita Witt, and their daughter Brooke were on the hunt for 40 acres of rural property near Ashland. As they explored up Shale City Road, they looked down into a snowy valley with a big barn and a little house. Two days later they discovered the land was for sale. Within a few weeks, they had purchased the 440-acre ranch (it was only 400 acres bigger than they had planned!), and began discovering and stewarding the land.
The family has since welcomed a diverse range of livestock onto the property. The family started with two goats for milk and learned how to milk from a book, using a headlamp! The first chicken house was located in the path of snow drop from the large barn roof. They commissioned Christoph Buchler to build a new timber-framed barn for two horses. It was built with hand tools, has mortise-and-tenon joinery, and was erected in a barn-raising on Labor Day in 1990. Brooke’s involvement with 4-H swine clubs, along with awareness of antibiotics in feed, led Willow and Witt to establish an organic swine breeding operation, the products of which were made available to customers at the local growers’ market in Ashland. The family also continued a seasonal grazing agreement with the local family that had grazed 40 cow/calf pairs for more than 10 years before Suzanne and Lanita arrived.
Work on infrastructure has continued on the ranch. In 1990, they rebuilt a pond to support fire suppression efforts. In 1996, 4,000 feet of pipe brought water from the artesian spring to the farm. By 2000, the perimeter fences built in earlier years were severely degraded and the meadows and wetlands experienced an influx of trespass cows from neighboring BLM grazing leases. Willow-Witt Ranch constructed 4 miles of high tensile smooth fence to exclude cattle while not harming wildlife, and entered into a 15 year contract with the USDA to restrict all grazing on and replant/restore 76 acres of wetlands.
Holistic forest manager Marty Main surveyed for forest health and developed a Forest Management plan for the property, beginning Willow-Witt Ranch’s regenerative and restorative forest work.
Witt and Willow brought in expert Marty Main to help them learn how to care for forestland and ‘read’ the forest. They took classes through OSU Extension on Forest Management. The forests had been “high grade logged” during the 1900’s, removing all of the sugar pine for fruit boxes, then Douglas fir, and then pine. The main species in the forest was mistletoe-infested white fir. Marty guided multiple phases of removal and replanting to return the forests to a mixed-age, multi-species tract, approximating original forests at this elevation.
The Crest at Willow-Witt, a 501(c)(3) devoted to connecting humans to the natural world was established to serve the local communities.