In July 2020 Larry Calvin shared the following narrative, titled “The Saga of the C. Jay Mills Family,” written by C. Jay Mills’s oldest child Helen. It had been shared with him by Helen’s niece Gretta Bellamy. It seems to have been written in 1989.
It was never published, Larry said, because Helen felt she was too hard in it on her sister Ruth. Both are gone now, and the manuscript has so much to offer today’s reader that we are publishing it now.
Unfortunately Larry lost touch with Gretta Bellamy, and we don’t know Helen Mills’s married name. If you have this information or any other stories or names, the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society would love to hear from you, either by leaving a comment or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
This is a lively, concise account of a “very unusual childhood.” Born in 1913, Helen’s earliest memories are from Kake. She and her parents and siblings later lived on a tiny houseboat, moved to Sitka in 1920, and then from 1923 until she left to go to high school lived (and worked!) on a fox farm on Maid Island, and attended the Goddard school.
Fur farming was the third largest industry in Alaska in the 1920s, behind fishing and mining. The popularity of fur farming on southeastern Alaska islands, which farmers leased from the U.S Forest Service, forced many Alaska Native families off property they had owned for countless generations. This injustice must be remembered as part of the story, as well as the ancient, rich Tlingit traditions, place names and stories associated with this place near Shee At’iká T’aay X’é, or the Shee At’iká (the islands around Sitka) hot springs mouth.
- Rebecca Poulson
Saga of the C. (Charles) Jay Mills Family
By Helen Mills
This is being written because of the prodding of my friend, Donald E. Kent and my nieces, Gretta Bellamy and Audrey Silsbee. Gretta in particular has insisted on putting my recollections on paper, even typing the scribbles. She has even furnished tapes.
Life runs along at a fast pace even though some days seem to drag. Really, I feel it has been in part almost like a storybook concocted by some very imaginative novelist. Of course it didn't seem that way as the days and months went by . . . it is only now that I have the perspective of time to judge what happened and the experience of the years to base it on. Rereading through the genealogy compiled by my uncle Paul Mills, based on the Henry Mills family, I realize how compact and exhaustive a book it is. Only, because of the type of record, it misses so much. I'd like to write this with the same verve and compassion as Dana Ross Fuller has done in her series "Wagons West". Since I am not so gifted, I'll try to tell the story of my family as I remember it. If there are inaccuracies, it is my fault . . . the fault of a memory defective in part because the thing I'm writing about go back so far I was too young to grasp subtle differences.
My younger brother Carl Alpheus Mills has been gone for a couple of years now and my older sister (but younger than I) died a year ago in February, 1988 after a year-long fight with cancer. More and more I realize the importance of leaving a written record of a very unusual childhood. Many of my memories began before either my brother Donald or sister Cora were born.
Many times when I was quite small I heard the tales of my mother and father in their early years. Since we lived so far from other people, Mother used to talk about those days to us, and then too, sometimes when we'd been put to bed, she and Daddy would reminisce, but more often it was when there were visitors who had known them and talked about things that were like a storybook to us. Even now some of those things seem like a fairy tale and it may be interesting to the next generation who can never have that experience.
Mother was born in Rolla, North Dakota and christened Gretta Davina Markell, the second daughter of Gordon and Elizabeth Markell. Grandfather had previously been married so Mother had two grown stepbrothers as well as an older sister, Alice, who died at the age of twelve from diabetes.
I'm not at all sure of the details, but Grandfather was the chief of police in Rolla. Trying to stop a brawl among some drunks at a local tavern, he was shot in the hip and leg. Lacking our modern surgery and medications, he nearly lost his life. Recovery was slow and left him with a very decided limp, just lucky to be alive. Unable to continue his police work, he moved his family to Williston, North Dakota, where he set up shop as a local photographer. He was very successful but found it highly unprofitable. I do not know what the motivation may have been, but after a short period (my mother was still a young girl) the family migrated west and settled at Springbrook, Oregon.
Mother's Aunt Sarah (Sate) Boyd then lived in Eugene, but it was more probably the influence of Grandfather's brother, Will Markell, who was a prosperous shopkeeper in Portland, that decided the move.
In Springbrook they bought a little Mom and Pop grocery store at the railroad crossing and settled into quarters behind the shop. Like most country stores they carried a variety of merchandise, but the main stock was groceries. Before long there was a baby sister, Eva, and the much younger brother, Wilfred Boyd Markell. Grandmother helped in the store when she could, but mostly she did the cooking, housework, and cared for the babies. Mother began working in the shop when just a schoolgirl. Possibly there wasn't room, but the half-brothers never lived with them after the move to Oregon. One boy, whose name I cannot remember except that it was very odd and began with E, never married and it seems he died fairly young. The other, Etsol, married a young woman named Mary Elizabeth Boyd (Libby) whom Mother admired very much. I don't know what Uncle Etsol did for a living. They eventually moved to Long Beach, California and were very active in Mason and Shrine activities.
Springbrook, Oregon was a small community of farms and fruit orchard, mainly prunes and walnuts although everyone had cherries, apples, pears, and an assortment of other fruits and nuts for their own use. Most families also had com and other garden produce for their own families. Some raised hops or grapes for sale. Springbrook in particular had been settled primarily by Quakers, especially the prolific Mills family with brothers, cousins, and in-laws . . . everyone seems to have been related in some way. Alpheus and Mathilda Newlin Mills lived just across the unpaved road from the Markell store with their orchard and farm spread behind them. Another corner was occupied by the Wallins whose daughter, Ina, became Uncle Paul's wife.
Then there were the Newbys and ever so many others on nearby farms, all inter related so there were cousins everywhere when Ruth and I visited . . . I became totally confused.
The Alpheus Mills family was large, with four sons and two daughters. Like all large families, the Mills had one son who did not choose to conform to the family dictates. This was the second son, C. (Charles) Jay. He was born in Illinois and came west with the family when he was just days old. It must have been that pioneer spirit that influenced his life forever. As a child he attended the little country school at Springbrook and went to the "Academy," equivalent to a high school in Newburg and run by the Friends' Church where his father was a director. Later he attended Pacific College, also a Friends institution in Newburg. Starting when he was about sixteen he began rebelling against the farm work and insular community. First he hopped a freight train and was finally stranded in Fresno, California, badly sunburned from the scorching summer sun by day and with pneumonia from the frigid nights atop the lumber car he had chosen. That early experience gave him a lasting dislike of California. The police of Fresno notified Grandfather who sent Uncle Roy to escort him home.
The last time Jay ran away he was around 20 years old. He went north and landed in Alaska where he found work in a cannery at Ketchikan, tried hand trolling for salmon, and gloried in the weather and the great frontier, undeveloped and almost unsettled. He had finally found the land he was always to love and felt was his. He returned to visit his family when he was a man accustomed to the wild and rugged land and ocean with very, very few white women and only a sprinkling of men. The South-eastern Alaska he had explored still retained much of the Russian influence with fishing, trapping, hunting, and lumbering the main occupations.
By the time he returned to Oregon he was tall, fit, handsome, and a true introvert. He was a pioneer at heart who would have been happy with Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark, only now he had done his own explorations in his own time.
At home in Oregon he found many things had changed. His baby sister Florence was 20 and Paul was 17. His father was a prosperous farmer, trustee for a bank and the Pacific College, an officer of the Friends' Church and had spearheaded the building of the fruit dryer cooperative and fruit cannery. His brother, Lewis, had married Mabel Sykes and they had a baby daughter, Vera. His older sister, Ella, had been married for almost seven years and brother Roy (younger than he) for two. Marriage and babies sprouted amongst all the young people he had known in his youth. It was still a farming community, but his personal friends and family had changed. It was different with only Florence and Paul still at home, both dating. Moreover, Jay was now and always after called C. Jay. He found that he was an outsider, a visitor, separated from the others by his natural reticence and the experiences he'd suffered and enjoyed pitting himself against the natural elements in Alaska.
Going across the road and railroad tracks to the store for his mother one late afternoon, he was rocked off his feet by seeing for the first time the attractive young woman behind the counter. She, too, was bowled over and in a month, on August 14, 1912, they were married in Springbrook Friends Church. C. Jay decorated the church with a sea of sweet peas and asters. Uncle Will Markell provided Gretta with soft white China silk for her gown and the gifts poured in. Tea sets of fine porcelain, cut glass bowls and pitchers, platters, hand painted china in every shape and size (Aunt Sate Boyd, sister to Elizabeth Markell did a cream and sugar as well as a chocolate set that must be worth hundreds now). Every kind of thing they needed to set up house including hand-made quilts, embroidered sheets and pillowcases were showered on the young people and all packed away in crates to wait for the day they'd have a home. After the morning wedding, the newlyweds left by borrowed horse and buggy for a honeymoon week at Newport, Oregon where it rained continuously. All this Mother told me years later.
C. Jay and Gretta now lived with the Mills family. In the spring, his brother Roy and his wife were having marital differences. While Gretta and Mathilda were fond of one another, there was no doubt it was difficult for two women in one small house. It was about this time Roy decided to escort his parents to Chicago for a lengthy visit with Allen Mills, Alpheus' brother, who had become a prosperous attorney. Off they went and C. Jay was left in charge of the farm and Gretta the house, Florence, and Paul.
While he worked out in the corn and tomatoes or weeding among the walnuts and prunes, C. Jay more and more often thought of the cool summers in Alaska. Daily he found it harder to work and he especially resented his wife's popularity amount all the young people, most of whom were his own cousins. Although he knew he had no reason, he was jealous of her popularity. He was accepted, but always felt outside the group even when a part of it. Gretta was pregnant when C. Jay finally found a way of removing her from amongst the group.
It was her habit to fix a picnic lunch and go out into the fields to share it with him at noon. On a very hot day when it was nearing time for her to come, he stripped off his hat and discarded it behind a tree, grabbed up his hoe to do double time working among the shoulder high corn. Seeing her approach at a distance, he did the best acting of his life. Whether it was a real faint or a theatrical swoon I'm not sure, but it scared Gretta. After reviving him with a cold lemonade she carried for their lunch, she helped him back to the house to bed with a damp towel over his head. She then tore across the road to the store and frantically demanded her father telegraph Alpheus and Mathilda to return at once. When they arrived, they found my father, C. Jay, had already perfected plans to leave for Alaska. And may I say right here Mother might not agree with Dad, but she backed him 100% all her life. None of us better criticize or complain in her hearing.
Suspicious of C. Jay and worried about his pregnant daughter, Gordon Markell insisted that his twelve-year-old son, my uncle Wilfred, must accompany them. C. Jay finally accepted the ultimatum, I'm not sure why. Possibly the Markells not only paid Wilfred's passage, but loaned money for theirs. At any rate Wilfred accompanied the young couple to Ketchikan. Here, the only lodging they could find were two tiny rooms near the cannery where C. Jay found a job.
While Wilfred roamed about town, Gretta tried to learn to cook. After wasting a precious 50# sack of flour they could ill afford, C. Jay persuaded a Chinese cook at the cannery bunkhouse to teach her the rudiments of breadmaking in the smoking wood stove oven. In Oregon the bread had been delivered on the early train direct to the Markell store each morning. Her mother did the cooking, laundry, and cared for the children while Gretta went to and later taught school, helping in the store when she returned home. No bakery existed in Ketchikan and the "steamer" only came at two-week intervals. It was a harrowing time. Besides, she was pregnant and a little scared. The rough neighborhood, the crude shanty, and the lack of friends depressed her. Wilfred and C. Jay kept up a running battle further creating problems which the lack of privacy exacerbated.
Mid-October found Gretta in labor. C. Jay walked her to the Ketchikan Hospital where a slightly premature baby girl finally was born on October 16, 1913. I was that baby and named Mary Helen. The “Mary" to appease both families, but never used by my parents. Mother seems to have accepted, even enjoyed, her two weeks in the hospital. She learned to change diapers, nurse her baby, and especially found pleasure in chatting with the nurses and other patients. She had so missed companions down in the cannery area.
Meanwhile, C. Jay had been busy. The cannery had closed for the season and no other work could be found. The constant companionship of a twelve-year-old was annoying in the extreme. A southbound steamer was providential while Gretta was in the hospital. Wilfred was escorted aboard and sent on his way home. About this time C. Jay heard of an opening as a missionary at Kake, an Indian Village sixty miles away. Without consulting his young wife, he accepted the job, bought an old dory, a cannery discard, for a few dollars, and gathered all their belongings together. It was the end of October, blustery and wet, but it didn't deter him at all.
When the day came to collect his wife and child from the hospital, he was ready. Proudly he led her down the street to the wharf where he'd readied the dory with all the belongings he could squeeze in--everything else was left behind. Never had Gretta been in so small a boat. Clutching her baby, almost fainting from fright, they started the sixty-mile row across choppy waters to Kake, the wind blowing wisps from the white caps and rain seeping down their necks. It would be hazardous at any time, but at that time of year it was foolish (preposterous).
Hearing the tale many years later, though still a child, I shuddered and sympathized with Gretta's fear. I still do.
Late afternoons Dad would find shelter along some beach and unload the bare necessities for a meal to be cooked on a smoking campfire while Mother changed diapers and nursed her baby, me. Each time they camped something would be discarded to lighten the loaded boat because it was so stormy that it was almost impossible to row.
When I was about nine years old, Hadley Thompson, a miner, on his boat the Lituya happened to come into our harbor. I'll never forget sitting with my mouth open as he described how he came across the almost foundering dory, Dad rowing with all his strength and Mother frantically bailing the water that slopped over the side constantly. He was amazed, first that anyone would try to row across the channel in such weather, and secondly that there was a pretty young woman, scared silly, on board. He pulled over so the dory was on the lee side and Dad started pitching things on board the Lituya while the waves kept in rolling and plunging up and down. Dad kept yelling at Mother to hold the dory off as it banged and plunged up and down, now swinging out, then scraping against the larger vessel that almost crushed it. Scared stiff, Mother made the attempt and almost fell between the two boats.
When Dad tossed a bundle of bedding up to Hadley who in turn tossed it into the fish hold on deck, Mother screamed, "My baby, My baby!" Clambering over the railing to rescue me she banged her head on the hatch cover, knocking herself out.
Hadley was too astonished to move for a moment, then pulled Mother along the deck out of the way, reached into the hold and fished out the bundle of bedding, turned it over, and there I was on a pillow and wrapped securely in blankets and Dad's slicker.
Dad continued to unload the dory, then together the two men pulled it up on deck and lashed in solid before turning to Mother who was just coming around. Out of compassion Hadley changed course and took us to the mining camp, and, when the weather improved, to Kake. The tongue lashing he gave Dad for endangering the lives of two helpless people (Mother and me) was probably the last one Dad ever tolerated.