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(2 girls and logger)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Along the fence and behind the barn
and Cottonwoods along the upper Skagit River
From the Journal's extensive Dowdle collection

(Moyer's Barn)
      "Behind the barn and along the fence" — so begins Mollie Dowdle's springtime story about a grove of cottonwood trees near her home in the Upper Skagit River Valley. (Skagit Valley Herald photo by Don Anderson)

(Cottonwood bloom)
Puffy, fibrous catkins, which each spring drift slowly to the ground, reveal how the cottonwood tree got its name. (Skagit Valley Herald (Skagit Valley Herald photo by Bob Richardson)

By Mollie Dowdle, Skagit Valley Herald, May 30, 1975

      Behind the barn and along the fence bordering my fields from that of my neighbor stands a grove of cottonwood trees. After a windstorm the ground is strewn with lengthy branches of the soft wood that has broken off the Mother branch. Early in the spring, dainty, purple catkins swing from the long leafy branches. These little aments contain the brown seeds that scatter and start a new family of cottonwoods.
      About the first of May they begin to drift slowly to the ground, dripping with a thick, sticky substance that has the exotic fragrance of wild honey. It literally fills the air and I try to find time each day to walk through the field and drink in the perfume. It's my "Balm of Gilead" and for a time I can forget the problems of being a widow and still hanging on to a few sparse acres.
      The seeds go out to start a new life tipped with a wisp of soft, lustrous cotton fiber that floats through the air on fairy wings to new planting ground. They settle to the moist earth, sprout roots and a new family of trees are in the making. Sometimes the cotton wrapping will drift into piles like snow to whiten the grass and tangle in the dry thistles standing in the fields. With their bearing responsibilities ended quite early in the spring, the parent trees begin their new growth. And it seems they forever grow. Their white fibrous roots spread out, sometimes lifting themselves above the ground to make a twisted, intricate mat around the base of the tree. And now that summer is near the soft green, heart shaped leaves furnish a dense canopy of shade for my cattle during the hot days. Like groves of cottonwood trees can be found in hill and dale, up and down our Skagit Valley.
      After a warms spring day, following a rain, I take my dog and a basket and go in search of the luscious morel mushrooms that come up under the cottonwoods. Perhaps some unknown chemical is in the decayed, fallen leaves because I've never found them elsewhere.
      Cottonwoods are quick growing and their wood is soft and pliable. Pioneers who found them growing along the streams and in swampy places soon learned their value for making furniture and laying floors. I know where there is an old cabin of early days, where the floor is made of cottonwood logs, sawed through the middle and laid with the rounding side down. After almost 50 years of scrubbing and hard wear they are still white and lovely.
      Modern industry values cottonwood for boxes, crates, excelsior and wood pulp, which makes a fine grade of paper. I'm fascinated by the eerie phosphorescent glow of fox fire that radiates from old decomposed cottonwood and I've oft times been startled by a log of it that lies in my back woods.
      Occasionally a clump of cottonwood will establish itself on high ground but they prefer a moist loamy soil. They are persistent and hardy and will somehow survive, even under dire circumstances. Covered-wagon pioneers wrote in their diaries and letters that they liked to pitch camp in cottonwood groves and under their gentle, whispering leaves it was easier to forget the loneliness and hardships encountered during their long journey

Journal Ed. note: Mollie's father, "Gramp," was David Moyer, who married Florence Wood in Hamilton on May 24, 1911. So he was technically her stepfather but he obviously had a strong influence in her life, more than her birth father, whose identity is a mystery. Dave died in 1969 at age 97 and Florence died in 1965 at age 85; both are buried in the Hamilton cemetery. David had three children by his former wife, including Gertrude, Chester and Vinnie, who also lived into her 90s. Dave also moved his family West, from Arkansas, in 1900 and he went to work as a logger for the Lyman Timber Company. Mollie's maternal grandfather, Malcolm Wood, moved Florence and Mollie and other members of his family from Haywood County, North Carolina in 1908 and they settled on land across the river from Hamilton, where a school was also built.
      Many thanks to Carol Bates, for the information from official records and descendant memories in her book, Hamilton 100 years, that helped me sort out the genealogy of this very complicated family tree. Dave's former wife remarried to Irving Cary, a son of another pioneer Hamilton family, and in other Mollie stories linked below you will find many of Mollie's memories about the Carys.

      Those who stopped to make homes on the almost treeless prairies would usually plant cottonwood saplings for shade and wind breaks. Cottonwoods have been known to attain a height of 90 feet and live to be as old as 75 years. I've seen deep fissures on the dull grey bark of old trees two or three inches deep and I've seen tree trunks brutally scarred from bear claws.
      Towering above its forest neighbors, a cottonwood is often a target for lightning. On the hill in back of my fields stands an old tree that is a veteran of winds and storms. It has probably been hit by lightning many years ago but it continues to stand, defiant of the elements, its trunk half torn away, dead white, scarred and lopsided. I've seen crows and ravens balancing on its naked, outstretched limbs and I'm sure they're saying in bird language, "Stay on, old tree, we like you, stay on." There must be some reason why it hasn't collapsed in a windstorm — perhaps the birds understand why. It's known in my household as "The Sentinel."
      A slight breeze, almost no breeze at all, will set the cottonwood trees into a tremor and it's easy to imagine they are engaged in a confidential conversation. And sometimes they can trick you into a momentary delusion. I've walked to the back of the fields to drive in the cows on a hot summer evening, praying for rain and scanning the sky for a possible cloud overhead. As I near the grove of cottonwood trees I've often heard the soft patter I was hoping for. But it was only the trees whispering goodnight to each other in such an enchanting manner.
      I hope my neighbor, George Adams, has the same feeling for these trees that I do. I'd like to see them stand there along the fence and grow old along with me. There will be spring blooming fragrance that is like no other in the world, golden leaves in-the fall and a haven of shade for my cattle. And besides I will always have loveliness along my line fence. How could I ask for more?
      [JournalEd. note: cottonwood trees became a vital factor in the economy of the upriver area at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, before petroleum-based packing material was invented, cottonwood logs were shaved and the resulting "excelsior" shavings were sold throughout the world to manufacturers who shipped their goods. A succession of mills, known as Sedro Box & Veneer and other names, operated at the site of Mortimer Cook's original townsite of Bug/Old Sedro, which by then was turning into a ghost town after a succession of massive floods on the Skagit River. The only remnant of that mill, which burned twice in the mid-1920s and contributed to a local recession, is a concrete abutment near the creek at the eastern edge of Riverfront Park. A very large log pond once straddled the area around the present River Road, just north of the old Fairhaven & Southern railroad depot and Mortimer Cook's store.]

Links, background reading and sources
Other Dowdle stories

Story posted on Oct. 29, 2006 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 36 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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