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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

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 memories of old Skagit valley, 1/2

(Fritsch Christmas)
In Issue 51, you will read a collection of Memoirs by pioneers and descendants pioneer memoirs. This photo is of the window in Fritsch Brothers Hardware front window on Metcalf Street, where toys and choo-choo trains were displayed for all children to see as they pressed their noses to the glass. Many decades ago, where the Dollar Spree store stands today.

      As Christmas-time approaches, we share a group of stories about pioneers and their descendants celebrating the holiday on the Skagit River. We also want to know if you or anyone in your family has any documents, letters, diaries or photos from your family archives that illustrate how families in the Skagit valley and the Northwest celebrated the holidays on the frontier. We will add your memories to this section Below, we present three examples of such memories and we plan to build on this section over the next two weeks.
      We never ask for your originals. Xeroxed copies will be fine. In fact, if you go to a copy shop, ask the attendant for how to access a special button that will make any copy — especially of a photograph — a near facsimile of the original. Or if you have scanned material, please click the email button at the top and send them as attchments. You can also find our street mailing-address at the top should you decide to mail copies by U.S. snail-mail.
      And if you grew up here in the "old days" — before 1964, please share your Christmas memories with us and your family customs, along with favorite toys or presents. We will use your comments in stories this Christmas and in future articles that illustrate how families made do at Christmas time. We especially want family memories from long ago that explain how families created a holiday atmosphere even though they were far away from glitzy stores or if they were short of cash.
      Meanwhile, we were reminded by reader Cecil Hittson that we have more than 150,000 troops serving away from home this Christmas. Many will be on the front lines while we celebrate here at home. I remember from the time I was serving in the U.S. Army during the 1960s how important messages from home were in the holidays. Make sure and let them know that they are in our thoughts. If you have someone in your family who is serving, send us their email address and we will send them a Holidays greeting from back home and links to nearly 700 stories they might like to read in our free home pages and our subscribers section. You also have the option of purchasing a gift subscription for them to the separate Subscribers-Paid magazine online.
      Finally, this is an especially Merry Christmas for your editor, as he has nearly fully recuperated from cancer and surgery earlier this year. Thanks again to all of you who expressed such friendly thoughts and support during that trying time. Here are the memories we share in this story and website:

Page 1 below:
Page 2: (click link)

    Any time, any amount, please help build our travel and research fund for what promises to be a very busy 2010-11, 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.
      And here are links to many stories that share Christmas memories throughout this story and website:

Christmas at the Kemmerich ranch, Birdsview
From Barbara Halliday, a Kemmerich descendant
      Early Birdsview pioneer August Kemmerich and his wife, Barbara, were both of German background and they brought German Christmas traditions to their homestead on the north bank of the Skagit River in the late 1870s.
      My father, Alphonse Kemmerich, born in 1903, was their youngest child and he vividly recalled that magic moment, just after midnight on Christmas Eve, when the doors to the family parlor were swung open, and the children looked with wonder on a tall fir tree, literally ablaze with the light of hundreds of twisted wax candles adorning the tree. The German tradition required that the children not see the Christmas tree until that first minute after midnight, and apparently the suspense was close to unbearable for the younger Kemmerich children. Under the tree, each child would find probably only one gift and my father said there was always the threat that a naughty child's gift would be a lump of coal in a shoe. Apparently the Kemmerich kids managed to behave well enough to never find the dreaded lump of coal!
      Those little twisted wax-candles in their clip-on holders were still placed on our Christmas tree when I was a little girl in the 1930s, but they were never lighted. My father probably remembered all too well that the Kemmerich ranch house ultimately burned down in the mid-1930's — but not from a Christmas tree. It was an overheated wood stove that did the deed. However you celebrate it, Merry Christmas.

Paul V. Pressentin memories of Christmas 1884
Originally written by Charlotte D. Wildig, Seattle Times, Dec. 4, 1961
Reprinted in the book, Skagit Memories
      Virtually every white person on the Upper Skagit was invited to the George Savage cabin near Birdsview for Christmas Day of 1884. Savage had reason to celebrate, and not long after his election as Skagit county's first surveyor — an event which gave a life-saving boost to his meager income — he let it be known among all the neighbors that they were invited to a real holiday gala at his home.
      When Christmas Day came there were us Pressentins, of course, the Minklers, the Frank Hamiltons [from Baker river], "Gust" Kemmerich, [John] Grandy, Ed Finney, the Qualls, as well as Mrs. [Clarissa] Boyd. a sister of Mrs. Savage [and wife of L.A. Boyd] who was living with the Savage family. The children, too, had a rare chance for a reunion. In addition to the five Savages, there were four Pressentins, two Minklers and the Boyd children.
      While the young women busied themselves in the lean-to kitchen at the rear of the primitive cabin occupied by the Savages, the men were outside swapping stories of hunting and fishing prowess, probably taking an occasional nip on the sly. The men, I remember, were all heavily bearded except two young blades who sported mustaches.
      Although the children were to eat at the second table — the young Savages had their meal in the kitchen — I couldn't help edge through the crowd after the dinner call to size up the feast. Two pans of canned peaches, one at either end of the long plank table, caught my eye and also, of Kemmerich who, living the life of a bachelor, was used to nothing but the most basic fare.
      Spying the strange fruit, Kemmerich, who had seated himself astride the bench before the others had overcome the usual reluctance to appear too eager, commented loudly: "What's them? Turnips?" and proceeded to spear a sample with his fork. "They're good enough for me," was his lip-smacking comment, and he went on to appropriate the pan and down its contents with dispatch. Canned peaches were an unheard-of luxury in those days.
      Standing for a moment in shocked silence the kitchen committee held a whispered consultation in one corner, then retrieved the other pan as unobtrusively as possible to keep it in a safe place until later in the meal.
      I don't remember too much else about the meal, but I believe there were potatoes, corned beef — Mr. Savage had scraped together enough money to buy some at the time he acquired the peaches — and ham.
      Ed. note: The fine Skagit Memories book is still for sale at the Historical Museum in LaConner. This story is the only one we have found that names Ed Finney, who may have been the namesake of Finney Creek, which empties into the Skagit River on the south shore. We have heard other stories that the creek was named after an early settler named Phinney and subsequently misspelled. We also read in the memoir of the late Lloyd D. Palmer that he spelled Phinney Creek as late as the 1930s. Perhaps a reader will find a story about the settler and the name. John Grandy was the namesake for Grandy Creek. He came here in 1878 along with August Kemmerich after they worked in logging camps on the Olympic Peninsula with Birdsview namesake Birdsey D. Minkler.

Son in Korea for Christmas, 1952
By Mollie Dowdle, Skagit Valley Herald, Dec. 4, 1962
      It was so near to Christmas that day when I drove Wal over to Mount Vernon to the draft center to catch a morning bus for Fort Lewis. It was just ten days away. Red bells, colored lights swung gaily across the narrow streets. Proud little fir trees stood straight at the light posts. The stores glittered with tinsel and gay bright balls and were crowded with shoppers, hurrying, their arms laden with packages.
      Snow lay heavy on the hills, the borderline almost down to the valley. It was cold that morning, yet when I had spent the last possible minutes in the bus depot and I knew I must leave, he took off his heavy jacket and said, "Take it back home, Ma, it will save my mailing it."
      "Why did he have to do that?" ran through my mind. "It's bad enough at best, but when he leaves looking cold, I know I can't stand that."
      Just a little hug, a peck on the forehead, "See you Ma," and he opened the car door for me and was gone. Just Mothers know about how such things hurt because that's the way God made us. I couldn't shed a tear; he wouldn't have wanted that, so I choke back a million ones and said, "Hurry back."
      The road was so long back home, the house was empty, the dogs languished and laid under my feet, even his game roosters didn't crow or I didn't hear them.
      Wal was gone and the world wasn't such a nice place as it had always been before. Like the son of old, Wal had always been the one who had stayed home with me. All others were prodigals who went out and tasted of the world for awhile and then returned to find us waiting. And it was the brother who stayed home that kept watch and rejoiced at their return.

All arranged
      He thought it was all arranged so I would have things to do when he left and I wouldn't have time to worry. He had taken me with him on his trap line for a week or more, carefully pointing out the details of taking the muskrats out of the trap and then home to skin and stretch them. How to re-bait and reset them with an apple — "Like this Ma, careful and don't get your fingers caught." so I tried, I tried real hard. I'd tramp through the cold and slush along the streams and sometimes I felt as if he was walking with me. I'd kneel to reset a trap, my fingers blue with cold and pray, "Why, why wars?" It was a good place to talk out loud to God and the healing balm of aloneness made it easier to forget the pain.
      Christmas came and went, his very first one away from home. I wrote details of our activities, the tree and ornaments as old as he was, our dinner and how much we missed him. He, in turn, told me about Christmas in an army camp. Another year had almost passed. A lonely year, both my sons were in Korea. They had been home on two short furloughs and then sailed for a land of trouble.

Heart was there
      The newspaper headlines screamed that our boys were freezing in the bitter cold. Not only were my sons there, my heart was there.
      Wal was the one who didn't forget to write. Bless his heart, he could never spell, "Thanks for the presents, Ma" was one written: "Thanks for the box of presidents." But I read and reread his scribbled notes until they were worn out. He never mentioned conditions, just people and they were all his friends. Little brown-skinned people, Korean children picked up by the side of the roads, homeless, naked and hungry — so many of them, and his buddies in khaki — war makes for togetherness and they were all his brothers.
      Christmas was coming again, his second one away from home. It would be a lonely one for me, for all mothers who had sons in the war and a lonely one for most of the troubled world.

Cowboy suit on list for Santa Ma
      About the first of December a strange scribbled note came from him: "Would you send a size eight cowboy outfit and be sure and include a gun and holster and some boots. And send it airmail, Ma, so it will be sure and get there in time for Christmas."
      Such a strange request. It wasn't like Wal to ask for anything. Had he gone berserk? Maybe got too close to an exploding bomb — so many things could have happened. But there were my orders, all misspelled but very explicit and I had better get busy. So I went into a local store and with the help of a kind clerk the order went out with instructions to mark it "Rush." Then I waited for an explanation. It didn't come until after the first of the year. This is what he wrote:

Dear Ma:
      You should have been here Christmas day and seen the little Korean boy we have been keeping in our tent, when he opened up his package. The cowboy suit just fits. Even the boots are alright.
      I picked him up along the road on my way back from Seoul about two months ago. The Communists had killed both his parents and he had been eating from garbage cans. He was barefoot and his scant clothing hung in rags over his skinny little body. I brought him into camp and dressed him up in some of my old army clothes. I shortened up the breeches with safety pins and the jacket reached below his knees. My old combat boots were about ten sizes too big but I put a lot of socks on his feet and he didn't mind dragging them around. He looked like a pint-sized G.I., but the size of his clothes didn't seem to matter. His little belly is filled out and he's learned to swear when things don't please him. He's just about the happiest little kid I've ever seen.
      After he got all dressed up in his cowboy outfit I whacked off some of hair and he went to church with me. He helped with the Christmas carols in a funny little way and held my hand when the preacher prayed.
      You'd just love him, Ma, and I wish I could bring him home with me but I guess I can't do that. The fruit cake you sent didn't last very long and the guys all thought it was real good.
      Please don't send me any more nuts. The rats rattle and roll them all over the floor of the tent. I sure missed being home for Christmas. But I'll be there next year.
      — Love, Wal

      Ed. note: We want to thank Pat Hegg Brown for sharing this clipping with us, along with a couple dozen other Mollie columns that we plan to share with you in 2006. Pat grew up here in Sedro-Woolley, the daughter of Fuzz Hegg, who made Christmas brighter for many folks at his grocery stores in town and in the way he made everyone feel at home. Pat has passed away since we corresponded with her. And we are sad to tell you that both of Mollie's boys, Wal and Barney, passed away in 2010.

Links, background reading and sources

Story posted in abbreviated form on Dec. 8, 2004, last updated Nov. 29, 2010
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This article originally appeared in Issue 51 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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