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Magnus Anderson, carpenter,
farmer and host at Fir

(Anderson home)
Magnus Anderson family home near Fir. Photo courtesy of Sebring's Skagit County Illustrated magazine, December 1902

      Those who see Magnus Anderson's cabin near the old bank that now serves as LaConner's town hall may not realize all it represents. It is our oldest connection with the time when much of the land in the triangle formed by Skagit bay on the west and the forks of the Skagit was under water for many months of the year and men broke their backs to dike their farmland. A carpenter, Anderson built that 1869 cabin at the southern edge of Pleasant Ridge.
      Born in Norway on March 3, 1836, Anderson learned carpentry while very young and signed on as a ship's carpenter on a Norwegian freighter that sailed back and forth to the Americas. In those days before the Panama canal, people who wanted to reach the west coast of the United States had to choose between sailing for months around the Horn of South America or trekking and boating across the isthmus of Panama, then part of Colombia. On one of his voyages during the early years of the U.S. Civil War, Anderson decided to leave his ship and slog through the jungles and rivers of the isthmus. When he reached the West Coast, he took passage on a schooner to San Francisco, where he signed up as a ship carpenter on a U.S. transport for the duration of the Civil War.
      He became naturalized as a U.S. citizen just in time to cast his first vote for Abraham Lincoln for the president's reelection. For awhile he went back to ocean sailing but in 1868 he left his ship again at Port Townsend, then the main customs port in Washington territory, to work as a carpenter at the large Port Blakely shipyard. Over the next year, he heard from loggers about the mill at Utsalady near Skagit bay and he decided to explore the delta of the Skagit river in the summer of 1869. According to the late historian John Conrad (see xx) — who knew Anderson well and was his grand-nephew — "on July 16, 1869, Anderson took up a preemption claim on the North fork of the river at the south end of Pleasant Ridge. Like Michael Sullivan and Samuel Calhoun, the first delta settlers," Conrad wrote, "he was drawn to Pleasant Ridge, the low hill that rose above the swampy marsh of what would become known as Fir island. He built a cabin that first year on the southern edge of the ridge, overlooking the North fork of the river."
      Some confuse Anderson's 1869 cabin with the original cabin in the valley, built in 1863 by William Sartwell on the South fork near present Conway. We originally confused them too and that is easy to do because Anderson temporarily lived in Sartwell's cabin in the mid-1870s as we explain below. We also feature an extensive profile of Sartwell, the first permanent settler along the river, elsewhere in this issue.

Scandinavian immigrants move to the Skagit
(Threshing machine)
A crew gathers around a threshing machine while harvesting at the J.O. Rudene and Magnus Anderson farms around the turn of the century.

      The 1913 Puget Sound Mail obituary of Magnus' wife, Mathilda, claimed that they were the first Scandinavians to settle in this county, another unfortunate attempt at a "first." Pioneers and old-timers were fond of coining firsts and sometimes they just winged it or depended on legend more than checking actual records. John Conrad clarified the claim a bit by noting that Magnus was likely one of the first three Scandinavians to settle in what would become Skagit County. The others were a Finn named Charles Tollber and another Swedish immigrant, C.J. Chilberg.
      Tollber [also sometimes spelled Tolber], Magnus' fellow ship carpenter from Port Blakely, followed Anderson to the Skagit, took a claim on the North fork, soon sold it and bought other land nearby. Tollber married Anderson's sister [name?? ask Tom] later when she moved out here and Tollber started the ferry across the North fork that was eventually replaced by a bridge. Anderson and Tollber were the only permanent Scandinavian settlers in that area at the time, but that soon changed. C.J. Chilberg seems to have been the next to travel here, sometime in 1869-70. Perry and Paul Polson, C.J. Chilberg and his brother Joseph emigrated from Sweden to Chillicothe, Iowa, and in late 1869 they took the Union Pacific to San Francisco, and then took a steamer to Portland. After crossing the Columbia river, they all walked to Olympia and then took steamboats to Skagit bay. C.J. Chilberg settled on the Beaver Marsh and built a cabin on Pleasant Ridge near Anderson. Later he returned to Chillicothe in 1871 to move his wife and family out to his homestead.

The 1869 cabin on Pleasant Ridge
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      Now we address the cabin, which Anderson constructed very soon after arriving. LaConner author Tom Robinson once again helped us sort through the conflicting information about the early county cabins. He has combed through documents in preparation for his book in progress about the history of western Skagit Valley. He narrowed down the exact location: "the North fork [side of Pleasant Ridge], not far east and above the Landing Road, which leads to the North fork from the Dodge Valley Road. In other words, his original local settlement was on the North fork."
      We know when the cabin was moved from the Pleasant Ridge location because Conrad recalled that in 1950, Mrs. Elizabeth Miller, who then owned Anderson's original acreage, donated his 1869 cabin to LaConner's Pioneer Park by the bridge, the scene of the annual Pioneer Association picnic. Although Anderson undoubtedly used the best materials available in 1869, but the decades of wind and rain led to the mortar turning into powder, wood crumbling and iron rusting. Thus the cabin we see today is the result of owners rebuilding the structure more than once, and repairs by volunteers after it was moved to the Pioneer Park and later to downtown LaConner. Upon walking in you can feel how sturdy the logs are and you can sense how it was only large enough for a bachelor.
      We tried to trace how Mrs. Miller came to possess the cabin in the first place. Along the way, Robinson discovered some key facts about both the cabin and how it has lasted for almost a century and a half: "Just by chance, a few days after the first article had appeared I met [Don] Summers, who turned out to know the history of the 1869 cabin. I had thought that maybe that first one at some early time had been moved to the Conway area. from Summer I received assurance that the cabin now sitting just below the Town Hall was indeed the one that had been erected in 1869." Summers is still very much alive, with his home on Summers Lane near the Rexville store, a descendant of the very early Samuel Summers family. Mrs. Miller was the daughter of another pioneer family, the Bessners. She married Charles Miller. We know of no family relation between her family and Anderson's, so we infer that she and her husband purchased the original Anderson property from an unknown owner.
      Anderson's skills at carpentry were valuable to other settlers as well, as were his tools, some of which were rare out here in the wilderness, especially in private hands outside of a mill. He made his living largely by building cabins for his neighbors such as Olaf Polson, who moved his family out, including seven other children, from Chillicothe to join his sons in 1871. In Charles Dwelley's book, Skagit Memories, Olaf's son Alfred recalled that his father employed Anderson to build an actual house in 1874 to replace their original cabin near Braun's Slough (later renamed Brown's Slough). "Magnus Anderson, the builder, was a shipbuilder and cabinetmaker and a complete set of tools," Alfred wrote. "Among them was a four-foot plane with a rope attached to the front. It was operated by two men, one pulling and the other pushing." Magnus made a splash in LaConner when he worked with Father Francis X. Prefontaine to build the first LaConner Catholic church in 1872-3. Bishop Augustin Blanchet blessed Sacred Heart church on July 8, 1873.
      We learn from the 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties [hereafter the 1906 History], that the North fork area (both sides) attracted many other settlers during those early years: "Among the first settlers on the North fork: John Guinea, William Hayes, William Houghton, Joseph Maddox, William Brown, H. A. Wright, Peter [van der] Kuyl [and] Franklyn Buck."
      John Conrad provided the details of how Magnus found his wife, who would be his companion for the next 40 years. Mathilda Andersdotter, who was born in Sweden on Oct. 7, 1839, emigrated alone to Chillicothe in 1868. She was a friend of Chilbergs, and she followed them west in 1873. Stopping at their new home in Skagit county, she soon met the bachelor Magnus Anderson and they were married that same year on an unknown date. Mathilda's brother, John Anderson, moved his family to the Skagit valley in 1874 and they brought with them their orphaned nephew from Sweden, Charles Conrad, John's father.

Andersons move to South fork
      Sometime between 1874 and 1877 the Andersons moved southeast about five miles, around the curve of Fir island and they bought property that just happened to include the patch of land where William Sartwell (see: http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WestCounty/SWCounty/Pioneers/Sartwell1-BioCabin.html) built his cabin in 1863. The Andersons lived in the cabin briefly while building their grander house, which in those days was considered a mansion. Most of the river settlers, especially the bachelors, were then living in lean-tos and cabins. They lived on that property until their deaths. The soil was rich and Anderson farmed there for a few years. He later grew hops along with some of his most prominent farmer neighbors. Their first child, who always went by Mame, was born on the new farm on Oct. 7, 1878, so that would be latest year of their move; we lean towards 1874.
      We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to locate Sartwell's cabin and finally succeeded in 2011, following the hunch that Tom Robinson originally had. We place it at the slough on the eastern side of the South Fork, north of Conway a mile or two. Over the years the slough was known as Kayton — for the William Kayton family, with a few misspellings, and later as simply the Conway slough. The Andersons settled in nearly two decades before the town of Conway formed on the east bank. Kayton also had a logging camp in the Conway area. Among other reasons I hypothesized for a decade that the Andersons lived on the western side of the fork is that I could not imagine that Magnus would want to cross the river daily for his business at Fir. But then I realized that his farming demands kept him at his ranch much of the week, another reason why Charles Villeneuve managed the Fir hotel for him. And as Robinson points out, schoolchildren rowed across the narrow slough daily for school.
      On the western slope of the South Fork, close to where the Lutheran church still stands, a small village called Mann's Landing rose three and a half miles from the mouth of the river on the western shore of the South fork. That was where steamboats stopped to pick up cordwood for their boilers and deliver mail and products from Seattle. Skagit City, the only other town on the river until 1877, was a few miles north, just below the fork.
      Charles Mann originally filed a claim and built a store at the landing in 1876. The 1906 History lists the early settlers around there as: "Joseph Lisk, William Kayton, George Wilson, John Wilbur, E. McAlpine, L. Sweet, A. G. Kelley, R. I. Kelley and Joseph Wilson." On another page, Kayton's name is spelled Caton. There he is listed along with Joe Lisk, James Abbott and Wilbur as having homesteads north of where the town of Conway would later form, listed in the order they lay toward Mount Vernon. They were all four so called "squaw men," because they took Indian wives in those days when there were few Caucasian women on the Northwestern frontier.
      Olaf Polson, the father of the Polson brothers, also moved there about the same time that Anderson did, as did van der Kuyl and Tollber and Tom Hastie, who moved there from Whidbey Island. According to the book, Chechacos All, others who settled there early on included Samuel S. Tingley, Thomas R. Jones, T.J. Rawlins and Samuel, and Edward and Henry Summers. The book mysteriously did not list Thomas Hayton in the group of settlers on the western side of the river even though he was one of the most important settlers, living five miles west of Mann's Landing in 1876. The Haytons descended from an old Kentucky family whose descendants landed in Rhode Island in the 1630s. Although they were English in ancestry, the Haytons provided a haven on their ranch for the young Scandinavian boys who flocked to the area to join Anderson, Polson and the Chilbergs.
      The population on Mann's side grew quickly as logging camps dotted the area and the timber trade led to the establishment of an actual town at the Landing, with a hotel built by Mann. Chechacos All shared a story about how the town soon took the name of Fir: "Mrs. Mann, standing on the east bank, was thinking about a name for their post office across the river when her eye fell on a tall fir tree. Others agreed on a change of name, so Mann's Landing became Fir in 1880."
      The post office opened under that name on April 6 that year. The 1906 History notes that the town was lively industrious and soon had several stores, hotels and saloons, plus a meat market operated by Ole Olson and located on a river float. A Mr. Sullivan opened a blacksmith shop and an actual ferry replaced a scow that crossed the river.

Business at Fir
(Lutheran churches, Fir)
Two Lutheran churches once stood where one remains on the Fir Island road, west of the bridge over the South fork of the Skagit river. Photo courtesy of the book, Skagit Settlers, which is still for sale at the LaConner Museum.

      Magnus Anderson became a businessman himself in 1882, according to the 1906 History, when he replaced Mann's crude lodgings on the west bank with a handsome new hotel in 1882, which was managed by Charles Villeneuve Sr., the future Conway pioneer. Moen shared a little-known fact. Magnus Anderson built his hotel just north of Mann's store and his brother-in-law John Anderson built another one just south of the store. In 1884, Magnus paid for the first liquor license in Fir for a saloon in his hotel. Frank Carrin soon received another for his Morling House, which was apparently the third hotel in town.
      The 1906 History recorded that Anderson was a member of the June 1884 clearing of log jam at mouth of Skagit and clearing snags and drifts upriver. The two jams that had blocked the Skagit at Mount Vernon for more than 80 years were cleared, starting in 1878, but the loose logs from the jams plus the trees unearthed in subsequent floods choked the mouth of the river. Not only did they limit the trips of steamboats from Seattle, but the snags just under the water ripped holes in the sternwheelers more than once. Our excerpts of the first issue of the Skagit News of Mount Vernon, March 1, 1884, (see website: http://www.stumpranchonline.com/skagitjournal/SkagitCtyRiv/Library/County/SNews188403-4.html) describes that log-clearing work). The April 7, 1885, issue of the Skagit News reported, "D. and W. Stuart are hard at work with Magnus Anderson. The hop yard is being hoed, the vines pruned, and everything made ready for a summer's crop. Hops do not [missing type] cultivation this year."

      Fir burned. $20,000 above insurance. No loss of life.
      That headline in the April 14, 1885, Skagit News, described Magnus' biggest challenge since arriving in the valley. A fire on April 10, 1885, leveled the hotels and other buildings in Fir, but Magnus quickly rebuilt his. An 1893 fire again destroyed all of Mann's original buildings, but by then Fir had faded in importance because of Mount Vernon, five miles upriver. The Lutheran church is the only building that still stands on the site. The News described the fire:
      Houses all of wood. Partitions—light; walls not plastered; stovepipes passed through roof in some cases without tiles or brick. Houses built close together—surrounded by acres of wasteland; the only ladder in town had been stolen by an Indian. No buckets for fire duty, no roof had a trap door. Slate and tin should be taken in building to guard against fire on the inside. First buildings were temporary structures. Hope to see fire companies organized for Mount Vernon and LaConner. Help in the purchase of the first fire engine ordered.
      As we noted above, the buildings at Fir were destroyed in a bad 1893 fire. Instead of rebuilding at Fir this time, Anderson decided to be a storekeeper across the river and bought Charles Villeneuve Sr.'s store in Conway in 1895, during the mid-1890s nationwide Depression. Conway was a relatively new town on the east side of the river from Fir, and had featured only one store in the 1880s. That all changed when James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad chose a route along the eastern side of the South fork and laid tracks in 1891. Charles Villeneuve was the first permanent settler on that side after moving from French Canada in 1872. He initially bought land for a home on a small island in the river that was later spanned by the bridge trestle. Thomas P. Jones, who emigrated to the U.S. from Conway, Wales, in 1859, soon joined him. In 1874, Jones bought 120 acres of valley bottomland between what is now Hwy 99 and the river and included the site of the future town of Conway.
      Starting in 1888, Villeneuve was the first operator of the new Lafayette ferry a mile north of Fir and he established a home and a small store at the east landing, that first store we mentioned. When Great Northern built a depot on the east side on Jones's land, Villeneuve bought four lots in the town that Jones platted on his property and named for his hometown in Wales.
      Villeneuve invested in the original town of Woolley by building the Hotel Royal during the nationwide Depression, which began in earnest in 1893, and he leased his Conway store to William Bonser. A severe flood in 1894 almost wiped out the new town and Bonser couldn't make a go of the store, so that is when Magnus Anderson stepped in. As the settlers flocked into the Skagit delta flats around the river and Conway and its depot became a center for trade, Anderson's store flourished, the depot became the hub of activity on lower South fork and the town of Fir on the western shore began to wane.
      Anderson also took over the postmaster job from Villeneuve, who had established the Conway post office in 1893. Before the turn of the century, Magnus sold out his store interest to F.C. Anderson. John Melkid, who married Magnus's daughter Alice, bought the store in 1902, so it returned to the family.

Deaths of Magnus and Mathilda
      We lost track of records for either Magnus or his wife until her death on Dec. 7, 1913. She died "in her home near Conway" at the age of 74. She was survived by Magnus, a son (Frank of Mount Vernon) and four daughters (Mrs. R.H. Abrams of Seattle, Mrs. William A Hammack of Mount Vernon, Mrs. John Melkild of Conway and the unmarried Mabel Anderson of Conway). The funeral was at the Swedish Lutheran church on Pleasant Ridge. She was born on October 7, 1839, in Stockholm and came to America in 1868 to join Mr. and Mrs. John F. Anderson in Iowa and in 1873 she moved on to Seattle; in this record the Andersons followed close behind her. This report also noted that the newlyweds went to LaConner for a short time, but then moved on "to the old farm place at Conway, where Mrs. Anderson remained until her death."
      Tom Robinson found an original copy of the obituary in the Puget Sound Mail and although part of that volume was burned in a fire, the remainder included key historic facts, " . . . during the first years of their married life they made their home in the first building to be built on the Skagit river, and there it stood throughout the long term of thirty-six years until last summer, until it tumbled asunder and had to be carried away." Her other relatives mentioned included a sister, Mrs. John Swanson of LaConner, several nieces, and five nephews, including Charles Conrad of Fir.
      Magnus died on Dec. 26, 1925, after living as a widower for a dozen years. His obituary was inconsequential, considering his importance as a pioneer, and provided no other new facts about his life.
      Two of his daughters became very active in the community of pioneer descendants and folks minding the historical flame. Mrs. Mattie Abrams were featured in the Puget Sound Mail article that reviewed Mrs. Miller's donation. She died at age 88 in 1965. Two years later daughter Mame Hammack died at 88. She is featured in a story originally from our online magazine, which gives more details of her life. We also note here that in 1960 Ann (Miller) Osborn died. Her parents were Charles Miller and Elizabeth Bessner Miller. We have been unsuccessful so far in finding a record of any memoir or interview she may have given. We hope that if a Miller or Bessner descendant is reading this story, that we will get an email with any details about either family and especially the story behind the property and the 1869 cabin. We encourage the same for any descendant of the Anderson family or the Orrin Kincaid family or any of the families of the original settlers referenced above. Finally, we hope that no one will confuse the subject of this page, with the other Magnus Anderson of LaConner. John Ruhlman and family bought and restored that beautiful home two decades ago.

      Once again we thank Tom Robinson for all his help while we researched both the Anderson story and the Sartwell story. Tom is in the final stages of preparing a comprehensive history of the western part of Skagit County, focusing on LaConner and environs. The book is about two years away from publication.

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Original story posted on March 5, 2004, updated with additional research and moved to this domain Aug. 19, 2011
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