Do you recall the 1960s TV show "Here Come the Brides," about the early settlement of the Northwest? One of my only solid recollections is a line from its theme song, "The sky's the bluest blue in Seattle," which always struck my funnybone for some reason.
During its short run - 52 episodes from 1968-70 on ABC - it was full of rousing adventures of heroic loggers and their attractive blonde wives/girlfriends. (The first season is now available on DVD.) Since my ancestors were Washington and Oregon settlers, it made a bigger impression on me than it might have otherwise. My grandpa spent 30 years working at a Bellingham sawmill.
I'm prejudiced, but it strikes me as weird that our nation so glorifies smelly and illiterate cowboys, while mostly neglecting stories about other colorful working people of the early days, like loggers, fishermen and miners (many of whom, I'm the first to admit, also were smelly and illiterate). Driving a herd of cows over the range to a waiting boxcar and ultimate slaughterhouse just doesn't strike me as intrinsically any more romantic than felling tall timber or pulling a 60-pound Chinook aboard a sail-powered gillnet boat.
The pages of various early incarnations of the Astorian, the Chinook Observer and other long-standing Northwest newspapers are filled with ideas for a thousand screenplays. We've lost the gift of creating cultural myths out of everyday experience, but if we had an urge to, these old clippings would be the place to turn. It's good stuff, with strength and legitimacy no cheesy TV show can ever match.
One of my favorite stories concerns a woman named Margaret Ross who homesteaded in northern Pacific County along with her two adult sons and proceeded to get into a wonderfully awful feud with her neighbors that eventually worked its way into federal criminal court in Tacoma.
People who don't know any better say there are two sides to every story. But as someone who's been in the newspaper business in one way or another since I was 15, I can testify there are as many sides to a story as there are individuals who know anything about it. Maybe more. But in this instance, the passage of nearly 90 years and the death of all the principals has boiled the Ross feud down to fairly simple outlines.
To her enemies - pretty much the entire population of Pacific County - Margaret Ross was a hellcat, liar and claim jumper. The early 20th century was a time when ordinary people had to fight hard to make a decent life in these thick woods and then, as now, property rights were a particularly touchy issue. In the forests along North River, which empties into Willapa Bay between Raymond and the ocean, railroads were avidly stealing all they could and selling it to Frederick Weyerhaeuser. Local residents were a might peevish.
Into this settling, Ross and her two boys boldly blundered. Judging from press accounts, diplomats they were not. In May 1913 they moved next to and partially overran another homestead owned by a Mrs. Vanderpool, who previously had staked her claim and then went away to work, clouding her title. A few weeks later, Vanderpool and her son showed back up in a hurry, and fireworks commenced.
To her friends - including state legislators for whom she worked and members of the Monday Civic Club of Tacoma, a suffragette-leaning ladies' group - Ross was a forward-thinking pioneer. A former newspaperwoman from Sioux Falls, S.D., she was determined to make it on her own and unprepared to take "No" for an answer.
The battle royal gained steam throughout the summer. One example later recounted in court: "Mrs. Ross described how ... as she toiled up the steps leading to her home with sugar, flour, lard and other staples ... Mrs. Vanderpool played 'You're old, but You're Awful Tough' on a phonograph, and as the disc whirred along its dismal strain Mrs. Ross said her neighbor cranked the machine again, put in a keen needle and started the song anew."
This in turn sparked one of the feud's high points, as the Ross boys accidentally-on-purpose dropped a six-foot diameter fir on the Vanderpool cabin, with Mrs. Vanderpool in it.
Finally, deep in the night of Jan. 11, 1913, a dozen local men who came to be called the Night Riders arrived disguised in hoods at the Ross cabin, burned it and the barn to the ground and forcibly escorted Mrs. Ross and the boys to the old Chehalis County line, with instructions never to return.
This was a dispute that didn't know when to end. Mrs. Ross and her allies tried to unknot the tightly laced Pacific County justice system for three years. But time after time, state and federal juries found the Night Riders not guilty of any crime.
I haven't managed to track down what happened to Mrs. Ross after her years of notoriety, but I'll bet she remained interesting. She probably was a battle-ax. She may even have been a claim jumper. But I'm absolutely certain she was one grand woman.
Asked in court about her prior life in South Dakota, "Did you have any controversies or trouble there?" she simply responded "I was in the newspaper business six years." The courtroom snickered.
So did I.
Victoria Stoppiello is taking a week off from her column, which will resume July 19. A slightly different version of this Editor's Notebook appeared in an earlier edition of the Chinook Observer.