Chapter Two: Homesteaders
Dee Johns found her home at the end of a washboard gravel road four miles northwest of Winthrop. A place to settle down, she said. They were at Wolf Creek where it emerges from a deep canyon that cuts between the north end of Thompson Ridge and the south end of Virginian Ridge, the western wall of the upper valley.
It was a sweltering one hundred mile drive northeast along the Columbia River, then north along the Methow River, following sharper and narrower bends, climbing and winding, crossing from side to side over bridges, skirting along skinny riverside benches where isolated homes and apple orchards lay squeezed between the river and the canyon sides. Finally, hours later, they saw through the cranked-open windscreen of the hot and clattering 1937 Chevy panel truck a wooden signpost: "Wolf Creek Road 4 mi."
The house wasn't much. The log structure was sheathed in planks of rough-sawn lumber. It supported a plank-built upper story. The roof was covered with rusted flat metal sheeting. Two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs were divided by a steep and narrow central stairway that ran between enclosing walls that split the house into equal halves.
A bay window bulged from the west end of the house into a tiny fenced yard where yellow homestead roses bloomed. Warm daylight flooded the interior. A screened half-porch sheltered the side yard entrance as a work space for laundry and rinse tubs.
The stairway footed at a door that opened into a south yard where a pair of elm trees stood, pock-marked by vertical rows of woodpecker borings. A narrow, rock-choked irrigation ditch flowed eastward past the yard. It carried water from Wolf Creek to a barren pasture below the house.
Upstairs, the plank-floored bedrooms were spanned at their backs by a full length walk-in closet that bridged the stairway and could be passed through from doorways at each end. Windows in three walls of each room gave light and ventilation. Dee chose the room overlooking the west yard and driveway. Alex Jr. and Graydon got the east room, over the kitchen.
A black cast-iron, pot-bellied parlor stove with chrome trim and a mica-paned fire door heated the main room. Its black steel stovepipe rose through the floor above to a brick chimney, its base set on a shelf high in the stairway enclosure. A cast-iron wood-fired range with high-backed warming ovens stood against the kitchen side of the stairway wall. An under-stair pantry stood beside the kitchen entrance. The two stoves heated the entire house.
Sawdust filled the spaces between the sheathing planks and the log walls for insulation. Layers of felt paper topped with layers of cracked wallpaper covered the downstairs and upstairs walls. Other than sawdust and layers of paper, the house had no insulation. When storm winds blew, drafts would flutter the flour-sack curtains that Dee sewed with her foot treadle Singer machine. Methow Valley winters easily reached 20 and 30 degrees below zero.
Plumbing was primitive: there was one cold-water faucet over an enameled cast-iron kitchen sink. The sink drained to a dry sump outside. A weather-beaten privy stood in a weed-choked apple orchard 50 feet from the house. The door of the "two-holer" hung askew on dried and cracked leather hinges.
A smaller two room, single story bunkhouse stood in fair repair across the main yard. A rock walled root cellar lay underneath, with a woodshed beside the cellar entrance. The bunkhouse and cellar doors stood half-open. Their interiors reeked the musky stench of groundhog dung scattered on the floors and shelves. A fresh groundhog burrow tunneled under the bunkhouse floor beside the cellar entrance.
The farmyard north of the house and bunkhouse lay divided by a shallow irrigation ditch, bounded on its east side by a chicken house with a screened run, and a teetering open front machine shed. A rough plank barn stood on the yard's west edge, next to cow sheds and a cluster of four pig shelters in a tumbled-down rail corral. Their boards were warped and weathered, pulled loose or broken, long neglected. A log tripod supported a long hay stacking pole balanced in a swiveling chain loop. A rusty cable sheave hung from its narrow tip 30 feet above the ground. The cable lay tangled in coils around the base, buried in the weeds. This homestead was way beyond producing hay or livestock.
The hay-stacking pole was a great ride. Alex Jr. would cling to the end of the hay fork cable slung from the tip. Graydon would lean his weight on the butt end and heave to swing the great pole ponderously from side to side, casting little Alex back and forth across the farm yard in a flying loop. This came to a screaming stop the first time Dee came out of the house to collect eggs and saw her youngest son sailing in a high arc at the end of the cable.
The barn held four stalls and a cavernous hayloft. Ladder rungs nailed into the back wall above the first manger rose through a hatch into the loft, the manger rail and ladder treads worn rounded down by heavy boots.
The hayloft opened out into a huge maw, capped by a forged iron rail, a cable trolley, and hanging from it a cable ending in a two-pronged hay fork. The 30-inch prongs were tipped with toggles, tripped by a long pull cord from a lever in the fork yoke. A worker would plunge the fork deep into the hay wagon pile and set the toggles, locking the hay on the prongs. The fork and its huge bite would be pulled up by a horse hitched to the far end of the cable. The fork load would bump the trolley and roll down the rail into the barn. A hayloft worker would yank the trip rope and dump the load, then use a pitchfork to spread the hay, layering it carefully. Shining, polished floor planks testified that many hay cuttings had been fed down to the mangers during the hungry Methow winters.
A shop building opposite the barn tilted precariously to the north but was braced from going over by cables fastened as inside corner braces. Behind this shed lay an overgrown garden plot and the posts and sagging wires of a grape arbor. Hardy Concord grapes still grew on their arbors, their vines unpruned and unruly. A pair of summer apple trees stood in circles of fallen yellow fruit, overripe and covered with swarms of feeding yellow jacket wasps. Traces of irrigation feeder ditches bordered the plot.
"Leave those suitcases and blankets and stuff in the Blue Goose," Dee ordered. She grabbed up her broom, a mop, bucket and rags, soap and scouring power.
"Alex, get those buckets and start hauling water from the ditch. Boys, take this cleaning stuff into the house. Everybody, move! We're not taking a single thing into that house until it's clean, upstairs and down!"
Dee Johns took possession of her home with a bandanna wrapped around her hair, its corners twisted and knotted across her forehead. She hitched up her slacks and like a conquering General invading a small country, she cleaned house.
Dee and the family were settled in by nightfall. The next morning she took the Blue Goose to town for groceries. She signed an electricity order with the valley REA cooperative. She rented a post office box. There was no need for water, sewer, garbage, or telephone accounts. No telephone wires ran up the Wolf Creek road. The electric service powered a few light bulbs in the house, a light bulb in the root cellar, a radio-phonograph, and a small Sears-Roebuck water pump set in a shallow well housing beyond the bunkhouse.
Cost to Dee Johns for a home to call her own: $75 a month for rent, $10 a month for electricity, $5 first-year rent for a post office box in town, and her stubborn, grim determination.