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.
“I got Bonnie at Jack’s 44 years ago,” he said. His eyes twinkled. “You can get everything at Jack’s you know!” And with that short statement, Ernie Soule revealed a great deal of who he is — a man with deep loyalties, a strong sense of place and family, and a sense of humor, as well.
(Bonnie smiled while explaining she was working at Jack’s Country Store in Ocean Park and “this guy kept coming in and kept coming in for nuts and bolts and other little stuff. I asked my boss, Lucille Downer, who he was and she had nothing but good things to say about him!”)
It doesn’t require a long conversation with Ernie to understand that he also is a realist and a man of intense feelings. Within the last three years, he and Bonnie have lost their only two children — Brandon, 34, in 2015 to suicide and Kevin, 39, in 2018 in a crabbing-related accident. Ernie’s pride in both sons is unmistakable, his tears unabashed.
Ernie and Bonnie live on the Willapa Bay property that Ernie has called home for all of his 67 years. He and his brother Earl are sixth generation Soules in Pacific County but, of all of them, only Ernie has spent his entire life living and working on the Peninsula. “Except until Kevin and Brandon came along,” he says. “And now Kevin’s girls — Nora, she’s 11, and Aila, she’s 7 — are the third generation of Soules on the Peninsula and the eighth generation of Soules in Pacific County!” he says.
If you ask Ernie to begin at the beginning, he’s likely to tell you (with that twinkle, again) that the first Soule, George, came over on the Mayflower. “It’s true,” Bonnie laughs. “The family history going clear back to their beginnings in America was written up in 1897 and published, most recently, in the Spring 1973 issue of the Sou’wester, quarterly publication of the Pacific County Historical Society. But the story of the Soules in Pacific County is probably more to the point.”
Their names and photographs and anecdotes are contained in two thick notebooks that Bonnie has been putting together for years. “The books contain the history of the family’s eight generations here in Washington. I was putting them together for Brandon and Kevin,” Bonnie says softly. “Now they will go to our granddaughters.”
The Pioneer Soules
Since their arrival here in Pacific County in 1855, the Soules have been farmers, sawyers, loggers, fishermen, oystermen and boatbuilders. The Soule name can be found on some of the county’s earliest documents; they are among the first settlers in the Willapa Valley and, also, in the area that would eventually become South Bend. Soules have worked off our Long Beach Peninsula shores on both bay and ocean. Eight generations of Soules have left their mark on the very heart of Pacific County.
Pacific County Soules came here from the East Coast in stages, as did many of the pioneers who came West in the 19th century. Family patriarch Solomon Soule of Maine, his grown son Samuel Page Soule, along with their respective families, first migrated to Wisconsin in 1846. In 1853, they decided to continue across the continent, bound for Oregon and Washington territories via the Oregon Trail.
The Soule family members who were heading west included Solomon, his second wife, Lydia, and seven of their eight children, plus Samuel (by then, 28), his wife Mary Miranda Adams and the first three of their ten children. It took them two full years to make the journey — a trek was filled with adventure, danger, joys and sorrows.
For several years after their arrival in the Northwest, family members vacillated between the Tualatin Plains in Oregon Territory and the Willapa Country north of the Columbia River. Solomon and Lydia eventually chose to settle on their land claim along the Willapa River, often referred to as “one of the finest places on the Willapa.” Solomon was known as “a man of more than ordinary intelligence” and his wife, Lydia was esteemed for her kindliness and cheerfulness. They were buried on their homestead, he in 1901 and she in 1904.
In 1859-1860, the area that would eventually (1890) become South Bend, got its “first families” when Samuel Page Soule filed homestead papers on the south side of the Narrows (now Eklund Park) and his brother Charles Soule filed for a claim on the opposite side (Baleville.) The Soule name appears on some of the earliest petitions for roads and, later, on the 1887 roster of election officials when the Wallicut precinct was changed to Ilwaco.
Samuel Page’s son, Solomon A. “Forney” Soule (Ernie’s great-great-granduncle), was born back in Wisconsin just about the time the family began the final leg of their journey west. Forney became one of the early settlers in the area now called Frances and was involved with the logging industry from the days when the work was done by hand and with the help of ox teams. By 1875 or so, he and his son E.A. Soule had a skid road on Solomon’s Donation Land claim.
It was Forney who put in the first logging railroad in Pacific County and it was Forney who had the first steam donkey. He is also credited with operating the first sawmill in the Elk Prairie vicinity around 1890. Many of those “firsts” were documented in 1892 when a photographer came over the trail from Chehalis by horseback with his outfit on a packhorse. He took pictures around Soule’s operation, did the developing and printing in a tent, sold as many pictures as the loggers would buy and then moved on. Bonnie’s albums contain more than a dozen of these early images — a treasured record of the Soule family’s contribution to Pacific County’s early history.
When Forney and several of his brothers contracted the “racing fever” in the 1890s, they hired the well-respected shipwrights, the Patterson Brothers, to build the Mary A. Soule for them. According to an article written in 1905 by Capt. Wallace Stewart, one of the best-known racing sailors on Willapa Bay, the Soules’ boat won many races and was almost always sailed by Capt. Forney.
Whether or not Ernie’s two-times-great uncles with racing fever were the first family members to have boats in Willapa Bay is unknown. “Those first generations were mostly loggers and timber workers,” says Ernie. “But I’m sure they fished, as well. People did just about anything to make a living in those early days and timber and fishing were the biggees.”
Capt. Beulah Leigh Soule
“My grandmother, Beulah Leigh Harmon Soule, may have been the first one in the family to have a career on the bay,” says Ernie. “I know she was the first woman to get her captain’s papers in Pacific County — maybe even in the state of Washington. Her boat was the Reliance and she used it for towing log rafts and also did the mail run from North River to South Bend and over to Nahcotta, as well.” Beulah was married (for a time) to Earl Stephens Soule — “long enough for them to have my dad, Willard Earl Soule,” says Ernie.
“Dad was the first one to take up fishing full-time. He was actually fishing in Alaska when my older brother Earl was born and he spent most of his life fishing off the coast, from Alaska clear south to Mexico.”
By the time Ernie came along, his parents had bought property on the Willapa Bay and it was there that Ernie began earning money as a clam digger. “I had a little skiff and rowed it over to the island to get Manilas. I was eight years old. I was once the youngest clam digger on the beach. Now I’m the oldest,” he laughs. “In those early years I could dig 200 or 300 pounds of clams on a tide. That’s just not possible now, conditions are so different.”
Ernie shakes his head over the changes he’s seen here over the years. He talks about the Peninsula being two miles longer than it was half a century ago and about Grassy Island not being an island any more. “There used to be good pheasant hunting over in the dunes where Surfside is now,” he says shaking his head.
He doesn’t quite say so, but it’s almost possible to hear him thinking about all the changes since his own family arrived here back in 1854. Eight generations of Soules with connections to many other old-time families — the Louderbacks, Whitcombs, Petersons, Kings, Williams, Ellises and Marshes to name a few. A proud legacy, indeed!