In this People's History, Dorothea (Pfister) Nordstrand (1916-2011) tells the story of her family's historic return to Tiger, Washington, on October 3, 2003. Dorothea was born near Tiger in 1916, the third child of Joseph and Mary Pfister. The Pfister family homesteaded near Tiger from about 1911 to 1919. Tiger is located in located in Pend Oreille County. In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including HistoryLink.org's People's History library.
Our Return to Tiger
I was born in 1916 to Joseph and Mary Pfister while my family was homesteading land near Tiger, Washington, a tiny place in the far northeastern corner of the state about 25 miles south of Canada and about the same distance from the Idaho border.
Dad and my Uncle John Gierhofer went over to where new land had been opened for homesteading early in the year 1911 and applied for claims under the rule that offered title to the land after a set number of years spent living on the site and "proving up," which entailed certain improvements and lots of physical labor. They each laid claim to 80 acres of raw timberland and built log houses on each property from white pine trees growing there.
Uncle John was unmarried, so his his cabin was small compared to what they built for Dad, whose family joined them later in the year. When Mom and my brother and sister arrived in August, there was a house built, land cleared and a garden planted and ready for harvest. My folks lived on that homestead from 1911 until 1919. I was born there, in February 1916.
Our family made one trip back when I was a child, but that memory is vague in my mind, compared with the vivid, second-hand memories my Dad had planted in me with his stories of the "homestead years" as I grew up. Those stories were chronicled in my story titled "Tiger Tale."
All of my adult life, I wondered what it would be like to stand on the homestead property. Some 20 years ago, Vern and I drove from our home in Seattle, to see if we could find anything from the time my family lived there. In what used to be the town of Tiger, the only building standing was the old general store and it was locked up tight.
Disappointed, but still trying, we asked a man who was selling lots along the river if he knew anything about the old homesteads. He said they had all been bulldozed to make an airfield during World War II. Having no reason to doubt him, we gave up the dream.
In the summer of 2002, son John and his wife, Nancy, took up the search. They not only found that the sites were not bulldozed, but that they exist now as part of the area protected as National Forest. The land was determined to be unsuitable for homesteading, and the struggling people still there were removed and resettled on land more apt to sustain them. They found the exact location and even a standing section marker showing the corner of my family’s claim.
The log buildings were gone, but they found the log dam my Dad built into the creek to support a ram to pump water up the side of a 50-foot-deep ravine to a cistern above the kitchen, so Mom would have running water. Nancy stumbled onto the top of it slogging through tall grass at the bottom of the ravine. She looked down into water where here is a five-log-high dam, with the logs notched at the ends into other logs running at right angles to stabilize the structure ... like a log cabin is built. Looking up the side of the ravine, they discovered a groove running straight up from where the ram would have been. At the top of this groove, they followed another groove running in a straight line to where they believe the cabin stood, where they found broken chunks of old-fashioned pottery pipe.
They found where an obviously square, cave-like hole had been dug into the hillside, which surely must be the remains of our root cellar. This primitive pantry, tall enough to stand upright inside, once had a wooden door and shelves to hold jars of canned food and boxes of fruit and vegetables while wooden barrels of preserved meat, dill pickles, and sauerkraut stood on the dirt floor.
I grew up on stories about the homestead, so I know that a rifle rested on pegs above the cabin door. Coyotes might come for the chickens. There were cougars in the neighborhood. Dad taught Mom to use the rifle. He used to say she was as good with it as he was. It was security for the many times she was alone with the children; Jack, Florence, and eventually, me.
Because it was impossible to make their living entirely from the land, Dad and Uncle John worked at logging camps during the week, only coming home for weekends. Weekends were when they made the improvements to "prove up" their claims to get title to the land. During those weekends, they planted and harvested "spuds" (potatoes), cleared more land, cut and preserved hay, built a barn and several other structures, and grubbed out and made usable many miles of road. In their "spare time" they hunted and fished to add to the food supply.
On Mom’s young shoulders fell the daily chores; cooking, baking, cleaning, caring for the garden and the children, milking cows and making butter for sale or barter. She also kept chickens and sold eggs to the little store in Tiger, four miles from the homestead.
Now that we knew exactly where it was and that it was accessible, I wanted more than ever to go back. At 87 years old, and not in the best of health, I knew it might be a challenge, but "Wild horses couldn’t have stopped me." That used to be Mom’s assessment of my stubbornness about something I really wanted to do. Mom knew me well.
At first, Vern and I and John and Nan were going to make the trip. As plans went forward, in ones and twos, other family members signed on. What started out small grew into a family pilgrimage. Having all four of our kids, Dave, John, Hildy and Paul there, plus their partners, Anne, Nan, Dan, and Liz, grandson Ryan, niece Suzie Burke, and grand-niece Kirby Lindsay would have been wonderful. Having three local couples join us when we got there made it perfect. Lee Stark who operates the Tiger Store Historical Center and her husband, Curt Lynn; Lila and John Middleton, who have lived in the area all their lives; and the historian of Metaline Falls Library, Phyllis Beam, and her husband, Walt, were the frosting on the cake.
The homestead is about four miles from where the little town of Tiger used to be and half way up the side of Tiger Hill. The town, itself, is all gone, except for the old store building, which now is Tiger Historical Center. We stayed in the small town of Ione, about five miles from where Tiger Town used to be. Each morning, we awoke to mist over the river, which gradually dissipated to reveal almost perfect reflections. There were some gorgeous views and lots of picture-taking. The beautiful Pend Oreille River will be the picture I call up in my mind when I want to dream.
We spent several hours on my folks’ land, just wandering around or sitting soaking up the feel of the place. We shared a potluck picnic that filled three long folding tables. Everyone brought something to share, so it was a real feast. We sat in a circle on folding chairs and ate from TV tables set out on a "carpet" of golden grass on what must have at one time been a planted field. The furrows from a plow were clearly visible through the yellowed growth. I had hoped for some flash of recognition, but felt only a deep sense of belonging. It was enough.
Most of the group braved the old path that runs diagonally down along the side of a 50-foot ravine to actually see the five-log-high dam that has been there since my Dad built it to support the ram he put into the creek to pump water to our cabin in 1911-1912. He described it to me so many times that I am sure it is the same one ... I really wanted to go see it for myself. but the trail is completely gone in some places and fallen logs and thick underbrush obscure it in others. Of course, there were some suggestions on "How to Get Mom Down the Trail," including such things as wrapping me in bubble wrap, renting a refrigerator dolly (too hard to get it over the downed-logs), using a catapult (everybody thought that was good, but nobody offered to be on the catching end). When my daughter showed me the cartoon my granddaughter had drawn and faxed to her showing me bouncing off rocks as I went down in a barrel ... I opted to not risk my elderly neck and wait for the pictures.
John had supplied each of us with a folder full of maps, pictures, and stories about the "old days," which took on new meaning when read in the place where they happened. Local resident, Curt, brought a metal detector which found nails and the kind of spikes used in putting logs together buried under a few inches of soil, showing pretty clearly where the buildings were. The nails and spikes were in straight rows where they had dropped to the ground when the buildings were burned. Now, we feel we know just where everything stood. When the time came to leave, we were all reluctant to go. The day had been perfect, the sun shining and the air crisp and clean. A truly wonderful day.
Next morning, we drove down to see the site of the original Tiger Town ... across the railroad tracks and right on the riverbank. There, we met Gordon and Mary Wallace, who are the current owners of this lovely, historical stretch of land and the old buildings on it. They plan to build a log cabin on this land and retire here.
Someone remembered that an old cabin still standing not far from Tiger may have once been the home of Florence Early, in whose home I was born. We drove there and met the owner, who told us, yes, that it did once belong to Florence Early ... and that she was a midwife! That was a brand new fact for me. It makes perfect sense that Mom be moved there from the remote cabin when "there was 10 ft. of snow on the ground."
The Pend Oreille weather was perfect for us. Crisply cool mornings with that lovely mist over the river. Bright, clear afternoons in the high 60s and low to mid 70s. We were there for just two days. Beautiful days in a beautiful area with the Pend Oreille River as centerpiece. It is wide and slow, making perfect reflections. We won’t forget the Pend Oreille country. It is easy to understand why generation after generation chooses to stay there. We came home with a wonderful feeling of fulfillment and lots of good, new memories.