He Let His Millions Do the Talking: Cranky Recluse’s Parting Gift Stuns Neighbors
August 20, 2003
By Alex Tizon
MEDFORD, Oregon – Old Man Howard spent decades chasing children off his farm, shotgun in hand, watching little legs spin like windmills into the distance. Generations considered him the meanest man in Jackson County. But to others, Wesley Howard was simply an oddity: a loner who never married, who never left Oregon and who lived his whole life in the same place he was born, a century-old farmhouse without phones or toilets. Kids saw it as a haunted house; passersby photographed it as an artifact.
In March, at age 87, he died of a stroke, enigmatic and inexplicable to the end. Howard, it turned out, was rich. Few knew. He bequeathed his entire estate, worth more than $11 million, to create a youth sports park on his 68-acre farm. The surprise gift has cast Howard in a whole new light, causing residents to question whether they ever knew the real Wesley Howard. An editorial in the Medford Mail Tribune opened with this line: “We’ll never know if Wesley Howard had a Scrooge-like epiphany or if there was always a charitable soul hidden beneath his gruff exterior.”
Gene Glazier, who lived across from the Howard farm for five decades and whose own children were chased off the property, said he was “blown over” by Howard’s last act. “We had no idea. A kid’s park,” Glazier said with astonishment. A few of Howard’s neighbors had a different take on the old man. Ivan and Twyla Bryant, who lived across from Howard for 44 years, recalled a gentle, extremely private man who was constantly harassed by neighborhood children.
The Howard property lured the curious; some kids would just poke around his barn and orchards. Others would hit golf balls to break his windows. They’d pick his grapes and eat his peaches. They’d sneak into his fields and hunt for quail and pheasant.
“You can torment anybody to where they have to do something,” Bryant said. On Halloween, any child brave enough to knock on Howard’s door would get an apple and a pencil and even, if you looked carefully, a slight curve of a crooked smile. And that was as close to Howard’s house as most people ever got. Which is why, on a recent weekend, a crowd of 1,200 people gathered at the Howard farm for an auction of the man’s belongings. His house was opened up. For many, including neighbors who’d known him for decades, it was the first chance to glimpse the interior of a very private life.
Medford sits in the heart of the Rogue River Valley, bordered by foothills to the east and west, with California just a 20-minute drive south. It’s still mostly a farming region, although Medford, with 66,000 residents, is a fast-growing town with slick new strip malls and housing subdivisions that all look alike. At the edge of all this uniformity, in the northwest corner of town, lay the Howard farm, a sprawling flatland that had mostly gone to seed. It used to be a real farm, with alfalfa and oats on one side, cattle on the other. But for the last 30 years or so, neighbors say, the land lay barren except for a grape orchard and fruit trees that Howard tended until the mid-1990s.
The house sat in the middle of a grove of oaks, many of them dead. It was built in 1890, hadn’t been painted in a half-century and took on the color of the oaks: grayish-brown with tinges of black. Moss climbed up the sides and onto the roof. From the road, about 50 yards away, the house looked, as one neighbor said, “ready to fall.”
The Howards were well-known by many Medford residents, but nobody knew them better than their longtime neighbors. Here’s what those neighbors know: The farm was purchased from the U.S. government in the mid-1800s by a person believed to be one of Howard’s grandparents. It was then sold to Howard’s parents, Roy and Dora Howard, who had an only child, Wesley. He was born on the farm in 1916, and as far as anybody knew, never left the Medford area. Dora died first, in 1964, and then Roy, in 1972. Since his father’s death, Wesley Howard lived in the house by himself, and apparently had a strong aversion to throwing things away.
“Let me show you something,” Bryant said on a recent afternoon, leading a visitor to the back of Howard’s house. “Look under there,” she said, gesturing to a crawl space under what used to be a back porch. “All of them that he ever wore.”
Crammed into the space, as far back as you could see, were countless pairs of boots, each worn down to the thinnest fabric and sole. Going inside the house was like entering a time capsule. Both floors were stacked ceiling-high with neatly bundled newspapers and magazines dating back to the early 1900s. Medford schools have no record of Howard attending classes, but he obviously liked to read, his preferences leaning toward Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.
Walking space in the house had been reduced to “snail trails” from doorway to doorway. The upstairs bedrooms were equally cramped. Some of Howard’s boyhood toys were found there: wooden wagons, miniature wheelbarrows, some cast-iron blocks and a slingshot that he apparently made himself. The rubber band had long disintegrated. There were old baseball mitts, an old leather football helmet and pictures of athletes from the 1930s and 1940s.
In the living room-kitchen area, Howard cooked on a pot-bellied wood stove. He made cakes for himself. Once in a while, Bryant said, he’d throw an uncured pork shoulder into a boiling pot of water with green beans, and he’d eat from the pot for weeks. He drank water from a hand-dug well in the back of his house. He used a two-hole outhouse, apparently one hole for women (when his mother was alive) and one for men.
Wayne Amundson, hired to watch over the house after Howard died, became well-acquainted with neighbors making pilgrimages to the Howard farm. He said a neighbor once asked Howard why he didn’t get plumbing. “So I’d never have to call a plumber,” Howard was said to have answered.
Ivan and Twyla Bryant used to see Howard every morning come out of his front door in long johns, with a rolled-up newspaper in hand, and amble toward the outhouse with the back flap of his pants open. The Bryants got to know Howard better than anyone. Meeting and chatting at the mailboxes became routine. The old man had one-line answers for many of the mysteries of his life. Twyla Bryant asked him years ago when he was going to get a woman to live with. Too much trouble, he replied. Why no telephone, Ivan Bryant asked. Costs too much, he answered. Howard didn’t even want to pay for a haircut. “It looked like he put a bowl on his head, and just cut right around it,” Twyla Bryant said.
Howard had white hair in his later years. He had blue eyes and a round, slightly asymmetrical face that smiled at a slant. He was short and stocky and was never seen in public wearing anything but blue jeans and button-down plaid shirt. His only apparent source of aggravation were the kids who trespassed on his land. It started becoming a problem in the 1960s, when new housing subdivisions began springing up all around the Howard farm. The farm became a natural draw and an easy shortcut.
Jack Gundlach was one of those kids. He’s 45 now and lives on the other side of town. From 1964 to 1976, he lived 10 houses from the Howard farm, and his best friend lived on the other side of the property. To visit his friend, the boy would cut through the farm. “Old Man Howard would bring out his shotgun and shoot rock salt at us, yelling and running around in his pickup,” Gundlach said. “He was a cantankerous old boy. A lot meaner than his dad. We just thought he didn’t like kids.”
Gundlach showed up at the auction, interested in buying the .410 shotgun that Howard used to chase him off with. Many of Howard’s possessions were considered artifacts, selling for high prices, and Gundlach got outbid. Oil lamps went for $60 apiece, butter churns for $120. A 1905 Daisy BB gun sold for $260. The auction raised $70,000, all of which will go to the Howard Memorial Sports Park. Howard didn’t bother with the details of the park. The planning has been left to a newly formed board of directors that will come up with a plan. Soccer and baseball fields have been mentioned as possibilities.
“Wealth didn’t have any meaning for him,” Twyla Bryant said. “In some ways, it was bothersome.”
According to documents filed by his attorney, Howard’s 68 acres was worth $8.2 million. He owned another 10 acres nearby worth $1.8 million. He had municipal bonds worth well over $1 million, plus more than $70,000 he kept in a checking account. Family friends said Howard inherited much of his money. If he had been so inclined, he could have developed his property, building as many as 400 new homes on it, said John Hassen, Howard’s attorney. He could have multiplied his fortune. Howard, in fact, received numerous offers for his land over the years. “He already had money that he wouldn’t spend,” said neighbor Glazier. “Why would he want more?” Twyla Bryant said Howard would just laugh at the offers. “Howard was content with who Howard was,” she said.
The Glaziers and the Bryants said they’ll miss seeing the old man puttering around on his farm. Twyla Bryant, who grew up in the Midwest, said Howard reminded her of old-time farmers back home: simple people who went by a different compass. Their ways are incomprehensible to the modern world, she said. “And there aren’t many of them left. Gundlach, who used to be one of Howard’s “tormentors” as a child, said he’s been moved by the old man’s last act, and, like a lot of people in town, is reevaluating Wesley Howard. “It changes everything,” he said. “It changes my ideas of him, guaranteed, and it makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t have been such a rotten kid.”