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The Tom Porter family:
Illabot Creek pioneer circa 1880,
builder of the famous cabin

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal, ©2002
(Thomas and Frank Porter)
Tom Porter and his son, Frank

      Journal Ed. note: Last year we shared a history of the Sauk river region by Bessie Porter. At that time we knew precious little about Bessie and her famous father Tom, other than that he built the cabin that is now on display at Howard Miller Park in Rockport. We were very pleased when an old friend named Ted Porter read the story on the website and sent us the following information about this pioneer family who left a significant mark on our region. We have also included genealogical information since his descendants married members of other pioneer families.

Tom came from Pennsylvania in 1880
      Thomas Francis "Tom" Porter was born in Friendsville, Pennsylvania, on June 10, 1852, the seventh of ten children from Irish immigrant parents. After a grade school education, Tom began working in the woods in his home state at age 15, and then moved to Oregon in 1877. Details of his early years are in the transcription below from a pioneer biography.

(Porter cabin)
Ted Porter and Dick Harris at the 1887 Tom Porter cabin, in the Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport.

      Various histories have timed his arrival in the Skagit River valley from 1881-87. But when we recently read every page of the 1880 Federal Census, we were surprised to learn that he was enumerated as a laborer at the logging camp of Jessie Beriah Ball near Sterling in June that year. Also, in Otto Klement's humorous diary excerpt about the Good Ole Boys of Lyman and the Pig, circa 1882, we read: "John Sutter undertook to explain how the trick was turned up in the state of Maine, but Tom Porter, leaning back perilously in his chair, his feet deposited in the center of a card table and his hat poised on the back of his head, interrupted by asserting that his experience was that they had no hogs in the state of Maine." Finally, Bessie Porter remembered in a family memoir that he arrived in Washington Territory in 1880 after spending some time in Wisconsin.
      Since the biography below shows that he came to the Pacific Northwest in 1877 and worked at logging camps in King County, we wonder if he could have hired on with Ball before Ball moved his operation north in about 1878.
      While working in logging camps, he met Bob Kerr, a teenager from Canada who was eight years younger. When they were working together here in 1884, they began planning a land claim sometime in the future; surveyors were just beginning to survey the upriver. In 1887 Tom homesteaded near the Sauk river, south of where the booming village of Sauk City was then forming. The nearest store of any size was that of Mortimer Cook, about 35 miles downriver by canoe at the tiny village of Sedro. All transportation in those days was by canoe or sternwheeler steamboat, when the river was deep enough. The Sauk river would soon become the route for supplying by boat or pack team the Monte Cristo mine, which lay to the south in Snohomish county. He constructed a cabin on the property that year, which was located just south of the Rockport-Cascade Road and north of the Illabot Creek Road, and Alvin Harris, the owner at the time, moved it to Rockport in 1967, where it is now the centerpiece of the Howard Miller Steelhead Park (see map below).
      After we posted an early capsule biography of Tom in the Journal in 2001, his grandson, Ted Porter, a fellow alumnus and old friend from the Utopia area, contacted us and supplied much of the basic information that helped fill gaps, along withsupplying photos of the family. Ted recalled that one of Tom's first friends here was Bob Kerr, whose sister, Mima, followed him to the river from their native Canada. She was born on Dec. 29, 1863, and lived with her sister after her parents' death. She was the twelfth of 13 children, also to Irish immigrants who lived in Bathurst, New Brunswick. In 1889 she joined her brother, who was living near Marblemount, and she married Tom on Dec. 24, 1891, in Lyman. Mima was a school teacher in Canada and spent some time at the University of Washington to get certified in this country. So far we have not found records of her teaching in Washington, but she may have taught in either the Martin family country school on Illabot Creek or in the very early Sauk City school.
      Their early years together were marked and defined by the periodic floods of the upper Skagit. In her story, Bessie describes in vivid terms about the flood of 1897 that nearly washed the family downriver. Ted recalls that most of both the Porter and neighboring Stafford families spent the night of the 1897 high water upstairs in the cabin that Tom built. Both families had to leave their farms and their cabins after the flood to recover financially. They constructed a raft for the two families and their possessions and drifted down the river to Lyman. Neighbor Ray Stafford made the trip on foot bringing their cattle. He was quite young at the time. When you look closely at the cabin in the park, you will see that Tom used dovetail construction techniques. You will see the same construction in the Log Cabin Inn in Marblemount, which Tom helped build not long after his own cabin. When the family returned after the flood waters receded they found that the Sauk river had changed course and left a sandbar on which the cabin stood. Their first task was to dig out the cabin, raise it and move it to higher ground [see maps below that were supplied by descendant Ted Porter]. Most of the family stayed in Lyman over the next few years while the Skagit continued bucking and snorting, as the pioneers often said to explain the floods. The cabin was moved to Howard Miller State Park in 1967. You can find a full story of the move in the March 30, 1967, edition of the Skagit Valley Herald.

(Porter Rose)
Ted Porter got his wish. This rambling rose, a cutting from original rose at the Illabot Creek cabin, was planted by Dick Harris at the corner of the cabin in Rockport, at a spot where Mima Kerr Porter would have seen it every day, at the corner off the front porch.

      Tom and Mima had seven children. They included: Robert Henry (Bert), 1892-1914; William Alexander (Willie or later Bill), 1894-1974; Elizabeth Ellen (Bessie), 1896-1985; Lillian Victoria, 1898-1971; Thomas Francis Jr, 1899-1899; Theodore Franklin (Frank), 1901-1994; Mima Seveight, 1904-1970. Mima died during the birth of her daughter Mima. Frank was Ted's father and he was born in Lyman during a time when the family had not yet moved back to the Sauk homestead. Tom Porter stayed on the farm until his death in 1927.
      Tom's oldest son Bert died on the farm from tuberculosis. They had set him up in a tent near the cabin as he struggled at the end. Bill lived near the cabin in his own house on his share of the farm with his wife Irene and son Bernard until they moved to Mt Vernon. Bernard died in World War II and Bill and his wife continued to live in Mt Vernon until they passed away. An infant son died only a few days after birth. Two daughters, Bessie and Lillian, and Ted's father Frank, continued to live at the farm until Tom's death in 1927. The farm was then vacant until Alvin Harris leased it and eventually bought it, moving his young family there "the day after World War II ended," as his son, poet Dick Harris, recalls. The Harris brothers, Jim and Dick, were virtual founts of information about upriver history after having grown up part of their years in that historic cabin. Jim lived in a beautiful home on the hillside just east of Concrete and was sort of a cowboy poet, only more of a frontier historian, of the oral tradition, among other titles. We lost him in June 2009 and we still miss him. Dick lives in Bellingham and continues write his memoir of upriver life and recently published his book of poems, Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009.
      Lillian and Bessie Porter moved to Tacoma where they lived until Lillian's death and Bessie then moved to Tumwater to be near her nephew, Bob Benson, and his family. Lillian and Bessie also had a home on Puget sound near Dash Point. The youngest daughter, Mima, never lived on the farm. She was taken at the time of the mothers death by her mother's brother, Bob Kerr, and raised in Seattle. The entire family did not get together again until after they were all grown.

Tom and Mima's wedding photo.

      Ted's father, Frank Porter, married Edna Buchanan in 1936 and they initially settled in Mt Vernon where Ted was born. They moved to Sedro Woolley in 1943, where they lived on East State Street until they passed away. Frank worked in the logging industry, including Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Co., and also had his own logging business. In the early years he worked for Seattle City Light during the construction of Diablo Dam, where he logged the path for the power lines. Edna was a member of the pioneer Buchanan family and spent her early years at Utopia where she went to grade school on the north bank of the Skagit River. Her family moved to Marblemount in about 1922 and eventually to Rockport, where Edna taught school in the late 1920s. There are still many residents of the upriver who were in her classes.
      Tom and Mima had four grandchildren, three of whom are still living: Bernard, Bill's son; Robert Benson, Mima's son; and Ted.

More upriver information needed
      Ted Porter notes that Rod O'Connor, who grew up in Sauk and died in the mid-1990s, was collecting information on early history of the area. Ted has lost track of the family but he hopes that someone is in contact with them. He recalls that Rod had a grandson who is named for him and may be a school teacher in Bellingham. The O'Connors, Martins, Staffords, Obriens and Porters all grew up together in the Sauk area. Alvin B. Harris, who bought the Porter farm, had two sons. His son, Dick Harris of Bellingham, spent time with Rod and has started writing down memories called "Growing up Across the Skagit River." Update 2011: Rod O'Connor's grandsons contacted us and we all toured the old Illabot Creek haunts together this fall.  We encourage any of you from upriver pioneer families to share your memories with our readers, who have shown such an interest in Sauk and Illabot Creek. We hope that a reader of this section will have more information on the upriver area and documents and photos to share.
      "I know that he [Dick] took the rose that had been planted near the cabin and he and his brother have rose plants from it," Ted recalls. "It is one of the pioneer varieties and was probably planted by my grandmother Mima. He was going to try to start a plant from it near where the cabin is now in the park."

More photos of Tom Porter, his family and his cabin. Click on thumbnail photo to see larger version.

(Thomas & Mima Porter wedding)
Thomas & Mima Porter wedding photo 1891, Mount Vernon
(Porter Cabin)
Thomas Porter cabin, Sauk City
(Lillie and Bessie Porter, 1899)
Lillie and Bessie Porter, 1899

(Porter cabin in transit)
Porter cabin in transit, 1967
(Map of Sauk area)
Map of Sauk area
(Porter Cabin Map Closeup)
Porter Cabin Map Closeup

Profile of Tom Porter

Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish counties, 1906
      Thomas F Porter, a farmer three miles east of Sauk and across the [Skagit] river [south bank], one of the pioneers of the upper Skagit valley, has lived on his present place nearly twenty years. He is a native of Pennsylvania, born June 10, 1852. His parents, Robert and Mary Porter, were born in Ireland, came to the United States directly after their marriage in the Emerald Isle and settled in the Keystone state, where Mrs. Porter is still living. They had nine children, of whom the living are: Robert, Ann, Thomas, Mary A, Ellen E. Margaret and Joseph, all [born] in Pennsylvania.
      Thomas F. Porter received his education in the schools of his native state, and at the age of fifteen left home to face the world. Between 1867 and 1875 he worked at various occupations in his native state, principally lumbering and carpentering. Two years were then spent in the woods of Wisconsin [and then] in 1877, Mr. Porter came to Oregon. After remaining there a short time, he came on the King county, Washington, where he secured work as constructor of railway trestles. He continued at this work until 1884 [actually 1880], when he came to Skagit County. He took up his present place in 1887. His first visit to the was made by canoe, the only means of transportation until many years later. The return from his wedding with his bride was made in that species of craft. Mr. Porter, since locating near Sauk, has done considerable logging and lumbering, in addition to clearing his place and bringing it to its present status as a farm.
      In 1891, at Lyman, Mr. Porter married Miss Mima S. Kerr, daughter of Robert and Catherine (Getty) Kerr, natives of Ireland and Canada, respectively, who passed all their married lives in Canada. They were the parents of twelve children, in order as follows: Thomas, Elizabeth, Henry, Andrew, Isabel, Sarah, Margaret, Alexander, Mary, John and Robert. Mrs. Porter also has a half-sister Ellen. Mrs. Porter was born in Canada December 29, 1863, and lived with a sister after the death of her parents until coming to Skagit county, in 1889, to live with her brother, near Marble Mount. She remained with him until her marriage. She passed away March 24, 1904, leaving six children: Robert H., William A., Bessie E., Lillian V., Theodore F. and Mima S.
      The Porter farm consists of 160 acres of land, of which fifteen are cleared. In politics Mr. Porter is a Republican, in fraternal connection a Knight of Pythias. He is a school director at the present time, taking a deep interest in the school and the education of his children. Aside from a general farming business, Mr. Porter is in live stock raising to a certain extent, having at present twelve head of good cattle. He is a hard worker, a man respected by the community. Since the death of Mrs. Porter he has had the care of his children, and he takes a deep interest in their welfare. His commendable traits of character and the active part he has taken in the development and general advancement of the section entitle him to special mention in the history of his home county.

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Story posted on Jan. 25, 2002, last updated and moved to this domain Feb. 13, 2009

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