Book Review:
Twice a Pioneer: A Life on the Frontier

  • Posted 7/29/2010
  • Essay 9493

F. H. McKay (1867-1948) was a well-known leader in the Inland Empire wheat industry and later a banker. He was 79 years old when he completed his life’s story.  By summer 1947 he managed to compile a manuscript that told his long, often adventurous, pioneer life. Unfortunately for McKay, the publisher rejected his manuscript and he was to die only a year later. Unlike so many other fascinating pioneer stories that never had the chance to be written down, McKay’s was to have a second life almost 60 years later.  After McKay’s grandchildren dusted off the manuscript and read it, they quickly realized what a special document they had.    

Twice a Pioneer is the result of McKay’s original work and his grandchildren’s editing.  The editors claim that the only major change to this true-life tale was the addition of the original and true names for people and places, which McKay had originally fictionalized. Each chapter contains few short stories usually on the same topic.  The chapters are either confined to the narrative of one eventful day or chronicle several years as they pass by.

Fred McKay led an extraordinary life as one of the last true pioneers. Born in Illinois and raised in Iowa, he managed to become well versed in farm life and achieve a college education before the age of 21. Shortly after graduating from business college, and facing little work in Iowa, McKay caught what was known as "The Washington Fever" in 1888. The Fever gave men an uncontrollable urge to move West to the Washington Territory, which was one of the last great frontiers with unclaimed land.  Using only what little money he had and his college education, McKay sought to become a leading man in the rapidly developing wheat industry.     

The reader gets the impression that McKay was mighty proud of his accomplishments out West and so he should be. While moving up the ranks in the Spokane wheat business, he  somehow managed to find time to marry and father five children.  He was an accomplished musician and very well read for his day. Always the athlete, McKay described many days he had playing baseball for local teams and teaching his children to swim in the recently opened YMCA. After many fruitful years in the wheat industry, McKay eventually settled down in Spokane and worked in a recently opened bank for the rest of his life.  Something of rarity with a college degree, he was widely admired for his business skills in a time when gun and fist were equally as effective as pen and paper; however, despite his professional role in business, McKay was involved in quite a few scraps in his day. In addition to a stint as a sheriff’s deputy, he earned a reputation that "he not only could fight, but would fight" (97).  McKay was "involuntarily retired" at age 72. 

Resurrecting the story of Fred McKay’s life has undoubtedly been a valuable service to the preservation of Spokane’s local history as well as the family history of an exceptional man. Twice a Pioneer would be an excellent primary source for any study on Washington state pioneer life or good for anyone simply wishing to learn the true story of a man who dared to go West to make a better life for himself in the Pacific Northwest.   

By Brian Gann, July 29, 2010   

Submitted: 7/29/2010

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