History, Summer, and Kid Stuff

We kids learned about the past as we made our own fun.

Growing up in the Robe Valley, Washington, back in the 1940s and ‘50s, we neighborhood children were surrounded by reminders of the history I wrote about in Heart’s Gold, a novel set in Washington State’s gold-mining boomtown of Monte Cristo. To us kids, those reminders were just part of what made our community a fun place to live.

On warm summer days, wearing swimsuits under our clothing, we’d traipse through the woods to our swimming hole. We followed a narrow track that had once been part of the county road that ran from Granite Falls through the valley. The road took us to “Nichols Store.”

The owners had abandoned the two-story, unpainted building sometime after the present road was finished in the early 1940s, but we found ways to wriggle inside and explore the empty rooms. I could barely remember stopping there at age three or four with my parents so they could mail a letter or buy milk.


Image 2-26-18 at 8.35 AM (1)
Nichols Store, showing ramp and siding for unloading freight (and passengers?)


From the clearing in front rose a long, grass-covered ridge we knew had once been the railroad grade. The Everett and Monte Cristo Railway trains had stopped at Nichols Store on their way to the communities up the valley.

Climbing over the grade, we crossed a decaying bridge spanning a creek full of little fish, then walked on through a park-like area beside the river. Someone had built a picnic shelter there, perhaps in the earlier days of tourist excursions. But no one came for picnics now, except for us kids. The river ran past this grassy space and beyond lay the quiet eddy that was our swimming hole.

The remains of an old railroad-bridge buttress loomed above the hole. A deluge in 1897 had washed away the bridge, along with the dreams of miners and mine owners at Monte.

If no parents were along, after our swim we dared each other to climb up the slanting timbers to the cross pieces on top that had supported the tracks. Cushioned with moss, they made a soft place to dry off in the sunshine. We were careful though. We could feel the trestle wobble beneath us with every movement.


Image 2-26-18 at 8.35 AM
Bridge #18, a double-span Howe truss bridge. Our swimming hole was beyond the right side of the photograph. When this bridge washed away in 1897, it was replaced by a higher bridge, gone by the time of the story.

On the riverbank near the swimming hole was another temptation to adventurous kids—an old cable car, still attached to a fraying cable that hung above the river. The cable ran over rusty pulleys that were fastened to sturdy trees at each end. The floorboards were loose. Some were missing. Most of us could see the danger and only speculated about how much fun the ride must have been, once upon a time.

Recently I found a story in Philip R. Woodhouse’s book, Monte Cristo, about what was likely this same cable car. For quite some time following the destruction of the bridge and the railroad through the Robe Canyon, people in Silverton and Monte Cristo held onto hope that repairs could enable mining to start up again.

Temporary repairs did start in the canyon, and while awaiting replacement of the bridge, a Silverton man established his own tongue-in-cheek railroad company—a single push car. Every day he coasted down the deserted tracks from Silverton to a cable tram installed near the site of the missing bridge. Mail and supplies for Silverton were piled on the tram and sent across the river. Then he loaded them on his man-powered push car and pumped his way back to Silverton.

The cable car would have been over fifty years old when a neighbor boy talked my little brother David into taking a ride. They hauled themselves across the tumbling river without losing fingers to the cable or falling through the rotting boards. It must have been a scary trip because once safely on the far side, David refused to get back on. The older boy left him behind and got word to our father about the situation.

Fortunately in late summer, the river was not too high. But it was swift, and the rocks were slippery. Dad waded across and carried a frightened David on his back to the other side. Then Dad destroyed the tram so that no other kids would be tempted.

We didn’t know then how the old bridge abutment or the abandoned cable car tied into the story of Monte Cristo. But as young adults, we got to know the old ghost town up close and personal. It is still a favorite hiking destination for hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts. Robe Canyon and the Stillaguamish River where we played is a well-loved recreation center for many more.

Grandma and the Prairie Fire

A steam-powered threshing machine at work on the prairie

My father’s sister, Alma, told this story, one her mother often repeated to her. Alma was third in a family of seven siblings. In the early 1900s, her parents, Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, migrated from Illinois to North Dakota. Traveling by train with their livestock and meager household goods to the broad, rolling grasslands near Williston, they staked a claim to a homestead.

Thomas purchased one of the new-fangled threshing machines on credit. The salesman had persuaded him that he could make good money by hiring out his machine and labor to neighboring homesteaders. But that meant he had to stay away from home during harvest time, leaving Ethel alone with two small children on the vast, empty prairie.

One day in late fall, Ethel spied smoke rising from beyond the horizon. It was a prairie fire, dreaded by all homesteaders! Their two-room tar-paper shack could never survive the flames. There was no place to go, no way to get help. As the column of smoke grew bigger and closer, her eyes fell on the square of bare dirt left when she and Thomas had moved the barn to a new location just weeks ago. It was her only hope. She hauled buckets of water from the well, filled containers, and with the help of four-year-old Freddie, lugged them to the square of dirt. She piled the quilts from the beds next to the water, thinking she would soak them and wrap herself and the children in them for protection from the flames. Then she snatched baby Amy from her cradle, ready to take her and Freddie to the only place of possible safety. Oh, and the cow! She had to try to save the cow, too.

As Ethel hurried outside with the children, she glanced again at the oncoming smoke. Was that a horse and rider, racing ahead of the fire? Yes. It was Thomas! Seeing the fire, he’d borrowed a horse and come to save his family.

Telling Freddie to stay with his baby sister, Ethel ran to help. Neighbors appeared. Everyone was so busy fighting the fire, no one noticed the sky until snow began to fall, heavy, wet flakes that filled the air. The flames sputtered and died down. In a matter of minutes the prairie fire flickered out. Ethel later told her daughter, my aunt Alma, that this was the only time in her life she’d loved a snow.

Tale of A Grand Piano

Growing up in the Robe valley back in the 1940s, we five Rawlins kids seldom felt the lack of nearby grandparents.

Instead, we had Verna and Will Blythe, cheerful neighbors who welcomed our frequent visits and invited us to call them “Aunt” and “Uncle.”

Sometimes Aunty Verna let us plink out tunes on the elegant, black piano that stood in a corner of their parlor. I never heard her play it so I assumed their daughter Helen had made music on it when she still lived at home. That piano seemed enormous. I often wondered about its history.

Helen had two cousins, Bob and Norman, who lived across the hay field. All three cousins married and raised families. I left Robe valley, never having visited in their homes. Norman and Lois Blythe moved to Granite Falls, where Norman died. Some years later, I went to visit Lois. There, filling much of her living room, was Aunty Verna’s ornately carved piano I’d last seen nearly fifty years earlier.

Lois told me its story. Her father-in-law, Fred Blythe, had two brothers. Their father died young and the oldest boy, our own “Uncle” Will, left school at age twelve to support his mom and siblings. In 1902, when Will was sixteen, he, his mother, ten-year-old Fred, and seven-year-old Rod moved by train from Michigan to Seattle. The piano had been a sixteenth birthday gift to his mother, Ella, in 1873. It also came on the train.

They removed the legs for transport by taking out the big wooden screws that fastened them to the body. The solid brass sounding board and the painted, hand-carved rosewood of the piano’s main section weighed close to 2000 pounds. Six men could barely carry it.

Lois knew that the train brought the piano as far as Hartford on the tracks of the old Monte Cristo-Everett railroad. From there it was hauled over the primitive road to Robe valley. Young Will built a home for the family, with the help of neighbors. The youngest son, Rod, learned to play the piano, but a few years later he went off to fight in WWI and died overseas.

Lois plays the beautiful old instrument now. Several years ago, when the lyre that holds the
pedals needed tightening, her son took it apart. He found a hand-carved space in the block beneath the lyre, and in it a key that locks the cover. Perhaps it was hidden there for safe-keeping when the piano arrived at its new home in the valley back in 1902 or 1903.

Attention to detail
was a hallmark of
the period.

The name in scrollwork on the front of the piano
reads RD Bullock, Jackson. The original rosewood
shows through the old paint.

The secret box is beneath the lyre.

Déjà Vu with Dr. Nelson

(click for larger view)

Last year, Hank and I walked with our granddaughters into the Marysville Historical Society’s museum…the first time any of us had been there. Its temporary home is in a former store on 3rd Street and inside is an amazing collection of items showcasing the town’s history.

We squeezed past a carousel of early-day photographs to reach a collection of telephone switchboards. Glancing into a nearly hidden alcove, I was startled to see a familiar face smiling from a life-sized photo on the wall. There stood Dr. H.L. Nelson in his white dentist’s coat, looking just as he’d appeared more than 50 years ago. Time stood still in a moment of déjà vu.

Beneath Dr. Nelson’s picture sat the very same equipment he’d used during those hated but necessary visits to his office. The leather-covered chair was cracked and scuffed with use. Crowded into the alcove were his equipment cupboard, the sink where he’d washed his hands (no latex gloves in those days), and even those sharp and terrifying probes and his drill with the pulleys and cables.

We Rawlins kids grew up in the soft-water country of the Pacific Northwest, before the days of flossing or fluoridated toothpaste. By the time our second set of teeth came in and our parents could afford a family dentist, we had cavities…lots of them.

I remember Dr. Nelson’s name, painted on a framed glass sign, as it hung in the window of his little storefront dentist office on Marysville’s State Street. Behind that window was the tiny reception area. As we sat waiting, we occasionally heard muffled yelps of pain coming from behind a partition. We knew our turn was coming, and our dread grew.

Dr. Nelson’s assistant checked us in at the counter, fastened the paper bibs around our necks, and handed the dentist his tools as he worked.

To his younger customers, Dr. Nelson’s office looked liked a torture chamber. A monstrous chair, covered in shiny leather, had pads to grasp one’s head and hold it in place. Dr. Nelson worked a foot pump to raise that chair so he and his patient were nearly face-to-face. Then he adjusted levers to rock the chair back to a reclining position and proceeded to sort through a collection of frightening-looking implements. Selecting one of them, he would lean across the chest of his victim, tell him or her to “open wide,” and begin to explore the gaping mouth in front of him with that sharp instrument. It was too late for escape! The point of the pick dug at the weak spots in our teeth. Sometimes it even broke through into a spot of decay, and he had to work it free.

Having decided upon his course of action, he’d mutter directions to his nurse. She’d go about her mysterious business while he reached for that overhead drill, all pulleys and cables and a long probe to which he fastened a drill bit. It made a terrible whirring noise. “Open wider,” he said, and pressed that drill into the offending tooth. The grinding, whirring sound increased as the dentist bore down on it. The patient dared not move for fear of causing the drill to slip. Sometimes it did slip, gouging into a tender gum. Sometimes the tooth resisted and Dr. Nelson pressed harder. Then the enamel might suddenly give way, allowing the drill to plunge into the softer part of the tooth. Now our own yelps frightened those in the waiting room.

The dentist’s big hands and his instruments in our mouths stretched our lips to the splitting point. About the time we felt like we might drown in our own saliva, he stopped. The nurse handed us a little paper cup of water. “Rinse your mouth and spit,” she’d command. We leaned over the side of the chair and spit into a miniature round glass sink.

Dr. Nelson mixed some silver-colored metal with a little mortar and pestle and packed it bit by bit into the cavity. He polished the new filling with a different attachment on the overhead drill. When he was satisfied that the filling fit perfectly against the tooth above or below, we rinsed again and made our escape.

Over the years, there were many such appointments for each of us, for Dr. H. L. Nelson practiced dentistry in that same little store front office for 43 years, almost to the day he died in 1990, long after the advent of “painless” dentistry. Though not painless, his dental work lasted for decades and saved us siblings from the all-too-common fate of needing dentures at a young age.

I spent a long time in that alcove, marveling at the memories that battered equipment brought to mind. How odd. When I was eight or ten, that quaint equipment had been state-of-the art. Dr. Nelson had seemed an all-powerful figure not subject to the same frailties as other humans.

Had it all come down to this: an exhibit in a museum? An opportunity for grandparents to say to their grandchildren, “See? It really was this way when I was a child”?

No, it’s more than that. It’s true that the healing arts, like dentistry, must sometimes cause pain to bring eventual good. Dr. Nelson’s story is another opportunity to see that a life spent in service to others is a life well spent. If someone can someday say that about me, I wouldn’t mind ending up in a museum!

Another School Bus Story

Since my latest book, A Logger’s Daughter: Growing Up in Washington’s Woods, came out in October, something delightful has happened.

Long-ago friends, as well as new friends, call or write to share their memories. Some had parents in the logging industry, like I did. Many remember picnicking or hiking in the Robe Valley. Others share memories of a well-used galvanized washtub, or an adventure on the school bus, or the day electricity came to their homes.

In my next few blogs, I’d like to share some stories that didn’t make it into the book, because I didn’t know about them. Here’s one from Marcella Bond, our unofficial Big Sister back in the 1940s, who had a school bus story of her own:

“I went to the country school at Robe for my first year. Then the school closed and we rode the bus to Granite Falls. In 1935, the hilly county road was not yet paved. All the men teachers had been drafted to fight in WWII. So one of the high school boys who lived in the valley drove our bus.

big log on truckHeavily loaded logging trucks used the road, too. Everyone gave them the right of way on the twisting, mostly one lane dirt road. Brakes weren’t the best then, and you didn’t dispute the right of way with a careening log truck.”

One afternoon, the valley-bound school bus, with Marcella and four or five other children aboard, headed uphill, around a sharp curve. A logging truck appeared just ahead. The young driver pulled the bus as far to the right as he could. He breathed a sigh of relief as the truck squeezed by.

Suddenly the children heard glass shatter at the back of the bus. The bus jerked and began skidding backward. The projecting stub of a huge branch had punched through the side window at the corner of the bus, hooked it like a fish, and now the unnerved passengers were flying down the road behind the log truck.

The screams of the children alerted the unwitting truck driver who stopped, backed up, and released them to make their shaky way home.

All of the valley residents and log truck drivers, too, were grateful when the road was straightened, widened, and paved in in the mid-1940s.

(Photo courtesy of Granite Falls Historical Museum)

Petroglyphs and GPS

Recently, after several hundred miles of freeway driving in snow, rain, mixed snow and rain, wind, and fog, sharing the highway with thousands of slurry-churning big rigs, we finally reached southern Arizona and sunshine.

We’re delighted with our new GPS (Global Positioning System). “Marcy Polo” is a knowledgeable tour director. Her cheerful electronic voice patiently recharts our route after every wrong turn. She even tells us how far we still have to drive and how long it will take us.

Our cell phone keeps us in touch with friends and family, as long as we’re within reach of the nearest cell tower. We have radio and CD player to entertain us, maps and guidebooks to point out places of interest along the way.

Between Yuma and Casa Grande, “Marcy Polo” directs us off the main highway. She sends us through irrigated fields of alfalfa, then through scrubby desert to Arizona’s Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. We lock our GPS and cell phone in the car and walk toward an outcropping of tumbled basalt boulders. We stop to read the informational signs, then walk the trail that leads around the pile of black rocks. Suddenly, the contrast between today’s travel and that of the past comes to life.

We are on an ancient trade route. For centuries, Patayan and Hohokam Indians stopped here to chisel petroglyphs in the desert varnish coating the basalt, exposing lighter rock beneath. Most of the petroglyphs are on one side of the outcrop. Hundreds of them crowd the boulders in a bewildering array of geometric shapes, animals, mythical creatures, humans. Some date back to the time of Christ. One shows a horse and rider, perhaps commemorating the Spaniard’s introduction of the horse to North America. What did the ancient picture messages mean and who were they meant for?

No one knows for sure, but park signs tell us that the broad valley before us had been well- watered before modern settlers drained off the water for use elsewhere. Life here would have been easy for the original inhabitants. Travelers, as well, would have found plenty of food, water, and firewood.

In 1774, an expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza passed this way, en route to found the town of San Francisco. Standing in the sunshine, we could almost hear the jingling of spurs, the clop-clop of horses’ hooves. Later, stage coaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail route rumbled past carrying letters, newspapers, and merchandise. The soldiers of the famous Mormon Battalion also marched by, on their way from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego to help secure new lands in the west. Some of these travelers from the 1700s and 1800s left their own inscriptions.

I don’t understand how our GPS works. I don’t really understand the workings of our cell phone or radio, either. I’m thankful we live in a day when we have such wonders, but I’m also thankful for the enduring messages left by those ancient peoples. The Painted Rock petroglyphs communicate mystery and a sense of shared humanity that today’s marvels somehow miss.