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Skagit River Journal

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

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Ray Jordan's childhood on the Cook Ranch,
with a description of Belleville and the Belleville school

(Diking crew)
This photo of a diking crew from the Fir island area before the turn of the century illustrates the challenges faced by pioneer farmers of the Olympia Marsh and Cook Road. Photo courtesy of Skagit Settlers, a book that is out of print, but still for sale at the Skagit County Historical Society museum in LaConner.

      Journal Ed. note: First, we supply some background for this story. Mortimer Cook, founder of Sedro on the Skagit river, sold his mill there in 1888 and announced that he was going to raise hogs on a ranch six miles northwest of the town on a peat bog called the Olympia marsh. Indians who lived in that area told oral histories about fires burning underground for at least decades. Farmers who homesteaded there were confronted with swamps and marshland that made cultivation very difficult. Regardless, Cook organized them all and underwrote efforts to dig drainage ditches and line them with wooden tile from cedar puncheons. The acreage that covers the former Olympia marsh is now some of the richest farm land in the Skagit valley.
      He used the proceeds from the profitable sale of his mill and took out mortgages on at least 400 acres south of the present Cook road and east of present Hwy 99. Records of the Skagit county commissioners from 1891 show that he arranged for a road to be built along the northern tier of his property, actually more a crude wagon trail that would be graveled and extended to the town of Woolley three decades later. Before then, the area was connected to the Edison region to the northwest by primitive paths that Indians had followed for centuries. Then, in 1893, a nationwide financial panic threw the whole country into a depression that lasted for nearly four years. During that time, the mortgages came due and Cook had no proceeds from the ranch to pay the debt. Harrison Clothier, the Mount Vernon storeowner, and the Holbrook family of Woolley eventually called in the mortgages. As he had three times before, Cook gave up the property in 1898, liquidated his assets, and headed off to the Philippines to seek another fortune. But he died there of dysentery on Nov. 22, 1899, and his family relocated in Rockford, Illinois. Meanwhile, David Donnelly, the butcher from Woolley, bought the mortgage on the ranch and that segues into Ray Jordan's wonderful story below from his classic book.

Cook Ranch memories
By Ray Jordan, Yarns of the Skagit Country, originally published in the
Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times on March 22, 1962. Transcribed by Larry Spurling.
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      The year is 1904. The scribe is six. We are living in a shack situated about four miles due west of Sedro Woolley on the Cook Road. This place, as well as the road, took its name from Mortimer Cook, the same man who dropped the seed that grew to be Sedro Woolley.
      On the adjacent ranch to the west lived George McMillan. Farther west were the homes of the Daniels and the Tenneson brothers, Nels and Hans. To the east were the Dahlstedts. In case you don't already know it, Mrs. Dahlstedt made the best cookies in this world (The Elmer Gerriets live on the old Cook Ranch now — 1962).
      Dave Donnelly of Sedro Woolley owned the ranch at this time and our reason for being there was that Dad had taken a contract to clear a large portion of it which took a year or more.
      There was some clearing to start with, but the major part was logged off land peopled with healthy stumps. It had been burned over and seeded down and I can still see Donnelly's herd of beef cattle roaming this sea of waist high grass.
      I often played out there and well remember finding so many elk antlers being about, evidence that these animals had once existed in large numbers on the Flats. Bobwhite quail by the thousands inhabited the pasturelands then and we often found their nests filled with a surprisingly large number of eggs.
      For some time the clearing was accomplished solely by horse and team and hand rigging, stumping powder, dynamite and strong backs.
      Dad had a wonderful team, Old Dutch and Favorite. Although they were about as big as horses came, their black skin color and lined backs betrayed a touch of Indian pony ancestry.
      We had little storage room and for months on end we slept with dynamite, cans of black powder, and fuse under the beds, and blasting caps tucked under the eaves inside the house. There just wasn't any other place in which to keep these touchy explosives dry. What a horrifying thought today. But I can offer proof of the discipline around our house. I still have all my fingers and eyes.
      After some months Dad became the proud owner of one of these wonderful new modern stump pullers (some call them capstans) powered by horses hitched for a long sweep that went round and round. He had it made then.
      To old-timbers the condition of the Cook Road at this time needs no description, but for people who knew it only as a hard-surfaced highway with cars whizzing over it. I will say that Harry Swinomish Truman's description of music critics would have fitted with no alterations [Jordan's joke variation on the name of President Harry S. Truman].
      In the wet seasons it was an endless canal of mud. Skinners passing each other in opposite directions would always compare notes regarding the impassable chuckholes. We never went to town in the winter unless it was an emergency case, and when we did it usually took from dark to dark with a big team and an empty wagon to make the round trip to Burlington to Sedro Woolley.
      During the driest time the dust would be six inches deep. If there was a pebble of gravel on it I never found it for my slingshot. Since I was now six, my folks began to talk about school. You might become a President some day you know, if you had book larnin'.
      I like it the way it was, but one day my stepmother put a clean shirt on me, hung a lard pail full of lunch on my arm and forced me to join a bunch of kids straggling by on their way to the seat of learning. I was brave on the outside, but scared to death on the inside as I set off in the quest of knowledge.
      We trailed west down the Cook Road to the old road that followed the east side of the Great Northern tracks north through Belleville and then zagged over to the Belleville School (The viaduct north of Burlington" on the old road goes right over the center of Belleville. That viaduct was built when the Great Northern route was changed in 1902 to angle northwest around the Chuckanut hills.)
      There was quite a settlement at Belleville then — a couple of saloons, Cleary Brothers store and post office, and I seem to remember that Cleary's had a small shingle mill near the Samish River. Across the tracks from the business district was the GN depot. Families living close by, that I can remember, were the Mike Curwins and the Littlefields.
      The school had eight grades in one room with a man teacher (his name has dropped out of my head) who, with a long switch handy, heard his numerous classes recite one by one at a long recitation bench. It was my first school and the only one that I ever attended where they were still using slates. We did have store boughten desks though, the long type, each seating two squirming kids. Scholars that come to mind were: Ed, George and Dora Dahlstedt; Teddy Peck; Joe Mark, and Jessie Littlefield; Ward and Brian Doran and their sister.
      There was a small clearing in which the building sat, but most of the ground was covered with clumps of vine maples, trees and brush, the whole surrounded by uncleared logged-off land. Athletics consisted of simple games, climbing trees, and much wrestling which often erupted into actual fisticuffs. Since noon hour and recesses were of such short duration, some of these matches that had reached the enthusiastic stage had to be postponed until the kids were on their way home from school. Modern educators might be aghast at such a brain factory, but though some of the boys were approaching Jack Dempsey size (and about as difficult to handle) we did learn things, and I can prove it.
      The school had a belfry in which hung the usual heavy bell with its rope dangling down through a hole in the high ceiling of the anteroom. Often the teacher would ask one of the students to do the ringing chore. By chance one of the boys (a science major I think) discovered that by giving the rope an extra hard pull and quickly releasing it the bell would turn over and over winding the rope through the ceiling.
      This would gain them the excuse for climbing up in the belfry and untangling things. Since this trick gave them a few extra minutes respite from books it was repeated as often as was consistent with the risk of the teacher's wrath. And one day they did even better. Two of the older boys out of the room on highly personal business happened to meet one of the smaller boys in the anteroom. Here was a chance to conduct a purely scientific experiment.
      They grabbed the pint-sized kid, tied the end of the rope around him under his arms, give the rope the usual vigorous pull and up the kid went. The boys knew that his weight would keep the bell from running over so many times, but even it took him up against the hole in the ceiling. At his first howl the perpetrators of the crime oozed out through the front door as the startled pedagogue whizzed through the other, his coattails standing out like the top of a card table. Turning his gaze upward he was horrified to see one of his flock wedged against the hole in the ceiling, too big a lump to go on through.
      The two culprits then quietly came back in, much shocked at seeing one of their number hanging in the breeze like a wet sack, and gallantly assisted the teacher in extricating the victim. The school dad never did unravel this episode to his satisfaction. Although the statute of limitations takes care of this, my memory may be a little rusty as to names, so I won't mention any, but if these three are still living and happen to be listening in it would be nice to hear from them.
      School days seemed interminable. When the last day did end we thankfully grabbed our belongings and bolted for home. One flock, including myself would head south down to the railroad crossing on the Cook Road where the gang would split, some going east and some west. This was The Battleground. Here, contests that were not concluded on the school grounds were often renewed again with the hopes of gaining a championship that at least could be retained until the next day.
      After the warriors had exhausted themselves playing tunes on each other's windpipes and drumming on noses, the Donnybrook would break up. The victors would strut off crowing and he vanquished would be rubbing moist eyes, wiping bloody noes, and making excuses. We had no juvenile problems those days. You don't believe it? Well, neither do I.
      After the last excitement of the day we would pick up our lard pails with the 'Swift & Co., Pure Leaf Lard" stamped on the side and head down the long road for home, the girls walking sedately with pigtails flying, the boys searching for the deepest mud holes to wade through.
      Mashie kopa mesika kwolan. (Chinook Jargon for thanks for your ear.)

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