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Early life was tough on the Skagit

By Lucile McDonald, Seattle Times, Oct. 18, 1964
(Logging painting)
Logging, by John Savage. Click photo for a much larger, higher definition scan of the painting, which will take longer to load

      Desiring to preserve for his family an impression of his father's logging activity on the Skagit River, John W. Savage has produced several paintings which are true Pacific Northwest primitives. A retired sign painter, the artist evolved into a local "Grandma Moses" in his effort to recreate from memory the scenes he knew when he was 5 years old.
      Savage left his former home at Birdsview in 1914 and did not return until the landscapes of his early childhood had been obliterated completely
      "A county road goes smack through the place where my father's mill stood," he explained (now the South Skagit Highway). "Not a trace is left of either the log house or the mill and trees are growing on the property two and a half feet in diameter."
      Savage painted his pictures secretly, working in a shed in back of his home. He questioned relatives about the history of the first sawmill on the Skagit, to which his father went about 1878 [after Birdsey Minkler built it earlier that year].
      The Savages were a large family, John being the next to youngest of 11 children. His queries turned up some pages of Skagit lore written by his father [(George Savage] several years before the latter's death in 1923.
      Penciled in an old composition book is an account of George Savage's arrivl on the Pacific Coast in 1874. He was 30 years old, had been married nine years and was the father of four children. H had moved from Michigan as a boy, traveling hundreds of miles in wagon trains with his parents. His scanty education was gained in winters, attending log-cabin schools three months at a time when the family was not on the road. Upon his parents' death he worked in an Iowa sawmill and eventually operated a shingle mill of his own. He and a neighbor were lured West by a California visitor who told wonderous tales of free land near Santa Barbara.

British Columbia
      After the two men had pulled roots, they found the tales were untrue. It was too late to turn back, so some weeks later they reached Victoria, where there was plenty of land, but the prospect of starvation if they availed themselves of it. It seemed wiser to try logging for the mills on Burrard Inlet, at Vancouver, B.C. Writing nearly 50 years ago [about 1915], George Savage said:
      We got a claim near Boundary Bay, bought a team of oxen, a logging outfit, hired men and went to work. We workd very hard, rain and shine, early and late, all winter and spring. Then the tug came to get our logs, hitched the booms together and gaily went away. That is the last we ever heard or saw of them. We were told at the the mill that a storm came up and blew all the logs to sea. By that time we were broke, so we lost team, outfit and work and had no redress.

The Utsalady years
(George and Georgetta Savage)
George and Georgetta Savage, sometime in Washington

      The Utsalady yearsStranded with their families, they bargained for transportation to Seattle in a sailboat for $25. The vessel, so heavily loaded it could not travel if waves were more than a foot high, was a week reaching Camano Island and landed them at Utsalady. Here Savage found employment but was dismayed when he was presumed to be a "squaw man" and was assigned an old house in the woods at the wrong end of town until the mill operators saw his quite thoroughly Caucasian children. He remained in Utsalady three years.
      "The work was not so hard," he wrote, "but the isolation and hopelessness of the whole thing was very depressing. You got your board, rent and rude clothing and that was all. I worked from the boom to the lumber yard and back again until the company (Grennan & Cranney) went broke in the middle of winter [winter of 1875-76], leaving about 150 men stranded and desperate. "the cause of this situation was the sinking of the steamship Pacific off Cape Flattery, with the loss of all on board except one man, a miner."
      The side-wheel steamship, after leaving Victoria on November 4, 1875, w4ent down in a collision that same night, with an estimated 274 persons, considerable gold, grain and other assets of pioneer shippers. C. Chisholm, manger of the mill for Thomas Cranney, the surviving partner, had been en route to San Francisco to purchase supplies. His death, Savage said, cause the company to suspect operations. He also noted that S.P. Moody, owner of the Burrard Inlet sawmill, whom he hald responsible for having beaten him out of our logs and money," was drowned in the same disaster.
      The Utsalady mill never recovered from the combined loss of finance and manager. Savage presented some hitherto unknown information on its troubles.
      "There were threats of burning the mill," he wrote. "It took a month before the rough elements were gone,. When a boat landed, the mill crew would . . . compel it to take away as many (of the undesirables) as it could safely carry. As the vessels were small and few, it took some time to get them all away.
      During this period three robbers visited the town. Their names were Shipley, Brown and Wallace, all squaw men with families. They were honest loggers until the company they were working for failed. There were provisions in the cook house and, although the company owed them for their work, they could get no supplies. So they broke in and took them and went to another camp.
      The sheriff and a posse followed and they took to the woods. While the posse members were at dinner, the fugitives stole all their guns and became outlaws for sure. They came to our town one night, loaded a boat with provisions and went away. When they came again, we stopped them and I never heard of them any more."
      Working as a guard insured Savage his provisions, but for two years he received no pay. Then he met a man named Dale who was logging 20 miles from Utsalady. The Puget Mill Co. had purchased the Grennan & Cranney property and there was no more employment, so Savage headed for the new camp.
      "There were no roads nor any steamboat route," he related, "so I picked up some boards and got nails out of a tumbledown house and made a boat, using wooden pins for rowlocks and oars formed from two-by-sizes.
      "Much snow was on the ground and the wind was from the north, the way that I must go. At this time we were occupying one of the best houses in Utsalady and should have stayed until spring, but my restless spirit would not let me.

(Minkler Mill)
This beautiful painting by John Savage, son of Birdsey Minkler's neighbor, George Savage, shows the mill with what is apparently a flume extending to it. He could have painted it after his father took over the mill and Minkler moved to Lyman, or more probably much later in middle age when he developed quite a following. Do you think that your family collection might include a Savage?

Towards the Skagit valley
      "I hauled our belongings to the beach on a hand sled over the frost that accumulated on the steaming sawdust in the night. The first day we traveled six miles. I got my family into a house, but I slept on the boat to watch my things and nearly froze. The second day a cold wind blew hard and we had to go to an Indian hut keep from freezing to death. Finally we found a vacant house and camped for the night.
      "The third day we approached the logging camp and I got a job from a farmer, William Munks, who owned a little store (at what is now Anacortes.) I worked until his crops were all in and, having heard that there was fine vacant farm land in the Skagit in what was then Whatcom County, I got a 50-pound sack of flour and, with $2.50 in money, we were on our way to try a find a home of our very own.
      "Three days of pulling, sailing and poling brought us to the delta at the mouth of the Skagit River. Finding a deserted claim shanty surrounded with swamps and eternal solitude broken only by the cougars dismal yells, we camped because we could get no farther upstream against the strong current of the river. We learned later that the river was higher than usual just then. This was bad indeed but we would never go back as long as we had a bite to eat or a place to stay. I think sometimes it would of been better if we had went back then and there.
      "Leaving my family in this lonesome wilderness I followed an old trail out to the main river, there I found several houses. A man by the name of Tom Moore hired me to help him log off his claim. I worked until about mid-summer when the job was done.
      During our stay in the shack my wife got sick and delirious. The very loneliness and hopelessness of the whole place was enough to drive one made. Nothing but the care of the children saved her.
      The Savages' next home was in a pleasanter place, on a road and facing the main river, but the logging camp was so far away the father could walk home only on Sundays. Then he would take his canoe and go to the store to make purchases for the family. He saw little of his wife and children in all of this period of hard labor. One dark night on his way home he was followed by a cougar.
      "Until then I never knew any beast could make so many different noises," he said. "It yelled, screamed, whined and cried as it raced around and around me. I expected it to jump any minute. I had nothing whatever with which to fight it and only a small flickering lantern for light, so you can imagine how I felt.
      At last I had to cross a slough on a foot log and the cougar, giving a few frightful screams, turned back. This was the only cougar that ever bothered me."
      Savage erected a cabin of split cedar boards at the logging camp and moved his family there. They remained six years. After four years in the camp without receiving any money, only store trade, he was considerably in debt. Solitude, work and worry were showing on both his wife and himself. Savage's employer and the man's wife had an equally difficult time enduring the isolation and their marriage broke up.
      They had never quarreled," [John] Savage said. "The only explanation I could see was they were crazy from strain and solitude."

Upriver to Birdsey Minkler's Birdsview in 1878
John W. Savage's drawing of his mother plowing the field. She worked just as hard as the men and boys. Courtesy of Ted and Betty Savage and http://www.stumpranchonline.com.

      At this time Savage's health failed and he quit the camp. More settlers had moved in and muddy roads extended into the woods. A large logging camp had started and Savage saw an opportunity for operating a freight boat.
      "I got an old canoe, patched it and took my oldest son — he was 12 — and went to freighting. The hard work and exposure were about equally mixed with the real danger of being drowned. Work as we would, we never made more than a bar living.
      "Finally a man of indomitable will, Birdsey Minkler, started a sawmill about 30 miles up the river (Minkler's nickname was Bird and post office became Birdsview) and when I landed there one day with freight, he showed me a claim which looked good to me. He offered me steady work, so I took it.
      It required three days to move the family, making only ten miles a day in steady rain. The Savages arrived wet and tired and that night the river rose and took out their boat. The first autumn snow fell the next night.
      "Now began a life of solitude and suffering that was to last seven long and weary years," he wrote. "We were 30 miles from town, with no roads and trails, only the maddening solitude of the unbroken forest. Its very silence filled one with unspeakable dread.
      "About the second year we were there, the snow was six feet deep. I had managed to obtain a pair of steers and a cow. I turned the stock into the brush to make their own living, as I had neither hay nor born.
      "High water in the spring drowned one steer and the cow and came within an ace of taking our log house away.
      "At the end of five years I got a pony team and another cow. In seven years the wife and boys cleared quite a space and I planted an orchard and built some fence. This seven years was all toil and privation. It seemed it would take forever for me to develop a farm and earn a living at the same time.
      "I bought the sawmill from Minkler (about 1880) for $3,000, he going to Lyman into the mercantile business. The mill was a success from the start. It was operated by water power and could run only four or five months in the year.
      In spare time Savage and his so Leslie did cruising and surveying, earning $8 a day when such employment was available. After a year Savage sold a half interest in the mill to John Carr for $2,000 and paid Minkler in full. However, he could not get along with Carr, so moved to LaConner, bought another mill and ran it about a year, more than doubling his investment. He moved to Mount Vernon, but this proved unwise and he would have returned to the Birdsview farm had not the mill on it been involved in litigation.
      Savage operated several other small mills, the last of them being for a cooperative colony at Bayview [actually the Equality Colony on Bow Hill]. Eventually he went back to the farm, but the loneliness of it made him melancholy. Sometimes he and his wife had hallucinations, he said, and finally he was seized with wanderlust.
      "I could not sleep or eat," he wrote. "Then I determined to go to Vancouver Island where a friend of mine had taken a timber claim. When my wife found I was bound to go she asked me to set her free, which I did."
      Savage ended his narrative when he was 72 and was operating a country store near Bellingham. He had remarried. The mother of his children remained at Birdsview and, in spite of hardships, outlived him by five years, dying in 1928.

(Cougar painting)
John Savage's painting of a cougar at night, a fear of most pioneers

Dan Royal's Stump Ranch
      The natural place to seek background on the very interesting John Savage and his equally intriguing father, George, is Day Royal's terrific Stumpranch Online. Dan is a descendant of that family along with that of his great-great-grandfather, L.A. Boyd, who moved his family west from Nebraska and joined the Savages again at Birdsview in 1882. Dan and I have been researching local history for more than a decade and we partnered at the Stump Ranch for many years. We suggest you go there for all the Savage stories. Here are excerpts from a couple of them.
John Wesley Savage
      One might think looking at the youth of John Wesley Savage that he should have died an early and glorious death; I'm not just talking about his participation in major battle campaigns of WWI. The mortality rate of an artillery machine gunner during the war was extremely high, and then his subsequent wound at Audenarde, Belgium, toward the end of the war. John seemed to endure and survive it all with humor and grace.
      Like his cousin John Boyd who also served in WWI, John Savage was the youngest male of 11 children born to George and Georgetta Savage in Birdsview 27 October 1889 according to his birth certificate.
      In an interview with Ted & Betty Savage in 2001,Ted told me that his father John liked to relate his earliest memory of being stepped on in a canoe during what looked to be one of the very few Indian uprisings in the area. Historically it may have turned out to be nothing. Apparently a dog owned by one of the local natives killed some sheep of a local settler. The farmer in turn went out to find the animal, found the dog responsible and killed it.
      This did not go over well with the tribe who got pretty worked up about it. Most of the settlers in the Birdsview area on hearing the natives might go on the warpath started to panic; grabbed the few supplies they needed along with the children to load in a canoe to go down river to someplace not so hostile. Nothing came of it as once told the army was on their way up to settle the dispute, the tribe usually settled down as they had in the past.
      Johns misadventure did not end here as a baby though! According to his son Ted, sometime during his teens John decided to go out deer hunting on his own, which folks in modern times might look at in disbelief, but was not unusual at the turn of the 20th century.
      Four to five miles out from home while climbing over a fallen tree, his rifle had fallen from where he had leaned it and shot off a round. Unfortunately- or fortunately for that matter- for John, the bullet passed went clean through his body. Not hitting a vital organ and after recovering his senses, he packed snow into the wound and headed for home, repacking more snow as needed. When his father George Savage finally got John to a doctor, he was told not to expect John to live.
      I will now turn the story over to the famous Kate Savage, Johns younger sister by 2 years, who years ago told this story as a ballad called "The Winter Deer Hunt" from her collection of Pioneer Day Poems. [See this Stumpranch link for the complete story]

      Funeral services for John W. Savage, 84, of 1911 N.W. Sloop Pl., a World War I veteran and painter, will be at 3:00 p.m. Tomorrow at Wiggen & Sons. Burial will be in Acacia. He died Monday.
      A native of Birdsview, Skagit Co., Mr. Savage painted logging activities on the Skagit River as he remembered them from the 1870's. The paintings were published in The Times Charmed Land Magazine. The Washington State Historical Society purchased the originals.
      Mr. Savage was a house painter as a youth when he lived in Hamilton, on the Skagit River. He later began sign painting. He painted an eight-story-high sign on the upper portion of the Roosevelt Hotel.
      Mr. Savage and C. E. Stevens painted signs in this state, Idaho, North Dakota and Montana. In one year they painted 1,800 Fisher's flour signs. Mr. Savage retired from sign painting in 1937.
      Mr. Savage worked for the Navy in Bremerton until 1941 when he retired again.
      He was a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Disabled American Veterans of Foreign Wars and the 91st Infantry Division. He was a charter member of the Salmon Bay Aerie No. 2141, Eagles, and an honorary member of the Washington State Historical Society.
      Surviving are two sons, Theodore, Seattle, and Dr. Bob Savage, Langley, Whidbey Island, and two sisters, Mrs. Rose Brobock, Anacortes, and Mrs. Catherine Pulsipher, Birdsview. [See this Stumpranch link for the complete story]

(Savage and Stevens)

'The Experiences of an Itinerant Sign Painter'
By Lucile McDonald, Seattle Times Charmed Land
(This transcribed article was written by Lucile as a follow-up)

      Since John Savage's paintings of logging on the Skagit River in the 1870's were published last year in The Charmed Land Magazine, the Washington State Historical Society has purchased the originals and two others of the same period.
      Until he made the pictures from memory, Savage, who resides at 1911 N.W. Sloop Place, never had painted landscaped except those he copied. He has wielded a paintbrush since boyhood, but his easel most of the time was the side of a building.
      The art he produced generally consisted in about 600 square feet of lettered advertising on the virtues of flour, baking powder, soft drinks or similar commodities.
      Savage belonged to that hardy breed, the itinerant sign painter. His craft has become obsolete since billboard laws, license fees and unions discourage any migrant with a brush.
      Savage quit the road in 1937 and was among the last of his kind on the Pacific Coast. His teammate, the late C. E. Stevens, organized a billboard advertising company, but Savage stuck to his old trade, preferring big spaces and the adventure of moving around. The tallest sign he painted was eight stories high on the upper portion of the Roosevelt Hotel wall, to advertise that hostelry. Customarily he painted commercial slogans such as "Look for the miner," to go with a man on his knees frying flapjacks made with a well-known flour, and "Raises the dome," to accompany an enormous baking-powder can.
      The funniest he ever did was for a Bellingham dentist: "Ha, ha, ha, it didn't hurt a bit." Then there was the sign on a pharmacy in another Washington town: "It's a pleasure to die after taking our medicine." [See this Stumpranch link for the complete story]


William Munks and Anacortes
      Actually, Munks lived at a very small settlement that he called Fidalgo, east across the bay from where Anacortes would rise in the late 1880s. He had a store, which was more of a trading post, and later built a hotel, which failed in the bust following the 1890 boom across the bay. His location is near the property at March's Point that became an oil refinery in the 1950s. [Return]

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Story posted on Dec. 27, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 59 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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