Photo by Ann McCreary

Grand Marshal Don Ashford and Grand Lady Sara Ashford

Don and Sara Ashford are heavily involved in community

By Ann McCreary

When Don and Sara Ashford step into the role of Grand Marshal and Lady of Winthrop ’49er Days this weekend, they’ll tap into their own past pioneering experiences to capture the spirit of the event, which celebrates the Methow Valley’s early days.

Unlike many couples selected to lead the annual ’49er Days celebration as Grand Marshal and Lady, the Ashfords aren’t descended from longtime Methow Valley homesteading families. However, the Ashfords share something in common with the valley’s early settlers, having tried their hand at some traditional pioneer pursuits — gold mining and horse ranching.

The Ashfords came to the Methow Valley 33 years ago to set up a pottery business in Winthrop. They have become deeply engaged in the community over the years, raising their five children here and contributing to a wide range of Methow Valley groups and activities.

Don Ashford’s voice is familiar to anyone who listens to the local radio station, KTRT “The Root,” which he manages and goes by the on-air name “Deputy Don.” He’s also often seen with a mic in hand at community events in the role of master of ceremonies.

Sara ran the Ashford’s pottery store for many years in Winthrop, where they sold pottery made by Don in a studio at their home near town. She also cultivated her gift with fabric art and painting, using natural and botanical dyes. In addition to creating and selling her art, she teaches classes for children adults, working out of her studio at TwispWorks.

The Ashford’s journey to the Methow was winding and unconventional. They met as art majors at Central Washington University, and after graduating lived for a while in a teepee on the Yakima River. They built a wood-fired kiln to make pottery, and slept on beaver skins. “They’re incredibly soft,” Don said.

Nomadic early years

Their unusual lifestyle caught the attention of an anthropology professor at Central Washington University. “He asked us to teach a class on how to live without money,” Don said.

They later moved to Carnation, near Seattle, when Sara was pregnant with their first child. They both worked for Seattle and King County arts commissions, teaching students and leading community art projects, while Don continued making his pottery.

They lived in Carnation during the 1970s, a rural area at the time, and their family grew to three children. They eventually became tired of the gray, wet weather, and in 1981 loaded their children into a station wagon and headed to Mexico.

They made it as far as Oregon where, through a connection with a friend, they began mining for gold in a remote area on the Illinois River. They bought a yurt and stayed there for a couple of years.

They mined using an underwater dredging technique. “Don would put on a wetsuit” and go into the river, Sara said, “and I stayed on top and made sure he was still alive.”

“We did really well,” Don said. But after he injured one of his knees, they moved to Cave Junction, Oregon, where they took jobs at a quarter horse ranch. They both helped with the horses, and Sara revived horsemanship skills she’d learned riding horses as a girl.

Don, a greenhorn in the horse world, discovered he “had a knack” with horses. “He was just always calm” around them, Sara said. Don worked with brood mares and their foals, and helped the owner show his horses. The Ashford’s children helped muck out stalls, Sara said.

They stayed on the ranch for about two years, and then decided to get back into making pottery for a living and wanted to open their own store to sell it. They had heard of the Methow Valley from friends, and Sara traveled here to scope it out.

To the Methow

In 1985 they made the move with their four children and several horses. They found a house next to the Shaffer Museum and “someone left a stack of cloth diapers on the front porch” when they moved in. They soon made friends with Shirley Haase, whose family was among the original homesteaders in the valley, and they remain good friends.

Sara will wear a vintage, feathered hat that Shirley wore when she and her husband, Sandy, served as Lady and Grand Marshal for ’49er Days several years ago.

The Ashfords opened their pottery store and a few years later Don started hosting a morning show on a local radio station, KVLR. He grew more involved in the station and “learned how to be a music director,” although it initially seemed an unlikely career path.

“I was really afraid of public speaking … I always tried to avoid it,” Don said. “When the radio thing happened, I tortured myself to get better. With radio, it’s just you by yourself in a room. I convinced myself no one was listening.”

After KVLR was sold, Don started KTRT in 2006 with his son Dov, who had “an innate understanding” of technical complexities of starting and running a radio station. “Dov taught me how to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for a license” and provided computer and technical expertise, Don said. Dov died four years later from leukemia. “He set the course for me, so I could continue,” Don said.

The Ashfords are involved in several community groups. Sara is a member of the Confluence Gallery board of directors and mentors students, and Don is president of the Methow Arts board of directors and serves on the Blues Festival board.

They admit that the invitation to serve as Grand Marshal and Lady for ’49er Days was unexpected. “We were shocked. Why us?” Sara said. “I think they made a mistake,” Don joked.

Don will wear cowboy boots and hat, and Sara has an antique velvet, beaded jacket to wear along with her vintage hat. The couple will preside at the various ’49er Days events, including their coronation on Friday evening at the Winthrop Barn, and riding in the Saturday parade in a Model T  automobile.


For more on this year’s ’49er days festivities, check out these related stories:

2018 ’49er Days Schedule of Events

Take a ‘Wild Ride’ in the Old West at ’49er Days in Winthrop

’49er Days logistics: getting there, getting around

Crowning achievement: The story of this year’s ’49er Days Junior Royalty