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Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Mortimer Cook, founder of Bug and Sedro
key figure all over America

(Mortimer Cook 1875)
Mortimer Cook, mayor of Santa Barbara, 1875

Journal stories about Mortimer Cook and family
      To think that all this started with some annoying mosquitoes. Mortimer Cook was the founder of a town on the north shore of the Skagit River that he first named Bug in June 1884 and then renamed Sedro when he obtained a post office appointment on Dec. 7, 1885. He was the inspiration for this history project in 1992 and his story will be the most extensively researched here on the website. Here are the stories now featured on this page about Cook and his family:


(Cook Store)
      Mortimer Cook's general store and post office in old Sedro, ca. 1888, Mortimer 5th from left. And his clerk, and future druggist, Albert E. Holland, 3rd from the right, in front of the doors. The photographer stood on Cook's wharf for sternwheelers. His home is upslope to the left, where the Rotary rock theater stands today at Riverfront Park. His daughter Nina is riding her horse.

A brief introduction to the life of Mortimer Cook
By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal, ©2003
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      Mortimer Cook chose to start his town on the Skagit River in Washington Territory for the same reason that many other pioneers chose their havens. He wanted to get away from something. When Mortimer arrived by sternwheeler steamboat at Ball's Camp in Sterling (two miles west of here) sometime by 1884, he found a river shore retreat hidden away in towering trees, and he thought it was sublime. He left behind bankruptcy and a roller-coaster ride to the top and bottom in California.
      If Mortimer had not settled on the north shore of the Skagit River in the early 1880s, Sedro-Woolley probably would not be here today. Whenever he first arrived, in 1883 or 1884, he impressed the original settlers, David Batey and Joe Hart, because he was the first genuine city father they had ever met. He founded Cook's Ferry on the Thompson River in British Columbia (BC) in 1861, and he was a town father at Santa Barbara, where he also served as mayor in the 1870s. In 1878 he lost much of his fortune in his bank there — the first gold bank in Southern California, and he struggled in the interim.
      By 1878, Jesse B. Ball built a logging camp that also became the market hub of the middle part of Skagit river. Originally called Ball's Camp and then Ball's Landing, this site two miles west of Sedro eventually became the village of Sterling, most of which was long ago swallowed up by the river. Ball's Camp became a natural stop for sternwheelers. In May of 1878, David Batey and Joseph Hart, childhood friends from England, poled up the Skagit past Ball's camp as far as the present site of Hamilton and then backtracked to a site two miles east of Sterling. They liked the sandbars at a horseshoe bend of the river that they named Hart's island, a natural Indian campground for centuries. They built a cabin up the slope from the slough and began felling massive trees and clearing land. Within months they were joined by two other immigrants from the British Isles, Robert Dunlop from England and William Woods from Ireland, to make a barbershop quartet of bachelors.
      From sketchy records of those days, we know that Mortimer sold his palatial Santa Barbara mansion for $10,000, the same amount he invested up north (the mansion was restored in 1996). With his capital he acquired timber rights over the next ten years for 2,200 acres of forest that ranged north from the shore of the Skagit River, up and over what is now Duke's Hill to the area we now call Warner's Prairie. John Warner, the prairie's namesake, was Mortimer's companion in the California gold fields, the 1858 Fraser River Gold rush and at Cook's Ferry in British Columbia. After Mortimer returned to his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, to marry Nan Pollock in 1864, Warner married Ellen Thompson, a member of the Cook's Ferry band of the Thompson Indian tribe. She was rumored to be the daughter or sister of the chief of the tribe. Warner moved down to Edison in the late 1860s after helping construct the coal mines in Bellingham. In 1882 he and his family homesteaded pasture land in the middle of the forest, five miles north of future Sedro. It soon took the name of Warner's Prairie. Warner's son Charlie logged much of Cook's acreage and later owned a saloon in old Sedro.
      The spot where Mortimer started Sedro was east from the Batey and Hart acreage on 34 acres that he bought outright from pioneer William Woods. He built his general store where the Riverfront Park barbecue pits now stand. There are no artifacts left, just the bucolic scenery along the river that Mortimer's family cherished as their real home. The history books generally cite 1884 as the year that Mortimer arrived, but we find some evidence that he may have searched for timber here in earlier years, possibly after communicating with Warner. He may have even traveled here in 1858 when he invested with Whatcom founder Henry Roeder in a pack train from Bellingham to the Fraser River gold claims in British Columbia. Whenever he came, he hooked up with Batey and Hart and discovered that Indians chose to ford the Skagit at a point near Batey Slough. Mortimer definitely knew where to ford rivers. Cook's Ferry was his first successful river crossing and ten years later he started another ferry and then replaced it with a tollbridge over the Kansas River near Topeka, Kansas, the first iron bridge in that area. He knew that the right river crossing meant business.


(Fireplace)
      These are photos of the interior of the Cook home. The top photo is of the fireplace. The photos show a much better furnished home than any that were located in the upper Skagit River region in 1885. Ten years later, on Oct. 30, 1895, Nina Cook married Standish Budlong of Rockford, Illinois, in front of that fireplace. These photos are exclusive copies from the originals, which were discovered in the scrapbook of Barbara Taggart, Cook's granddaughter. She was Nina's daughter and her descendants, the Chanson family of Rockford, provided the facsimiles, which are among the items the Journal is donating to the Sedro-Woolley Museum in 2011. The bottom photo is of the parlor.

(Fireplace)

Bugs dive-bomb Cook's townsite
      Mortimer hired carpenter David Batey to construct the first commercial building in this area, a general store, right next to his wharf on the river. Batey also built the Cook family home northwest up the slope, with all the modern furnishings. Batey built the first house here for his own family in 1880 on what is now the Rhodes Road, west of Sedro-Woolley. On June 25, 1885, Mortimer moved his family up from Santa Barbara to join him, and on December 7 he established a post office named Sedro. The store was built with a fašade. That was not unusual by itself. Most western frontier towns sported buildings with a false front that implied a second story, which gave the impression of more substance or wealth. Mortimer went one step further. He put a window in his fašade, and we can imagine that investors were mightily impressed when they saw it from the deck of a steamboat.
      When Mortimer was originally here without his family, he named the town, Bug, in his own inimitable way, after the mosquitoes that bedeviled loggers in the swamps that covered the low ground north of the river, the ones that they swore approached the size of bats. He even had Batey paint a sign on his general store with the unusual moniker and goods were shipped to that address, at least so the tale goes. The other settler families were not fond of the name, however, partly in fear that denigrators would prefix the name with "hum-". One story explains that Batey's wife Georgiana convinced Mortimer to accept a variation of the Spanish word for cedar, cedra. But the word is actually, cedro. Another story ascribes the name suggestion to George Wicker, who emigrated here from Kansas with his brothers at the same time as Cook arrived. Cook entertained all suggestions for a name and the 1906 Illustrated History book notes that several were considered, including Charlotte and Denver. But imitative names would not do for Cook, who suspected that this would be the last town he would father. Some fanciful tales persist that he wanted to name it after himself but no such record insists. All of those stories ignore the obvious. Cook spent nearly 15 years in a town where speaking Spanish was a valuable business tool. Mortimer apparently changed the last letter of cedro, the Spanish word for cedar, and voila. The small community of 20 people finally coalesced around the name Sedro and the town name became yet another example of serendipitous Western adaptation.
      The following excerpt from the August 1890 edition of the Washington Magazine is the earliest reference to the town name controversy we have found. Cook might have been pulling the writer's leg a bit — since there is no record that he ever submitted the Bug name to the U.S. Post Office — but it made good copy. Cook learned how to inspire ink in prior decades in Topeka and Santa Barbara.

      Mr. Cook, being a man of ingenious and original turn of mind, determined to give the future town a name which would be at once unique and without duplicate. Mr. Cook spent several days, so tradition tells us, earnestly scrutinizing the names of the various post offices of the United States, together with the "Blue Book," but among them all he is reported to have found no mane in the universe which had not been chosen, and some times, for the hundredth time, with the exception of one, which, on account of its originality, its concise and euphonious spelling he adopted directly. That was Bug.
      The post office superintendent wrote Mr. Cook, congratulating him, and approving his choice [apocryphal]; and things might have gone serenely on for an indefinite period had not an unforeseen contingency arisen which might have resulted disastrously, but was happily averted. Letters began to arrive addressed thus: Mrs. Jno. Jones, Bug, Washington [Ed. note: this part of the story may be apocryphal because we have not found any record of an application for a Bug post office.] When in one or two cases the name of the town occupied the place of an affix to the name of the individual, the delicate spirit of Western propriety could stand the unintended slur no longer. One Sunday afternoon an indignation meeting was held, during which a formal interview with the postmaster took place. Said a man to Mr. Cook: "Do you spell the name of this town with two 'g's?"
      "No," replied Mr. Cook, "I spell it B-U-G and one 'g' is enough." This was the climax. The people assembled, then and there resolved that the name of the town should be changed, and accordingly the town was called Sedro, paraphrased from the Spanish cedra or cedar.

      In June 1885 Mortimer moved his family up from Santa Barbara to join him via schooner and two successive steamboats. His daughter Nina, 16 at the time, described the trip in her wonderful diary that you can see in the Sedro-Woolley Museum:
      We have gone north to Washington Territory, Sedro, Skagit County. We left Santa Barbara June 9, 1885, and coming up on the steamboat Queen of the Pacific, arrived in Sedro on the Steamboat Glide, June 25. We found a cute, dear, pretty, little white house all waiting for us, and the loveliest trees and ferns and flowers and most beautiful place altogether, that I ever, ever saw. A little boat on the river bank to go rowing on the Skagit in, and a near prospect of a horse to go on horseback.
(Mortimer and Nan wedding)
Mortimer and Nan's wedding 1863

      In those years before the railroad arrived in 1889, travel up and down the river was by sternwheeler steamboat, by canoe or by foot. The forests between Cook's townsite and Mount Vernon were very dense and only muddy trails followed the shoreline, so even horses could not speed up the journey. We do not know when Nina got her wish for a horse, but we see her riding one in a photo on this website. A horse for riding would have been rare here in the 1880s. The few horses that were owned by settlers then were intended for logging. Pioneer Frank Hoehn was the first settler to bring in large teams of horses, riding the first pack over Cascade Pass in 1889. Nina's older sister Fairie was a teacher here and she exhibited her father's grit by filing a land claim herself. Nan Pollock Cook became one of the most beloved members of the community, helping organize the first religious services and being a good neighbor when young wives tried to cope with the wilderness and isolation here in the 1880s and '90s. [Link is fixed]

Bug becomes Sedro
      On December 7, 1885, Cook established a post office named Sedro, partly because he needed an official address for delivery of the weekly Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to his wharf by steamboat. Cook originally built a mill for all kinds of timber next to his wharf. Later, in May 1886, he began to specialize in the milling of cedar shingles. His shingle mill was the first one of its kind in the county and possibly the first in the Northwest. He manufactured shingles from bolts of Western red cedar for siding, roofs, and interior finish of houses. The rapid movement west of settlers had created a need that could not be satisfied from other sources. Western red cedar became the wood of choice because of its resistance to warping and rot. Cottonwood trees were nearly as common as cedar along the river here, but cottonwood warps and is not suitable for housing materials. More than a dozen shingle mills sprang up in the upper-Skagit area by the turn of the century.
      The old Cook mill eventually burned on April 9, 1889, but Mortimer had sold it to the McDonald & McEwan Co. in October of the year before. Although his mill was never as financially successful as he hoped, Cook's foresight about shingles was the key to Sedro's early growth and his land became very valuable when the Fairhaven Land Co. came shopping for land in old Sedro. By then, Mortimer decided that he wanted to raise hogs on a farm four miles west of town on a muddy trail that became the present Cook road. We will tell that story in an upcoming installment.


Epilogue
      In the early 1890s, Cook tired of his postmaster duties after the Fairhaven & Southern Railway connected Sedro with Fairhaven. His late granddaughter Barbara Taggart found this letter that was reprinted in an undated Sedro newspaper and it illustrates just how cantankerous he could be: It was addressed to: "Fourth Postmaster General, Washington D.C.
Dear Sir:
      I have served my country faithfully through the war with Mexico; I served her faithfully through the war of the Rebellion. I have served her faithfully as postmaster at Sedro since 1886. I have sent in my resignation three times and you have paid no attention to it. Unless I am relieved within ten days, I'll throw the [expletive apparently censored] post office in the river."

      A telegram swiftly returned authorizing him to turn the position over to his successor, George Hopp. By the way, George Hopp will show up again in our history. He was the editor of the town's first newspaper, Sedro Press, starting in April 1890. He was also elected the first mayor of Sedro on March 4, 1891, by roughly 200 male citizens.
      Cook nearly went bankrupt again during the Depression of the 1890s and he liquidated his assets to travel to the Philippines in search of another fortune in the mahogany forests there. He died of dysentery on Iloilo Island on Nov. 22, 1899, and is buried there. His family moved away to Illinois around the turn of the century. Their descendants returned to help launch the first Founders Weekend during Loggerodeo of 1994.


Mea Culpa: Confession is good for the soul
Mea culpa, cedro
      Even our overworked award-winning team of Journal fact checkers and copy editors blow it big time now and then. This time, however, their mistakes are both repeated and egregious. While they are behind the woodshed being flogged, we apologize and admit the errors. Over the years, we have variously written that the Spanish word for cedar was cedra or sedra. But, dear reader, once your humble editor actually consulted a dictionary, he discovered the Spanish word is instead, cedro. Therefore, Mortimer Cook simply changed the c to s.

More Cook stories on the web:


Story posted on Feb. 23, 2002, last updated on Dec. 24, 2010
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