Whether you are an Ashland native or moved here from Spokane, Philly, or Peoria I’m sure you remember something from your youth that still brings a smile to your face. Often it’s a favorite person, event, or place. I have one, and our story today is about the Mandella Coffee House at the Ashland Federated Church.

Ashland back in the 60s and 70s had the usual compliment of youth participation programs. You know them all; Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, football, baseball, hockey, you name it. Our religious organizations had CYO, the Golden Ring Camp, and a group of kids from the Federated Church belonging to the Youth Fellowship program. One of the programs run by the Youth Fellowship was the Mandella Coffee House. Much like the activities run by other organizations, Mandella was a place for the younger folk, and sometimes the older ones too, to listen to music performed by local and area artists. I remember meeting my High School friends at the Mandella Coffee House on Saturday nights. The performers were talented, and considering the social atmosphere of the late 60s and early 70s often focused their music on controversial issues. I praise the elders of the Federated Church at that time for allowing a venue that was not overly restrictive, and allowed the staff of Mandella to offer a wide variety of performers.

Cliff Wilson, current President of the Ashland Historical Society, and his brother Joe played an active role in Mandella. According to Cliff, brother Joe was the Director of Christian Education at the church when the first series coffeehouses were held during the 1964-1965 season. Performers included Mac King and Paul Dubinski in November of 1964, Doug Green in January of 1965, and Mac, Paul, and Seama later in March of 1965. The following year, Bob Meyers and Bill performed, and finally Jim Oestereich of the Quest Seekers in 1967.

The coffeehouse concept was successful, but needed a shot in the arm. In 1968, Ed Grono, Doug Peck, Al McKenney, and Cliff became advisors to the high school fellowship members of the church and the teens were charged with running the coffeehouse. From my conversation with Cliff:

“On Saturday mornings, once or twice a month the teens would transform the basement into a coffeehouse. Tables with table covers and candles were set out, four chairs per table. The stage and light and sound system were assembled. A room for refreshment sales (and talking during performances) was set up down the hall in the back of the building. On Saturday night the coffeehouse was open to all the teens in town (and surrounding towns) for a small admission fee. Performances would alternate between local folk singers one night and professional folk singers on another night. As time went on, some of the locals were performing on stage with the professionals. On a few occasions, teens went on stage to read their poetry. The rules were simple. No talking or noise during the performance and no evidence of the coffeehouse left for Sunday school classes the next morning.

“By December of ‘68 the coffeehouse had a name, Mandella Coffeehouse, which although a corrupted spelling, symbolized the ‘wheel of life.’ Mandella remained strong over the next few years and offered great entertainment, but more importantly it offered a parent-free, safe environment. It was a place where the kids could take responsibility, have a good time, and make life long friends. It also offered an opportunity for the kids to show off their talent, be it guitar playing, singing, or poetry reading in front of a respectful audience.”

There was a broad spectrum of performers, both local and from the circuit, that shared the spotlights at Mandella. Some of the local talent included Scott Enochs, Judy MacKay, Joni Butterfield, Spring (Sammie Haynes and Sherri Bancroft), Carl Hakansson, Al Jones, Julie Proctor, Richard Thyng, Al Siddons, Doug Green, and Jim Critser.

Some of the circuit performers included Bill Staines, Paul Geremia, Andy Pratt, Livingston Taylor (younger brother of James Taylor), John Compton and Robin Batteau, David Batteau, Rat and Andy, Fred Hunt and Lulu Dowd, Mary Murtagh and Doris Jackson, Bob White, Bob McCarthy, Bill Madison, Jingles (Ed Richmond), Pam Osler, Lizard, Travis Shook and the Club Wow, Aztec Two-Step, Millard Fillmore Memorial Orchestra and Choir, Sweet Potato Pie, Debbie Freedman, Christopher (DeLoach) and Sara (Melton), and U. Utah Phillips

By all accounts, Mandella was a success for all involved. But as with everything, the times were changing, and along with them were people’s tastes in music. According to Cliff, the last known night of Mandella was May 7, 1973. Apparently too much competition from bigger name bands at other venues prompted the closing of Mandella. It simply faded away, although I thought I heard a rumor that there may be renewed interest in reviving it.

On a brighter note, a lot of the performers still play professionally today. And we still see Mandella veterans like Carl Hakansson and Dick Thyng performing locally at the summer concert series at Stone Park or John Stone’s.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
January 2010