Chuck Jackson remembers the good old days of Tiller, Oregon.
He grew up riding horses up into the surrounding mountains and learned to read in the one-room schoolhouse built out of logs when the place was first homesteaded.
As an adult, he worked heavy machinery in the sawmills and logging operations up and down the South Umpqua River.
"Tiller used to be booming," said Jackson, now 82. "Years ago, people came in horse and buggy and stuff to go to the rodeo at Tiller. They would spend their weekend there. People come from all over."
But the timber industry died and took much of Tiller with it. Today, Jackson has just around 280 neighbors spread across the valley and surrounding hills. Even elementary school kids are bussed out of town, and a simple trip for groceries involves a winding 30-minute drive to Canyonville.
"The logging and the saw mills and everything has moved," Jackson said. "A lot of stuff is automated, so there’s no need for any saw mills up here anymore. There isn’t anything. Industry is leaving. There are a lot less people here."
But now there's a $3.8 million price tag on Tiller. Over the past couple decades, one family bought up much of the property in what constitutes central Tiller. The matriarch recently died. Now a Medford-based real estate company is offering 28 separate tax properties, totaling some 260 acres, including the former elementary school, the convenience store and a mile of riverfront property.
In a promotional video (above) produced by Land and Wildlife, an announcer who sounds a lot like bourbon-voiced actor Sam Elliot touts both the aesthetic and the logistical advantages of investing here:
"The new owners of this extraordinary opportunity will find the ability to structure a wide variety of different zonings, tax lots, structures and natural resources into a prosperous future along the natural flowing South Umpqua River," the narrator says over scenes of lush green landscapes and vacant buildings. "The region has a vast variety of fish and wildlife abound. And recreational options rivaled by none."
Keith Cubic runs the Douglas County planning department and uses more practical language when discussing Tiller.
"It’s a neat little place," he said. "It’s scenic. It is in a very positive visual corridor."
In planner-speak, a “very positive visual corridor” means it’s pretty in Tiller. Cubic's office is 30 miles as the crow flies from Tiller — or an hour's drive. From that distance, he can see a future for Tiller as a tourist town, albeit a small one.
Tiller is in the middle of nowhere, but on the way to at least one place: Crater Lake National Park is about an hour and 20 minutes away.
"There are a couple of little towns in the mountains of California that are very quaint places along the highway that catch people on their way to Lake Tahoe," he said. "I think Tiller has some possibility of being something like that."
That could include some homes, a few stores, places to eat, maybe lodging – amenities that appeal to sport fishermen, canoers or anyone who appreciates the woods and the river.
But Cubic also urges caution. Tiller doesn't have a central sewer or water system. The buildings that are left aren't really part of that "positive visual corridor." They desperately need renovation – or replacement. So that $3.8 million price tag is just the beginning for new owners.
"Everything is inoperable or gone now," Cubic said. "It’s not a ghost town by any means because there are buildings and structures, but it is underutilized as far as the physical improvements that are there."
Neighbors say they want improvements, maybe a community center, a place to eat or a gas station. But residents like Paula Ellis also live here because they want to be out of the way, free from the rush and hustle of Roseburg or Grants Pass.
Ellis’ family moved to Tiller as ranchers in the 1960s, when she was still in elementary school. She’s got a big extended family, and almost all have made the conscious choice to stay in Tiller over the years, despite the changes. She and her husband like the lifestyle so much that he commutes an hour each way to Grants Pass for work.
She says this remains a close-knit community, and she worries about what new owners might do.
"We joked recently, ‘This is going to be interesting. Is it going to be time for our family to jet out of Oregon and see what we can find in Wyoming or Montana because of the sale of Tiller?’" she said. "Now, were we serious? No, but who knows how much it can change the dynamics of our community?"
Chuck Jackson used to keep cows, horses, and pigs on his land just down Tiller Trail Highway from what used to be downtown Tiller — now just a dot on state maps. At one time, he owned as many as 40 acres, though he downsized after a divorce. He cares about the history of this place; a few years ago, he bought the community’s original one-room log cabin schoolhouse and moved it to his property for restoration.
What’s it like living in a town that’s for sale? Jackson sounds sanguine, despite the uncertainty. Anything is better than nothing.
"It’s their money, and they’re going to do what they want," he said. "They’re going to build what they want out of it. Whatever happens, happens, that’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s going to be."
Optimism abounds. Land & Wildlife Realty recently announced that it has a buyer. Tiller is under contract as the details of the sale get worked out. The new owners are from the Ashland area. So far, they haven’t revealed their plans to bring tiny Tiller back to life.