Perhaps here is as good a place as any to explain the grocery shopping. After that first year on the island, Daddy ordered from a wholesale grocer in Seattle twice a year. There would be 8 or 9 100# sacks of sugar, the same of white flour, the same of coarse whole wheat, 20 cases evaporated milk, 4 or 5 cases tomatoes, string beans, peas, and corn in gallon cans. Usually there was a 5-gallon can of honey, 2 of peanut butter. When it became available there were 25# tins of skimmed powdered milk and less evaporated. Bulk tea, I don't know how much, and 9 or 10 cases of coffee in gallon cans. There were sacks of potatoes and onions. Usually some special treat was added: a case of peaches or pears, sometimes pineapple, a tub of pickled pig's feet and Daddy's favorite chow-chow (Editor’s note: this is a kind of pickled relish). If fishing had been profitable there might be other things like Graham crackers or a whole hand of bananas and/or case of fresh apples. Yeast for bread had to be bought in Sitka because it didn't keep well. lt was not like the kind available today, but coarse squares that were hard to dissolve.
Each fall eight 50# sacks of dried prunes were ordered from the Springbrook (Editor’s note: the Oregon community her parents were from) dryer along with two of dried apples. Again, if the fishing had been good, small sacks of dried corn and cherries would be added and maybe 50# of walnuts. Grandpa Mills usually included hazelnuts and pecans as a gift.
These were our basic groceries for six months. From our garden we augmented with leaf lettuce, green onions, potatoes, turnips, strawberries, and raspberries. With careful gardening and not too severe an autumn we'd have lettuce until the end of October. Meanwhile in summer red huckleberries grew under the trees, salmon berries were plentiful, nettles were our spinach and when we could find it, goose tongue. Toward fall we always planned a trip to Pirate's Cove to pick wild "cranberries" (lingonberries) among marshy moss.
In spring there were the "runs" of herring when we'd fill a rowboat. Usually on July 4th, if the weather was good, we'd go crabbing and eat our fill. It was then we dug our first new potatoes and picked the first peas. If Daddy had been to town for ice for fishing, we made ice cream. It was a special treat day I liked better than Thanksgiving.
There was a "Turkey Shoot" each fall in Sitka. I'm not sure who sponsored it, but Daddy always went and later took Ruth. She became as good a target shot as he so they each would win one or two turkeys. One would be brought home for Thanksgiving and the other left in the Cold Storage freezer for Christmas.
When the geese were migrating we usually had one or two and Daddy often shot Mallard ducks in the fall. At all times we had bass, cod, halibut, and in summer salmon.
When I was 10 years old, Daddy started me target practicing with a 22 rifle. For my birthday he got me a surplus World War I Army Craig rifle. It was so heavy I couldn't hold it steady. He cut off much of the wooden stock and I was a tolerable marksman. The next year Ruth was taught with the old 22 and he gave her his 30-30 Winchester rifle, getting himself a new 30-06 rifle.
Guns were an important part of our life, always. As tiny children we were taught never to touch. They had a special place and were kept there, always empty and cleaned regularly. At the cabin on the Island they were on a rack on the living room wall ready to use, but high enough so the babies couldn't reach them. Each of us was taught to shoot by the age of ten, how to clean, oil, take apart, and put back together our guns and given regular target practice. Strongest lesson of all was a healthy respect for firearms. Even the babies were taught never to point a toy at a person and go "bang, bang." Being caught repeating the gesture merited real punishment.
Labor Day was the opening of hunting season and a very special weekend. Daddy and Mother would pick us up from school on Friday night, then head toward Chicken Foot Bay. There the water was so deep Dad could moor the boat to the bank. Days already were getting shorter so we'd sleep on the boat that night, but first light would find us climbing the steep hillside. Dad set a steady fast pace and we were expected to keep up with infrequent rests to catch our breaths. When Cora was tiny he carried her in a pack on his back and we distributed the knapsacks of food among Ruth, Glen, and me. Each had a hunting license and carried our own guns. Mother was free to help Don and Carl. We used no bedding or tents.
That night we'd reach the top of the chosen mountain. Under the edge of trees at timberline there was a giant rock. Here we gathered dry wood and Daddy built a fire against the rock to reflect the heat toward us. We'd heat canned soup in a gallon can we'd brought, then make coffee and munch on the bread we carried. All the time we were cautioned to be quiet, because sound carries so much further in the quiet of the mountains. While we ate the night grew quiet and dark with the stars brilliant in the sky--and it would be getting cold with a breeze nipping at us. Pulling our jackets around us, tightly buttoned, we'd choose a spot with feet toward the fire and sleep there under the shelter of the trees. The fire radiating toward us from the boulder, only night birds making any sound.
First rays of sun had us stirring, a bit chilly and slightly stiff from our rapid climb the day before. We'd get water from a tiny stream, make coffee and eat dried prunes and bread. Always, I was awed by the first sight of the alpine meadows and the mountain peaks, the grazing deer, the carpet of flowers.
The first alien sound and the lookout stag would give warning whistle herding his harem and the still spotted fawns ahead of him as they bounded away. Daddy always had wonderful pictures of them all. That day was for picture taking and pure enjoyment at the marvels we saw, felt, and smelled there among the peaks. Next day was for hunting and returning downhill to the boat, then home long after dark. Monday, Labor Day, we butchered the deer and canned all day long.
Solid meat was stuffed into cans with a bit of salt and a couple of whole black peppers. Scrappy meat was ground and made into patties seasoned with chopped onions and canned after browning in a little tallow. Bones were put on to stew for soup, the meat picked off and added to the broth seasoned with onions and carrots, then this, too, was canned. We ate the heart, liver, and kidneys at once, often making scrapple for breakfast. We all were in on the act and I became quite good at skinning and butchering.
Sometimes, if we'd been very lucky and there was more than we could can at one time, a heavy brine was made and chunks of venison would be immersed to "corn", a frontier method of keeping meat before the days of refrigeration. I remember watching Mother and Daddy adding the salt, bay leaves, whole peppercorns, and mustard seed then stirring and mixing in the huge barrels until a medium sized potato would float atop the brine. It was an old, well tried test of the strength that would preserve the meat for months.
Later on, during the winter there were other hunting trips just for Daddy or maybe including Ruth or me, but Labor Day was always a very special time.
One time we girls both went--it must have been in November because it was after school was over. The weather was cold and snow had already touched the mountain tops. We got back to the boat after dark with a storm threatening, chilled through. Our anchorage was not safe in a storm and Daddy immediately started home although the tide was on the ebb and we were anchored behind a little islet deep enough there but shallow in the narrow channel. Clouds scudded past overhead with a full moon showing between. Outside we could hear the rising boom of wind and surf.
Just halfway down the little channel we hit a huge rock on one side and the boat started listing. To keep it from capsizing, we propped hatch covers under the railing. Ruth and I took turns standing in the skiff holding them in place until the tide turned and lifted the boat upright. We were so cold we were numb and couldn't feel either feet or fingers--but we didn't capsize. I'll never forget the beauty of those clouds with the moon glowing between, and black shadow of the mountains on our side of the channel, the stillness back in our hideaway, and the rising sound of the wind and waves outside. It was rough ride home and as usual I was seasick.
Food was always a big concern that required much work on the part of us all. After every winter storm we carried great heaps of the seaweed and kelp that drifted ashore to the garden, digging deep trenches to bury it to decay for fertilizer. Along the front next the house a trench was dug for sweet peas and a lattice was strung. Then came daffodils, then pansies, and right by the sidewalk came leaf lettuce and green onions that were easy to harvest in any weather. Against the east end of the house a honeysuckle grew to enormous size, covering the whole end of the building.
Beyond it was the garden where all of us labored in spring, but especially Mother. Each of us were assigned a tiny plot and each spring we could choose a packet of seed from the catalog. One year I chose Kohlrabi. I didn't know what it was, but the name fascinated me. It was a very successful crop although none of us really liked it when cooked. Another year I chose dahlia seed. Daddy objected, said it wouldn't grow, but since he'd promised our choice and it was only 10 cents he grudgingly let me order it. How they grew! From seed, while the first tubers formed, I had buckets of blossoms. Each succeeding year they multiplied and cross pollinated to form hundreds of shades and mutations. Each year I had to expand further out, digging virgin soil, cutting out roots and stones so I could plant all the tubers. That was the last year I ordered seed.
The other children were more cautions, allowing Daddy to guide them to select the standard flowers and vegetables. Somehow I was always the rebel. Mother's daffodils expanded from one little clump to a six-foot-wide bed the length of the house.
Fishing was very good that second summer we were on the Islands and the price stayed high. First, two "Morris" reclining chairs were ordered. What a marvel! We kids fought for possession when Daddy wasn't there. Next came lumber and an extension was built for a kitchen on the west end of the log building during that winter. That winter Daddy shingled the whole outside wall facing the harbor in an effort to keep out the winds and rain. Another extension was built behind the woodshed to create a bedroom for Mother and Daddy. And a special, special piece of equipment, a gasoline powered washing machine arrived. This was very important to me because I was the one who helped wash using old fashioned scrub boards heating the water atop the stove. On ironing day, because we had to keep the wood fire going, we baked beans. On wash day we baked bread. Since I was the light-weight, awkward and more inept, household chores more often fell my way. Ruth and Glen were better outside although each of us, even the boys, had to learn the rudiments of cooking and sewing and to help outside if needed.
Improvements, Crafts, Cooking and Fun
It was that winter, too, that Dad started hauling the heavy timbers and sinking the piling for a dock. All of us worked on the block and tackle pulling them into place while he used a peavey to align them. Even with my feet braced I was too light for such work. Ruth delighted in special little signals to the others to let go rope leaving me stranded up in the air by the weight of the timber. Dad would be furious with me dangling. It served one purpose--I was left more and more to cook, clean, and wash, and I was not unhappy with the decision.
Mother had acquired a little hand turned sewing machine while we were still on the house boat. As we grew older and did heavier work, the mending and sewing piled up higher. About this time they ordered a wonderful treadle machine and mending was added to my chores. Of course Mother still did the bulk of it, but I had my share during the long winters. Also, most of our clothes were homemade from fabrics chosen from the Sears wish book, or from garments in the "missionary barrels” shipped by various relatives. Very often the fabrics were totally unsuitable. Those that could be used were ripped apart, frequently dyed new colors, then cut from patterns we made using magazine pictures or Sears designs as a guide. None of us was really gifted as designer or seamstress so everything had the “homemade" rather than the desired "handmade" stamp, but they did cover us.
I don't remember just when, but Daddy ordered a knitting machine and yarn, delighting in making heavy woolen stockings for all of us during the stormy winter when were confined indoors. Modern machines can make sweaters and other items, but this one was confined to tubular things.
Shoe repair was another of Daddy's accomplishments. He had acquired a kit with different sized lasts and he half-soled our leather shoes. He even made sandals from buckskin we tanned, but they weren't really very successful. We needed to learn more about tanning and preparing the skins, but Daddy didn't approve our contacts with the Indians who could have taught us.
All of us enjoyed different kinds of craft work during the long winter months. Mother taught us (boys too) to crochet and embroider. Mother didn't knit, but a visitor taught Ruth when she was at Goddard Hot Springs for a few days. She became especially accomplished and still had work in progress when she died in 1988.
Dad was intrigued by an article he read on weaving and rattan work so he sent for supplies. All of us had fun making baskets and other things. Ruth did a floor lamp, I remember. Daddy was especially good with wood. He built a huge desk of yellow cedar with all kinds of pigeonholes and a fold up writing shelf. There was a huge inlaid red cedar star on the front--a piece of furniture I wouldn't mind having today. This again was a skill Ruth excelled at. I was awkward and often gouged my fingers but did complete a set of book ends with three dimensional squirrels.
When Donald was small Daddy found a pattern for a dragon pull toy in one of the Sunset Magazines. He promptly made it and I was envious because I was too big to pull it, wibble wobble, across the floor.
I don't know why it took so long for Grandpa Markell's will to be probated, but we were in our second or third year on the Island when I received what was to me a vast sum in a check for $10.00. Immediately, I started drooling over the Sears catalogue. Here Daddy intervened and I know Mother was upset when the order was sent. We picked out a doll that took most of the amount. This was for Ruth. The balance went for Marshmallow men for the others. When they arrived and were distributed there wasn't even one for me. Even today I can feel the hurt of that. Ruth promptly named her doll "Baby Ruth". Since I could sew better than Ruth I was told I could make doll clothes from scraps in the rag bag, but the doll had come complete with wardrobe so it wasn't necessary.
I don't want anyone to think it was all work. Work we did and it was hard physical work, but we could see with our own eyes that for survival it was necessary. There was joy in climbing mountains, seeing the rare alpine flowers or finding a miniature orchid fairy slipper in the moss under a tree on Tava. When there was a rare bout of frigid weather and the pond on Tava swamp froze, we went to skate. We played hide and seek through the trees and across the beach at sunset. We often would grab a hanging tree branch and swing out over a gully, Tarzan style. On long winter evenings when the wind roared, we played cards (Flinch, Rook, and 500) or popped corn and read--how we read! There were 36 monthly magazine (Saturday Evening Post, American Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, Black Fox, etc,. and we devoured them all.
Dad always gave each of us a book for Christmas so we read our own and each other’s. There were dominoes and checkers and Chinese checkers. Finally Dad got a chess set, but that was about the time I left home for high school so I never learned to play.
Neighbors from nearby islands came, especially for holidays, and stayed over because of the short days and stormy weather in winter--sometimes for a week or more. In summer the children we'd known in Sitka came for a week or two at time. In wintertime Ruth and I would go (sometimes) when Daddy went to town and stay overnight with our friends.
Every couple of summers the Sydnors, whom we'd known in Kake, would come, usually on their own boat and with four or five college students from Pasadena. They'd stay for several weeks and it was a great disruption while Daddy neglected his fishing to give them the grand tour and Mother and I prepared meals--but it was fun too, to meet and exchange ideas.
As long as I can remember, when we were little and especially after we moved to the Island, Daddy fixed breakfast if he was home while Mother dressed the babies.
A sourdough hot cake starter was kept in a crock on the cabinet next the stove. There were always prunes followed by hot cakes (buckwheat if Daddy was there) with peanut butter and homemade syrup or honey. Fresh fried fish and milk gravy accompanied the hot cakes, and sometimes, venison liver or heart and gravy if we'd been hunting. Venison sausage patties were often served, especially in winter. Halibut cheeks were a favorite or clam fritters. Butter was a very, very rare treat. It was too expensive and needed refrigeration which was nonexistent. Meat and fish could be caught nearly every day.
Both our parents were aware of the lack of dairy products and the need for fresh green vegetables. We had evaporated canned milk (diluted) until skimmed powdered milk became available and it was used for drinking (although I never really liked it), but also added to things like gravy. I can't remember gravy ever made without milk when I was home. From an early age we all drank coffee diluted with evaporated milk. I must have been about eleven when I realized I was less likely to be seasick if the milk was omitted. I still drink it black.
Cheese was a very special treat and usually used for school sandwiches or macaroni and cheese. Venison fat was rendered and became the tallow that was our only shortening. It gets very hard so that cakes were heavy, doughnuts rattled like stones and pastry was solid. We never had cake flour--or even knew it existed.
Each summer Hires Extract was ordered and Mother made root beer using the solid yeast cakes. If they didn't dissolve enough and left too many granules, the jars would pop with a bang when it was put in the kitchen attic to age. Great brown rivulets would seep through the ceiling to drip down on the unwary.
Once when Daddy was away fishing Mother tried to make wine from the red huckleberries, but they were too full of water and it was just sour mash.
Daddy was violently opposed to wine, beer, or any alcoholic beverage so it was just as well that experiment was a failure.
Measuring cups and spoons were totally out of our experience. We used whatever coffee cup was available and the tablespoons and teaspoons from the silver drawer. Recipes were adjusted to the measure.
Bread was baked twice a week, eleven loaves of coarse whole wheat (Daddy claimed any other kind unhealthful). Hot cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls were made then too. From age 10 onward it was my responsibility to keep cookies baked for lunches. Like most frontier areas, a coffee pot was on the stove most of the time and cookies went with it. Our parents would have been disgraced if a neighbor or stray fisherman had come into our harbor and there had been nothing to offer.
Except for breakfast, Daddy did nothing about the house, ordinarily. There was too much outside work that none of us could do. But--there are exceptions to every statement. At least once each winter he would come back from Sitka with a can of Crisco, a bunch of bananas plus a dozen lemons and a dozen eggs. We'd be ordered out of the kitchen after breakfast and he'd go to work making a pastry to fit the largest fry pan, filling it with lemon pie filling alternating with bananas. We thought it ambrosia.
In one of the trade magazines Daddy read that molasses and eggs should be added to fox food in the fall to improve the sheen of the fur, and tripe, liver, and heart added in the spring for nursing mothers. After that he ordered regular shipments of candled eggs from Seattle. We'd go through the crate and could find enough good ones to use in cooking. We used the tripe too, parboiling it, then dipping it in beaten egg and flour before quickly frying it.
Oleo margarine was a great treat when it came along. It was a chore to mix the yellow powder into the hard white cubes but quite worth it.
Southeast Alaska has an overall average rainfall of 5 days per week year-round. This does not change the fact that sometimes we might have as much as three weeks without rain because other times it might rain, pour, or drizzle every day for a month. When we had a period of drought (and it was usually in the summer when we were the busiest) the rain barrels would go dry so even the wigglers (mosquito larvae) died. To forestall the problem Daddy tried digging wells, here, there, and everywhere in the vicinity of the house. Always he hit bed rock within a couple of feet of the surface after digging through a barrel of tree roots.
Finally, over past the cook house and up the trail that crossed the island, at least 1/4 mile from the house, he was able to get down about eight feet. Water drained from several rivulets. Of course we had to carry it, bucket by bucket, but it was usable, drinkable water. The unwary could mistake it for dark cider vinegar and clothes boiled in it came out a dingy shade--slightly darker than tattle tale gray.
New Boat and Life on Maid Island
About our third year on the island, we'd had a good year with fishing and percentage on the furs sold on the London market. Since Cynthia was really a very aged lady, her motor constantly needing repair, Daddy decided to have a boat built. He studied many plans and finally chose one from a Tacoma boat shop. Shortly after the trapping season was over, he left Mother in charge and went south to supervise the construction.
It was a ghastly period. Ruth and I did the fishing and cooked the mush. Glen and even Don could help carry it to the feeding stations on Maid, but Ruth and I or Mother had to do the rest. To make matters worse, it was a particularly vicious winter with storm following storm relentlessly. We knew we had to do the feeding because the fox pups were about to be born and our livelihood for the next year depended upon their survival.
By mid-March Mother developed a severe bronchial flu and gradually we each one had it. Mother sent word (I think it was Ruth who went with me, both coughing until we could hardly stand, carrying Mother's note) to Chris Jackson asking him to go to Sitka and ask Roy Commons (Uncle Seth's wife Edna's brother) to come help. He did arrive and things improved. Roy had been lazing about Sitka, unable to find work so he welcomed the opportunity.
School was well underway--it must have been late May, in fact when Daddy sailed home in the Alaskan Maid. How proud he was!
She was a pristine white with a diesel engine that pushed her along at 10 miles an hour, sometimes a bit more. We all marveled and it was only later we learned that she rolled excessively. We were impressed with the oak stained built-in cupboards, the oil stove, and especially the "head" (Editor’s note: marine toilet), a great improvement on poor Cynthia's coffee can.
Sadly, the storms that next winter tore Cynthia loose from her mooring so she was driven ashore, high up the beach in front of the house. It was the end of a good, faithful old lady.
In about July of 1925 Mother told us she was expecting another baby. None of us had realized it because she had become heavier over the years and the additional "pooch" hadn't impressed any of us. Because she was afraid Daddy might be away when the time came, she sat me down to study Dr. Gunn's Medical Directory. I didn't learn anything about conception, but there was detailed information on the delivery of a baby. Fortunately, Daddy was home on August 20th, 1925 when Cora May made her appearance. Mother was confined to bed for a good long two weeks and the baby was mine to bathe and diaper, to love and dream over.
Possibly Mother would have been glad of a few more days of quiet, but it was not to be. Another great event occurred: Grandma and Grandpa Mills arrived on their first and only visit. They had to be feted, to be shown everything and carried off to visit Uncle Seth and Aunt Edna, to meet the Goddards at Goddard Hot Springs, and all our other neighbors. Poor Grandma! She was such a tiny thing--at eleven years she made me feel a cow! And gnats and mosquitoes devoured her. Her feet and legs became so swollen she couldn't get her shoes on. Her hands, arms and shoulders, even her face became grotesque. How glad she must have been to leave on the next Seattle-bound steam ship.
And poor Grandpa, too. We deluged him with requests for tales of Daddy's early life. He carefully avoided most of our questions. The only tale I really remember included Daddy (at about 14 or 15 years old) and a gang of his neighbors and cousins. Each year they had raided the barn where the cider press was kept just as the cider was getting "hard." On that particular year Grandpa decided to teach them all a lesson. He pressed a keg of pears for cider and rolled it to the front of the cider barrels and waited. Sure enough, one night he saw the boys gather and head for the barn. An hour later they were rushing out and jumping over the fence into the bushes. Pear cider is very good, but it does have a quick and violent reaction. Grandpa could still laugh, but I noticed Daddy had nothing to say.
I'm not at all sure when the decision was made to buy the fox farm. We were never consulted and usually learned such things by accident. At any rate, somewhere along the line, payments had to be made instead of Dad collecting wages. It meant tightening up expenditures even more.
The day before Thanksgiving that winter after Cora was born, Chris Jackson came rowing over the mile from Legma in a dreadful storm. He needed help. His wife was in labor and the baby was breech. Dad had gone to Sitka. Mother went off with Chris and helped save Mrs. Jackson's life, but the infant was stillborn.
I was at home to look after Cora and the others. Ruth was involved cooking fox food. Mother was gone until very late Thanksgiving Day. Daddy came home as the storm lessened and the Harris family arrived to share Thanksgiving dinner (and stayed for a week because the storm grew worse). It was then I cooked my first turkey dinner. I was 12 years old. Mrs. Harris had never learned how--and I remember thinking nastily that she'd perfected the art of never ever doing whatever she didn't want to do by not knowing how. For some it works, but I knew better than to try that stunt.
Dad got home just before dinner and Mother just before we finished. They all ate the turkey, so I guess it was OK.
As children alone on our islands we learned to know and appreciate many simple things. We knew where to find the shooting stars, the harebells (we called them bluebells), the fairy slippers, the fascinating lily-like skunk cabbage- where the huckleberries grew and the salmon berries. We also had a healthy respect for the Devil's Club with its hooked little barbed thorns that seemed almost to jump at the unwary passerby. Some splinters will fester and come out easily. Devil's Club thorns just work deeper because of the barb so they have to be dug out.
We could sit quietly for hours watching the fox puppies at play like delightful animals of any species. We knew where the eagles nested, where the migrating ducks rested. Internal radar warning seemed to inform us when a strange boat was anchored in the harbor or on the other side of the island from the house (usually a fisherman for afternoon siesta). When the "Around the World" flyers went over our island we stood, mouths open gawking until the last speck was gone from the sky, our necks so stiff we could scarcely move our heads to a normal position.
Some magazine had an article on building a radio--an infant invention then. Daddy was enamored by the possibilities and immediately sent for miles of spaghetti tubing and all kinds of strange new things including a new storage battery. All one winter he labored until he had a radio that hissed and growled and shrieked if anyone came near. With a long stick especially carved to turn the knobs, he could control the static enough to hear the news on his headset. We were not privileged to listen. When he had it on, I was forbidden to go anywhere near that end of the room--I caused more static than anyone else just walking by.
Eventually Daddy acquired an "Atwater Kent" which was an improvement, but still we weren't permitted to turn the radio on just to listen to music or other programs besides news. Random use ran down the storage battery.
Daddy was talented in many ways. Reading Black Fox magazine and other trades (I've forgotten their names) he grew angry at the editors’ attention concentrated solely on the penned foxes. He started writing articles that were widely printed and quoted, bringing him a spate of mail. Whether he ever had any remuneration I doubt, but one month in particular he had a different article in each of three magazines. In proof of his theories, he could prove he'd had top price at the prestigious London fur auctions. And we children learned to judge fox and mink pelts from him, to know the length and sheen of guard hair, to search for blemishes that reduced the value. We took pride in the ear marking (branding) of the K.K.I. which was on every one of "our" animals and the quality of the C. Jay Mills name denoted. We felt we had earned the right though I doubt any of us analyzed the thought.
Next: People, the Midget, School, and the Summer of 1929