Westport -- The Grays Harbor County Town (around 1912) by Bernice Garner Marsters

  • Posted 10/02/2009
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This People's History consists of a letter written in June 1958, describing life in Westport during the years following 1912. Westport is located in Grays Harbor County on a peninsula on the Pacific coast at the southern entrance to Grays Harbor. The letter was written by Bernice Garner Marsters (1896-1969), who was born in Aberdeen and grew up in Westport. Bernice's mother, Matilda Stone Garner (1869-1912), died in 1912 and Bernice had to drop out of school (in Aberdeen) to return to Westport to take care of the younger children. This letter was submitted to the People's History library by Alex Magdaleno. His mother, Lamora Garner Magdaleno, found the letter in her aunt Bernice's papers after she died. She retyped it, leaving the spelling as it was. The letter is reprinted here with no alternations in spelling or punctuation.

Westport, Washington, by Bernice Garner Marsters

To: Mr. John Wesley Noble
Care/Of McFadden Publications, Inc. New York NY  

Dear Mr. Noble,  

My husband called my attention to your article on Salmon fishing at Westport. Since that is where I was reared it was intensely interesting to me. My father [James Henry Garner, 1865-1938] helped build the lighthouse there, and I went thru the grade school there, which was situated directly across the street from our house. My father built our house, which was a very tall mid-west type of house, whose step roof shed snow and rain. It was a three-story affair of ten rooms, but since there were six of us children, we did pretty well at filling it. I still remember how this tall house caught the wind and shook in the sou'westers which were plentiful in the wintertime.

I was in my junior year of High School in Aberdeen when we went home for Christmas holidays, during which my mother passed away. [This was in 1912.] Altho my sister went back to school to finish, I was obliged to remain in Westport to keep house for my father and care for three younger ones. Later she stayed home and let me finish. It was during this enforced stay at Westport that I grew to dislike it intensely. I was the only girl my age in the town (300 at that time) and I thot it the loneliest place in the world. One winter there was one other girl who taught the primary grades at school. At nine o'clock at night you could shoot a canon down the main street without injuring a soul. Many people came to spend the summer, bringing scads of children, but when September came, they all took off for home to get the children back to school. It was sad to be the only one left and have them say, "See you next June"!

There are things about Westport which you did not mention, so you may not have run into them. It was originally just an Indian village. Then a family by the name of Peterson owned the whole peninsula and it was named on the map as "Peterson's Point," later being called Westport. During the Spanish American War they were supposed to have had some soldiers and a fort there.

An epidemic of small pox wiped out most of the Indian Inhabitants, and the soldiers were withdrawn, the fort dissipated and all trace of it gone. The Peterson place kept getting smaller, until there are only a few acres belonging to the descendants of the original ones. Millard Peterson was the one whom I knew, and if still alive would be about sixty-eight. His father lived to be over eighty. On the Peterson place was a spruce tree in which an Indian baby was once buried. As I was growing up we used to see a patch of blanket, which had grown fast in the bark of this tree. The last time I was there, I tried to see this piece of blanket, and could not locate it at first. Finally I glanced up, and there was a mere wisp of it many feet up on the trunk.  

Some of the children who went to school with me in Westport were part Indian descendants of the original inhabitants. Once a lecturer came to our school and told us a Paul Bunyan story of how bear chased an otter all across the country, finally catching it at the south of the Columbia River, rending it apart and throwing the various parts about over the country-side -- the heart to the Sioux country, the feet to Montana where the Blackfeet Indians were, and that was the reason for their being so fleet. The stomach was thrown over Gray's Harbor and that was the reason they were so lazy and wanted to eat and sleep all the time. One of my classmates took exception to parts of the story and said, "That wasn't the way it was"! I asked, "How do you know? You weren't here"? And she replied, "No, but my grandmother was"!  

Many people have tried to boom Westport. Among the first were the men who authorized the building of a four-room school when at that time we could fill only one room. It put the school district so badly in debt that they could not afford a teacher for more than six to nine months out of the year. In order to draw money from the county for attendance, the children were urged to be present every day, and were given certificates of attendance each month for being neither absent nor tardy. A larger one was issued every three months. I had collected nine of these when I came down with Scarlet fever, and was obliged to miss.  

The dock at Westport used to be on the East side of town and extended into the bay. There were three stem and side-wheeler boats which plied between Westport and Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Large excursions would come to Westport for the weekend, and it was the scene of many lodge picnics. These boats were called the Harbor Belle, Harbor Queen, and the Champion, and were run by Capt. Pete Wilson. His wife learned navigation, and took out masters' papers, and ran the line after her husband's demise.

A road was finally made around the bay, but it was very poor, especially in wet weather, when it was muddy and trees would fall across the road. Mrs. Wilson also started one of the first stage lines to Westport. The Caldwell brothers had another stage line. They were called the "Big Six" as the six brothers each measured over six feet; one even six feet seven inches. Chet Davis was also one of the early stage drivers.  

Also on the East side of town was the "ol' swimmin' hole." It was a natural natatorium, since the water came across the tide flats which had been warmed by the sun, and pored into a good-sized pool, where all those so inclined swam and enjoyed themselves. Of course the water was changed twice daily with no effort involved.  

The Westport mail used to come down the Ocosta side by train. They stopped at Redmon Creek where my father picked it up and brot it and any passengers across the bay to Westport in a stinky launch. I loved the water and took this trip as often as I could even tho the smell of the gas made me seasick. I would go back the next day for more.  

You mentioned the Cohasset Hotel. Mrs. Waldron ran this, and the first Automobile carried passengers between the Hotel and the port dock where the Harbor boats unloaded. It was a fire red color and was run by a French chauffeur. He was a fine fellow whom all the kids swore by, since he never passed up any of us when we were trudging to or from the dock. He also took a load of people in the car to my mother's funeral, for which I have never forgotten him. 

I remember when they first planted cranberries in the swamps at Grayland. Most of the cranberry people were Finnish, and they worked arduously, scalping the peat off the top in foot-wide strips, rolling it up and then planting the cranberries in the black mud underneath. The women worked in the bog with their husbands. It takes several years for those plants to bear, and they were hard put to survive until they had cranberries. At first they all did their own picking. Later on pickers were hired for this job. The little children, which the mothers perched on a blanket while they weeded in the cranberries, are now grown and probably have children of their own. They are beyond doubt the most beautiful blondes in the world. They all grew up in fine homes, which their parents made possible. 

The clams used to be plentiful, but I understand that it is necessary to wade out into the water to get any now. I have seen diggers who weighted in twelve hundred pounds on a single tide. There used to be two canneries there in Westport. Mr. Guildford had one, and there was one owned by the Halferty Bros. I went to high school with the Halferty boys. At that time Gus Neilson was the cannery superintendent. They canned not only clams, but salmon as well. The Hans Schmidt whom you mention as being fisheries warden, was at one time in charge of a cannery and took a full crew with him to Alaska to work in the salmon cannery. I wanted badly to join the crew and go along for the adventure but was obliged to stay home and take care of the kids and the house for dad.  

My father lost his mail contract to a man who underbid him and he fished for a time. Once he caught a halibut which weighed one hundred fifty pounds -- exactly my mother's weight. He would clean the fish, place it on a bench in the woodshed, and neighbors would flock in to buy some of his fresh catch. Later on he took the job of lighting the beacon lights out by the jetty where I understand the new dock is now located. There were three of these lights, and it usually fell to me to go out and light them. It was a long hike across the mudflats and thru the sand dunes. Dad kept the lamp lighting job for many years until the lamps got so old that they would not stay lit -- the wind would blow them out. He tried to get better equipment but was turned down by the Light House Department. As soon as a new lamp lighter took over they gave him new lamps. 

The crab industry was quite good for a long time, but they did not get the prices for their catch that they do now. Ten or fifteen cents would buy you a big beautiful cooked crab. The men who ran the crab industry used to give my dad several culls to take home. They would be missing a leg or a claw, but otherwise were fine. I cooked them in five-gallon coal-oil cans, cut lengthwise, and the tin rolled into handles on either side. When the water boiled and salt was added, the crabs were dropped in and boiled for twenty minutes, when they turned a deep red. There is no finer food than western deep-sea crabs.  

I got away from Westport as soon as I could, and the Mayor Barney you speak of arrived after I left. I am very glad they found the salmon fishing was so good. Many times people have asked what the people did when the clam canneries were not running. The answer was usually, "Oh, they steal from one another"!

They raised nice herds of cattle in the "beach pasture." It was natural grass which abounded near the beach and down toward North Cove. A man by the name of Stratton ran many herds thru Westport and shipped them on the Harbor boats to Aberdeen where they were butchered. Many cattle got poisoned on "pickle grass" which grows on the flats. It is O.K. except when it has been frozen, then it is poison and the cattle swelled up and died. Nearly everyone had his or her own milk cow, which were allowed to run on the common.  

Another nice thing about Westport is the fact that there are no poisonous snakes -- only small garter snakes. There are many beautiful wildflowers, violets, ladyslippers, pussywillows, and lilies.  

There used to be a nice grove of trees there, mostly spruce, but some alder, willow and pine. The excessive rains keep everything green and growing. My folks had their own garden which consisted of potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabagas, celery, lettuce and radishes and green onions. In the bog land at Grayland they raised cabbages as big as washtubs, rutabagas as big as your head, and huge potatoes.  

Westport is just a small peninsula, and I am curious how they can cope with an influx of 10,000 people. Maybe some day I will have to go back and find out. I certainly do not want to ever be stuck there again.

I hope that this will give you an insight into the place as it used to be, and thanking you for an enlightening article which tells me of how it is now.

Sincerely, Bernice Garner Marsters, Beachcomber 

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