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Elementary, my dear… Treasures from the trunk: Learning history the easy way

By Sydney Stevens

Observer columnist

Published on September 5, 2018 9:12AM

The old teacart and a gas lamp (now converted to electricity) are among the many items from the past that are still in use in the H.A. Espy House in Oysterville.

Sydney Stevens Photo

The old teacart and a gas lamp (now converted to electricity) are among the many items from the past that are still in use in the H.A. Espy House in Oysterville.

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History was not my long suit in school. I had a hard time remembering all those names and dates and which war was fought by whom and for what. I think I memorized whatever was necessary for upcoming tests and, once passed, that was that. Little did I realize in those long-ago days of my childhood that I would grow into old age with an abiding interest in the past — most especially in the past of this particular corner of the world.

It was a gradual thing, this curiosity about the olden days. I’m sure it began with being a “summer kid” in Oysterville. It seemed me that everything there was old. The houses and other buildings, even the ones that weren’t falling down, were all weathered and a bit rickety in comparison to the solid stucco of my home in California.

And as accompaniment to the old buildings, the “things” that were part of daily life in Oysterville seemed old-fashioned, too. The crank telephone on the wall in my grandmother’s kitchen, the old rolltop desk where my grandfather kept his important papers, the outhouse that still stood just beyond the back door and was actually used when the power went out — which was often in the 1940s and ‘50s! And, there was a woodshed right off the kitchen where my grandfather still chopped kindling for the woodstove. We certainly didn’t have a woodshed in our house in Alameda.

We didn’t have a church across the street, either, like the one in Oysterville. It was hardly ever used and the steeple was boarded up against the rain. We loved to go in and lift that heavy trap door that covered the baptismal font. There was no water in it, of course, but we still played “being immersed” and loved hearing story about the first (and only) time that the font was used. It was said that the women and kids had to fill it up by ‘bucket brigade’ and after the ceremony was over, when they discovered that no drain had been placed in the font, all that water had to be taken out the same way. Bucket by bucket.

That shivery feeling

Sometimes we played over in the abandoned Wachsmuth chicken coop. Once upon a time it had been the county jail and you could still see the bullet holes from the lynching that occurred back when my grandfather was a boy. I remember the shivery feeling it gave me to hear that story and when we chose sides to be good guys or bad guys, I was never sure which side I wanted to be on.

The Red House up the street where my cousins spent their summers had even more “old-fashioned” things in it. I remember being sort of creeped out at the picture frames our great-grandmother had made from her hair, of all things! Eeeeeuuuw! It was all carefully braided and twisted into rosettes and other pretty shapes. But, still! It was her hair! It took me a good number of years to put that together with the celluloid hair receiver on my own grandmother’s bureau and to fully realize that making use of literally everything was a way of life in those long-ago days.

A favorite thing to do on rainy days was to get into the Dress Up Trunk at the Red House. It was stored upstairs in the northeast bedroom, affectionately called “The Prophet’s Chamber.” That was in memory of Reverend Huff, an itinerant preacher, who came to Oysterville in 1881 and so liked the accommodations provided by the Espy family, that he stayed until 1892 when the Baptist church was finally built. I doubt that the Dress Up Trunk was there in his day, but it has been there ever since I was a child — four generations ago and counting!

Over the years, the contents have been added to but the trunk is still the go-to place when an inside activity is the order of the day. It contains the cast-offs from every fashion era since the mid-1800s from top hats to ballet costumes and from prom dresses to cowboy hats and hip boots. I remember kid gloves that belonged to my great-grandmother Julia, a cousin’s corset, a smoking jacket from the 1940s, someone’s fedora, and even one of my mother’s negligees — a repository of history in wearable form. And, with almost every article of clothing or strange accessory, of course there is a story that has been handed down.

A pocket watch instead

My grandmother told us about the parasol and the elbow-length gloves (which came clear up to our armpits!). In her girlhood days in California, no proper young lady would ever leave the house without them. And I remember the delight of the boy who tried on a vest many sizes too large and how his father showed him which pocket was for the pocket watch and what the fob and chain were for. And the significance of the train on the watch’s gold case? Loomis had presented it to R.H. Espy in exchange for a $10,000 investment in his railroad. Espy was hoping the train would come to Oysterville; it only came north as far as Nahcotta and he got a watch instead.

Those stories brought to life the Oysterville of long ago. Names of old family friends became familiar and I began to picture where Sam Andrew’s store was and where the blacksmith repaired my great-grandfather’s tools and made the poker we still use for the fireplace. In time, I could clearly picture the stagecoach that ran along the weather beach and I could all but see the Klipsan life-saving crew that rescued shipwrecked sailors out beyond the ocean surf.

Treasured photographs introduced me to Danny, the patient “family” horse, and to the days when there were no roads except the cart paths to neighboring farms. Bit by bit my sense of history — of our history in this very place — began to form. Even then, when I was still a young school girl, I had the fanciful wish to go back in time — to see how it was before radios and cars and store-bought clothes.

On reflection, I think everyone should have a Heritage Trunk of some kind. And never mind if you can’t begin it with a top hat or a hoop skirt. How about that carefully saved wedding dress or a pair of never-to-be-worn again high heeled shoes or those ugly cat-eye eyeglass frames? Maybe one of those skinny knitted ties or even a really wide, colorful one? And, in the non-wearables department: a “church key” bottle opener, or a soon-to-be historic telephone directory, or even a rotary phone if you still have one up in the attic — all great possibilities for starting the conversation about how it used to be and for the best-ever introduction to family history, to local history, and beyond!


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