Alverna’s World: A Small Town in 1920

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Once there was a world of few regulations and no welfare state. There were rules, of course, but there was considerable flexibility in the application of the rules, at least some of them.

This is a story about what life was like in one place in that world — Morton, Washington, a logging town in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains, near Mount Rainier. It is told by Alverna Kavanaugh, who died in 2007 at the age of 101. She was my aunt, and the family storyteller.

In 1912, Alverna’s father, Clyde Smith, brought the family to Morton, where he opened a hardware store. . . . But let Alverna tell the story. Most of it is in her words, tape recorded. I trimmed it down and stitched it together. It is a story of the world that America once was — a different place, and interesting in ways you might not predict.

Alverna Kavanaugh’s Story

Morton wasn’t a place where many newcomers came to settle. Many of the people there were of pioneer stock. They were the Temples, the Broadbents, the Stiltners, and the Crumbs. Most of their fathers and mothers had packed in to claim narrow strips of land. The Crumbs had gotten theirs at the time of Abraham Lincoln. Only the Broadbents had made more than an ordinary amount of money.

Everyone seemed to find a place. Everyone knew exactly what was going on, and when a stranger came to town.

Everyone was subject to unwritten laws. To break them would cause more attention than it was worth. The community was sure of what was right, though it made no claim that everyone was perfect.

We had a town drunk. Every so often he would get bleary- eyed and stagger down the street ripping off fence pickets. Everyone knew that in a day or so he’d be nailing them back up.

Most of the time, he’d sit with the older men in front of the pool hall or the barber shop. In winter, they’d move inside my father’s hardware store, sit on nail kegs, and spit tobacco juice into the pot-bellied stove. The hardware didn’t have a cracker barrel like the grocery, but it had a more masculine tolerance, and customers kept the flow of information fresh and lively.

We had a town prostitute, the oldest girl from a big farm family — hardworking people, not much money. She was discreet. She’d go out to Tacoma for a week, and she’d come back with new clothes. People asked, “Where did she get the money? How could you earn all that in one week?” She was good-natured, plump, and naturally blonde. I remember seeing her, and the comments, “There she goes on the bus again.”

She was still in Morton when I came back to teach a year there, in 1940–41. She’d married a war veteran, who was sick and didn’t have much money. That was the time when women of my mother’s age, who could remember this woman’s past, argued about whether to let her into the Eastern Star. They finally did.

When my father decided to go into the hardware business, he chose Morton by asking hardware salesmen. The salesmen said, “Up at Morton, they don’t have any hardware. There’s a lot of timber, and there’s loggers.” Before he left he hired a clerk he knew, and paid him double what ordinary clerks got, to move to Morton. Later they became partners.

Another young man came with Dad to Morton. When Dad built his store, he included a narrow strip for this young man to establish a haberdashery. Loggers needed shirts and boots and pants. This haberdashery didn’t run the full depth of the building. The back opened right on to Dad’s potbellied stove.

The haberdasher did well. He married and had two daughters, and one was named Alverna, after me. Later, he took up with a redheaded woman in town. My mother said that when this redhead came in to look for an umbrella, the haberdasher locked his front door and pulled down the blinds. He didn’t have any business for half an hour or so. Dad and his clerk knew what was going on, but they didn’t presume to say he couldn’t.

Well, Morton was a little town. Things like that get around. Everybody could see the blinds down in the middle of the afternoon. And at public dances, the haberdasher would dance with this woman. The haberdasher’s wife responded by making the redhead her best friend, inviting her to Tacoma in their new car. This was to stop all the talk. But it didn’t stop the talk. It didn’t change anything, except to show that his wife wasn’t breaking up her marriage on account of a red- headed woman.

My dad carried mostly very useful things in the hardware: stoves, simple furniture, plain dishes, ropes, chains, bolts and nuts, and things for logging camps. He had a credit business, but he ran it carefully. He knew which men were entitled to

Only about five students a year made it through high school. Girls often married at 16, and any strong boy of 16 would usually rather be out logging.

 

 

credit, which men would pay. He’d be understanding when a man might be working hard and living on venison. If that man needed an airtight stove because his other one was falling apart and he had five kids, of course he could have credit.

Sears & Roebuck would sometimes write and ask my dad a man’s credit standing. He felt it was ridiculous for them to ask, because they were competitors. Why should he tell them?

So when a man was poor at paying — and often, people who had ruined their credit with him would try to get it elsewhere — Dad would write, “Fine. Give the man all the credit he wants.”

Dad’s hardware also carried coffins, because nobody else in the community would take care of a death. So he did. He learned how to do embalming, and was licensed. But he tried to dissuade people who couldn’t afford it from buying expensive coffins.

One widow insisted on having the most expensive casket he had. He tried to persuade her not to buy it, because he knew she couldn’t pay for it. She shouldn’t even try to pay

There weren’t many charity cases in Morton, and the businessmen handled them in a quiet way. One had been a Mason, so the Masonic lodge saw that he had what he needed. 

 

 

for it; the money should go to her children. But no sir, she wept and wailed, and insisted on having the very best. So my dad let her have it, knowing he would never get paid. He was careful not to give too much credit, but in this case, with a woman deep in grief, he just gave in.

Dad loved to play cards. In the early days, he’d play with the salesmen who came up to Morton to sell hardware. Sometimes they gambled. My mother worried about gam- bling. She always had her ears out. Apparently she heard about it, because one time she went to the pool hall and into the back room. The table was covered with chips and cards and gold. She said, “Aha! I knew it!” And she turned the table upside down in front of the men. Dad would occasionally tell this story, and laugh. He’d say, “You know, I was winning, too.”

I think that ended his gambling for money, but he still loved to play cards at the pool hall two blocks from home. I knew he was up there in the evenings. I guess the chips had to be taken out in merchandise, because he’d come home with candy bars and chips. Marie and I used to be given chips, and we could go back to that pool hall and buy ice cream.

My father played cards with us children, too. As soon as we could hold cards, he organized simple games. While he did it, he taught a moral lesson. It was that the cards demanded moral standards. You don’t cheat. You don’t peek at some- body else’s hand. You don’t fidget and give away that you have a bad hand, or say, “Woooo! I’ve got a wonderful hand!” You’re stoic. The game demands this.

If you got a bad hand, you were not to feel downhearted because you lost. If you played all the tricks you could get, you were a success. If you didn’t play them right, Dad didn’t scold you. But afterwards, he told you how you could have done better. So, while some people felt that cards were sinful because people could gamble with them, my father taught lessons with them.

Only about five students a year made it through Morton High School. Girls often married at 16, and any strong boy of 16 would usually rather be out logging than in freshman English. If he did get to high school, it was more schooling than his pa had, and likely more than he’d ever need.

I was the fourth of five children. My two older brothers did not finish high school, and my older sister came to graduation and didn’t qualify for it. Well, I think the teacher and the superintendent, who both knew Dad, just made it up between them: if my sister outlined the history book, she could get credit for history. She didn’t get it all done, but they passed her anyway. She didn’t have any ambition to go to college or do anything with it. The next year, she was pregnant.

I was different. I did well in school. Everything was easy. We had one geography book. Well, I could read down that two-page assignment, and I’d have it memorized. And when it came to reading “Ivanhoe,” I wanted to read ahead, despite what the teacher said. At 11, Dad signed me up for violin lessons. He had a violin that had come down from his grand- father. There had been three generations of fiddlers who could play by ear, but I was to learn to read music. Mother said, “My father wouldn’t allow a violin in the house. He felt the devil was in it.” The violin made people dance, and that was wicked. But Mother didn’t feel that way.

No one at Morton could teach me the violin. My father drove me Saturdays on the new road to Tacoma, about 60 miles away, where I could take lessons and he could place hardware orders. When it came to my senior year in high school, 1923– 24, my father sent me to Tacoma to live in a boarding house so I could go to Stadium High School. I went on from there to the University of Washington, where I earned a degree in music.

I wasn’t the only one to be sent out. One pioneer farm family, the Crumbs, sent its firstborn son out of town for four years of high school. That was unheard of. That family couldn’t afford such extravagance. In due course, without the village approval, they sent out the second son, the third and the fourth. The fifth son didn’t want to go, but by that time it was a tradition, and everybody agreed that he had to go, too.

There weren’t many charity cases in Morton, and the businessmen handled them in a quiet way. There was a Civil War veteran. He was so old that people marveled that he could take care of himself alone in a one-room shack. He’d been a Mason, so the Masonic lodge saw that he had what he needed. But when they offered him better housing, he was too proud to take it. He said, “Oh, I don’t need much. A little tobacco. After all, when I was young, I helled around.”

When it got cold, he’d come down to the hardware and join the men telling stories, chewing tobacco, and spitting in the stove.

The other charity case was the minister. Morton wasn’t a churchgoing town. Saturday night dances drew nearly every- one, but Sunday-morning services in the Methodist church, the only one in town, would have about ten people. The minister wasn’t often called on to officiate at marriages. They were usually elopements. Only at funerals did everyone require the minister, who conducted them with lavish formality.

My dad would give the minister, who looked half-starved, $50 or $100. He would tell him, “This is not to go to the mis- sion in China. This is for you.” Mrs. Broadbent, a relation of one of the pioneer families, arranged for the minister to have one good meal a day at the hotel. People expected him to live in genteel poverty. When a minister came who had a little Ford, and he used it to get from the parsonage to town — only about six blocks — he was criticized. It wasn’t right that he should have a car and burn up gas for that. He soon left. The village doctor had a Ford, but that was not seen as a luxury. Doc had to be able to get to the logging camps in a hurry.

I was 12 and my younger sister Marie was 8 when the flu hit Morton. That was the great influenza of 1918, in which half a million Americans died. Both of us had it. I got better, and

The other charity case was the minister. Morton wasn’t a churchgoing town. Only at funerals did everyone require the minister.

 

 

Marie did too. It was a while before we had our first solid food, because in those days when we were sick, we were on a liquid diet. They gave us beef tea, a little milk, and a cracker. Then we could have a sliver of turkey and a spoonful of dress- ing. But we were to stay in bed and keep under the covers. Marie and I had a pillow fight, and she didn’t stay under the covers. The next night she was sick again. I was getting well. The next afternoon the doctor said, “She’s the sickest patient I have.”

Dad had buried many of his friends and business associates. He said, “Why didn’t the doctor tell me sooner? I could have put her on the train to Tacoma, and got her to a hospital.” But the train had left, and the road didn’t go through to Tacoma then. So Dad wired for an engine and a caboose. It cost him $600. When that came out in Morton, people thought it was amazing. Years later, I met a man up at Morton. “You’re C.B. Smith’s daughter, aren’t you? You know, I was on the caboose that took your little sister to Tacoma.” It was an event spoken of for years.

So the tracks were cleared, and Marie rode to Tacoma. Mother and Dad, too. An ambulance picked her up at the station and whisked her to the hospital, right then. That’s Dad! The doctor in Tacoma said, “Feed her. Give her cream. Give her something rich so she has the strength to fight this.” None of the barley-water the other doctor had suggested. Marie made a good recovery.

Morton had one police officer. Nothing much ever happened except chicken stealing, and who would begrudge a boy a chicken to roast in the woods? Once the cop hit a man over the head because he brought liquor into a Saturday night dance instead of stashing it in the woodpile. People thought this was unreasonable, and hired a new cop.

Another town had a case of a rape. They got a posse and caught the man, and my brother was in on it. He said they debated about castrating the man. They thought they should. But they decided that he might bleed to death, and it would be murder, so they didn’t do it. They turned him over to the law.

Dad, being a merchant, wanted fire protection. He contributed the first $500, about all that was needed, to buy a cart that the men could pull and connect to a hydrant. They erected a tower with a bell on it. If you saw a fire, you pulled the bell.

Morton didn’t have a fire department. The men were volunteers. Their job wasn’t to put the fire out, but to hose down the buildings not on fire.

That didn’t always work. In 1924, the whole business district burned to the ground. It started in the hotel at about one in the morning. The two-story hotel was right opposite my

The posse debated castrating the rapist. But they decided that he might bleed to death, and it would be murder, so they didn’t do it.

father’s store, and the wind blew the flames straight to the hardware. My father opened the building to get his business records. Already people had slipped in and taken some fish- ing gear. Others were removing things. Dad locked the door. He said he didn’t want any question about insurance claims; he had taken out more coverage about six months before. Somebody said it was a shame for all that hardware to burn up.

The men struggled to get the heavy barber chair out of the hotel and down the street. They stopped. When the fire moved closer, they pulled it a little farther. Finally they left it in a vacant lot, and the fire ruined it.

We got our valuables out of the house. Dad put all his business records in his car. I carried my Persian cat out in the fish basket. Dad drove me down the road a quarter mile to guard these treasures. My cat yowled, and I wondered whether the fire would follow me down the road, because it was timber on both sides.

I don’t think any homes burned, but the grocery that had only been up six months went down in a heap. The bank had only the vault left standing, and there was nothing left of Dad’s hardware but a chimney sticking up. After the fire, people stood around grinning at the awfulness of it. It made the headlines of the Tacoma paper, and we had a string of tourists.

Other than that, most fires were of a house, or a shed. The wooden houses would go up fast. It was usually at night. You’d hear the bell, get out of bed, and run to see the fire. That was the social thing to do. Once when my friend Henrietta was visiting me, the bell rang, and I said, “There’s a fire. Come on!”

“Why? Are we in danger?”

“No, no. We have to go see it.” If it was a shed, everybody looked to see if there were copper coils sticking up through the ashes, because that would be a still.

During Prohibition, bootleggers were going full tilt in the woods around Morton. In the woods, a man might rise up with a gun and tell you to go back. When bootleggers were caught, a lawyer in the county seat would get them off with light sentences. Prohibition didn’t have the sympathy of the public.

I saw a still in 1924, when I was 19. One of my boyfriends told me some of the bootleggers were going to move it. He’d asked them if he could bring me to see it, and they’d said, “C.B. Smith’s daughter? Sure. He’d keep his mouth shut. Bring C.B. Smith, too.” Dad didn’t want to know anything about any stills. If he was going to have a drink, he wanted good whiskey, and he would have it only when he had a cold. Well, he was out of town.

The still was in a grove of maples. They had their mash in a tank made of fir planks. I looked in the open tank under the trees and said, “Caterpillars are dropping in it.”

“Oh, that don’t matter,” the man said. A few leaves were OK, too. And one said, “It’s good stuff. Look.” He poured some on a stick and lit it, and it burned.

He said, “When we make a batch, we drive down the road, turn off into the woods and bury it. You know what some of them Morton kids done? They’ve learnt our tire tracks. They’ve followed the track and dug up the liquor.” He was disgusted.

In Morton, people-watching was important. One of the most absorbing puzzles was to figure out who was having a baby.

“She’s going to have a baby,” someone would say.

“Noooooo!”

“Oh, yes. I can tell by the way she’s wearing that apron. Look at the way she’s pulling it back and forth.”

Morton dealt with extramarital pregnancies in a different way from the silent movies. In the movies, you saw this sweet young girl who got pregnant — it wasn’t clear how — and her father was ordering her out into the storm. Shame! Shame!

Shame!

In Morton, unmarried girls often got pregnant. I some- times knew it by the way Mother whispered: “The baby came a little too soon, didn’t it? Seven months.” Sometimes the new couple announced at about the fourth month that the baby was going to be premature. My mother would say: “How do they know that?”

One of the farm girls never had a boyfriend. She was homely, with straight red hair, freckles, skinny and awkward. Then she was going with a stranger, a man working on the road. Everybody was glad that she had a boyfriend, but there was always a little suspicion.

The man left, because it was a temporary job, and she developed what she said was a tumor. Did the women in town believe this? They certainly did not. Her sister asked if she was pregnant. No, no, she said, it was a tumor. Then she came to her sister one morning and said, “It isn’t a tumor. I’m going to have a baby and I’m having pains.” They got in a car and rushed her down the road. She had the baby in the next town, and came home with it.

Some time before, a World War I veteran, a stolid man maybe 20 years older, had wanted to go with her. She had rejected him; she had wanted somebody young and charm- ing. Now he came forward. He went right to her house and offered marriage. She took him up on it. He treated her well, and she became an accepted member of the community.

The other case was a woman who was not so young, per- haps 22. This girl was going steady with a fellow, holding hands and dancing too close. People got suspicious. They were pretty knowing about the signs.

She went down to Portland to visit somebody. Then her folks said she married down there. She stayed a while, and came back with the baby — but no husband. It was printed in the paper that her mother announced that her daughter had married this man. When people asked the editor about it, he said, “I print what they tell me, like any other news I have.”

Nobody ever saw the husband. There were stories that he was sent on a job, and he got hurt, and he was delayed. He just never showed up. She raised the child, got a job as a telephone operator, and finally announced she was divorced. Nobody knew how she got the divorce. The town didn’t believe it, but they accepted it. She was married and divorced and had a child. That was respectable.

Abortion was illegal then, but also available.

In 1932 my younger sister met the man she wanted to marry. In two weeks’ time, they were engaged. Being conscientious, she felt she had to confess that she was not a virgin. This made it easy for him to persuade her to have relations. He borrowed our car and got her pregnant in it. They didn’t have money for a motel room. And within the first month, she was pregnant.

She went to my older sister first, and from her she got an abortion pill. It didn’t work. She had no money, her fiancé had no money, and the sister had no money. And they weren’t going to go to Mother and Dad — that was the last thing. They came to me. An abortion done by a doctor cost $50. And it was a good thing she went to a doctor, because the fetus had died, and it hadn’t passed. There was never any regret expressed about the abortion. It was just something that had to be done.

Mother found out about it, but she mentioned it to me only once. She disapproved, but she wasn’t going to disown her daughter over it, and Dad wouldn’t have, either. He never said a word about it.

So these girls were not cast out, either by society or by their parents. The movies always showed that sin was punished. In Morton, it was overlooked.

Such was my aunt’s world. In some respects it was a better one. It did not require a city permit to cut down a tree in one’s yard, as mine does, or a city permit to own a dog or a cat. It was not trying to end poverty by subsidizing it, and except for the two years 1917–1918, it accepted no responsibility for policing the world. Yet this small town had ways of policing itself, not all of them pleasant or healthy. The town was nosy and gossipy, and closed in many ways. Alverna and all of her brothers and sisters left it in their teens and early 20s, and none of their descendants lives there today.

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