Skagit River Journal
(1900 S-W Fire)
July 1911 photo of 700 block of Metcalf street after the downtown Sedro-Woolley fire. The view is to the southwest. At the top is the location of the present U.S. Post Office. That location was then the site of the original Sedro-Woolley city hall.
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(bullet) Site founded Sept. 1, 2000. Passed 6 million page views, November 2012; passed 800 stories in 2012 — Mailing: (bullet) Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284 where Mortimer Cook started a town & named it Bug
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Introduction to Humbug!

(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. Photo courtesy of Barbara Taggart collection.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2013

This page is under construction as photos are added

Genesis of the project

A playwright friend suggested that it would be helpful for people who volunteered to read over the first draft chapter of Humbug! to have an overview of Mortimer Cook so that you could sense why I have spent the past 20 years researching this man. I have spent the past six years walking where he walked and lived, as I decided to profile Cook instead of writing a more traditional history of my home town. This is not the actual final introduction for the book but let this suffice for now. If you want to help us as we polish this chapter, we welcome your email with any suggestions, corrections and criticism.

      This project began when I returned to Sedro-Woolley in 1992 to care for my mother who was failing in health. After 30 years away, during which I lived in relatively big cities in California and Washington and Europe, my return soon led to boredom from the tedium of feeding and bathing mother. I had spent the prior decade or more studying and writing the history of wine families and wineries in California and Washington. Although I am not an academic historian by training, I found over the years that I had a knack for writing historical narrative from a social point of view. The project that was spawned in boredom ironically led to closeness with my mother in her final years as we discussed the discoveries about history, which she loved, as well as leading to an appreciation for my home town's history that had not been sparked in my school years here.
      Sometime in that first year, Fred Slipper, a descendant of one of county's first settler families, took pity on my state of ennui and one day he laid a folder on my desk that included a Xeroxed copy of a diary that Mortimer's daughter, Nina, began compiling in 1886 when she and her sister and mother joined Mortimer in the wilderness of the Skagit river valley. Her daily experiences captivated me and in the two decades since I cannot recall any day I have been bored.
      The diary was all I had to go on at first. The 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties, included the most thorough overview of Mortimer's historical importance but even that was somewhat spotty. Two writers, June Burn and Ray Jordan had also written magazine articles that provided local color and a hint at Mortimer's character. But beyond that I did not even know who exactly from the family had provided the copy of the diary and I had no idea how to contact them. My first year was spent trying to track down the family.
      In 1993 I traveled back to the Midwest to find the descendants who indicated that they had more documents. I hit the jackpot in April that year when I found his granddaughter who was nearing 90 and confined to a wheelchair in her home in Rockford, Illinois, where Mortimer's nuclear family gravitated after his death in the Philippines in 1899. Barbara Budlong Taggart turned out to be my lodestone and I spent two days interviewing her. She was very eager to have a book written about him and she donated several family documents, including letters, which were my first concrete sources. She had written a narrative of sorts that covered the highlights of his rather amazing life. She also provided the first photo of Cook's town site and home on the Skagit. Although she was not an accomplished writer she had gathered what she could find about him. Her brother, the late Mortimer Cook Budlong, was the source of the diary and other documents that illuminated his early life and that of his wife, Nan Pollock. Meeting with her led to meeting other descendants including Paula Budlong Cronin, Tom Budlong, Bob Chanson and a host of other people who have helped flesh out this book.
      After those two first two years of intense research, I was amazed that this man had slipped through the cracks of history and I finally understood how my hometown of Sedro-Woolley, Washington, was for a brief time in the late 19th century one of the most important boom towns of the Western frontier, only to fade after the nationwide Depression began in 1893.

Mortimer's amazing life
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      Mortimer was born near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1826, the son of a pioneer family who had migrated from the East Coast to the Ohio wilderness in the early 19th century. The patriarch of the American family was Francis Cooke, who was a passenger on the Mayflower. Nina wound up marrying Standish Budlong, a direct descendant of Myles/Miles Standish, in 1895 in the little cottage on the Skagit river that Mortimer had pioneer David Batey build for his family.
      Mortimer's grandfather and father hacked a clearing in the wilderness in what became Richland county, Ohio, and established a significant family farm near Mansfield. Unlike some of his siblings Mortimer did not gravitate towards higher education or a professional life. He left home in 1846 and enlisted in the Mexican-American War fracas, where he served as a teamster alongside Lt. Ulysses Grant, who was appointed quartermaster for the battles from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Other key officers were on the drive across Mexico were Capt. Robert E. Lee, and Lt. Douglas Brewerton, who was his immediate commander and later was the first painter to introduce paintings about the wonders of California.
      After the War Mortimer stayed to work at a trading post in Eagle Pass, Texas, where he heard many '49er stories from miners criss-crossing to and from California. In 1852 he rode alone across the Mexican desert from San Antonio to Mazatlan, then boarded ships that eventually took him to San Francisco. From there he boarded river steamers and then rode on horseback to the diggings of Rabbit Creek and Warren Hill, a mile high in the Sierra Nevadas.
      In 1858, after hydraulic mining had diminished the role of the individual in the gold fields, Mortimer headed north to the village of Whatcom in northwestern Washington territory where he led pack trains up to the diggings along the Fraser River in British Columbia during a mini-gold rush. As a more significant gold rush began around Barkerville in the BC wilderness, Mortimer built a sawmill in the town of Lytton and he salted away another nest egg when he founded a town, Cook's Ferry, around the ford of the Thompson river on the way to the Cariboo gold fields.
      In 1863, at age 37, he returned to Ohio to marry his childhood sweetheart who had waited for him according to a pact they had made. They set off on a honeymoon tour that took them to New York City, then a steamship trip to the Isthmus of Panama where they crossed the strip of land to the West Coast and took steamers up to Victoria, B.C. From there they rode through canyons of steep rock cliffs up the Fraser and then the Thompson river. He sold the ferry in 1864 and they returned to Mansfield where he bought his late father's farm.
      Deciding that farming was not his calling, he moved his young family to Topeka, Kansas, in 1869 where he sold real estate and insurance and built the first iron bridge over the Kaw river, which became an important crossing as Kansas grew during its frontier days. After two somewhat peripatetic decades of moving, this might have become the family's home town but a fire that leveled their house also resulted in the death of their baby girl.
      That fire and death seem to have changed Mortimer's personality; the family tragedy definitely led him far away to escape the memories. He returned to California and finally decided to sink roots in Santa Barbara in 1871, and invested heavily from the $100,000 he gained from selling the Topeka bridge. He brought the first safe to town, opened the city's first bank and was elected as the first gringo mayor to two terms in the mid-1870s. He also built a mansion that still stands uptown on a slope from which he could view the harbor. After a very auspicious first five years he suffered severe financial setbacks from the 1875 and 1877 droughts, which killed millions of sheep and bankrupted many ranchers to whom Mortimer had over-extended substantial loans. Over the last few years of the decade he lost his mansion and the Clock Building, which he had built downtown, but by 1880 he and Nan had recouped some of their losses and he began looking far afield again.

Cook finds location that evolves into Sedro
      In 1884 he found the spot where he hoped he could plant the final roots for this family. Up the Skagit river, 20 miles from Puget Sound, he had a house and store built on the north shore and then opened a shingle mill in 1886, where he dried the water-laden western red cedar enough so that shipment by sternwheeler and railroad all over the country became feasible. He sold the mill in 1888 and it burned in 1889 but by then his townsite had become a valuable boom town as the southern terminus for the Fairhaven & Southern railroad. The booming town of San Francisco needed coal and a mine near his town attracted national investment, especially by C.X Larrabee, who had made a fortune in mines in Montana.
      By 1890 he had put away a modest fortune in frontier terms, but he made a significant error that would lead to losing financially once again. He opened another store in nearby Sterling and then decided to buy a ranch north of there to raise hogs. He took out loans at a high rate of interest and after the 1893 Depression crushed the economy of the Northwest, he was effectively bankrupt by 1897 and looking for another source of capital at age 71. As the Puget Sound became one of the first areas in the country to recover, specifically because of gold shipments out of the Klondike in Alaska, he learned of substantial mahogany forests in the Philippines and he traveled there in 1899. All was going well for him once again until he fell ill to dysentery and died there on Iloilo island later that year.
      By then the center of business in the town he started on the Skagit had shifted northwest a mile to where another boomer, Philip A. Woolley, started his namesake town. Mortimer's original town of Sedro, by the river, was flooded out three times from 1894-97. After college education back East, both Nina and her sister, Fairie, had relocated with husbands in Illinois and Nan shut down the Sedro property and joined them soon after the turn of the century. The daughters had become real country girls during their decade on the river and began teaching here, but they never returned to this area except for brief trips and thus Mortimer's story faded.
      Join us as we tell the story of Mortimer and the family, the gold that he chased originally, the six areas of North America where he became a significant pioneer and the new kind of gold that he found in the Pacific Northwest.

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Draft original Jan. 1, 2001 . . . Story posted on this domain Sept. 24, 2013
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