Ray Nelson's love of history, combined with his passion for preserving the colorful history of Cottage Grove and the Bohemia Mining District, earned him the distinction of being a local legend.
Ray Emonds Nelson was born into a history-making family on March 24, 1897. His grandfather was a Confederate soldier in the War Between the States, (or the Civil War as the Yankees call it). In April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered after the final battle in Appomattox, Virginia, the wounded soldier in gray had no choice but to walk the 200 miles to his home in Tennessee.
Ray's father, Andrew Nelson, was a steam engineer and a tinsmith who worked at Bohemia’s Annie Mine. He earned enough to bankroll a visit the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago to learn all he could about Thomas Edison's electric plant. Andrew then returned to Cottage Grove and established its first electrical plant in 1894. He bought an Edison dynamo and belted it up to a large waterwheel of the local flour mill on Silk Creek. He put up poles and strung wire and the first electric lights went on in Cottage Grove in October that year. Customers were billed fifty cents per month per lamp and the city paid $30 month for street lights.
In 1899, he moved the plant to 122 North River Road and converted it to steam power. It was in a house built next to the plant that Ray was born in 1897. His mother died when he was four-and-a-half, so Ray lived with members of his mother’s family who came to Cottage Grove from Tennessee. As a child, he was fascinated with his granddad’s war stories and Ray grew up to be a proud member of the Sons of the Confederacy.
On November 1, 1900, the new plant burned to the ground and Andrew Nelson chose not to rebuild it. He sold the electrical franchise and returned to the Bohemia mines as operator of the Champion Mine’s power plant. Beginning at the age of five, Ray often accompanied his father on trips to Bohemia Country. They often sat around the fire with the miners at night listening to their many tales. Ray spent the rest of his life roaming the rugged mountains of the Bohemia Mining District.
Ray married Genevieve Meranda on March 27,1935. They had four children: Robert, Larsana, Andrew and Nola.
By the mid-20th Century, Ray Nelson was considered one of the foremost authorities on the history of the Bohemia Mining District. He once owned the Vesuvius Mine, one of the District's most productive gold mines. He still owned several mining claims in the District at the time of his death.
In 1958, drawing upon the old miners’ stories from his childhood (which he wrote down in a thick notebook during The Great Depression) and by combing through old files of Cottage Grove’s newspapers he wrote a booklet, Facts and Yarns of the Bohemia Gold Mines.
A lifelong Cottage Grove resident, (except for the two years of his military service in WWI) Ray followed in his father’s footsteps and became an electrician. In 1924, he established Nelson Electric, which he owned and operated until he retired.
In 1959, Ray was the local chairman of the Oregon Centennial Celebration and organized an event he named Bohemia Mining Days. The event was so popular many people wanted to make it an annual affair. Disappointed with the lack of consistent financial support for an annual festival celebrating Cottage Grove’s history, he spearheaded the formation of the Prospectors Club, which organized a BMD Committee that coordinated the annual affair starting in 1961.
Ray Nelson was also a visionary. His leadership of the Prospectors (and later Golddiggers) Club involved them not only in the annual festival but in efforts to restore the ghost town of Bohemia City, a once-thriving mining camp in the rugged Cascades east of Cottage Grove.
In 1964, to draw more people up to the old ghost town and drum up support for its restoration, the legendary Breakfast on the Mountain tradition began as an effort to raise funds for the historically-oriented organization.
In the 1960’s, Ray’s dream was for Cottage Grove to have its own identity. He wanted to preserve what was left of its early past and use it as a centerpiece for promoting recreation and tourism. His vision at the time for the South River Road/Silk Creek area was to re-create a replica of Slabtown’s earliest years as a small frontier village to draw visitors off the newly constructed I-5 freeway.
In 1961, local philanthropist Warren Daugherty purchased the Dr. Snapp/Markley house and sold it to Ray’s wife Genevieve, who with a friend (Mrs. Taylor Young) transformed it into the The Story Book Gift Shop.
The Victorian-era home, built in 1886 by an early doctor and surgeon, stood on a lot facing River Road, which became the south parking lot of “The High Rise” (as locals call it).
In 1966, the Lane County Housing Authority purchased the property to build the Riverview Terrace Apartments for low income seniors and arranged for the (then) 80-year-old house's destruction in a "burn to learn" exercise for the fire department. Ray led the charge for the Bohemia Mining Days Committee of the Prospectors & Golddiggers Club to purchase the house from the County for $1 and relocate it to its present site on South River Road next to Silk Creek.
Fueled by Ray’s passion for historic preservation and promoting tourism, relocating the Snapp House was the Prospectors’ first step to construct a small village that included replicas of a Victorian era mercantile and livery stable for residents and tourists to enjoy. The property sits at the intersection of Silk Creek and the Coast Fork, which places it in a floodway. Changes in state land use laws in the 1970's soon prohibited that type of intensive development in a flood zone.
Today the Dr. Snapp House now stands alone next to Prospector Park, across the street from Silk Creek Park, and just a short walk from the popular swinging bridge across the river.
Ray Nelson wore *SO* many hats in the Cottage Grove community and in the Bohemia Mining District in his lifetime that in 1963 the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce honored him with its prestigious First Citzen Award for all his efforts to preserve local history and "prospect better things for Cottage Grove." He was a member of the Cottage Grove Masonic Lodge, a city councilor, a planning commission member and a member of the city budget committee at the time of his death on December 14, 1978, at the age of 81. His wife, Genevieve, died in 2001.
Ray’s two sons, Bob and Andrew, followed in their father's and grandfather's footsteps and became electricians. Bob is now deceased and Andrew is retired and lives in Gig Harbor, WA. Ray's daughter, Larsana Nelson Fitzgerald, retired from her career as a librarian at Northwest Unversity near Chicago, IL. Ray's youngest daughter, Nola, still lives here in Cottage Grove.
To learn more about Ray Nelson visit the Bohemia Gold Mining Museum/CG Historical Society Library, located in the Downtown Historic District at 737 E. Main St.