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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Grace Montgomery's memoir: introduction to the Woolley brothels

Including these features:
Journal introduction to 1994 stories about Sedro-Woolley brothels
Grace Montgomery's 1994 memoir about one brothel
Courier-Times Editor Cookson Beecher's 1994 interview
"Brothels were big business in Sedro-Woolley," story from 1994
"Just another business," story from 1994
Journal research and memories about the brothels and Elsie Moore

Journal introduction
By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2011
(Drawing of brothels)
These drawings with the original story were apparently taken from the drawing that used to be on the menu for the old Gateway Restaurant when Dave McIntyre owned it. We suspect that the top one was done from a description and does not accurately depict the place. As old timers recalled the building had two stories and was quite a bit larger; it covered part of three city lots.

      The stories below are from one of our favorite writers, Cookson Beecher, of Skiyou, from 17 years ago. You may remember her as the editor of the Courier-Times in the 1990s. In my opinion, she was the best in the 89-year history of the newspaper on Metcalf Street, or at least in the 50 years or so that I observed. Even better than the late Sam Whitacre, who taught this 13-year-old "pig melter" from the back shop what a lede is, the introductory paragraph in a newspaper news story, 50 years ago when Sam edited the Courier. And more than 50 years later, I still thank him for that knowledge that seems lacking in our profession.
      Cookson's work reminded me of Sam's, when I first met her in January 1992. I wondered how Ed Wise had found and hired a woman who both knew how to write and how to listen. Sam walked a beat, week after week in the 1950s, to talk to all the businessmen and townspeople to get his tips and background. Cookson spread her beat a little further in radius and she ferreted out stories that were of special interest to people who were old-timers or who had their sense of the unique nature of Sedro-Woolley and the upper Skagit Valley.

This is the 700th Journal story
    This story marks the 700th story on our site, which launched in August 2000. Next week we will pass five million page views. We want to add more photos to this story. Do you have any photos in your family collection that might help? Copies and scans are fine; we never ask for your original.

      But most important to this writer's career, she helped me personally over some misunderstanding of the syntax of our mother tongue. Most importantly, she taught me when to write that and when to write which. And besides, my late mother adored her, as the daughter she never had.
      This story collection is one of her best. She does not have a doctorate from Columbia Journalism School, although she did live as a girl in New York City. She just had a knack for attracting story-tellers and then knowing how to listen to them. She played almost-mother confessor at times to people having a rough day or year. She insisted that her desk at the newspaper be out front, not behind a door in a side office.
      Have a drink with an old-timer and the chances are pretty high that they will recall stories from their youth about either brothels and saloons, and Sedro and Woolley both had plenty of them. And Cookson found a first-hand memory. We have tried to find the descendants of Grace Montgomery, the woman who shared her story with Cookson. Unfortunately the group home where Mrs. Montgomery lived has disbanded and we ran out of leads (we hope one of them reads this story and responds).
      I remember reading this story the first time and thinking of one of my heroes, William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas, his home town. It can be argued that he personified the small-town editor for America. His posthumous autobiography is at the ready at my desk at all times. He instinctively knew what Cookson knew: share the stage with those who have a story to tell. After reading the story, I wanted to meet Grace and I regret I never did. Her story is so colorful, straight from her memory, and you will understand quickly why that experience persevered in her mind. Not only does she explain the personal side of a brothel madam but she paints her picture against the background of the Great Depression of the 1930s, not as an abstract concept, but as a force that made people adapt in ways that would possibly seem antithetical to their prior family values. Following Grace's story and Cookson's interview, we will share some research we have discovered over the last 20 years and some personal memories of chats with old-timers. It will be sort of a preview of the full story on the brothels, and of the legendary Elsie Moore, that we are not yet ready to share . . . more research to do.
      "Here's to you, Cookson. Here's mud in your eye."

Young Sedro-Woolley girl learns a
lesson about fate at brothel doorway
    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 comforters, pillows, featherbeds and duvet covers and bed linens. Order directly from their website and learn more about this intriguing local business.

      [Cookson Beecher introduction 1994: The following story took first place in this year's Nostalgic Writing Contest sponsored by Tallmadge Hamilton House, a senior center in Seattle. It appeared on the front page of Northwest Prime Time, a monthly newspaper for senior citizens.]
By Grace Montgomery, front page, July 21, 1994, Courier-Times
      If I could take a quantum leap into the past, who knows which year and which event a capricious time machine might choose for me? Possible I'd find myself as a sixteen-year-old girl. It would be a hot day in July in the little town of Sedro-Woolley, Washington, where I was born. I'd be standing at the entrance of what is known in polite circles as a house of ill repute.
      That phrase, house of ill repute, wasn't in my vocabulary at that age. I'd heard of a red light district, but I didn't know what went on there. I did know my mother had told me never to walk on that side of the street. I wasn't in the habit of being disobedient, but that day I cared not what my mother had ordered. I was miserably sun-burned, dirty, mosquito-bitten, nettle-stung, dead-tired, ravenously hungry, scared stiff, but hopeful as I knocked on the door.
      While waiting for someone to answer I wondered why my mother didn't want me to walk on that side of the street. Did they steal young girls and ship them off to an unknown place? I wanted to run, but was hungry. Even more important, my sister, five years my senior, was home with her nine-month-old baby boy. They, too, were hungry! I had to stay! The time was in the '30s and jobs were scarcer than honest politicians.
      A week previously our mother had taken a few cents from the family purse. This was her bus fare to a destination where, it was rumored, there was a job to be had. Our father had gone with a friend in his car to eastern Washington to see what he could find. Our brother and my sister's husband had hopped a freight. Their intentions were to keep going until somewhere they found work. Each one had promised to send money as soon as he or she had earned it. We waited and waited. The family purse ran dry and the cupboard was bare. Still no word from our relatives.
      Although this was forbidden territory, I resolutely stood my ground. Somebody would answer that door. I also knew that somebody in that house had some money. I'd heard my father say to my mother that this and other houses like it were probably the only ones in town that had any money. He could have been exaggerating a little, but there was always a basic truth to every tale he told. At any rate, I didn't worry or wonder their money came from. I only knew I wanted some of it.
      At last the door opened. A tall woman stood before me. Her frizzy hair had been dyed red. Her lashes were sticky with mascara. In her brown eyes was a faint flicker of surprise.
      "What can I do for you, honey?"
      From behind my back, I lifted into view a bucket which had once held 10 pounds of lard. Now it was filled to within an inch of the top with little wild blackberries. These berries are unique to the West Coast. I raised the bucket higher so she could smell the tangy aroma.
      "Would you like to buy some berries?"
      I knew if she had ever tasted a delectable piece of little wild blackberry pie, she wouldn't be able to resist. I lowered the bucket.
      "This was filled to the top when I finished picking." I held my hand on the rim to emphasize my statement.
      "They settle quite a bit because I walked all the way down from Northern State Hospital hill. That's about three miles." The woman nodded.
      "How much are you asking?"
      I told her the going price was a dollar and then held my breath. If she didn't purchase them, no one would. Individuals didn't have the money. They picked their own berries and restaurants had stopped taking them.
      "Okay," the woman said. She held out her hand. "I'll empty your pail and bring it back to you. The door closed. The woman's foot-steps grew faint. Was this a ruse? My imagination went into orbit. I saw myself being dragged inside by some big, brawny bully. I'd never be seen again. No one knew I was coming to this place, not even my sister. It had been a last-minute inspiration. The door knob turned, and there was the woman alone. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had not been swallowed up by a house and its occupants.
      This particular occupant reached out and placed he bail of the bucket across the palm of my hand. At the same time she put a dollar bill on the bail and placed a 50-cent piece on top of it. More than I had asked! That was unheard of. Wow! That represented some milk for the baby, a loaf of bread, three pounds of hamburger, a couple of oranges and a pound of coffee. I found myself gazing into her brown eyes. They held an expression I didn't understand. She spoke.
      "You need the money very badly, don't you?"
      "Yes, I do. Very badly."
      You have parents." The woman stated this as a fact, not as a question.
      I explained that my parents were gone and why. Then I added, "I had to earn some money. What they left is gone, and so is the food." She acknowledged my explanation with a nod as I went on. "Thank you for buying my berries. Thank you very much."
      Her lips twitched as if she wanted to bring our conversation to a close with a smile, but it didn't quite come off. "You're welcome, honey." As she spoke she reached for the door knob and pulled. But before the door closed completely, I heard her say in a tone that held sadness.
      "If only someone had bought my berries."

Author recalls growing up in Sedro-Woolley
By Cookson Beecher, Page 7, July 21, 1994, Courier-Times
      A call to Grace Montgomery (Jackson was her maiden name), the author of the story on page 1 and who now lives in Issaquah, yielded a wealth of memories about growing up in Sedro-Woolley during the Depression years.
      "Nobody nowadays can really understand how it was," she said. "By the thousands, people were out of jobs. Jobs were so scarce there was just no way to find one."
      She remembers riding to Burlington with her sister to pick domestic blackberries. Even though many of the runners had been cut away, it was still a "thorny" business.
      It was a tedious, awful job," said Montgomery. "We were supposed to get paid when the berries were sold. But instead, the people who sold them ran off with the money and we got nothing."
      Not only that, she said, they still owed gas money to the people who had driven them to the fields each day. She remembers walking around town wearing shoes that had only cardboard soles.
      "It (the Depression) affected us all to the point that you learned how to cut corners. You learned how to cut down and down. You had to."
      When asked how she and her sister weathered the storm she wrote about in her article, Grace said she doesn't remember the details, but she does remember that their family members did come home "a little at a time."
      Hard times or not, Grace does have many fond memories of growing up in Sedro-Woolley.
      "We went to every parade that was ever in town," she said. "And all the carnivals. Every single year the carnival came to town. I can still remember how excited we were when we found out the caterpillar was going to be one of the rides."
      "And the gardens." Always my dad had a garden," she said, remembering the two houses on Borseth Avenue they lived in [Endnote 1]. "We canned Royal Ann cherries and prunes. And we had raspberries. Luscious great big ones."
      Grace graduated with the Sedro-Woolley High School class of 1932. Pinky Robinson, owner of Oliver-Hammer Clothes Shop on Metcalf Street, was one of her good friends. Another was Maxine Adams, who lived next door. Grace remembers with fondness the engineer who boarded with the Adamses.
      "He adopted the family," she said. "And he took special care of Maxine and me. He took us to the carnivals. And I never had a birthday that I didn't get a brand new bathing suit from him. That was especially nice because I kept growing and needed a new one every year."
      Later, Grace married logger Tom Vlahovich and had two children, Tommy Jr. and Nancy. When her son died when he was only 12, the doctor recommended they move somewhere where Tom could work and come home each evening, saying they needed to be under one roof as a family. Working as a logger, Tom was away from home a great deal of the time.
      As the years went by, Grace entered the work force, employed by the telephone company and then for the state as a welfare fraud investigator, a job she plans to write a book about.
      She does visit Sedro-Woolley every now and then for class reunions. And she stays busy writing. The article about the brothels in Sedro-Woolley earned a first place in a competition that had 75 competitors.
      When I found out I was a winner," she said, "I felt like I was walking on air."

Brothels were big business in Sedro-Woolley
By Cookson Beecher, July 21, 1994, Courier-Times
      Brothels, at one time in Sedro-Woolley, were among the city's most thriving businesses. These lucrative enterprises shared the business portion of town with other merchants. Though formally listed a boarding homes, their reputation clearly showed their true intent.
      Two of the earliest "homes" were located on the corner of Metcalf and State streets [EN 2]. They were referred to as the "Club," offering rest and relaxation to its male customers.
      One early morning a fire broke out at this establishment and the town's fire bell sounded. Men responding to the blast ran out of the "club's" door, reportedly with their congenial lady friends following in their footsteps.
      One "home," with a long history of community service, was located on Metcalf and across the street from the Gateway and was known as the "fern Rooms." It operated from the turn of the century until the 40s when it was eventually completely destroyed.
      A fire which broke out at the "Ferns" drew one of the biggest audiences in the history of the town's fires. All the wives of the firemen showed up to keep an eye on their husbands while they hurriedly put out the fire and checked on the "Ferns" occupants.
      Military service personnel were restricted from frequenting the establishment. When its owner fell ill and was placed in a nursing home, her establishment was ransacked.
      The identities of the vandals were never discovered. Guesses have been made involving placing the guilt on a rival brothel and some Chicago mobsters who were trying to horn in on the business. According to sources in the know, the girls had been tied up while the place was wrecked.
      Everything was broken except for the many mirrors hung on the walls. Those responsible for doing it must have been a superstitious bunch. A fire started by an arson[ist] or arsons, later completely gutted the place and put an end to the business's long career.
      When the "Ferns" owner died, the whole town closed down in her honor. Long-time merchant associates grieved over her death and the loss of her establishment, which had attracted a lot of business to the area.
      The Square Deal, located on Metcalf street, was the last of the homes of ill repute. it had had a long feud going on with the Ferns before the latter was destroyed. The quarrels revolved around the ethics of competition in the business, which were hotly debated by the career girls of both establishments.
      The Square Deal had planned to offer gambling, goose and women to its customers (not particularly in that order). Before these plans could get off the ground, however, the military stepped in during the Korean War and called for its closure. If the city refused to close it down the military threatened to have the whole town declared off-limits to service personnel.
      The anticipated closure spurred debate among the town's populace. Merchants wanted it left open because it was good for business. Some saw it as a means to keep so-called "perverts" off the street, while others viewed it as a slur on the town's otherwise good reputation. These arguments were soon silenced when the military forced the city to close the Square Deal.
      The closure ended Sedro-Woolley's lucrative brothel business to the satisfaction of many of the town's residents. Many wives and the clergy were grateful when the military put an end to corruptible influence.
      [Cookson Beecher note 1994: The city fathers obviously thought that closing the brothels made good business sense, especially since they didn't want Sedro-Woolley to be declared "off limits" to servicemen, who obviously flushed a lot of money into the town's economy. The questions remains: how many servicemen do you see in Sedro-Woolley today?]
      [Journal ed. note 2011: good question. I asked the same a few years ago of Joe Murray, a great old friend of my dad's and one of the snappiest dancers Skagit County has ever seen. At the end of World War II, and afterwards, he served at Whidbey but lived in Sedro-Woolley on the second floor of the Livermore Apartments, where Joe's Gym later occupied. He explained that housing was very short then in Oak Harbor and Whidbey Island and that Sedro-Woolley and other Skagit County towns were very attractive. Besides, he said, and many other veterans from that era will attest, Sedro-Woolley was very hospitable to servicemen, and not just those who were customers of the brothels. And we recall that many of the largest houses in town, including the Barney House on Ferry street and the Bingham Mansion on Talcott were leased during the war to officers, mainly of the Navy.."
      Another reason, and maybe the most apt answer to your question, was supplied by the late Howard Miller, longtime Skagit County Commissioner. He said that after a string of accidents on year, including fatalities, with servicemen driving and each involving liquor, the Department of the Navy apparently decided that housing servicemen this far away, with dangerous, curvy roads in between, was a bad idea.]

Just another business
By Cookson Beecher, Page 7, July 21, 1994, Courier-Times
      When you ask old timers about their memories of the brothels that until the late '40s were a part of Sedro-Woolley's downtown business center, most respond with a ho-hum reply. "It was no big deal," said Don Jagger, owner of Handy Mart. "They didn't bother anyone. I don't think too many people thought anything of it. Besides, they donated a lot to the churches and other civic projects."
      Mayor Bill Stendal said that nobody ever made a big deal over it. W4e knew they were places where you could buy drinks," he said. "We knew who the women were, but they bought groceries just like we did, and they gave to the community."
      He does remember that one of the women was heard saying that she spent more time with a certain man than his wife did.
      Bill Bates, a retired dairy farmer, said he learned about the brothels early in life because as a young teen he played on softball and hardball teams that had older members.
      "I heard about them from the guys," he said. "I had all the bad vices," he said, referring not to the brothels but to playing cards in the card room when was only 18. Legal age for that activity was 21. And since he had a Model-T Coupe, he was the group's designated driver to the taverns, card rooms and brothels. He has his own opinion about why the brothels stayed open as long as they did.
      "I think the reason is that the old madam who ran one of the big houses was a good business woman," he said. "She knew more about what was going on in town than the mayor and council. As long as she kept things quiet and under control, they never bothered her."
      Gene Stender, now 75, remembers that his first "money making" venture was to the brothels. It was the Depression and money was almost non-existent. He would go to the two train depots in town and find the empty whiskey bottle had been discarded. Those he would take to the Fern Rooms and receive a small sum for each bottle. The madam would then give the bottles to the bootleggers for refills. Recycling at its best.
      "Ol' Kate, she was all right, he said. "She was always well dressed an nice. Sometimes she let me go in the kitchen and she would give me some milk and cookies. But I never told my grandmother about that.

Preview of the upcoming Journal feature
on brothels and Elsie Moore
By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2011
      We are still working on our complete story of the brothels — more public records to research and descendants to trace — but here we will share some of the wit and wisdom that some of the old timers passed on in various bull sessions and high-toned historical discussions. The woman at the brothel door who Grace recalled was likely either Elsie Moore or her sister, Kate McMurray, at the famous Fern Rooms brothel on the northern reaches of Metcalf street
      Probably the best source of information on those days, certainly the most entertaining, was the mayor of mayors, the late Percy "Puss Stendal." After I left for college at Western, I helped move the folks into town from my childhood farm home in Utopia. Dad (Victor Bourasaw) was ecstatic: he bought the new house on Central Street from Charles Vogel, a member of a pioneer family, who lived there until he moved to a rest home. It was just a half block from the Catholic Church, the clincher for Dad.
      One of the first neighbors who greeted him was Puss Stendal, who lived then on Ferry Street. They had known each other for a long time at the American Legion and when Dad headed up the Loggerodeo for a few years. But now they had more time to spend together, especially on warm afternoons when they could sit and jaw a spell. Shot glasses would appear and they were off to the races. Dad was no slouch at spinning yarns and telling jokes. That was the way he came to be accepted in Sedro-Woolley after retiring from the Navy. But no one out-performed Puss Stendal. My head was full of wool those days 45 years ago and I had no concept of the future and historical research. So I just remember a few of the conversations (please excuse the paraphrasing 40 years later). Oh, how I wish I had a tape recorder in those days. Puss was just one of the many pioneer friends of my parents whom I failed to record or even take notes of, in most cases.
      I remember well, however, the stories he told of the brothels. If you knew him, you may remember how his face would light up when he remembered a really fine anecdote from his long history that would provide a punch line for the humorous point he was making. This particular day, Dad innocently asked if it was true about the famous old brothels in town? And we were soon giggling and holding our sides when they hurt from the laughter. I was originally about to take off to have a beer at the B&A, but I was soon enthralled.

The Riding Clubs
(St. Charles)
The front wall of the old St. Charles Hotel is in the rear of this photo. At the car are Mrs. Ida (Villeneuve) Lloyd, their son Jerry Maks and John Lloyd.

      He told us about the days in the '30s when some businessmen indulged in a favorite weekly pastime in town on a particular evening when they kissed the wife and reminded her they were on their way to the Riding Club, their favorite philanthropic and fraternal pursuit. And you didn't have to be an equestrian. I wondered, of course, if wives ever discovered what was so attractive about the club, especially during divorce proceedings. But asking for such trifling details would interrupt the flow of Puss's memoir.
      That was presumably "the club" to which Cookson's old timer referred. The Fern Rooms was not the only location, after all. It was not that big a place. The Forest House hotel on Ferry Street hosted gentlemen, as did Charles Villeneuve's old St. Charles Hotel, a two-story affair with a broad balcony on the front, which stood at the west end of the car lot across the street from North Cascade Ford. We have never determined when the Square Deal on State Street launched its hospitality business. From all indications, it was rather new in that location in 1947, where Hendrickson Realty is located now on State Street, west of Metcalf. The instigators then were part of a racket based in Seattle and the racketeers had grand plans to introduce places like it in other small towns.
      Maybe another such institution was on that location earlier; surely the Fern Rooms was not the first in town, nor was it the last. In addition, several boarding houses were populated by "ladies of the evening," sometimes including a majority of the tenants. Other times, he explained, the girls were hardly looked down upon by the other roomers. During those Depression days, the riding enthusiasts were often the only ones with a steady income. "And some rode sidesaddle," he added, with a characteristic wink. Dad laughed up his straight shot over that one.
      The Fern Rooms was certainly the mother of all brothels here, however, from the '20s through the late '40s. It would have been called a Blind Pig back East or in Detroit or Chicago. That was a place where sporting men repaired during Prohibition to satisfy their desires, from the carnal to the imbibing of spirits. They were often located upstairs or in the basement of another business. sometimes over a pool hall, which had replaced the old saloon, and where the manager sometimes served liquor out of the back room, rather than tugging at a beer engine as they did before 1916, in Washington state, and before 1920, nationwide.
      Puss raved on about Elsie Moore, telling us wonderful examples of how she exercised power, no matter how some looked down upon her. He talked about her in the style of describing the proverbial whore with the heart of gold, a favorite theme of those days. Dad asked if she was really that kind-hearted. "Yes," he exclaimed and turned serious for a moment. "Damnedest thing I ever saw," he recalled as he rubbed his chin.
      "Can't remember the year, but it was during the Depression. Elsie was religious about collecting for the needy, mainly at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but she also collected toys and eggs and chocolate bunnies for needy children at Easter and other holidays. She collected the bulk of the donations from the businessmen who frequented her riding club. One year, at least half the businessmen turned her down, claiming to be cash poor, with stacks of accounts but up to half long past 90 days in arrears. As one refused, he passed on the news to his neighbor, who figured he could do the same. Puss laughed at the thought.
      "They didn't know who they were dealing with. She was one tough businesswoman. Old Hegg was even impressed. One day, she made a point to visit the holdouts a second time, but she didn't beg. She made a point, instead. [Sort of like the saying we have today: don't get mad: get even.] This time she brought a business consultant. A real looker, one of the prettiest girls in her house. Showing a dangerous amount of leg and dressed in the brightest pink frock she owned. And the perfume — my, if you stood at the Dream Theater and she was at Gampp's, you could smell the sweetness, straight from Paris. Or maybe LaConner." And his eyes twinkled. He was just warming up.
      "So her associate stood at the doorway, taking up just enough space so that the lady shoppers could not avoid her. And Elsie requested a personal conference in the owner's office or the back of the store. In the store where I saw her, she didn't really say a thing. Just stood there with her arms crossed, tapping her foot as the owner sweated, watching his best customers rear back out at the sight of the associate and exclaim, "Well, I never!" And Puss started slapping the table. "Elsie rarely ever had a turn-down again."

Elsie Seibert Moore
      Elsie is a hard woman to profile because so much of her story is bathed in legend and, more than likely, apocryphal tales that are fourth or fifth hand. But after 15 years of research, we have some public and other records that provide a bit of a factual backbone.
      Let us start at the end first, unconventionally, to share with you the oddest funeral card I've yet seen, and I've read well over a hundred. Her son filled it out at the old Lemley Chapel and the record of funeral, dated Jan. 8, 1947, includes a line, "occupation," where he clearly wrote "whore and bootlegger." I remember asking old Art "Tuffy" Pearson if that wasn't the oddest way of a son describing his recently departed mom, especially just 24 hours after she died. Tuffy, who once owned the old "Wixson Club" Tavern (which evolved into the Schooner, on the eastern side of Metcalf Street in the 600 block, just north of the Gateway), laughed and responded that Elsie probably described herself that way.
      "Her son knew her as a brothel-keeper from the time he was a child . . . no sense in gilding the lily. She got a bit dotty at the end, spent some time at Northern State. I think the family lost feeling for her as she got more difficult and unpredictable. Shame, really. An honest woman and really good at business. Ran a clean place, pretty girls, no disease, liquor a bit better than most of the joints. Even we who did not come there to ride enjoying the companionship, playing cards, shooting the bull, having pretty girls wait on us."
      And that is how most of the old-timers remembered Elsie. At least until the time she was hospitalized in later life, she was a lady, no matter what her profession. She could crack a joke with the boys and then invest in a building, sometimes on the same day. She was born Elsie Seibert on Sept. 6, 1893, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, now an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, ten miles upstream from the mouth of the Monongahela River. Braddock is now a fifth the size of Sedro-Woolley, but at one time it was a key town on its own, occupying land that dated back to the Revolutionary War, the famous Braddock's Battlefield. The field and town are named for General Edward Braddock (1695-1755), who suffered defeat and died there in an important early battle of the French and Indian War. Starting before the Civil War, a barrel factory was the leading employer, but Braddock really prospered, starting 20 years before Elsie's birth, when Andrew Carnegie decided to build the Edgar Thomson Steel Works on the historic site of Braddock's Field in the northern part of town. For those who still mourn the loss of our beloved Carnegie Library, take note that Carnegie's first such library bequest was to the town of Braddock in 1888.

Theresa Lee steps in as Miss Serendipity
      Her parents were John B. Seibert, a Philadelphia native, and his German-born wife, Maria (Reitlinger). Elsie had four sisters that we know of; there is no memory or record of brothers. The name of Kate, who may have been older or younger, appears in the real estate records for the Fern Rooms. And that is where Theresa Lee stepped in as the kind of source I pray for. I haven't corresponded with Theresa since before my illness, so have lost track of her temporarily; I hope to hear from her before press time. She first wrote to me "out of the blue" back in 2004, with quite a first-hand perspective to share. She is Elsie's grand-niece, by adoption, and her biological grandmother was employed by the Fern Rooms. Reading the email, I thought I had died and gone to heaven already, as mother used to say.
      She never met her biological grandmother — being shielded by protective friends. The actual Grandma was a shadowy figure who had given Theresa's mother, Betty Miller, up for adoption after having five children with a man who suddenly died without leaving her with means. In fact she gave up all her children. Thus the hiring on with Elsie and the Fern Rooms. That is a common story that I would hear from old-timers about how many of the girls and women got started at the various riding academies, when they were left to shift for themselves, especially during the Depression of the 1930s. Theresa's adoptive grandmother was Loise Loisel, Elsie's second sister who lived here. Louise and her husband, Felix, owned the Met Café, a classic small-town diner on Metcalf Street, located in the Swastika Building, almost next to George Bellos's Liberty Café. When the Loisels retired and moved to Seattle in the 1930s, the Liberty became the place to eat, meet and greet downtown.
      Theresa knows about which she speaks. She was adopted herself. Her discovery of her relationship with Elsie and the Seibert sisters was aided by another instance of serendipity. Her mother died when Theresa was just weeks old in 1950 and she never even knew her mother was also adopted until she found her telephone book and diary when Theresa was an adult. As she explains, "I spent most of my childhood in foster homes, the last foster home was in Woolley. I graduated from Woolley in 1969. I did not find out for several years later that I had adopted or real family in the area. I found my real family by sending a dear editor letter to the Courier Times with sketchy info."
      The other fount of information was the always reliable Roger Peterson, who has been researching and recording Sedro-Woolley history for decades, as the grandson of more than one pioneer family. Melding information from both sources and combining it with the public record has given us a far more complete picture of Elsie's life and timetable, for instance.

The Fern Rooms began as the North Star Hotel

This photo is courtesy of the 1975 series of books, Kinsey Photographer, which Dave Bohn and Rodolfo Petschek published. Darius Kinsey was standing in 1899 just to the east of the railroad tracks, where Skagit Steel & Iron Works later moved in about 1910. He was looking east, south-east. The lots with stumps in the middle of the photo is where the North Star Hotel would soon be built.

      Several years ago I discovered a tiny paragraph in a paper that recalled the North Star Hotel, which was claimed to be built in 1890, located about two blocks north of the Seattle & Northern railroad tracks. I knew instantly that the location had to be the same lots as the Fern Rooms. When I double-checked the location on a 1926 plat map, sure enough it was at the southwest corner of Gibson and Metcalf streets, number 501 if houses had been numbered then. Three lots at the eastern end of block 12, Town of Woolley, were under Kate Seibert's name. The original North Star was north of the alley and the Grays Harbor boarding house was on a diagonal to the southwest across that alley. Both started as boarding houses for the timber crews felling the massive forest between the tracks and Duke's Hill and other hills around, and for the crews of the three railroads that crossed in the famous triangle of tracks north of Northern avenue. And both eventually became centers of the sin trade.
      Then one day I tried to find photographic proof of the location, so I went back once again to Kinsey Photographer, the set of books by Dave Bohn and Rodolfo Petschek, which has become a bible for Kinsey lovers. I knew that Kinsey had photographed that block in 1899 and I recalled that one important frame was in the book. As I feared, by the time I found the photo, the North Star was clearly not yet built, so the original newspaper story about its construction was based on the wrong year. As you will see on this page, those lots were still dotted with stumps. The Grays Harbor is there where it should be, at the right, or southwest, side of the block, as we look straight on at the photo. Whenever it was built, the structure was known through the early years of the 20th century as the Star Rooming House until 1915 when it was purchased by Charlie Hill, who would soon become one of the most important bootleggers in town when Washington went dry four years earlier than the rest of the nation, on Jan. 1, 1916. Sometime he changed the name discreetly to Charlie's Place or Hill's Place.
      Did he buy it to prepare for Prohibition? Yes. Hill's Place was soon converted into a Blind Pig brothel. Hill, born in Finland on Dec. 1, 1870, married Caroline "Carrie" Lederle, as Peterson recalls, the sister of the famed teacher, Minnie Lederle Batey. He first became a significant hotel and saloon player in Woolley when he bought from Christopher Columbus and Gus Liskas the notorious Keystone Hotel & Bar, as announced in the Dec. 3, 1903, Skagit County Courier. The Keystone, presumably the first hotel in P.A. Woolley's company town (dating from 1890-1), was erected at the southeast corner of Eastern and Northern avenues (the present northern lots of the Sedro-Woolley True Value Hardware building), and was originally located directly across from the original railroad depot that served both the Seattle & Northern and Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern railroads, at the right angle of the triangle of crossed tracks.

Keystone was the vile Den of Iniquity
      The Keystone was also considered by preachers and prohibitionists as the most vile of the dens of iniquity on Northern Avenue, which was known as Whiskey Way by its detractors, or State Street, known as Saloon Row. In that year, the prohibitionists went on the attack and printed an unsigned flyer, Truth, which told lurid stories about the girls who lost their virtue there. Before the sun set on the day of its publication, however, everyone in town knew it was the work of Dr. C.C. Harbaugh's dry forces against Hill and Bingham. That's right, Bingham the Banker. Old C.E. Bingham, who opened his first bank in old Sedro in 1890. As the late Reno "Spike" Odlin recalled, Charlie Bingham's wife Julia hosted cocktail parties at their mansion at Talcott and Fourth Street, an act that horrified both the tea totaling doctor and his wife, Kate, daughter of Philip A. Woolley. (Read our transcription of Truth here), courtesy of the late Jean Austin, Harbaugh's granddaughter, who donated the Woolley family bible and key documents to the Sedro-Woolley Museum and the Museum supplied copies of the documents to the Journal.)
      Hill died in July 1925 at age 55 and his widow (second wife after he divorced Carrie in 1904 and remarried), Sinja Hill, sold the lots to the sisters Elsie Burdick and Kate McMurray in November, that year. One major gap in our incomplete story is an important one to fill. We do not know how long they had lived here before buying the property or if they were new to the city. But we infer from a newspaper story at the time that the sisters were Seattle residents at the time. Peterson also found information that the Loisels moved here first and alerted Louise's sisters to the property being on the market.
      Theresa was able to confirm for us that Elsie lived in Washington in 1911, because that is when she married Daniel Henry Burdick, her first husband, in Seattle, on August 11, about two weeks after the great fire that destroyed half of downtown Woolley. We do not yet know if the whole family moved here from Pennsylvania in that year. Nor do we know if the sisters continued the same business as Hill did, or if they initially reverted back to boarding house status. The considerable difference in return on investment for Hill's trade would have been tempting. Regardless, Kate stayed in Sedro-Woolley for only four years and Peterson concluded she and her husband had moved away by 1930; her last address was in Anaheim, California. The late Gene Stender, whose memory and counsel we dearly miss, may have confused Kate with sister Elsie in the story above.
      Elsie wound up with four sisters living hereabouts at one time. So far, we infer that she became the Elsie Moore of legend specifically in the Depression years and possibly because of her generosity and good works as much for the "scandal" that some attached to her name. The real story is rich and layered and Theresa's family's part is the stuff that Hollywood producers would have hankered for in the '50s. But all that will be in the full Elsie Moore story, which we hope to have prepared before the end of the year, maybe within a few months if we reestablish contact with the other descendants she referred us to. This is a teaser, a place-holder, to stimulate your appetite for the even tastier bouillabaisse of the final megillah.
      The point of giving you this preview is to confirm what Puss Stendal told Dad and me almost 40 years ago. Some uncharitable souls used to laugh and say that Puss would "fill in the gaps" creatively to tell some of his anecdotes. He may have done that once or twice, but Theresa's discoveries confirmed the general tenor of Puss's memory. As the old timers used to say, and Dad agreed, Puss knew a thing or two about a person or two and if you caught him on the right day, he would regale you with his memories going back to 1905 when his family moved to Van Horn to work in a logging camp. But that will come with the grand Stendal story next year; we will share a few Puss and Stendal anecdotes with you between now and then. I'm just sorry that Ralph and John, two of his great sons, cannot be here to read the full story of Elsie and Puss's memories of her, though I'm sure they heard the stories and knew a couple about her themselves. One Stendal boy is still living. Principal and mayor Billie Ray Stendal, and he is a proud representative of the family to this day, the keeper of that flame. We have often relied on his memory and kindness.
      So come back later this year, dear reader, and we will try to tie this up for you and wrap a bow around it. Elsie Moore, the legend, was fun. But Elsie Seibert Burdick Velcheff Williams Moore (four husbands, six children, five grandchildren), the person, was as complex as you would expect her to be, but more than that, her complete character study makes her almost an archetype for the stern-taskmaster, tough-as-nails businesswoman who managed houses of ill repute during the Depression. That was a better alternative than being married to a lout for the steady paycheck, or worse for never having enough food to eat if there was no work. And from 1930-35, there was little paying work available in Sedro-Woolley.

The tipping Tarheel from Lyman
      Frank Evans, who merged and owned the Courier-Times for about 45 years, from 1920 onwards, told Dad one time long ago that Sedro-Woolley was on the way to recovery by 1936 while most towns in the country were still scraping along; he was quite proud of that. I later found one of Frank's 1936 editorials to that effect. So I asked Puss a while before he died (on Jan. 6, 1992), could he confirm that? He beamed and said,
      "I can do better than that. Sedro-Woolley sure did fare better by that time and hiring halls appeared again. The Mount Vernon muckity-mucks were even worse back then about how the upper river valley and Sedro-Woolley were the poor cousins of mighty Mount Vernon and took every occasion to remind us who were our 'betters.' They insulted our Tarheel neighbors, and those were my bread-and-butter customers, you know." For several years, after initially teaching in Blaine, Puss was a clerk and then a manager of the old Union Mercantile department store at the southwest corner of Ferry and Metcalf streets. "So, by 1936, some hiring started again and even though the Merc had gone belly up, I would sometimes find myself with $5 extra one month.
      "So when that happened, I would invite a Tarheel friend to dinner over at one of the popular places in Mount Vernon to eat. That was when a four-course dinner went for a buck-fifty, with desert, coffee and a cee-gar. And I would give my friend a 50-cent piece to leave as a tip. When the waitress would come to the table, I would explain that my friend had to leave but he wanted her to know how much he enjoyed her attention. And I would make a point of saying, 'he's a Tarheel, you know, lives in Lyman.'" And the gossip queens soon shared the story about the tip from the rich Tarheels from Sedro-Woolley and Lyman, halfway across Mount Vernon before the sun next rose.

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Story posted May 30, 2011
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