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Skagit River Journal

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Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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A Fair Distance (Lois Boblett's memoir)
by Darlene Spargo

(Lois Boblett)
      We were first introduced to Darlene Spargo when she was researching the life of Lois Boblett and family and needed some Northwest details and we helped her place the book with retailers. A Fair Distance [2009, Columbine Ink http://www.columbineink.com] is now in print and it is a very valuable resource to researchers and genealogists as well as those who are curious about the day-to-day details of the great migration westwards. Boblett and her husband, Ed, and their extended family spent over a decade traveling in a great arc from Wisconsin to Iowa to Arizona to Semiahmoo to the Klondike and back to Washington and Idaho, and many points in between. As Darlene initially explained:
      . . . the original copy of [Lois's] journal was given to me by Judy Artley, who co-authored my book Pioneer Dreams, Histories of Washington Territorial Pioneers . Her friend found the copy in her father-in-law's papers. I believe that the journal had been copied and passed around through the family, possibly at a family reunion. I was able to located several nieces and nephews of the Bobletts. They shared information and photos for the book.
      I loved her memoir and wanted to save it. When I decided to "prove" her story, I realized that she not only hadn't embroidered the facts, but had left out much of the story. That is when I decided to do the sidebars. I believe her story was even more interesting when placed alongside the events that swirled around her everywhere she went. My only wish is that I had been able to meet her.

Journal ed. note: If you want to purchase the book, Spargo notes that it is available through the publisher, Columbine Ink, located in Denver, CO. Their web site is www.columbineink.com and the book is priced at $15.95 with an additional shipping fee. Or you can buy directly at Village Books in Fairhaven. You can email her directly at this address and she may be able to suggest other retailers in your area.

      Lois's memories span the years 1851-1922, almost all her life, and half the continent. Lois and her family prospected for gold in Colorado, contributed to the formation of the New Mexico Territory, ranched in Arizona, traveled through California, homesteaded in Washington, searched for silver in Idaho (along with silver king James Wardner) and stampeded to the Klondike.
      Lois wrote her memoir in 1922, three years before her death. For more than 85 years, copies were passed among her family .Spargo researched and documented each location, event and person Lois wrote about. As Darlene notes, Lois's words often add new information and new dimensions to the historical record in several areas.
      From a Northwest perspective, Spargo informs that:

      The first permanent settlers in Semiahmoo were the Bobletts, Dexters, Whitcombs, Brookins, J. and L. Chestnut, D.S. Miller, Z. Jones, H. Stoltenberg, J.F. Tarte, J. McBee. The Bobletts arrived on the J.B. Libby, circa 1870, the first steamer to run into the harbor. They left Blaine for Idaho to look for gold, but returned without any riches. They also built the American Hotel in Rathdrum, Idaho. The Bobletts were involved in platting and developing Blaine. Boblett Street is named for them. I am not sure if the original house is still standing. Ed Boblett was a real estate investor and builder and served on the City Council.
     We share below two excerpts from the book. The first is from the introduction. The second is an example of the sidebars that Darlene shares liberally throughout the book. Many of our readers have inquired about: what was oakum, the material used to caulk both homes and ships. That sidebar was most informative.

    Any time, any amount, please help build our travel and research fund for what promises to be a very busy 2011, traveling to mine resources from California to Washington and maybe beyond. Depth of research determined by the level of aid from readers. Because of our recent illness, our research fund is completely bare. See many examples of how you can aid our project and help us continue for another ten years. And subscriptions to our optional Subscribers Online Magazine (launched 2000) by donation too. Thank you.

We recently visited our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, which is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down bedding. See our Journal feature on this local business and learn more details and how to order items at their website.

      Lois Almena Whitcomb Boblett was both a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time.
      Although she kept journals, we have been unable to locate them; perhaps they are lost forever. Fortunately for us, a family member sat down with Lois in 1922 and typed her memoirs and the family passed copies around among themselves. One of these copies came to our attention, and for a year we studied it and discussed the possibility of publishing the memoir. At times, Lois's story seemed too good to be true. We decided to document her story and our research began in earnest. Every location, every event, every person she mentioned became a subject for research, and time after time, her story was correct in every detail. Often, she added additional information to what was already in the record.
      What Lois didn't say was as interesting as what she did say. She seemed to have no time to waste on politics or cur≠ rent events or gossip. Her world was confined to the day-to-day struggle for survival and the pursuit of a better, stable future for her children. We share the same goals today, but while we are fighting traffic, she was fighting Indians.
      When we imagine a home of our own, we take many things for granted: power, indoor plumbing, and food in the cupboards. She fought to have her' dirt floors covered with stone and had to grow her family's food. Time and again, circumstances conspired to force Lois to start over, which she did with little more than an ironic shrug. If you had to do something, you might as well just get started and do it.
      In telling Lois's story, I endeavored to place her in history, as no one lives in a vacuum. Events swirling around Lois affected her decisions, her mode of living, her opportunities, and limitations. Even though Lois lived on the frontier, decisions made on the other side of the country affected her and her family directly. How Lois dealt with the trials and tribulations she faced is truly fascinating reading.
      As you read the book, please note that Lois's story is written in regular type and the historical additions are in shaded sidebars. As a service to the reader, I have added chapters and subheads. The chapters reflect the moves, starting from Lois's birth in Wisconsin, to new United States territories, states, and districts and Canada's British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Some of Lois's long paragraphs have been split into two or more paragraphs. However, throughout Chapters 1-13, her words are printed as written, misspellings and all.
      The photographs and illustrations, of course, were added by the author and provide another dimension in under≠ standing Lois's journey across the continent. For Lois Almena Whitcomb, moving on was a way of life. Her parents, Aretas and Lydia Priest Whitcomb, had already moved from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania to Wisconsin prior to Lois's birth in Milwaukee.

Sidebar: Oakum
      Lois and Mrs. Paul certainly deserved Mr. Paul's thanks for picking the oakum for the boat, which wouldn't have been seaworthy without it. Picking oakum dates back to the early 1600s. Marine historian Ted Kaye describes oakum as
      . . . loose fibers obtained by unpicking old ropes which were then sold to the navy or other shipbuilders—it was mixed with pine tar and used for caulking (sealing the lining) of wooden ships, Picking oakum was done without tools of any sort and was very hard on the fingers, Oakum is a recycled product. Before wire ropes, all rigging on ships was hemp. In running rigging, uncoated hemp rope for standing rigging was tarred, parceled, and served. The pine tar and varnish coating wears out in time and since untreated hemp goes slack when wet, worn rigging had to be replaced.
     Historically, oakum picking was performed by slaves, poorhouse inmates and prisoners, because few people would willingly perform such tedious work. The Pall Mall Gazette , London, England, printed a series of articles written by WT Stead during his incarceration at Coldbath Fields Prison in 1885-86. Stead wrote in My First Imprisonment:
      Then I set to work to pick oakum. It was not the proper oakum, but coir libre. I had to pick from ten ounces to one pound, It is an excellent rneditative occupation. But it is hard at first on the finger-nails. Mine wanted trimming; for, if the nails are not short, the leverage on the nail in disentangling the fibre causes considerable suffering.
      Stead was fortunate. He had to pick one pound of oakum daily, while a man sentenced to hard labor had to pick three pounds daily. Picking was introduced into prisons as a punishment for men in 1840:
      . . . prisoners were given a weighted quantity of old rope cut into lengths equal to that of a hoop stick. Some ot` the pieces are white and sodden looking . . . others are hard and black with tar upon them. The prisoner takes up a length of junk and untwists it and when he has separated it into so many corkscrew strands, he further unrolls them by sliding them with the palm of his hand until the meshes are loosened. The strand is further unravelled by placing it in the bends of a hook fastened to me knees and sawing it smartly to and fro which soon removes the tar and grates the fibres apart. In this condition, all that remains to be done is loosen the hemp by pulling it out like cotton wool, when the process is completed . . . The place is full of dust. The shoulders of the men are covered with brown dust almost as thick as the shirt front of a snuff taker . . the hard rope cuts and blisters their fingers.

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Story posted on May 1, 2010, last updated Oct. 26, 2011 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them

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