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Skagit River Journal

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Maxine Meyers' memories
of her year as a fire-watcher, 1956

(Mount Josephine Tower)
The Mount Josephine lookout tower where Maxine Meyers worked for a season.

      If you mention fire watching in the North Cascades, local old-timers often think of Harry Osborne first. But in 1956 a woman from Lyman replaced a man who did not complete the season. The woman was Maxine Meyers, who would soon be Lyman's long-term postmaster. Her husband was Bud Meyers, who was a co-worker with Osborne at one time and was born and raised literally next door to the mountains and the lookout towers. Bud died in 2000 and Maxine died in 2002.
      Maxine was a tiny woman but she could be tough as nails and that is what the job required. She worked alone in a rickety old lookout tower on Mount Josephine through the month of October in 1956. In a 2000 interview, she told us:
      "It was like I could reach out and touch Mount Baker," she exclaimed. "But it was often really lonely. The kids refused to stay there overnight when they came up to visit. To be fair, it was a scary place, especially with those rickety old stairs to climb."
      When I asked, she said she was unaware that just miles away the future Beat-author Jack Kerouac was watching for fires at a small cabin on Desolation Peak, just south of the Canadian border. As Jesse Kennedy of the National Parks Service points out, Kerouac's lookout was of the L-4 design, not actually a tower such as the one on Josephine. Poet Gary Snyder had also signed on as a fire lookout earlier — at Crater in 1952 and Sourdough in 1953, but was blacklisted by the Feds and did not return for 1954, the "high summer of the great fear," as historian David Caute described it. His Reed College friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen manned Sauk Mountain in 1953, then Sourdough in 1954 and 1955. Snyder was the one who alerted Kerouac to the joys and solitude of the mountains.
      Like many others who worked at the lookout towers, she recalled seeing the St. Elmo's Dance when lightning struck really close. In John Suiter's book, Poets on the Peaks, he quotes Gary Snyder about the lightning displays: "The only problem with the Olympics, he said, was the lack of lightning storms, hence 'no Gothic fun.'" Fire watchers had to be constantly alert and had to spend a lot of time on the radio, reporting smoke, fires or other incidents to the headquarters and lightning, hail storms and sheets of rain could appear out of seemingly nowhere.
      Maxine remembered that she made about $150 per month and had to pay for her own food, which her husband Bud packed in on his back when he brought Marilyn, then 11, and Buddy, then 15, up to visit. She slept in a small cabin near the foot of the tower.

Fire-watching almost became equal opportunity for the sexes
      The Mount Josephine tower was torn down about 20 years after Maxine worked there, according to website reader Ray Pruiett of Mount Vernon. He pointed out that women fire lookouts were very common in the Pacific Northwest after war was declared in December 1941. Many also served as air defense lookouts and several were decorated for their service.
      Ray's first wife, now Mrs. Laurel N. Clairmont, of Montana, served as a lookout in 1951-55 and received a commendation. They were the instigators and founders of the Skagit Hiking and Mountain Club in 1959. The club was later incorporated as the Skagit Alpine Club. She was also active with Ray in founding the Skagit Mountain Rescue Unit and she once led the search for the US forest Service when a goat hunter fell and needed assistance near Baker Lake, the first time they coordinated a search by helicopter. Mrs. Claimont was an active mountain climber with the Mazamas of Portland and with the Oregon State University Mountain Club in the 1940s and 1950s.

(Mrs. Buchanan retired)
A Mrs. Buchanan retired from her lookout work for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources in 1959 after 17 years service. You can read more about her in the story below. Click on her picture for a photo of the Entwistle tower. Note the flattop design, the lightning rod, flag pole, guy wires to stabilize it and communications wires. Photos courtesy of Cecil and Betty (Osborne) Hittson from the Harry Osborne collection.

      A Mrs. Buchanan retired from her lookout work for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources in 1959 after 17 years service, part of it with her late husband. They began working at the Entwistle lookout tower when it was dedicated in 1954. She lived at 837 State street in Sedro-Woolley. Harry Osborne, the Northwest Field Supervisor, praised her for her alertness and her work around the clock, relaying messages to and from the fire lines. "Sometimes we raised orphaned [deer] fawns for the Game Department," she recalled. "Let's see, there was Bambi, Penny and Petunia." From the Lookout book: the Entwistle tower was built in 1954 between Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish, southeast of Bellingham, at elevation 2,676 feet. The tower was named for William Entwistle, whose family homesteaded in the Cascades. He began logging in Washington Territory in 1876 at the age of 12 and later became a key early figure in firefighting.
      Jeanie Bond, descendant of the Dreyer and Osborne families and a great researcher at the state regional archives in Bellingham, recalls that her aunt Betty Alice Doran Osborne (sister-in-law of Harry) spent at least one summer on Samish Lookout. Jeanie recalls that Betty was often there with her two young children.
      Suiter quotes lookout historian Ray Kresek, who recalled that Mabel Gray was the first woman fire watcher, who hired on as a timber-camp cook in Idaho in 1902 and then spotted a fire on the North Fork of the Clearwater River. When the Forest Service created a paid position for lookouts in 1905, men were the first hires, but on June 1, 1913, Hallie Daggett replaced a male lookout at the Eddy Gulch Lookout on the top of Klamath Peak in the Siskiyou Mountains in northern California and continued in the position for 15 years. So many articles publicized Daggett's prowess that women swamped the application process and Forestry Chief Gifford Pinchot even issued a directive to discourage such articles. In 1947, Martha Hardy, a Seattle high school teacher, published the book, Tatoosh, about her 1943 season as a lookout in the Goat Rocks wilderness south of Mount Rainier. Then in 1951, Bonnie St. Aubin spent a season at the Crater Mountain lookout with her husband, Earle. At that point, the Cascades towers reverted to being a man's domain for a few years but Maxine and others broke through that ceiling later in the decade.
      Jeanie Bond, descendant of the Dreyer and Osborne families and a great researcher at the state regional archives in Bellingham, recalls that her aunt Betty Alice Doran Osborne (sister-in-law of Harry) spent at least one summer on Samish Lookout. Jeanie recalls that Betty was often there with her two young children.

Firewatching towers features completely updated from our original domain
Some are sheared first with our subscribers first at Issue 44, Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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Story posted on Nov. 1, 2002, and last updated Dec. 15, 2008
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This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine, completely updated Issue 45

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