Late summer 1920 found us fishing off Biorka, St. Lazaria and the other Islands on the outer fringes of Baranof Island near Sitka. Sometimes we even went to town to sell the fish and buy supplies. Of course we children didn't go ashore, but were fascinated watching all the activity around the wharves, the cannery, the cold storage and Standard Oil dock.
Sometime in the late summer of the year l was six, almost seven, the decision was made for a drastic change. When we were in Sitka the folks bought some property up on Lake Street very near Swan Lake for the enormous sum of $300.00 cash. Only one house was further out than the three little shacks they bought on about an acre of ground. Dad built a one-holer on the creek side of the road and moved us into the most usable building. There was one combined living room-kitchen, a bedroom, and a lean-to we used for sleeping in summer. Dad returned to fishing and Mother started the process of cleaning the shack and making it into a home.
Cooking and heating was by a coal stove and for the first time we had electric light. (On the boat we used kerosene lanterns. ) In each room one cord hung down from the center of the ceiling with a bare light bulb. All the wiring was exposed. There was another novelty--piped in water--no sink, however, and it was cold. A hot water tank was an unheard-of luxury.
Mother ordered wallpaper from Sears catalogue along with some paint. When Daddy came home from fishing the two of them trimmed the paper and pasted it up after tearing down the old newspaper a former tenant had used to keep out the cold. It wasn't long before the little house was cozy and clean. Daddy built bunks in one end of the bedroom for us kids and bought a big brass bed that had to be pushed up against the wall in the other end. When I left home last, they still had that bed.
It must have been August when we moved ashore although I really can’t remember. In any event, we children gloried in the freedom and lost no time making friends with the children in the neighborhood. Charlotte Burkhardt lived in the last house out past us and was my age. She had several brothers, but they were all much younger. Johnny Charlton and his mother lived about a block away at the top of a little hill toward town. He was younger--nearer Glen's age. Further down Lake Street was another boy, but sadly I can't remember his name. He was a bit older than I. We all ran wild that last bit of summer, climbing trees and falling into the creek, so shallow we only got wet. It was a wonderful glorious time. We picked elderberries so Mother could make jelly, we climbed the stunted apple trees in the vacant lot next to ours, we yelled and screamed for joy. Aboard the boat we'd been shushed--now we were free.
In late summer, possibly a week or two before school, Ruth and I were invited to a party. We were ecstatic and could talk and think of nothing else for days before hand. The all-important subject of party clothes became important for the first time in our lives. Mother contrived as best she could, even allowing us to wear bobby socks for the very first time. Grandma Markell had sent them, pretty little short pink, white, and blue socks, but Daddy had decreed we continue to wear long black stockings.
Scrubbed until we were almost polished, we set off for the party at Anna May McNeil's. They lived across the street from the school in a pretty little yellow trimmed white bungalow set on the back of a smooth green lawn bordered by a white picket fence. Sitka didn't have many lawns and this one looked like luxury to us. Ruth and I were definitely nervous--scared. We didn't know any of these more "posh" families--but we wanted to, and feared rejection. And we were rejected! Not only were we ill-dressed strangers, none of the children would hold our hands for "Ring Around the Rosy" or other games. Ruth's weren't so bad, but my hands were rough and almost bleeding with eczema, great scabs along the backs. It was all I could do not to cry and run home. Even then I didn't blame the others for not wanting to touch me, but it did hurt.
When we trudged home at last, Daddy was there and we were in more trouble, even Mother, for wearing those pretty little socks. I think they were burned.
With the rains of early September Daddy returned from fishing. I was almost seven years old the first and only time he took me shopping. He bought two little gingham dresses just for me (by this time I was wearing Ruth's outgrown ones). Marvel of marvels was a pair of oxblood red Buster Brown lace shoes. I was so proud of my new finery I almost walked on air. These were my new school clothes and never worn elsewhere. Each night Daddy would carefully brush and dry my shoes then apply a coat of spar varnish so the soles of my precious shoes would last--never mind it made them slippery.
Vaguely, I remember Mother taking me to register for first grade. It seemed a long, frightening distance and certainly was a lot further than we children ever ventured before except for that party. When the first day of school arrived, Mother had arranged for the boy down the road (now in third grade) to take me with him--and was he ever disgusted! But he did take me. After a few days the fear was gone and I romped along by myself. Sometimes Charlotte would go with me, but usually she was late. To be late was a sin according to our parents so I went alone.
That year I made so many friends! It was my first real time to have playmates of my own age and choice. All these years later I still see Esther Jennings although infrequently. Her father taught printing and similar subjects out at Sheldon Jackson Mission School. Doris Stewart's father also taught there. Myrtle Morton's father was superintendent of the Pioneer's Home. Virginia Ulrich's father was the "weather man" and she had a sister, Doris, Ruth's age along with several younger brothers.
Olga McNulty was a year ahead of me in school (and six months older), but her twin sisters Maggie and Bubbles were a year behind. Right here let me say that Olga was the oldest of seventeen children. Agnes Dennard was in my class as were several others I have forgotten. They all seemed so smart and sophisticated to me after our life on the houseboat.
There were three rooms in the school. First and second grades shared a room, our teacher was Miss Hood. Third and fourth grades had a room, then fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth were all together for the first two years that I was there. I was scared, but proud and thrilled to be a part. From embarrassment I'd stutter and stammer when asked to recite, even when I knew perfectly well the answer. It was awful. On the playground it was different I was usually chosen the witch in an on-going game (a kind of tag) and was well involved in whatever was going.
It was an adventure--an exciting discovery. No one was allowed inside the school room door until the first bell rang, then we lined (in rather straggly fashion until we were sharply called to order) the teacher called roll, first graders then second graders and we marched into the room and were seated in our respective grades by alphabet. It was puzzling, but probably easier in one way for me because Mother had taught me the alphabet.
Next we learned the Pledge of Allegiance and after that first day the whole school gathered around the big flag pole outside as the flag was raised before being marched into our rooms.
I'll never forget the teacher at the blackboard with our next lesson. In huge letters she wrote and printed "Yes" and taught us to spell words in unison.
Teachers were superior beings. Every detail of their dress, what they said and did was faithfully reported as soon as I was home--not only once but many times. Poor, patient Mother! When Daddy came home he was also regaled with the days' events.
The world over, I think all children new in a school are asked by the teacher to talk about their families and background. I stuttered and stammered about living on a boat until I remembered Daddy was going to climb Mt. Verstovia to hunt on Saturday. It was his first day off his new job. How I bragged about him! And how unbelieving my new friends were. It ended in me saying Daddy wanted to take my teacher with him. At home Mother was aghast and Dad furious. Forced to put a good face on it, Mother wrote the proper note of invitation which I promptly delivered to my teacher next day. She accepted for herself and another teacher with a note I conveyed back home. Everything was very proper.
Early on the Saturday, glowering at me, Daddy set off in his long, loping stride while the teachers crashed and gasped behind. Dad was furious because of course they not once saw a deer. Never again did I brag about his prowess as a hunter or invite a teacher to go with him. I was always in hot water with my impulses and desire to find favor among my peers.
Daddy soon had a job! and how he hated it!!! I think even more than the one in Petersburg. He worked at the government agricultural experimental farm not too far away on the edge of town. It was there different kinds of vegetables and fruits were tested to see if they'd grow in that climate with all the rain. Many acres were devoted to different types of celery, carrots, potatoes, peas, beans, etc. Several greenhouses were devoted to tomatoes and other things that would not tolerate the constant damp. Since there were no bees to pollinate, it had to be done by hand. Some things thrive in the short, intense growing season with the long daylight hours. I have a picture of a stalk of rhubarb as tall as a man and remember it made nine pies.
Being poor--I didn't realize we were poor until that first year in school when I found the other children had more and nicer clothes. What impressed me most, however, as I gradually was invited to their homes, was "iInside plumbing"--toilets were an engineering marvel and bathtubs instead of a two-holer outside and galvanized tub in the kitchen were true luxury.
We children went to bed at what would be called too early by today's children steeped in TV. Then there was no TV nor even radio and to bed we went after a suitable story was read aloud. We loved Buster Brown books. Sometimes I went to sleep as the rest did, but I was getting older and didn't require so much sleep. Even if I did nap at first during those long winter nights I usually woke to the laughter as Dad read aloud to Mother while she mended or ironed. Just now I can't recall the authors or book names nor do I know where they came from since there was no library yet in Sitka, but the stories I liked best were a humorous collection about Cape Cod. Later Dad even bought "Brewster's Millions" and the O'Henry books for us, but that winter he read borrowed ones to Mother. Perhaps this was the beginning of my love of books.
It was a whole new world to explore and I longed for the day I, too could read those funny exciting stories.
Dad was born out of his time. He worked hard--none harder--but he was not willing to work for others and he did not take direction or criticism well. Those periods when he had a "job" were few and he became irascible after a very short time.
As far as we children were concerned it was a good year and so was the next when Ruth started school. The third year the third and fourth grades were moved to a neighboring building that had once housed the old Russian orphanage. We had the upstairs while a library, Sitka's first, occupied the ground floor.
Mother thoroughly enjoyed that library. She'd made friends with May McNulty (who had seventeen living children by the time I was in high school) and the DeArmonds. Mr. DeArmond was postmaster (she was the assistant) and also he was the acting commissioner (or judge) for all local court cases except murder. Those had to be sent to Juneau.
DeArmonds had three children. Robert was several years older than I, his sister Ruth about two years older and Harriet tagged along at Glen's age. They were wonderful friends as long as they lived in Sitka.
Mother was invited to join the Friendly Society, a women's club that met in the afternoon. I suspect it was much like all women's clubs. Dad joined the Arctic Club and soon was treasurer. He often spent an evening in their rooms.
One night, it was probably around midnight, there was a disturbance over by the big bed and I woke up to see the doctor, Mr. Axelson (a neighbor from across the creek), and Daddy hovering and talking in low tones. Sitting up in my top bunk I wanted to know what was going on. Dad sharply ordered me to go to sleep and keep quiet before I woke the others. Wondering, worrying, I huddled down in my blanket watching until I finally did go back to sleep. In the morning we had a new baby brother, Carl. It was October 24, 1920.
Sometimes Mother would sing solos for the church service at the Sheldon Jackson Mission. Once, I remember Daddy going with her. We children didn't go but later a Sunday School was organized in a vacant building that later became a laundry. Mother always took us and taught a class. Whatever the denomination, we were herded off with the hope we'd learn something even though it wasn't a Friends' Church. Mom had been raised a Presbyterian, but at various times attended other denominations. No minister stayed long.
The town of Sitka was strictly divided along racial lines. The Indian Village was strung out along the rocky beach front west from the Cold Storage to past the two canneries, with the summertime stench. They had their own school and a public health nurse provided by the Territorial government and Bureau of Indian Affairs. White people were excluded from all these sources.
Our only contact was through the Indian women who made beautiful beaded buckskin moccasins and baskets from grass or the inner bark of trees. These they peddled door to door for such low prices mother outfitted each of us with moccasins. When a steamer was due, the women would gather at dock side setting out their wares displayed on old blankets for the tourists’ selection.
A walk down through the Indian Village as it was then would be a delight now. Then we were afraid of the dogs that ran more-or-less wild. Racks of seaweed would be drying and also split salmon. Here and there would be a totem pole, standing or in process of carving. An anthropologist would have had a field day. Daddy knew many of the men and learned many of the old legends and stories but we were not permitted to fraternize.
The white part of town was separated from the Indian by the Pioneers' Home that faced the wharves for small boats between the Cold Storage and the Standard Oil Dock. Drawn up on the rocky beach was a beautifully painted Tlingit war canoe. On the lawn of the Pioneer Home was mounted several old "pushkas" or Russian cannon left from their occupation. High on the hill above the post office, up one hundred plus wooden steps was the "Castle", a large private residence that replaced the Russian Castle, both residence and administrative building that had burned some years before. The view from that vantage point covered the whole town, the channel into town, and all the way to Mount Edgecumbe. On really good days, even Biorka Island, 12 miles away, was visible.
From the post office at the shore end of the Standard Oil dock a board walk edged the unpaved road that circled through the business district, ending by the old sawmill where the creek from Swan Lake emptied into the bay. Between the sawmill and post office were all the accepted "white" businesses.
First a tiny fast-food type restaurant, Walners', patronized only by the fishermen. McGrath's Grocery (a true everything store) came next and some kind of other business I've forgotten. Then there was the Drug Store--a marvelous place, mysterious and smelling wonderful from cosmetics. There was a hardware store, an apartment building, a dime store, a bowling alley and pool hall, a movie theater open only on Friday and Saturday (but not even Sunday). The Mercantile--owned by W.P. Mills and sister May--no relation to us--was the most posh general store with a separate meat department and butcher. Tom Tilson was the clerk and assistant later owning it and AI Tilson was butcher. Frank and Lloyd Tilson, Tom's sons, went to school with us. Barron's was the yardage store. Across the street from McGrath's was a bakery and next door the Petersons had ladies apparel. They also ran the dime store and a bakery. There was no bank.
In the midst of the business district, dangerously narrowing the street and causing it to divide into a triangle, stood the old log Russian-built Saint Michael's Cathedral where the bells pealed out over all the town. ln those early years the priest came from Russia and fascinated us children with his flapping black cassock trailing in the muddy wet streets. I remember he always had a long straggly beard, Behind the business district was only one other street lined with clapboard residences. Past the sawmill, following the curve of a beautiful sandy beach were build the majority of the residences of the more affluent of the five hundred whites. There, too, was the grammar school. A high school wasn't built for several years after that, after we no longer lived there. Facing the waterfront was the Bay View Hotel. Mr. Bur and his wife owned and ran the hotel. He also had his barber shop in the hotel. Nancy and Birdie (Alberta) went to school with us.
About halfway around the curve of the bay was the beautiful little stone Episcopal Church, Saint Peter's, and behind it a residence built for the Bishop. He had long since gone to a larger parish and it was left to a caretaker. And at the far end of the bay was Sheldon Jackson Mission run by the Presbyterians. A huge granite boulder at the seaward side of the road marked the Mission. We called it the Blarney Stone. Here too, whites were excluded and only natives could attend the classes. Even the missionaries’ own children came to school with us although the Mission offerings and teachers were superior to ours.
The gravel road followed around the point past the Mission and through a much smaller Indian Village. These were the mission-educated Indians and quite an economic and social cut above those in the main village. Their houses were neat and painted, no weeds in the yard or wild dogs around.
Shortly past this little village came the Totem Park set in well-preserved forest lands. Only the central grassy circle where the most valuable totems were kept was changed. Set at intervals all along the paths through the park towered the brightly painted totems that told so many stories. While we were there a replica block house was built on the point near the Russian River to commemorate the last bloody battle between the Indians and the Russians. Pete Thrieschield was the custodian of the park and grandfather of the McNulty children.
Two bridges spanned the usually peaceful Russian River. One, a suspension bridge, was for foot travel only and swayed in frightening fashion. Further up the river was a wider bridge built to accommodate the horses and wagons on their way to Jamestown Bay and then on to Silver Bay and the Power Plant where all electricity for the town was generated.
One of the joys of our life as children was to see Dapple Dan, the horse that brought our wagon of coal. He was a favorite with everyone and often the older boys would run along and jump aboard the wagon for a free ride. I've forgotten the name of the carter, but he was a kindly man. Sometimes, when there was a Sunday School, Mom and the other parents would arrange a summer picnic in the park. The wagon would be cleaned of coal dust and the youngest would have the thrill of a ride to and from the selected site. Other times we just walked.
The first full summer in Sitka when I was between first and second grades was a joy. Somehow I knew the folks had a financial struggle, but it didn't really affect me.
With permission, when the days were warm, we were to be found playing on the beach and running in the edge of the water. Sandcastles were our chief occupation.
On our first Fourth of July in town, Mother bought a string of those little Chinese style firecrackers. This was a very special treat and we were "jumping up-and-down" ecstatic when we gathered in the front yard along with several neighbor children. Mother helped us light them until the last one was exploded. When she went back indoor to fix dinner we were still excited. Ruth, as ever, was a leader in what we all knew was forbidden. She gathered all the bits and pieces. Several neighbor children huddled with us as Ruth put first one, then another of the bits on a flat stone and pounded it. Little sparks flew! As usual, I was the wet blanket, Standing a bit behind, saying, "Mamma won't like it," and, as usual when a piece with more powder in it was exploded, I was the one it flew up and hit in the eye. My scream brought Mother who sent for the doctor while herding everyone else away. (Ruth was not punished.) For weeks I wore an eye patch. The sight of the eye was saved although there is a scar that diminishes the vision.
Ruth finished her first year of school with another escapade. She went all around inviting everyone of the children she knew to her birthday party, then went home and told Mother. I don’t know how she managed it, but somehow Mother baked a cake and was ready when all the town's first graders arrived. None of the rest of us would have dared do such a thing because we knew how scarce money was just then--and none of the rest of us ever had a party either.
That was the summer President Harding visited Sitka. All the little girls (first and second graders) were requested by the town council to appear on the parade ground in front of the Pioneer's Home wearing white dresses. We assembled and waved flags of welcome as the Presidential party walked up from the battleship moored at the Standard Oil dock. After speeches to the townspeople we little girls were herded to the steps in front of the larger of the three Pioneer Home buildings. Agnes Dennard was seated beside me, I know.
After the speeches crewman from the Navy challenged the city men to a baseball game, the first I ever saw. I don't know who or how the local team was selected because it was a spur-or-the moment recruitment. What I do remember is that a foul ball hit Agnes dead center of her forehead. A year later she was blind. By the time l reached high school she had been sent to Seattle where doctors removed a piece of her scull at that spot, allowing a huge developing tumor to expand outward like a balloon. It did reduce some of the pressure that caused headaches and she lived until I was in high school, but it was a gruesome sight.
Grandma Markell and Uncle Wilfred came to visit that third summer. One of the little shanties was cleaned out and furnished enough so they could camp in it.
Uncle Wilfred still annoyed Daddy and we children were very aware of the scarcely veiled hostility. Grandpa Markell had died the previous year.
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