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Remembrance of Early Des Moines, Washington

By Frank Carl "Fuzzy" Brown




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Opal Finnel and Rilda Martin Moses on Old Growth Log

This remembrance was written by Frank Carl "Fuzzy" Brown, son of Henry Brown and Emma Massey. His siblings were Chester, Raymond, and Mary. His uncles were Tom and Richard Massey, and Richard "Dick" Finnell. His aunt was Nettie Finnell.

Shortly after my birth on August 13, 1886, my father went to the Puget Sound country, to ascertain whether he would want to take his family out there and settle permanently. "The new country" had quite an appeal, and two of my mother's preacher brothers had already moved to that territory that accounted for my fathers return to Illinois, getting his few belongings together, and moving himself and family to Washington.

I was past three years old, at the time. We took our departure from our home in Jeffersonville, Illinois, on April 19, 1890. A group of families from White, Wayne, and Clay counties chartered an immigrant car in which to make the trip. The passengers boarded the car at Enfield and Flora, and stations between; and never disembarked until they reached Tacoma, Washington. I was the only little child on the car, and was accorded a great deal of notice. I knew no strangers. Mother had made me a little red velvet dress and cap to match, for my traveling suit. My hair was golden in color (my black baby hair was only temporary) and hung in long curls around my neck. I also had a talent for singing and my mother had trained me pretty well in the church catechism; I knew the answers to quite a few bible questions.

So, during that trip I performed for the entertainment of the passengers, reaping frequent rewards of candy or cookies. The memory of some incidents of that week was graven deep in my childlike mind.

The last stage of our journey, was a short boat trip from Tacoma, Washington, to the new town of Des Moines, our final destination. I remember but little of that boat ride save the landing at Des Moines. Most of our folks had left the boat by way of the gangplank, but I was handed up from the deck of the little boat to the waiting arms of some of my people on the wharf. I can see the dark green waves with their white crests yet.

Our family lived with my grandmother, and uncles and aunt, that summer, while my father put up a dwelling on our little property, about a mile distant from town. Here, at the house of my grandmother, July 20, 1890, my youngest sister, Mary, was born. I remember that afternoon quite well, and when I came into the house for supper, I heard a new cry. I thought that little sister was pretty nice. I spent that summer, playing on the beach and among the beautiful flowers in the yard. The beach was a real wonderland to me with its agate rocks, seashells, and the drift cast up by each incoming tide that always carried pretty and interesting surprises, in boxes, bottles, containers, articles of furniture or most anything. Crabs, fish, and water birds, also, gave plenty of action to the scene.

If my memory serves me right, it was at the Christmas season of the third year of my life, that an experience came to me that has affected my life ever since. The public school of the new community sponsored a Christmas program that was presented in a large hall. Knowing something of my ability and my willingness to exhibit my little talent, the committee arranged a place for me on the program. Of course, this program was the big event for the community that evening, and a large crowd attended. At the calling of my name, I stepped out on the lighted platform and looked out over the sea of faces; but, for once, I was speechless. I couldn't think of a single word of the reading I had prepared to give. I stood there for more than a minute, while the crowd waited expectantly. There was no one prepared to prompt me; then, the director of the program, kindly, came over to me and led me off the stage. The well meaning crowd gave me a rousing applause, but I was so humiliated that I burst into tears. Not until I was nearly twelve years old, was I able to recite in public. Even now, after a lifetime of preaching, a disconcerting self-consciousness tends to make my knees buckle, whenever I face a strange audience.

Speaking of Christmas, I shall never forget the Christmas Eve of a year or two later. My mother's preacher brother, Uncle Tom (Massey) was spending the holidays at grandmothers, and a family Christmas tree celebration was planned there. We had moved to our own home, and had brought in a pretty little spruce tree, and trimmed it with homemade decorations. Considerable rain had fallen on the day before Christmas and, in the afternoon there were indications that more storm was coming. We could have had a happy Christmas eve at home; but we were reluctant to miss the event down at grandmother's. So, at last, we decided to go.

Between grandmother's and our home, was a swamp, drained by a creek that emptied its waters into the Puget Sound. The most traveled route between our homes was across this swamp. This was not a public highway, but a footpath that stretched across the swamp. It was a boardwalk, built up on short piles or stakes, to hold the planks above the ordinary water level. Our Christmas gathering was so joyous that evening, we were unconscious of, or cared little about what was taking place without. Telling stories singing, calling off the names of those who had presents on the tree; such family circles and such radiant good cheer are rarely seen in our more modern days. When bedtime came our family reluctantly prepared for the return home.

Opening the door, the sound of moving water seemed uncommonly near. Brief investigation revealed that the water of the little creek had overflowed its banks; the saltwater of the Sound had backed up; and that the swamp was a turbulent body of water, whose level was rising higher every hour. With not a little trepidation, we started on our journey. My older brother took the lead and acted as scout; while father was nearer to mother and us smaller children, to advise and help. We found that the waters had covered or washed out some sections of the boardwalk, making it necessary to "coon" a floating log now and then. However the logs were of ample size to give room for our feet, the most difficult steps were those taken when passing from one log to another. After a period that seemed ages to me; (the actual time, probably, was hardly more than a quarter of an hour) we set foot on the solid earth on that side of the swamp nearest home. The remainder of the journey was made without undue anxiety. Arrived at home and safely in bed, we children quickly dropped off to sleep; but I don't believe my parent's slept much that night. They realized the real danger through which we had passed. An hour later the crossing of that swamp would have been impossible. The following morning, grandmother's house and yard were entirely surrounded by water much too deep to be waded.

Another red-letter event in my young life marked the transition from babyhood to childhood. My Uncle Tom had a son whose name was Tom we all called him little Tom. He was hardly a year older than I was. One summer, while Uncle Tom took his vacation, his wife and family spent the time at grandmothers. Occasionally my cousin wore a little boy's outfit of waist end short pants, My! How I envied him! For in all my wardrobe, I had, only, dresses. One day my Aunt Ida called us boys into her room. When we reappeared, we were both clad in "boys' clothes." She had made each of us a little waist; and had made me a present of a pair of Little Tom's pants. I clearly remember that waist. The pattern was an irregular arrangement of figures of small horseshoes. How proud I was of that outfit. Accompanied by my cousin, I immediately set out for home, to exhibit my first pair of breeches to my mother. Of course she was interested but I fancy that some tinge of sadness crept into her heart as she realized that her baby boy was slipping away from her. From that day dresses and skirts were "taboo" with yours truly. Pants, only, filled the requirements of the young gentleman that I imagined myself to be.

Among the mental impressions carried over from childhood days, there are none more vivid than those associated with school and church. In our new community, the first terms of school and the first church services were held in a building rented for the purpose. My earliest memory of a religious service was one in which my Uncle Tom preached and in which he administered baptism to a girl of about ten or twelve years. I can't remember my first day at school; but I do remember my first and second readers. How pretty I thought the pictures; and how eager I was to read the little stories about them. I think that the most of my reading in these books was done at home. I was not a very husky youngster in those years, and my parents must have thought the journey, to and from school, a little too much for me. My mother had been a teacher before her marriage, so I had a good private teacher, and my education was not neglected. When the new school house, a building of two stories and basement, was completed and opened, I started regularly to school. I can't remember of missing much from then on. The two rooms on the first floor were used for school, and the two rooms on the second floor were used for church, and community assemblies. A rear outside stairway leading down from the second floor was intended for a fire escape. We children saw in its banisters fine possibilities as a slide, and had great fun there for a while, until the teachers put a ban on that sport, upon the urgent protest of the mothers of the community, that the seat of their sons breeches were wearing thin to the "vanishing point."

It was in this new school house, that I attended a funeral for the first time. The corpse, had been an elderly man that I had seen about town and at church services occasionally. His children, a boy and two girls, were almost grown and attended school. The black hearse, solemn low music, and weeping mourners, cast a gloom over my spirit that did not lift for many days. It was the first time that I realized how dark and mysterious death is. I have always avoided attending funerals ever since, unless I can actually render some service to the bereaved in some way.

The improvements on our little homestead were made, only as my father could acquire the materials needed. Much of the lumber for our original house was salvaged from the drift brought in by the tide. Piece by piece and at considerable labor, it was carried up from the beach to the top of the bluff and allowed to dry. Presently my father in partnership with another man bought and wrecked a large stone building in town. Father hauled his share of the lumber and stacked it, according to length, in piles against our front fence; until he would be ready to use it in further improving our house.

One warm summer day, we had returned from church, Company had come and I was one of the children who had to wait for the "second table" at dinner. I knew how company will linger over a good dinner; so I decided to crawl into one of the niches of that lumber pile and lie down and rest, while I waited For my turn to eat, But the warm day made me drowsy and I fell asleep. Time came for the second table and the folks called for me. Of course, I did not answer. In fact that lumber cut off sound that was any distance away. When I didn't respond the whole family and visitors were alarmed. Some went to the well; others ran down to the high bluff below the house, to see if I might have fallen over onto the beach below. The folks were running all about and calling excitedly while I was lying there in the lumber pile all unconscious of the great commotion that I was causing. Finally, one of my brothers jumped up on the lumber pile, near me, and let out a yell that aroused me, and I came crawling out of my hiding place. After their surprise at finding me so near, most of the folks thought it was all a good, joke; but my parents were nearly in a mood to spank me. Such incidents have their humorous aspects when viewed at a distance; but at the time, my father and mother had cause for anxiety, for that open well and that unguarded precipice at the lower end of our Property were real dangers. Who knows what visions of my little lifeless or mangled body raced through their minds during the moments of that search?

Life in that West Country was packed with breath catching risks every day. One day my father and a neighbor were felling a big fir tree. The tree stood almost erect. They made the undercut and wedged it to fall in a certain place. When they had nearly sawed through, the tree hung, kicked back on the stump; and fell in almost the opposite way from that in which they expected it to fall. When the tree began its strange actions, both men jumped into the under-brush, expecting to be crushed to death. After the fall father picked himself up, thinking his neighbor was killed, and his neighbor did likewise. The tree had fallen between them and neither was hurt.

Aunt Nettie (the one who attended mother and I when I was a baby) took sister, Mary, and me to Seattle. We made the trip on the steamboat, The Glide, which made a round-trip run between Tacoma and Seattle daily, touching at the wharves of the smaller towns, along the coast. Leaving Des Moines about 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning, that boat ride was a novel experience to a little boy and girl, their first time away from home. Our eager eyes took in the main lines of the picture. The captain, up in his little pilot house at the wheel. The deckhands down on the lower deck handling the freight. The great stern wheel, churning up the water and leaving a foamy trail behind. The passengers of various nationalities, boarding or leaving the vessel at each stop, and the two passenger cabins, one for men and one women, furnished comfortably and convenient. Only the tremor of the vessel, caused by the laboring machinery, to remind us that we were not in some dwelling on shore.

After landing in the city, our first treat was a streetcar ride. That long yellow vehicle that pulled up and stopped in the middle of the street sure started us asking questions, "What makes it go?" Aunt replied; "It is power from the line above." Yes, we could see that tongue projecting from the roof, "Where were the horses to pull it? But Auntie only said, "Shut up, and get on the streetcar." On the car there were two men, dressed in blue clothes, who next drew our attention. One sat in the extreme end, and was working cranks or levers all the time; the other had a silver contraption fastened to his belt, that held small coins. As he came down the aisle, everybody gave him some money. Every time he received a coin, he jerked a chain hanging from the silver instrument on his belt, that rang a tiny bell. Aunt Nettie gave him three nickels, as he came by our seat.

We had never seen so many people as we saw that day. We held tight to Aunt Nettie's hand, so we would not get separated in the crowd. It was before the day of automobiles; but dray wagons and carts of every color and size made contribution to a real traffic problem. Uniformed police were stationed at street intersections. Newsboys, also, were active on the corners.

We ate dinner in a Jap restaurant that day. The main dish of the menu, ordered by our aunt, was baked halibut. The fish was served nice and brown, in a very delicious sauce. It was a most savory dish to me. Since we were eating away from home, I thought that as a matter of courtesy, we should eat something of all that was placed upon the table, but when mashed potatoes was set by my plate, I balked, and, with a voice near tears, I asked, "Aunt Nettie, do I have to eat those potatoes?" Now, a potato was one article of food that actually turned my stomach upside down. I couldn't keep them swallowed. So, when Aunt Nettie said, "No, Fuzzy, just set them aside, and eat, only, what you like," a great load was lifted from my mind. Those little yellow men, with funny, slanted eyes, and straight, black hair, who ran the place, gave us as much to think and talk about, as did the meal we ate. My Aunt got a wonderful "kick" out of it, watching us kids.

The climaxing experience of the day was getting our pictures taken. The artist's studio was on an upper floor of a building so Aunt decided to take an elevator. She gave us no intimation of this; however I became aware as we walked down a corridor. We were approaching a very small room. A man stood, smiling, at the door. Why should I think otherwise, than that he was the man who was going to take our pictures? Sister and I entered the little room, and began looking around for a seat where we could be at ease and face the camera, but Aunt Nettie had followed us into the room and to our nervous surprise, the whole thing began to move upward. Then it stopped, the man opened the door, and we stepped out into another corridor. Sister and I heaved a big sigh, and Aunt Nettie was shaking with laughter.

A few doors down the corridor, we found the photographer's office. Any unusual surroundings, here, provoked no surprise in us; for, by this time, we were learning that just about anything could happen and we would come out all right in the end. Our pictures were taken at last, sister and me, together. We have one of those pictures yet. I look at it now and note what solemn, eyed little folks we were. I wonder if we were not thinking, at the time of the exposure, about that "dog gonned elevator."

We came back to the boat quite a while before its scheduled hour of departure. Sister and I stood on the deck, outside, watching the activity on the wharves and water front street. Railroad spurs ran out on the wharves, and steam locomotives were pushing bright colored cars up and down the tracks, with puffs of black smoke, and much clanging of bells. The city of Seattle was built on a hillside. The streets running up and down the hill seemed like streams; filled with living, moving things; and emptying into the sound. The cross streets rose one above another, like terraces. Passenger steamers, barges, scows, tugs and sailboats stood at the wharves, or were landing or departing continually. The whole panorama was a cross section of a strange world to us.

Our return home was uneventful, save that the Sound became a bit rough before we reached Des Moines. The old captain had to make a second and third attempt before bringing the boat alongside the wharf, properly, so as to loop the ropes and make the vessel fast, in landing. We were glad to round in at home and our supper tasted good. Soon, we were off to bed, and to dream of strange sights and faraway places.

As previously mentioned, my father's plot of ground sloped down to the water's edge. From our kitchen window, we could look out upon Puget Sound; but our house faced a forest of tall fir and cedar trees. A new made "county road," from Des Moines, led up to our little settlement. The community was surveyed and laid off in acre-plots. One other street beside the "county road" traversed this community. We had about 5 immediate neighbor families. The forest surrounding this little neighborhood, abounded with wild game, quail, pheasant, grouse, squirrels, deer, and occasionally a bear was seen or shot. Neither of my parents (especially my mother) was very enthusiastic about having firearms in the home; and, as a consequence, neither my brothers nor I followed in the way of Davey Crockett or Daniel Boone.

Father decided to dig a new well. Our first well was not conveniently located, and did not yield an ample supply of water. He had gotten down to moist yellow clay and was expecting to strike a vein of water most any time. I have forgotten, whether it was a neighbor or my uncle who was working with him. They would exchange, at intervals, one working below in the well, the other on top, working the windlass, drawing up in a bucket, the clay dug out by the fellow below. The soft clay was dumped out all around the top of the well. Sister and I were playing around the yard and often would slip up and look over the edge and down into the well to see how deep it was.

One day, father particularly cautioned us to stay away from the well especially when he was not on top to watch us, as the well was getting fairly deep and we might tumble in. Along in the morning I wanted something in another part of the yard, and took a short cut, that led by the well, to get it. My father was below at the time; and his helper did not happen to be right at the top of the well. Just then, as I ran, right at the well, my foot slipped on that wet clay and I rolled over the brink. Father had just made his stroke with the pickax. His back was still bent over and he was pulling at the handle to loosen the dirt when my body struck his back and balanced there. When my feet touched the ground, and we straightened up and faced each other, it was hard to tell which was the more surprised. The fall was not over 14 feet and aside from the wind being knocked out of me, I was not hurt.

Father didn't scold me much; there was no need of it. I never had to be cautioned to keep away from that well again. In a day or two, they struck water. The well was covered, and a high curb and permanent windlass built in. Those who drank of its water told Father, often, that he had one of the best wells in that country.

Church services were held in the school building. At first, the Sunday school was a "union" school. Methodists predominated in the community, and it was Methodist preachers who were most generally heard. One Catholic family never attended our services. There were Episcopal and Lutheran faiths represented in the congregation at times. A Methodist Church was organized, and the school became a Methodist Sunday school. An old Civil war captain was our superintendent for several years. He had long white beard. I used to wonder if Abraham did not look like him.

When I became one of a new "boy's class" I felt quite important. We were just "little" boys but we were not placed with girls any longer. We were glad of that. My Aunt Nettie was the teacher.

I remember one revival meeting. An evangelist singer assisted our regular preacher. His name was Pierson. They used new songbooks in that meeting. I liked the new songs and learned a number of them, by heart. One pastor we had, always told a story to the children before he began his sermon. I think I liked that preacher, best, among all the others we had. I recall one regular Easter Service; and how I went to the woods, the Saturday before, and helped to gather Easter lilies and pink wild current blossoms and ferns, to make bouquets for the decorations.

Business was quite active in the West, so long as Eastern capital organized and backed the enterprises in the new territory. When New York money barons fell out with President Cleveland, in the early 1890's, our mushroom towns suddenly wilted, industries shut down, and western Washington became a land of wandering unemployed, laboring men. The main natural resource was timber. Real estate values had dropped so low that owners of those tracts of forestland never concerned themselves about their property. There was no demand for their product save the small amount of firewood needed by the local community. No one was considered a trespasser, who felled a tree anywhere in these timber tracts, and cut it up for fuel. The steamboats used cordwood for fuel, and some of them would touch at our wharf and buy this fuel regularly. This afforded some employment. My father and brothers cut cord wood in those days for 75 cents per day. Their wages were not always paid in cash, but often with orders on the grocery store. In the Autumn time, of one or two years, our men folks made a good catch of salmon that they dressed and either, salted away or smoked, for use during the winter. I remember of going out, with my father and brothers to their work in the timber for the day. The lunch, which we took along, with us, consisted of bread and smoked salmon.

At home, I have sat down to the table when the course was only bread and gravy. The gravy was made of flour of the cheapest grade and water. I noticed, a few times, that father and mother scarcely ate at all. There were only a few slices of bread, there was no flour in the barrel, and no money whatever in the house. I can remember father's anxious face and mother's prayers at the family altar, in those days. One day Uncle Frank, who had a job over at Tacoma for just a short while, came up to visit us. He brought a 50 lb. sack of flour and a pail of lard with him. There were tears in Mother's eyes.

Spring came on. We had a few hens that began to lay. Our cow freshened and we had milk. How good that tasted! Then came garden products and fruit. Opportunities to cut cord wood and shingle bolts came more often. Father and another man arranged to put in a good-sized patch of potatoes, on a farm over in the White River valley several miles away. In several seasons, our men folks made some extra cash, working in the hop fields, in that same valley. A family moved in and built a shingle mill. Men in our family all secured work here. Wages were raised. My brother Ray saved enough money to help him through Puget Sound University, one winter. Brother Chester bought a cow with his money. Mother increased her flock of chickens. Chester started a pen of Belgian hares. Soon, we had chickens and rabbits, running all over the place. Yes, a better day was dawning and those "lean years" seamed a terrible nightmare.


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