Growing Up Country — On Island Time
Around Christmas time last year, Brenda bought a book for me to fill out for our grandchildren. It was called “Grandpa, What Was it Like to Grow up in the Country?” That put the wheels to turning, and this series of articles will be the result. My intent is to put them together into a printed book when they are complete.
Brothers & Cousins: PLEASE
If I get something wrong, please drop me a line and let me know what facts I’ve gotten wrong. Please provide the correct information and I will update the erroneous post – and its source file. If two people agree that I’ve got the facts flummoxed, but they disagree as to the correct facts, it’s up to them to find a convenient bear pit to work out the specifics. Fair enough?
Chapter 1 – The Farm
The first sixteen years of my life were lived on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. My family had been there since 1850, establishing the farm where I lived my first ten years. It had belonged to my Grandfather and my Great Grandmother before him. It’s now known as Lopez Village.
When I was small, it was a 65-acre dairy farm bounded on the East by Fisherman Bay Road, on the South and West by Lopez Road. I know exactly where the North boundary line ran, but I couldn’t give you a measurement from either of the South corner stakes to fix it on a map to save my life. It was the North boundary of the original quarter section (160 acres) that was homesteaded by my Great Grandmother, Irene Weeks.
About 20 acres of the farm were in two woodlots – “The Woods” and “The Burn.” – with another five in the barn and house yards, so there was about 40 acres that were in pastures for the cows. Everything is approximate — because everything seems to be a lot bigger, and a lot farther, when you’re nine years old than it does when you have achieved your full growth.
The land sloped gently from The Burn – which ran across the North property boundary – toward Fisherman’s Bay to the South. Our house set in the Southwest corner of the property with a small field between it and Lopez Road which made a ninety degree turn at our Southwest property corner and ran North along the West edge of the farm. I believe it was built around 1901 by my Grandfather Oscar (“Pa”) Weeks and Great Uncle Bertram (“Bertie”) Weeks, but I’m not certain on that. It would be considered a one-and-one-half story house, as the two upstairs bedrooms were really in the attic. I never did sleep up there. That was where my big brothers slept, and I don’t think my folks wanted to put me up there by myself after my brothers left home. I believe the close calls we had with chimney fires in the manufactured chimney that replaced the brick chimney after the 1964 earthquake made them nervous. I can remember standing out in the rain in a Nor’easter watching balls of burning creosote shooting out from under that chimney cap onto the cedar roof and being thankful for the rain. Nor’easters were always an occasion in that house, anyway — since it was heated with wood burning stoves and completely without any form of insulation. You had wallboard, single pane double-hung windows and shiplap between you and the gale.
Literally steps from the back door of our house was a shed-roofed building that had three separate parts, each serving its own purpose. Closest to the house was the woodshed which had storage for about two months’ firewood and kindling. On the North wall of the woodshed was the entrance to the “root house” this was an insulated room where home canned fruits and vegetables were stored along with potatoes and sometimes carrots from the garden. To the North of that room, was the carport/garage. Dad always stored his spare tractor tire at the back wall of the garage so he could just put the front of the car up against it. When I was small, Mom had a Bantam hen that would always nest in Dad’s spare tractor tire when she went broody. When we pulled in with the car, she would stick her head up and glare at us as Dad drove the car into the garage. That never failed to get a giggle (or six) out of me! There was just something about that tiny chicken facing down a 4,000 pound car that tickled me. There was always a woodpile between the garage and the woodshed – piled right up against the West wall of the root house – because we always needed more wood than would fit in the woodshed.
When I was about five or six, Dad, and two my older brothers, Gene & Bob built a large shed North of the driveway facing the road. That was where the tractor, the truck, and any boats that we had about lived. There was often a “backup” woodpile or a stack of logs waiting to be sawed up for firewood there, as well. Between the house and the big shed was where Dad’s smokehouse lived. Dad did a great job of smoking hams, bacon and, of course, salmon in that little smokehouse of his.
Up until about 1964 or ‘65, just to the Southeast of the woodshed was where the “little shack out back” lived. Then, we got indoor plumbing and the little shack went elsewhere — until it was needed on Mom’s property on the East side of the island. Beyond the outhouse was Mom’s garden plot (almost an acre on it’s own) and on the North side of that was the chicken house with the Russet apple tree to the East of it. Beyond the Russet tree were a couple of plum trees and further East was the pig pen.
Southwest of our house was the Lopez Island store (Founded by my Great Great Uncle, Hiram Hutchinson and later run by his sister, my Great Grandmother Irene Weeks.) and across the road from us to the West was the Lopez Post Office. Across Lopez Road from the Post Office stands the Pickling Pear tree that Hiram Hutchinson planted in 1862. About 1/8th of a mile East of the store is the Lopez Community Church, and South of that is Lloyd Weeks’ barn. Southwest of the church is Lloyd’s water tower. The entrance to Fisherman’s Bay is just Southwest of the Lopez Store, which is now known as the Bay Cafe. I still remember it as Lopez Store. It was what was known as a general store back then. They had a little bit of everything, but the Lopez Store was mostly groceries and household sundries. If you wanted hardware, fabric, clothes or any number of other things, you needed to go to the other end of the island to Richardson Store. Lopez Store was run by Mr. & Mrs. Carpenter at that time (Their son runs the current Lopez Store.), and they were always very nice to me, even when I was being a pest.
To the Southeast of our house stood our water tower. It was built by Pa and Bertie, who also built the one next to the church and the one in the Bouchet’s yard. (That would be the property to the Northwest of the old house — I don’t know who owns it these days.) They didn’t have windmills on them, as they would have if they had been built a decade or two earlier, instead they used the same type of pump that a windmill would have driven, but it was powered by a single-cylinder (“one-lung”) gasoline engine running a pump jack that turned the circular motion provided by the spinning flywheel from the engine into reciprocating vertical action to move the pump piston. They would run the engine until the water tank would overflow, then they’d shut off the engine until the tank ran dry. (The overflow was always on the side of the tank toward the well, so the man running the engine could see when the tank was full.) The tanks were large, so they only needed to do that about once a week. Gravity provided the water pressure for the system — which is why they built the tower. No electricity meant you had to find other ways to do things.
Southeast of the water tower was my Dad’s shop. That’s where “The Old Plymouth” was stored. It was a 1927 Plymouth sedan that my folks had inherited from Pa. It was black over emerald green, and I thought it was the most beautiful car in the world! Unfortunately, the barnyard mice thought it would be a great place to live, too. Dad disconnected the battery so there was no danger of an exit via the closed doors when a certain youngest son decided to “go for a drive in Pa’s car.” Dad’s shop was always a place of fascination for me, because Dad did the most interesting things there. Dad was described as a “canny” man by the other islanders. He might not have had a lot of money or a lot of schooling, but he had a knack for taking the used-up and cast-off and turning it into something useful. Brother Gene inherited that skill from him. I have some of it — but nothing compared to Gene and Dad. Dad always had wanted to be a mechanic, and I think he would have been a great one. He could just visualize how something was made and how it should work when it wasn’t working. When it came to carpentry, green poles, beachcombed & salvage lumber, hand-split shakes and recycled nails were just fine, thank you! He knew how to use his mind so well that his hands were put to the most efficient use.
There was a large drainage ditch that cut across our NW pasture and through our farm yard to reduce the amount of water in the ditch along the county road, which provided a seasonal creek and many hours of diversion for all five of us boys. It was a great place to build dams that created ponds. The ditch widened from about four feet wide where it entered the barnyard to about twenty feet just above the water tower, then it choked back down to about six feet wide where it entered the big culvert to cross under the road West of the driveway gate next to Dad’s shop. It dumped into Fisherman’s Bay somewhere on Cousin Lloyd’s place. The ponds we created in the ditch would freeze over in the Winter. My brothers used to skate on them — but the Winters were colder when they were young. I can’t remember the ice on those little ponds getting thick enough to support my weight.
East of the wide spot in the ditch stood our barn. It was the largest surviving barn on Lopez at that time. But that’s a topic for a chapter all its own . . .