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
“What I like about the Red House,” 9-year-old Virginia “Gin” Espy Ronco said, “is that I can look on the mantle in the parlor and see Grandy’s pipe rack full of pipes right next to my mom’s cell phone that’s recharging. Grandy was my great-great grandfather, but I never knew him.”
The Red House is the Oysterville home that Robert Hamilton Espy, Gin’s three-time great-grandfather, built for his bride Julia Ann Jefferson Espy in 1871. The rambling old structure has remained in the family ever since.
When the house was built, a year after Robert and Julia’s marriage, he was 45 and she was 20. He had arrived on the marshy shoreline near the very place where the house now stands — he and his friend Isaac Clark who are credited as the founders of Oysterville in 1854. Years later, Julia had come to teach school and, as they say, the rest is history — at least for the Oysterville Espys.
Silas “Si” Lexington Ronco, Gin’s 11-year-old brother, loves the bare lightbulbs that hang down from the ceiling in the Red House and “that everything is really, really old. And big!” he says. “Did you know that the house can sleep 16 people!”
They count the generations of Espys who have lived there on their fingers. Backwards.
“Us kids,” says Si, “and then our mom Abigail Hook, and our grandma Brongwyn Williams — we called her ‘Bug’,” he says. He has three fingers extended now.
Gin picks up the count with four fingers: “Then there was Barbara Espy, who the family calls ‘Ma’am.’ We never knew her. Then there was her father Grandy…” and she looks to her mom for help.
“He was Cecil Jefferson Espy, the youngest son of Julia and Robert,” Abby says. By now both kids and their mom are showing five fingers and the sixth goes up for RH, the family patriarch.
“That makes us the sixth generation here in Oysterville,” says Si. “Isn’t that cool?”
“And do you want to know about our names?” asks Gin. “I was named for Virginia Williams Jones. She was my…” again a questioning look to her mom.
“Your great-great aunt on the Williams side,” Ab says.
“I met her once,” Gin says. “She was really, really old — 97 I think. She told me that I could go by Virginia or Gin or Ginger but never, never by Ginny! And I don’t!”
Virginia Williams Jones grew up in Ilwaco. Her brother was Brongwyn “Bronk” Kahrs Williams — Si and Gin’s great-grandfather.
“I’m named after him — sort of,” says Silas. “He served on an aircraft carrier called the USS Lexington during World War II. My great aunt Lex and my Aunt Lexie got their names from him, too.”
Bronk and his fiancee Barbara are responsible for a story that has been told by several generations of Espys. When they became engaged in 1940, Barbara made a trip from her home in Portland to visit her Uncle Harry Espy in Oysterville. She was uncharacteristically nervous.
Barbara had grown up knowing, as had all of R.H. Espy’s grandchildren, that a marriage between an Espy and any other Peninsula resident was to be discouraged. So, Barbara went to talk with the oldest Espy living on the Peninsula — R.H.’s son, Senator H.A. Espy of Oysterville.
“Uncle Harry,” she began — hesitantly for Barbara, who was known as a very forthright young woman. “I want to tell you that I’m engaged to be married…”
“Why that’s wonderful, Barbara,” was the response. “And who is the lucky young man?”
“Well, Uncle Harry, I’m afraid it’s a boy from the Peninsula.”
Uncle Harry’s eyes twinkled, knowing of her dilemma but after all… love was love. “And who is the lucky boy, Barbara?”
“It’s Bronk Williams,” she ventured.
“Bronk Williams!” was Uncle Harry’s astonished reply. “Barbara, you aren’t marrying just ‘a boy from the Peninsula’. You are marrying the entire Peninsula!”
But Uncle Harry rapidly conceded delight that his friend LD. Williams, would be sharing grandfatherly duties with Harry’s own younger brother, Cecil.
Uncle Harry Espy’s remark, of course, referred to several well-known Peninsula facts: first, the Williams family had been a long time in Ilwaco (almost as long as the Espys in Oysterville); second, most of the Williams family had stayed on the Peninsula, generation after generation; and, finally, the Williams family had produced a fair number of offspring. The number of invitees to the annual Williams Family Reunion (which began the very year Bronk and Barbara were married) is now well over 100.
The patriarch of the Ilwaco Williams family was Lewis Daniel “L.D.” Williams. He was born in Wales in 1853, and arrived in Ilwaco when he was 17. But the family’s Ilwaco roots go back to the parents of L.D.’s wife, Eliza Whealdon, who was the daughter of Isaac and Mary Ann Whealdon. They were true pioneers in the area now known as Ilwaco.
“We don’t really know as much about our Whealdon/Williams history,” Ab said. “My mom and dad lived in California after they were married and then in Wisconsin. That’s where my sisters and I grew up. We managed to get out here every summer — to the Red House in Oysterville. Living on top of the Espy treasures for weeks at a time taught us all the details. We hung out with our Williams cousins regularly and there are a lot of them! We were never here on Labor Day Weekend for the Williams Family Reunion; we always had to get back for school.”
“But why are we the seventh generation of Whealdon/Williams?” asked Gin, who had been counting on her fingers again. It seemed complicated to explain that even though Isaac Whealdon and Robert Espy were about the same age, Espy had waited a whole generation to get married and so the generations are a bit off-kilter. So, instead the talk turned to the reason the Whealdons came West from Ohio in 1847.
Isaac and Mary Ann were Quakers and when it became known to the church elders that Isaac was fond of playing the fiddle, they called him to task.
“The devil is in the music box,” they told him. “You’ll have to give up the fiddle or leave the church.”
After he and MaryAnn talked it over, they decided to leave the area entirely. All her life, MaryAnn remembered their wagon trip across the plains as the best time she had ever had.
“Every night we would build a campfire and then sit and enjoy the fiddle music. The best vacation I ever took!”
In 1858, the Whealdons purchased the 640-acre donation land claim of the late James Johnson who had been a bar pilot for the Hudson Bay Company. For several years, the Whealdons were the only white settlers on the site and the homestead (which covered approximately the area of today’s Ilwaco) was known to travelers as “Whealdonsburg.”
Although Whealdon subdivided his land and filed a plat for the town of Whealdonsburg in 1892, he had waited too long. His neighboring homesteader, James Johnson, had filed his own plat by then and the entire area was known as Ilwaco. The name honored Whealdons’ neighbor Elowahco Jim who was married to Elowahka, a daughter of one of Chief Comcomly’s wives. The Ilwaco city fathers, however, did retain the street names from Whealdon’s proposed plat. They included references to his Quaker faith, to local tree types, and the first names of his wife Mary Ann and three daughters Elizabeth, Eliza and Adelia.
Among the Whealdon, Williams and Espy descendants are teachers, bankers, hydrologists, artists, musicians, doctors, landscapers, roofers, diplomats, ministers, attorneys, nurses, members of the armed services, craftsmen and technologists. And, as they have married, the family tree has added branches that include the names Jensen, Jones, Trusty, Howell, Stevens, Krumbein, Maloney, Garvin, Reese, Spooner, Callahan, Brooks, Jones, Foster, Savage, Medearis, Johnson, Beard. Risely… and more!
“Pretty soon, we’ll be related to everybody in the whole world!” laughs Gin.
“I wonder what Uncle Harry would say now?” adds brother Si.