Editor’s Note: In this series, local historian Sydney Stevens examines the many connections among Pacific County residents — connections with one another and with the past; connections that bind us in special and unexpected ways.
By Sydney Stevens
For the Observer
McGowan! For the Garvin kids in the 1940s and 1950s, the name held familiarity and adventure and magic in equal measures. McGowan meant family. It meant a house on the river, a once-upon-a-time town, and acres and acres of summertime fun.
“There were five of us growing up in Spokane,” says Jane Reese. “We were pretty spread out in age. First was Mary Catherine. She was born in 1939 and her middle name is after our mom, though everyone knew Mom as Kay. I came next, born in 1942 and named Jane Huntley Garvin after my Great-Grandmother McGowan.
“Then there was a space and, in 1948 William “Bill” McGowan was born, followed by Patrick ‘Pat’ McGowan 11 months later in 1949. They were the proverbial ‘Irish twins’ and both had middle names ‘McGowan.’ Last was Kathleen “Katy” who didn’t have a middle name. When I asked mom why I had to have a middle name (I didn’t like mine) and Katy didn’t, she said she ran out of names!”
The highlight of summer was coming to McGowan — not always together. “For each of us, it was probably a different experience,” remembers Bill. “Pat and I would get up early every morning and head across the road to Camp McGowan on the river. Katy was a tomboy and she usually tagged along.” After stopping for fresh donuts at the coffee shop, they’d stroll over to the tackle shop and gas pump as the fishermen were getting provisioned for the day.
Bill never tired of watching all the activity. “Camp McGowan was strictly a summer operation that came to life in response to the growing sport fishing craze on the lower river,” he says. “Dan Whealdon and Evelyn Coyle Whealdon (grandparents of the present-day Dan Whealdon of Ilwaco) ran the boat launch operation and the bait shop. There was a Shell Station there, too — it was all sort of primitive. As boats returned in the afternoon, the action really picked up as the process reversed and the focus shifted to fish cleaning.”
Fish, of course, is what began it all. Great-grandfather of the Garvin children was Patrick James “P.J.” McGowan. A pioneer of the Columbia River salmon industry, he established the first salt-salmon packing company in Washington Territory in 1861. In the mid-1880s, he converted to a canning operation and established McGowan or ‘McGowan’s Landing’ as the town was sometimes known. It was a company fishing/cannery town that eventually included houses, a store, church, and a school.
At its height, the McGowan Company operated four canneries, each managed by one of P.J.’s four sons. Three were located in Washington at McGowan, Ilwaco and North River; the fourth, in Warrendale, Oregon. The company also owned seining grounds on the river, installed and operated pound nets (known as “fish traps”) and built boats which were leased to fishermen who fished for the company on shares.
In McGowan’s heyday, a dock was located opposite the cannery and extended out into the river for 350 feet or so. It was used to receive fish and in later years it still served as a gas depot for fishing boats, a staging area for boat rentals, and as a ‘landing’ for all of the McGowan river-based business.
Additionally, the town consisted of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, several employee residences, P.J. McGowan’s original home, the large dormitory, or mess house — in the beginning for the cannery workers and, later, for boat builders and other company workmen — and a big vegetable garden.
“At one time there had also been a school, but when the railroad tunnel went through in the early 1900s and transportation to Chinook was easier, the school was discontinued and children (including our mother) attended the Chinook School,” says Bill. The railroad ran between the office building and the river bank which was protected, then as now, by a rock embankment. A gravel road ran parallel to the rail bed and both were eventually incorporated into the present-day highway.
“The cannery operation was moved to Ilwaco around the turn of the last century,” Bill continues. “By the time Mom was born in 1911, there was no longer a cannery at McGowan, but the headquarters for the business was still located there and Grandpa Henry was in charge of the overall operation of P.J. McGowan and Sons. He worked in an office which was a five-minute walk from his home. His office was in the same building that housed the post office and a small store which sold staples such as coffee, sugar, dry goods, and coal oil. Also, in those days, a bookkeeper and a tailor were given workspace in the office.”
“My memories center around the house and Grandma,” Jane says. “Both Mary and I bonded with her. She taught us manners and I especially remember that Grandma had tea (which sometimes included cake or cookies) every afternoon at three o’clock, right after her nap. We were all supposed to be there.”
Tea, like all the meals, was served by Fontella Kelim, who was as much a part of our McGowan visits as Grandma, herself. Fontella was the cook and maid. She worked for the family and lived in the household for 40 years. “It was a different lifestyle,” remembers Jane. “Grandma made it fun to use proper manners — which fork to use and how to dress properly for different occasions. Punctuality, especially to meals was also stressed.”
There was more formality with Grandma than we were used to in Spokane,” Jane recounts. I remember that Grandma addressed her women friends as ‘Mrs. Williams’ or ‘Mrs. Rogers.’ The rule at that time was, if you hadn’t attended school together, you couldn’t call one another by first names. Since Grandma had grown up in Portland, she hadn’t gone to school with any of the women here, so everyone was addressed formally.”
“Even day-to-day living was more formal. Monday was washday; Tuesday was ironing day; Wednesday was the day the house was dusted and the bathrooms were cleaned. On the first Thursday of each month, the brass knob on the front door was polished and on the second Thursday the silverware was cleaned. Friday was the day the carpet sweeper was used and Saturday was baking day. Sunday was the maid’s day off.”
“Grandpa Henry died in 1945 — before any of us could remember or know him,” says Jane. But her eyes twinkle as Bill begins another favorite family story. “Grandpa’s first car, a 1917 Buick, came across the Columbia River from Astoria aboard the steamer Nahcotta and was off-loaded at Megler. There, it was put onto the train and transported to McGowan. It was empty of gas — a safety precaution for the river crossing — but that was not a difficulty. Although there was not a gas station in the McGowan area, there was gasoline available at the landing for the convenience of the boats, so the car was filled and was delivered to the house and Grandpa was shown how to start it and to put it into gear.”
“When he failed to come in for lunch,” continues Jane, “Grandma went to see what was delaying him. She found him driving round and round the circular driveway in front of the house, waiting to run out of gas. How to stop the car had not been part of the instructions! How Grandma would laugh when she’d tell that story!” From that time forward, Grandma did all the driving; Grandpa confined his car occupancy to the passenger seat.
The house, too, was a magic place. “It is a Craftsman-style house that the family moved into in 1912, the year of Mom’s first birthday. Grandpa wanted the house built using local materials but everyone said that using our sandstone wasn’t a good idea — that it wouldn’t hold up. The architect, Ellis Lawrence from Portland, thought the sandstone would be fine and, with Grandpa’s willingness to accept responsibility, the house was designed and built accordingly. It was recently looked at by some experts and it is perfectly sound, more than 100 years later.”
The house was designed with a suite on the first floor which had a bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room for our great-grandfather, plus a room for his nurse. There was a board sidewalk leading from the steps out to the road so that he could get outside in his wheelchair. “That downstairs suite served both Grandma and Mom well in their final years, too. Grandma lived until she was 100 and Mom lived to be 99,” says Jane. “It was wonderful that they could stay in their own home.”
The house had modern conveniences from the first. It was equipped with brass light fixtures on the ceilings and walls and, though they had been designed for use with either gas or electricity, as far memory serves there was always electricity in the house. Too, there was indoor plumbing from the beginning. The water came from the reservoir on the hill behind the town. It had been a must for the cannery and so the McGowan households benefited, as well.
“It’s always been a house with stories,” Jane says, “In addition to all the bedrooms on the second floor, there was a sewing room. Mom said that ‘a woman’ would come in periodically to do the sewing for the family. For cutting fabric and laying out patterns, there was a long table with a built-in yardstick. The sewing room had a wonderful view of the river and Mom used to tell how Grandma would look out and give the weather report every day. If she could see Astoria, it would be a fine day; if Astoria was hidden by fog or rain, it wasn’t a good forecast. The whole house was very user friendly.”
And, Jane remembers, the house lent itself to fun, too. “Pat and Katy and I used to play ‘elevator’ with the glass doors separating the dining and living rooms. It’s a wonder we never broke anything!” The closest to a household disaster she remembers had to do with the beautiful, highly polished banister.
“I, like Katy, was a tomboy and I dearly wanted a pair of jeans. Somehow I convinced grandma…” Jane pauses a moment in her story to reflect, “Imagine! It was Grandma who never left the house without hat and gloves, who was the one to take me on the ferry over to Astoria and buy me my first pair of jeans! That afternoon, while Grandma took her nap, I put on my new pants and spent my time sliding head-first down the banister.”
All these years later, Jane still looks chagrined as she describes the result of her fun. “The zipper had worn a big groove all the way down that beautiful banister. Fontella spent a lot of elbow grease trying to rub it out with furniture polish and wax but, in the end, I had to tell Grandma what I had done. She was lovely about it — never said a word. Maybe that made it worse.”
Coming to McGowan meant being with other family members, as well. “First of all, our mother and father had met through relatives,” says Jane. “Dad’s older sister, Marg, was married to Rees Williams of Ilwaco and, in the summers, Dad would come from Spokane to visit them and, later, stayed with them while working summer jobs.
“One year when he was horse-seining on Sand Island for the Columbia River Packers Association, he became acquainted with some of the Williams boys who were also working there. Their time was their own on the weekends and their custom was to go to the dance on Saturday night and then head for Mass on Sunday morning. Dad and Mom met at mass. ‘He was cute and he always put a dollar in the collection plate,’ Mom told me,” says Jane. “And, of course, “when you’re related to the Williams, you have lots and lots of cousins!”
“The relatives on mom’s side were very influential in our lives in a different way,” says Bill. Mom’s older sister, Leonore, married Albion Gile, of Chinook. He owned the Chinook Packing Company and also raised prize-winning Guernsey cows on his ranch. Uncle Al and Aunt Leonore had no children of their own and, maybe for that reason, they were especially good to us. They helped all five of us with our college expenses and were role models in all sorts of ways — especially about giving back to the community,”
Jane remembers their generosity, as well. “ They took a great interest in Fort Columbia when it first became a State Park. They completely furnished one of the officer’s houses up there — maybe it was the commandant’s house. Uncle Al’s father was one of the first surveyors in the area and all his early surveying equipment was donated for a display at the museum there. We all learned something about the importance of giving and of caring for the community from Uncle Al and Aunt Leonore.”
“As a kid, I loved the historical layers here,” Bill says. “It was a constantly changing adventure full of new thrills for us city kids. There was the Indian layer — the site of Middle Village — and, later, the site of Station Camp used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. It was also a mission grant taken by catholic missionary Louis Joseph Lionnet in 1848.”
Over the years, Bill added more layers to his knowledge: “It was Fr. Lionnet who established the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) mission here where he baptized, buried and married Indian and white residents between 1848-60. Our great-grandfather purchased Fr. Lionnet’s property and then filed for a 320-acre donation land claim right at the beginnings of Euro-American settlement. The fishing era and our great-grandfather’s town was the final layer that connected our family to all of those layers of history.”
“As I grew older, I began to better understand and appreciate the history of the site and the deep roots our family had here. We all felt deeply honored to be involved in the establishment of the Middle Village Campsite for the Lewis and Clark National Park,” he says. “We feel a continuing responsibility for our family’s legacy and what should happen in the future. But there are many unanswered questions about the remaining property.”
Jane is nodding and chimes in, “There are only four of us siblings, now. Our sister Mary died in 2009 after a long and distinguished teaching career at Gonzaga University,” says Jane. “She had taken her vows with the Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary at Marylhurst, Oregon in 1960, yet always remained connected to her McGowan family. We all miss her voice as we deliberate the future of the McGowan property.”
“I moved to the area full-time in the 1970s,” she says. “I raised my children here and am now retired after a career in nursing. Bill retired here from a career in law in 2009 and Katy, also an attorney is still working part time. She and her husband are here about half of the time now, living in the McGowan house. Pat has recently retired as an ER doctor and gets down from Seattle with his family when he can. As we age, I think we all feel the pull of McGowan.”
“When we were kids,” says Bill, “I think we all assumed we’d eventually inherit the McGowan properties. What we didn’t realize was the tremendous responsibility that it would entail — not just the financial aspects of taxes and maintenance — but of how to leave it for posterity without undue burdens to the next generations. Fortunately, many of our younger family members are beginning to enter the conversation. One way or another, we hope to find a way to preserve the magic of McGowan for future generations.”