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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Dr. Quentin C. Belles remembers
fire-watching in the '40s; and his
memories of growing up in Skagit Valley

(Samish Lookout)
The Samish Lookout, circa 1942. Photo from the Harry Osborne collection, courtesy of Cecil and Betty (Osborne) Hittson.

      I was lucky enough to be taken on as summer help by Harry Osborne for four summers starting at age 13. First as a fire crew man and then assistant foreman and truck driver, then as foreman and then fire warden and pump truck driver.
      I am sure you are aware that triangulation of fire location using azimuths required more than just one point. I seem to remember Mt. Josephine, Samish Look Out, Devil's Mountain (90 foot tower), and Sauk Mountain lookout. I may have dreamed this but I also remember this information coming in by radio to the Sedro-Woolley fire station from these locations and instructions going out to the fire crews by the little grey boxes we called radios.
      Again I am sure historians are not much interested but during World War II we had some really strange weather. Humidity of 10 percent or less and dry lightning strikes one after the other. Harry and Mac McQueen at Concrete were going crazy and as crew foreman I was not to happy either. Historians and history are pretty dry and sights and sounds of the actuality are not of much interest it seems. Oh, well, so be it. Pinned down by smoke and crown fire on a thousand acre fire is not much to talk about now, but was unnerving at the time.

Thanks, Quentin, for your memories
      We historians do care, Quentin, very much, and thank you for your personal memories. We hope others will contribute their memories of firefighting, lookout towers and fire watchers. We thank him for all his memories, which we share below, but we especially love his story about Otto Pressentin, of the South Birdsview pioneer family, and his prodigious physical feats:
      Yup I knew Otto Von, he was one powerful guy and ran the ferry across the river [from their ranch to the north shore). We forestry critters would watch in amazement as Otto cranked that big old cable wheel with one hand. He really had a fit when the army tried to run a tank retriever onto his ferry and the ferry did a glub, glub and sank. So many stories, but soon the young'uns get tired and go to sleep. [The Journal now has 20 stories about the von Pressentins, our most-profiled pioneer family. See this website for a links to all of them, including five by and about Otto.]
      We told Quentin in return other tales of lore about the feats of Otto and his siblings. One favorite story is the one John Conrad, the longtime memorialist for the Skagit County Historical Association, recalled about Charlie, when he and his son, World War II veternan Chuck, after they died in 1960 and 1967, respectively:
      Chuck Pressentin of Sedro-Woolley was following in foot steps of his father, also Charles, as a plumber. His father was born at Pressentins Landing upriver where boats stopped for food and lodging for passengers. His father was one of the old school of tradesman, was a strong muscular man and a very accommodating worker, willing to answer calls in any emergency. Many stories were told of him such as putting tools in pockets, strapping a hot water heater on his shoulder, mounting his bike and then he rode upriver to install it for some farmer. He had no such thing as minimum rates, many jobs for needy cases were no charge, truly his heart was in his work.
      Another is a story that the late Howard Miller told me about Otto, when the pioneer was well into his 50s. On one of our semi-monthly Magical History Tours, Howard was showing me the original route of the first upriver road in the 1890s. We pulled over and walked to the northern shore of the Skagit, just west of Marblemount. Howard recalled that the first time he backpacked across the Cascade Pass, he walked by that very spot and heard a loud splashing sound in the river. There was Otto, rising from the river, and Howard was taken aback. Otto explained to him that he just took a notion that he needed to see if he could still swim the river. Quentin, who graduated from Sedro-Woolley High in 1946 and now lives in Hawaii, also asked us a question:
      I noticed that the Rockport Hotel was mentioned in the Von Pressentin story. I wonder, is this the same Rockport Hotel my dad and I stayed at when I was 6 years old? Dad worked for City Light at Newhalem and at that time there was no road up to that area, we drove in a Model T to Rockport and from there we had to go by narrow gauge railroad. We stayed at what I was told was the Rockport Hotel and caught the City Light narrow gauge in the morning. Just wondering
      The answer, Quentin, is yes. We have a story on A. von Pressentin and Hugo Bauman's Rockport Hotel at this Journal website. You can see several photos there and the photo and story of when the hotel went out in a blaze of glory in 1952. Quentin was one of our first subscribers nearly eight years ago and over the years, he has shared some more of his wonderful memories of his Skagit Valley boyhood. We have edited out the personal stuff and his repeated claims that no one would be interested in his "malarkey."

Quentin's memory of his Skagit Valley boyhood
      I was born in Burlington Dec 28, 1928. Great Depression era. After the fire in Burlington we lived in S-W for a time (while dad worked in logging for a short while) and he then took the job on the Deception Pass Bridge in Dewey, thus we lived in Dewey right on the beach and could see the bridge a-building from our back yard. An early memory of is of the entire Dewey School bused to see the Tom Mix circus, when the actor himself appeared for a Wild West Show and Circus in a big top set up in Anacortes. This was in 1933 when I was 5 and in the first grade. Tom mix rode and shot with his pistol at targets tossed in the air. The cracking whips was supposedly for the benefit of the horses but as I said they were sold for 4 of 5 cents per whip. The cost of the gas for our Model T precluded any folderol such as whips, candy corn or cotton candy. Should have been in the fall of 1933 when he was "Mixing it Up" in Anacortes. I wanted one of those whips so bad, but did not have the required five cents.
      I think the nascent Department of Education may have paid the entry fee for the school kids. This was during the height of the Depression and money was hard to come by. Sorry to take your time. But many thanks for anything you manage to dreg up about the little old school house cum Dewey. Wish I had taken a picture in 1950 when my wife and I visited and the building was still there. I was in first grade going to the little one room school in Dewey (I was five at the time and the teacher said I could go to school if I could keep up with a repeater). Only two in first grade, I and the girl repeater. That was the year that Tom Mix came to Anacortes.
      Later, when we moved to Woolley, we farmed. My favorite entertainment was the Dream Theater and the organ that played during the intermission and during the silent movies. Saw the Return of Frankenstein and walked home in the night (cold with full moon and stars and not a breath of wind). Scarred the be jeepers out of me. I was just darned lucky to be allowed to go. I managed to break my arm (a compound fracture). The folks took me to old man Doc [Charles] Hunter in Woolley and he slapped on a cast and turned me loose to walk home, no such thing as a pain pill in those days. God! did that arm hurt that night and all day the following day! We had no money so Dr. Hunter was paid in barter; produce, chickens, eggs, pig meat, etc
      My Dad and his twin brother came from Missouri via box car at the ripe old age of 16 to work at logging and on the railroad so, as you can gather, wealth in terms of cash, was not one of our family virtues at that time (a la Grapes of Wrath). I have more stories of being poor than you would want to listen to. After dad's working on the bridge we moved back to SW and dad and mom bought the house on Jones Road (on the north side of the Road ) where we had cows and pigs, raised corn etc. This is the 10 acres that the Weedens bought several years later after Dad had sold it to another couple. While on Jones Road dad worked at City Light in Newhalem and was gone for the entire week sometimes not returning for two weeks or more.
      Much later, when World War II started, he worked for Bonneville Power and then was a fire warden for the State and eventually went to work for Northern State Hospital, from which he eventually retired. He earned his LPN while working there (Skagit Valley College) , pretty good considering he had only a fourth grade education. As for the Dewey School I completed first grade there and then went to Central Grade School (Mary Purcell's bailiwick [until 1947]) for the rest of grade school years In any event SW and environs looked entirely different then as we had deer and bear in our yard a times as well as pheasant, grouse, quail, the occasional skunk and many rabbits.
      You must remember that when I was a tad our family was on the low, low, low societal end of things in the range of tobacco road pariahs. In fact we knew some folks who lived up in the hills and the area "was" called locally, "Tobacco Road". Clearing land, Moonshine, logging and sometime dances at the Grange were part and parcel of the daily life. My mother hated this story but I have been told that it is true. She took a job as a waitress at the Wixson Hotel [now the Gateway] and my Dad did not like it at all, so when Dad came down from the logging camp he walked into the place onto the nice shiny floors with his cork boots, grabbed my Mom, threw her over his shoulder, did an about face, grinding the corks into the floor and walked out. Mom lost her job.
      Popcorn garlands at the holidays, dried apples strung on the tree we cut from the forest abutting our house. No presents, but stories of haunts and ghosties to scare the flour sack underwear off the kids. Uncle Wiggly when I could get Granddad to read it to me and long nights (till 7 or 8 p.m.) by lantern. Yup, Dream Theater and the organ, Wixson Hotel , Gampps Store, McClintock drug store, Pinky Robinson [Oliver-Hammer], picking Mape's strawberrys, Burlington pickle factory, shucking oysters, anything for a mite of cash, about the same for all the poor kids in older S-W. The public library (courtesy of Mr. Carnegie) was God sent, even if it was funded by a robber baron. My folks were gone during the week and it was pretty lonely with cows to milk, pigs and chickens to feed. The dairy truck came by early in the morning to pick up the milk (we depended in part on the milk check). Later on I built my own short wave radio so that became one my major forms of entertainment, other than Amos n' Andy, Orphan Annie, Chester Gump et al on an old beat-up AM radio I had resurrected from my Uncle's trash.
      Thinking about the old houses on Duke's Hill, I remember the S-WHS band leader (circa 1946) lived in such a house. The view was terrific, over 180 degrees of the Skagit Valley. Long driveway from Duke's Hill road and this house right out in the open. I remember Duke's Hill well as I lived my first 18 years of my life there. Walked and rode my bike up and down many times. The old railroad track was used for train hauling coal to Northern State. The house you spoke of was the second place at the top of the hill on your right. It might well be gone now. I haven't lived on the hill for 55 years. [See our stories about Duke Fredrick George and his hill.]
      Then to the Far East, some time Keo U, GI Bill, Korean War, U.S. Army thought I might be worthy of some extra school time. After Korea, in 1957, a "two-year Ford Grant" to study amyloidosis in Hawaii, assistant professor at the Univeristy of Hawaii, opened private Tox lab with others, stayed on and on, now 43 years, no more to tell, excepting; good "I think, excellent," foundation at S-W High, surprising now that I see what passes for education at the secondary level. I promise, no more stories. mea culpa and Mahalo pumehana, Aloha.

Links, background reading and sources
Firewatching towers features completely updated from our original domain
Shared from the archives of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

Other resources

Story posted on Aug. 14, 2002, last updated June 16, 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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