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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Christmas by canoe
The Van Fleets float down to Skagit city

(Van Fleets 1895)
The Van Fleet family in 1895, with Emmett, Eliza and the children from left to right — Eva, Ethel and Earl. Photo courtesy of LaRayne Van Fleet Jeffries.

      Ed. note: As many of us prepare for our trip "over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's House we go . . . ," we update this story during the 2006 holidays by pairing it with Catherine Savage Pulsipher's story from the same general time period and the same place, the homestead claims of David E. Kimble and Jasper and John Gates, at the bend of the Skagit above the forks and on the site of present-day Mount Vernon. If you think that your trip through airline terminals or in the family jalopy is stressful, just imagine packing your family into a canoe, during the stormiest months of the year, and then paddling and poling your way past the snags and the deadfalls and the swirling eddies between Skiyou and the area that is today's Mount Vernon.

As told by Mrs. Ethel Van Fleet Harris to Ray Jordan.
Transcribed from Jordan's book, Yarns of the Skagit Country
by Larry Spurling, Class of 1959, Sedro-Woolley High School

      Picture, if you can, a family living in a small split-cedar cabin lost among towering firs, vine maple thickets and dank, head-high ferns on the bank of Hansen (formerly Benson) Creek near Skiyou. And Christmas was approaching. The year was 1880 and Emmett Van Fleets were facing their first Yuletide in Washington territory since leaving their home in far-off Pennsylvania. [Ed. note: the Van Fleets lived on their homestead claim just south of where the power station is located today, between the Minkler Highway and the Hoehn Road.]
      The prospects were not too cheerful. Then a letter came, brought by some good neighbor from the nearest post office at Jesse B. Ball's logging camp at Sterling, inviting them to a Christmas celebration at Skagit City, then the metropolis of the Skagit Valley. It was a tantalizing opportunity, but there was some serious discussion about their chances since there were no roads. However, the Big Jam at Mount Vernon had been sufficiently opened for boat travel by now, but to go by canoe, their only means of transportation?
      "Mama said, 'We can't go,' but Papa said, 'We will go,'" and go they did.
      On Christmas morning Emmett Van Fleet loaded his wife Eliza and four-year-old daughter Eva in a shovelnose canoe almost at their door and paddled the three-quarters of a mile down Hansen Creek to the Skagit River.
      Keeping to the middle of the river and maintaining a sharp lookout for jams and snags they made good time and arrived safely at Skagit City in time for the party. The distance would be about twelve or thirteen air miles, and how far by the windings of the Skagit River would only be a guess.
      At a ramshackle building passing for a hotel these company-starved pioneers had a gay time dining and dancing, the memory of which would brighten many a gloomy, monotonous days in the future. The Van Fleets had planned to spend the remainder of the night at the hotel, but David E. Kimble, who had a homestead at the lower end of what had been the Big Jam wouldn't hear of it.
      "Just follow us home in your canoe and spend the night with us," he invited. After a pleasant night and visit with the Kimbles they went out on the not-so-easy canoe trip back up the tree-lined Skagit glowing with recollections that would last for a lifetime. And the pleasure of this trip had a postscript. While at the Kimbles, little Eva had a lot of fun playing with a crippled Brown Leghorn chicken. She became so fond of it that the Kimbles let her take it home. It turned out to be a hen, which later started to lay. Mr. Van Fleet, aware of a golden opportunity, somehow secured a rooster and in due time this Christmas hen became the proud mother of a bevy of chicks. This was the origin of the Van Fleet flock, a priceless possession in those days. It is told that Eva, with so few little-girl amusements, enjoyed trailing the little chickens and clucking hen around the place. This pastime became hazardous at times, however, when the rooster, jealous of what he considered an invasion of his privacy, would fight her away from his family.

(Skagit City)
Skagit City before the turn of the 20th Century, with the hotel to the left. See the Skagit City section.

Journey to the John Gates Farm
By Catherine Savage Pulsipher (1892-1986),
In the Skagit Settlers book, which is still for sale at the County Museum at LaConner

      [In compiling the story of the Gates and Hartson families in their early days in Mount Vernon, Ralph C. Hartson called upon old friends of the families for their reminiscences. Among those found in the files were letters from Catherine Pulsipher of Birdsview that add color to the accounts. Mrs. Pulsipher was a member of the George Savage family who were close friends of the John Gates family. (John was a brother of Jasper and Tom Gates, pioneers of the Mount Vernon area.) She wrote:]
      I have been thinking back, to our life-long friendship with the Gates family. I recall, as a child, sitting high on the "grub box" of the heavy lumber wagon, with a white canvas top overhead, going to "see the Gates" [probably circa 1898, when her family was living at the Equality Colony near Bow and Blanchard]. I always wore a tight blue velvet bonnet, which made my face look like a brown turkey egg, but was my one piece of finery, so I always started out with it on. The road, such as it was, followed the river and we forded small streams and sometimes plunged over bogs filled with logs, known as puncheon. The heavy wagon jogged up and down and the dirty water splashed, and that was fun for me.
      Then we staggered thru deep river sand, and I watched the silt slide thru the heavy fetlocks of the big horses and sift over the gleaming wagon tires. Sometimes we camped on swollen streams until they fell, and at night burned old wool sox in the wagon tent to keep out gnats. The "God-awful" smell remained in one's hair half the next day. Sometimes stray cougars came yelling, and frightened the horses so father had to get up and light a lantern and stand by to quiet them. Then, at last, we came out on the flats and went along the high dikes, which always gave me the creeps for fear we would slide over into the cold Skagit. But, we were going to see the Gates so we went gaily on — father singing deep hymn tunes thru his beard and mother joining in with a high note. We were almost there!
      Then the Gates' farm, back in the woods then but looking very welcome to the weary wagon travelers. Mrs. Gates, tiny and lively, came to greet us and we soon gathered in the big kitchen for hot food. As the old folks talked and exchanged news, I grew restless and wanted to explore. I wanted to pick a lovely lily but someone shouted for me to leave things alone, so I went on to the Pierpoints — a half-breed family next door. They had a daughter, Dolly, about my age so we had a lot in common. [Maybe Pierpont? — we found no such family in records of the time, maybe a reader knows?]
      Here Dolly greeted me with a wide, missing-tooth grin and we set out again. There was a pig sty and big, white hogs. We found by breaking switches, dipping them in the pig mud, we could write on their fat sides. This amused us highly. Then, too, the Gates always had plenty of friendly dogs.
      After our visit here, we were homeward bound, but stopped at the Jasper Gates place after buying what supplies we needed. They lived in town [Mount Vernon]. . . . Father and Jasper Gates had certain political deals to discuss so we paused there briefly. I think that diked district was then known as "Missouri Town." Our family and the Jasper Gateses were not as close as the John Gateses but I remember sitting, wide-eyed, finding the many china ornaments on the mantel most amazing.

Links, background reading and sources
      See the Table of Contents of Issue 39 for the links to these stories in the Van Fleet family saga about their settlement in the Skiyou district east of Sedro in 1880 and their family back in Pennsylvania.
Other background reading

Story posted June 1, 2001, last updated May 20, 2007 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them

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