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Skagit River Journal

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A Pioneer Family: Van Fleets and the Skiyou neighborhood

Lloyd Seabury, in A Pioneer Family, 1975

      Emmett Van Fleet on his buckboard wagon, sometime after 1900. We do not have any photos of the Seaburys so we hope that a reader will have some or will know some descendant of the family. We also hope to learn more details about Lloyd and his family.

      Our neighbors, the Emmet Van Fleets, were certainly among the first to homestead near Sedro Woolley. It must have been near 1890 [actually 1880]. They came by canoe up the Skagit River from Mount Vernon to the mouth of Hansen Creek [originally Benson Creek, named for neighbors]. Here, they followed up the creek to the homestead site of their choice. They built their house and barn on high ground, a knoll that overlooked the surrounding land. Hansen Creek flowed by in the bottom below the house. Tied up always handy in the creek, I remember an ancient Indian dugout. It was a Van Fleet idea, I'm sure, and was available to all who needed it. The Van Fleet home bordered the Wickers so we were close neighbors — but seconds as pioneers go. These Vans, these Pennsylvania Dutch! You couldn't call on them without taking some gift home with you, vegetables, fruit, meat, or fish - always the goodhearted; they seemed to know what you needed most. In memory I can see the old man yet, not a big man but wiry and strong, long whiskers flowing out in front of his chin. Emmet didn't seem to worry about anything. He cleared the land around his stumps, just enough to raise grass and hay for his cattle. He believed it all right to live and let live. Life was that simple. I will not forget the sturdy rail fence surrounding most of his farm. I can see him sitting on the top rail near the old plank road and hoping some neighbor would come by to visit. It seemed to me he'd sit there for hours and if asked about it, "Yes, I just sit here and think and when I get tired of thinking I just sit." Then he'd laugh! The trail to town preceded the plank road on the location near the bottomland, as I have mentioned before. Mrs. Van Fleet wrote a letter to her hometown paper in Pennsylvania. Part of that letter dated August 19, 1893, follows: "The air here is now fresh and cool, and the surrounding country and scenery I; to me at least simply grand. Imagine yourself in a level village clearing of about 500 acres surrounded by a vast evergreen forest which extends out and away to the majestic mountains beyond by which we are surrounded on three sides. Tis evening. A pleasant time for a pleasant walk, so here we go. In front of the post office we will for a moment pause to drink in the beauty and loveliness of the evening scenery.
      The wide planked or gravel streets and sidewalks are decidedly inviting tin a promenade or an evening drive. But where are the horses and carriages with which to drive? There are none. Therefore' we must fall back upon the natural and original method of locomotion. As we walk up the avenue we notice several nice buildings, the finest of which are the Sedro Hotel, the M.E. [Methodist Episcopal]. Church, and the schoolhouse. A herd of horses are galloping around at their own free will out on the range, as that portion of Sedro is called. Cowbells are tinkling in the distance and horses and cattle range at large. Gardens and crops of course are fenced. A steamer that plies the waters of the traitorous Skagit River, lying at our right, gives a warning whistle for the draw bridge] for her to be opened for her to pass on to our more pretentious town down the river, Mount Vernon. Before we leave the town site, we will turn back and take a look. Oh! the stumps, in front of us, and to the left of us on which recently rested massive monarchs of the forest.
      Yes, cutting down the primeval forest, clearing the land, digging out those first big stumps was the homesteader's first job. I doubt if those who later inherited the land ever realized the immensity of that important job. For us pioneers coming later to the partly cleared land, it was a pretty good life. Dad had a little money to help us get started.

The Van Fleet leghorns
      I remember the big flock of brown leghorns the Van Fleets had running free all over their ranch. I doubt if they knew how many they had. They roosted at night in their big orchard, considering the number of trees planted, this was not objectional. Nests were everywhere in the grass and woods. It was a real challenge to find the eggs and nests. Eggs and meat were always so handy and plentiful; Mrs. Van could have a meal cooking in no time as soon as visitors — even unexpected visitors, arrived. You had to stay to dinner.
      The mother hens came out of hiding with their broods of tiny chicks. They looked just like wild, native pheasants. I remember I admired one of the beautifully plumed roosters one day, and Mrs. Van gave him to me just like that! Dad wasn't too pleased to see this puny addition to his flock. A battle ensued and my rooster lost. After that Dad's big barred rock was subject to my sling shot, to my ireful resentment. Dad would say, "I wonder what makes that old Plymouth rock so wild lately," as if he didn't have a pretty good idea.
      Van Fleets had a cider press. We'd take our Russet and Stark apples down to make cider or to help them drink theirs. Emmet Van Fleet bragged about his Northern Spy apples for his special drink which found its way into an oak barrel for seasoning purposes, for him it was on tap up to a year. Sampling time was anytime. Emmet liked to tell about his Pennsylvania neighbors and the cider-making back in his home state. It seems that there was some competition among the farmers who made the best cider and from what particular apple. The barrels were only to be opened up at haying, time at each ranch where all exchanged work. It was, according to Emmet, a kind of Dutch ritual at haying.
      I can see Emmet bringing in his brandy-like drink as what he considered a treat to the rest of us, in a large, shallow tin pan about three inches in depth. Every farmer used many tin utensils at the time. How Emmet could carry this awkward dish in to serve to no one who liked it, is void in my memory now.

Chores on the farm
      Cedar logs laying around so abundantly; it was a temptation to do all our buildings with the easily split boards and shakes, and fun to make picket fences. Straight cedar posts were no problem. Even the fir logs split up like tooth picks. Our wood shed was always full of wood logs and dry kindling. We built a large root house, double walls' insulated with sawdust, neat four_ it square bins for potatoes, carrots, mangle beets and other vegetables that needed protection against the winter cold.
      For the chickens a high picket fence they couldn't fly over. Two pigs raised each year supplied headcheese and other products beyond recall. I know we were proud of our home-made bacon, smoked and seasoned as we liked it. The chickens were fed plenty of greens, so the eggs were the best. Coming from a farm, corn state, Dad thought he had to feed corn to everything. Fat chickens, biscuits and gravy. Honey! Our ample supply was from a dozen hives of bees.
      Each summer Laurence and I had to weed an acre or more of carrots arid mangles. Dad gave us ten cents a row. We didn't mind and knew how the job had to be done, on our knees. It was my job in fall and winter to cut up the carrots and mangles, carrots and oats mixed for the horses, mangles and bran or shorts for the cows.
      We gathered spring and fall mushrooms. Not many people seemed to know about thorn. In the fall we gathered a gunny sack full of hazelnuts and dried horn on the kitchen roof. A sack of butternuts came from the Van Fleet plantings from trees that had been started in 1890 [1880?]. The original nuts from these fine, big trees came out with the Van Fleets when they moved from Pennsylvania. For the Van Fleets, like other homesteaders, work was the first order, and children and grandchildren would benefit most from the planting, clearing and building.

      We had heard so much about the people down south eating raccoon which fed on corn and beech nuts, and we asked my sister Mary, if she'd cook up one for us, roast it in our big family baking dish used for roasting large turkeys at Thanksgiving. The raccoon had been coming into our corn patch and into the prune trees. Sis consented but beyond that would have no part in It. She made stuffing, gravy and all the fixings, even as at real holiday time. Dad, Laurence and I thought it was the greatest meat yet. The best! It was like young roasted pig and looked like it. It was a big eighteen pounder I killed by the foot-log near our house. We didn't eat any more raccoon, however. I think, even at the early age, killing raccoon for meat was becoming against our belief and certainly, in our case, against all necessity.
      During our ranch life it was great sport to hunt raccoon and bob cat as a second choice. We'd rather be in the mountains somewhere. Many times the raccoon would get away. That wasn't important. It was the thrill of the race, the noise, the baying of the hounds and in all the excitement the hunt often ended in the middle of the night at the bank of the Skiyou Slough or the Skagit River. We followed old cow trails and even in the darkness we seemed to have right directions, like the dogs, and came out of the woods unerringly as did the hounds, below a familiar pasture or to the easiest exit home. I doubt if we knew what a compass was and certainly didn't own one.
      Our best sport was when we had our dogs trailing a bob cat. This happened on weekends during winter's deep snows when we'd look for signs of a hunting cat on the neighboring, low mountains south of the Skagit River or on Cokedale mountain [now called Lyman mountain] north of the ranch. Sometimes we'd trail them all day without jumping and the real excitement started when they were up and running to a tree. The live dollar bounty wasn't so important. I believe now, the cats were entitled to their share of field mice, the rabbits and the pheasants. But still we were environmentalists ahead of our time.
      The nearest I ever heard Dad complain about our hunting was when I heard him tell Uncle Gus, out on a visit from Nebraska, "I have never seen such boys to want to hunt." Uncle Gus said, "Let them hunt, they could be doing worse than that." Looking back after all the years, I wonder how Dad could endure us. He was always an example of fairness and justice
      When we first moved onto our ranch there was no herd law in Sedro Woolley. Cows grazed over the town site at will. An occasional bull came roaring out the plank road looking for new pastures and companions. Youngsters with little entertainment, we looked for adventure and excitement. We'd be sure to have our pasture gate open by the time the stranger arrived so he could venture in where our bull was ready to answer all challenges. When Dad found out what was going on, he made us drive the intruder back onto the road. It wasn't always easy to get the bulls separated, but if worse came to worse, we could outrun the kills. We were endowed with our share of mischief.

Logging and clearing
      I'll remember the hardships facing the Washington pioneer clearing his land. I was part of it. So much hand grubbing, picking up, digging up and plowing the soil between the stumps. and even between the logs to get grass growing for the stock. Many farmers didn't have money to buy hay and grain. Dad would worry about the scant pasture and the cold weather that delayed the growth of green feed in the spring. Some farmers cut soft maple trees down when the new leaves appeared so their cattle could browse on the new growth
      Cutting down tall trees was the initial operation. Then part of the stumps had to be blasted loose, the down logs, sawed by hand with the old crosscut saws into cordwood size to burn. The second growth and brush was cut down with axe and brush hook, the last a very important tool at that early stage. Teams of horses and some oxen were used at first. It was not a simple task to pile the brush and rotten wood so that it would burn. Following this the leveling, even some of nature's ravines had to be smoothed out, all this with the questionable equipment available at the time. The finished job was rough to say the least.
      For first clearing Dad hired an industrious and hardworking neighbor, Dave Evans. Dave undertook the excruciating hard work of clearing all by hand. He received $150 an acre. I watched his progress. It seemed to be a super-human task, a back-breaking method to make a living. He used no horses. When finished, Dave didn't leave the smallest root within reach of the plow. But times were changing. A few shingle mills appeared around the valley and present logging camps began to open up with the advent of the steam donkey.
      I suppose Dave was in his middle 40s when he cleared that acre for us. Laurence and I called the middle-aged group "old so and so." Some youngsters were disrespectful to the older people as they certainly are now. Dave wasn't really old. I liked to listen to older men and could learn from them. Goodness knows, I needed all the knowledge I could pick up. I wanted to hear more about the experiences of the settlers who came to Washington in the 70's, 80's and 90's. My curiosity was always great.
      Old Dave showed me how to blast out the stumps, to make a hole just the right size to get the powder in the right place. He'd tell in uncanny exactness how each stump could be laid out in pieces, how many and where.
      The cedar stumps were easily split in sections with a minimum amount of powder, but an entirely different problem was presented by an old knurly fir. To do a job on the latter it took a full box of 20% stumping, so called then, to lift out the roots in six or eight pieces, a size that could be handled by team or steam donkey. Learning from Dave enabled me to blast out the stumps on a 10-acre area cleared by the John Harrison crew. John had the first donkey clearing and contracting outfit that I recall.
      We found it hard, tedious work preparing the ten acres for the donkey operation. We had to be proficient in the use of the axe and brush hook. We'd slash the soft growth, the alder, maples, willows and the many vine maple. The hardwood vine maple sent out roots twenty feet under the surface of the ground. The leaves were beautiful in the fall; we hesitated to cut it down at all. The land had to be cleared. We took pride in how we piled the brush to burn and not have to handle it twice.
      Dad, coming from the Nebraska farm, was glad to leave this kind of work to us boys. Sometimes he'd walk out at the end of the day to check- progress on the job laid out for us. "Now, boys, if you'd finished this little corner, too, it's been a good day's job, indeed." This made us mad, even though we knew Dad didn't really mean it the way it sounded. He didn't want to spoil us with praise. He'd tell Mother or my sister what a whale of a job we had done that particular day.
      I was not only the family runt in strength but the adored pet of the family and must have had something going for me from the start to get that kind of attention. It often happens to the youngest in the family, and in my case, right with the rest, I was favored by Mother. I remember almost with shame when Mother bought me a pair of patent leather shoes with her precious money.


Van Fleets
      Emmitt and Eliza Van Fleet moved their young family from Pennsylvania to Skiyou in the Skagit Valley in May 1880. They selected a patch of land for homesteading that is still pretty much forest today. Eliza and her daughter Ethel became charter members of the Territorial Daughters of Washington, Chapter One, hosting the inaugural meeting in a meadow on their farm. [Return]

Post Office
      In 1893 the post office was located at the southeast corner of Woodworth and Metcalf streets in a stationery store surrounded by the Woolley family orchard. [Return]

Draw Bridge
      The draw bridge was part of the trestle that the San Francisco Bridge Co. built over the Skagit River to carry the original Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad. Eventually the draw bridge portion was disabled and the trestle bridge now stands alone and nearly forgotten, with both ends snipped off. [Return]

Mary Seabury Kirby
      Sister Mary married neighbor Frank Kirby, two years younger than Howard, the oldest Seabury boy; she was born in 1876 while the family lived in Iowa. [Return]

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Story posted on June 14, 2009 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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