by Carolyn Perlbachs
My ancestors were early homesteaders in Snoqualmie, Washington. In 1900, my grandfather, Joseph Emery, built a large house just half a block from the historic
Snoqualmie Train Depot. The original town was situated just above Snoqualmie Falls but in 1904, the year my father was born, my grandparents along with the
Gordon, Somers and Nichols families applied to re-plat and incorporate the two block near the depot into the city of Snoqualmie.
We lived next door to the old family home in Snoqualmie. Some time after the death of my grandfather Joseph in 1944, Dad divided the huge old home in half, making two 3 bedroom apartments. The the house was old and ugly, mostly uninsulated, and the interior was not much better.
They rented for a pittance, which was possibly more than they were worth. However, at the time, my father was ill and unable to work and the apartments were the family’s only source of income for several years.
Snoqualmie was a wonderful place to grow up. We were only steps away from downtown and just around the corner from our school. My friends and I were free to wander almost anywhere we pleased, unburdened by adult presence. Everyone in town knew us—it was small then, perhaps only a few hundred people and we took every opportunity to explore our surroundings. It was small town America at its cinematic best.
After a day of exploring, when we finally returned home, our parents knew exactly where we had been and what we had been doing, often much to our dismay. If we had been walking along the forbidden railroad tracks, when we got home, our mothers already knew. The danger of a train approaching, although real, did not seem to be the problem. The dangers, we were told, lay with the hobos that hung around the tracks just waiting to attack the unwary child who wandered too close.
Try as we might, however, we were never able to find a hobo—attacking or otherwise—on our many illicit forays up and down the tracks, so we were summarily unimpressed by all the warnings. In all fairness, we knew where the hobos were supposedly gathered—they, according to my mother, lived in the train graveyard up the tracks toward Snoqualmie Falls. We could only bring ourselves to venture a few hundred yards up the tracks from the depot before turning back. Subsequently we preferred to head in the opposite direction in our quest for the ever illusive attacking hobos. We never did see one—or if we did, we didn’t know it.
During Christmas time, Santa Claus appeared at the old fire station downtown. He sat outside in the covered area in front of the firehouse doors on Railroad Avenue (if I remember correctly it is the building that currently houses Sigillo Cellars). It was always exciting to see Santa. My mother told me that one year, my father was Santa. I sat on his lap and saw only Santa. The one photo I have of me sitting on Santa’s lap at the old firehouse in 1952, is clearly not my father, however.
Every summer, a traveling carnival set up on the vacant lot on River Street at the end of our street near the American Legion Hall. They arrived early in the morning and began preparing for the Grand Opening in the evening. As we watched them from the sidewalk in front of our house, my best friend Linda (who lived across the street in a huge old craftsman house) and I planned which rides we would try first. I could hardly wait, but we were never allowed, on that first day, to go until after we’d eaten dinner and our parents walked us there— perhaps they wanted to check for attacking hobos before letting us go there alone.
My older sister, however, usually had already scoped it out and told fantastic tales about what I would see later that day—all of it from her own imagination, I found out. She taunted me as she told me that I would never be allowed on any of the rides for one reason or another. I always was a little bit afraid she might be right.
We saved every penny we could and our parents had saved change in a jar for when the carnival came to town. It was meted out sparingly each day for rides and games. On that first exciting evening, I usually spent my allotment within minutes of arriving and had to do without for the rest of the night. Linda, always more prudent than I, could not be cajoled into sharing her money, so I walked around and planned for tomorrow. If I was lucky, I would see my favorite Uncle Ralph from down the road in North Bend. He was always good for a nickel or two. I would beg him to buy me a couple of rides. He always hemmed and hawed, but I knew he would give in at some point.
We were there as much as our parents would allow—except for my rebellious teenage sister. She sneaked out our bedroom window every night to meet her friends, play around and go on rides. She came home with wild stories to torment me because I was too young to go with her—and her empty threats of bodily harm were enough to keep me from tattling on her. However, she was caught as often as not and restricted to our room—but if Dad wasn’t there, she was out the window in no time at all.
We had one bathroom in our house, located off the large back porch as if it were an afterthought. It was fully equipped with a tub, sink and toilet, but had no shower and was not heated. Bathing, for most of the year, was done as quickly as possible because it was so cold out there. That and the fact that we were only allowed an inch or two of water assured we did not linger.
My mother, sister and I washed our hair in the kitchen sink, probably because the bathroom was so cold. Mom and my sister could stand at the sink, but I was too short and had to climb on the counter and lie on my back with my head hanging over the sink while Mom washed and rinsed my hair. When she finished, she towel dried my hair vigorously while my head bobbled to and fro, then grabbed a comb and none to gently combed out the snarls and knots in my very curly hair, while tears ran down my cheeks. Finally she pinned my hair in little pin-curls all over my head. When my hair dried, she would carefully remove the pins and wrap the curls around her finger, pulling it into loose ringlets á la Shirley Temple.
Across from the bathroom was a wide staircase that led up to the open attic. It was a magical place filled with bits of furniture, a record player and a huge collection of old 78s. But the best of all was my sister’s beautiful dollhouse Dad had built for her, with its beautiful, ornate doll furniture. I loved it, but was forbidden to play with it because it was delicate and I was not a particularly careful child. I can still hear my sister’s shrill screams when she discovered yet another piece of furniture I’d broken.
Her dream was to have her own bedroom and not have to share with her ever inquisitive, snooping little sister. Eventually, Dad started framing her bedroom to the right at the top of the stairs in the attic. Apparently I was completely oblivious to my surroundings or was completely indifferent to anything that didn’t involve me. As a result, I had no idea my sister was getting her own room in the attic. I watched the walls go up, but was not particularly interested in why. One day I mentioned it to my sister. She said that there were so many rats in the attic that Dad was building a room for them.
Seeing my horror at the thought, she embarked on her most successful “scam the kid sister” program to date. Before long, much to my sister’s delight, I was afraid to go into the attic because of the rats. The fact that she didn’t mind living in a rat filled room, didn’t occur to me. As long as I didn’t have to go up there, I didn’t care. To ensure I stayed away, she’d told me that when she opened her door, some of them escaped into the rest of the attic and spent day and night looking for something to eat.
The attic was no longer a safe place to play peacefully because of the hordes of rats. Luckily, Linda’s huge old Craftsman house across the street had about six or seven bedrooms. One of those empty rooms became our new playground.
Linda’s parents were of hardy German stock from Minot, North Dakota. During World War II, they took in boarders. One of the many upstairs bedrooms was so large, they had made it into a dormitory with around eight or more bunks, but when we played there, the room was empty except for a large, magnificent tub of Lincoln Logs.
We’d dump the logs out onto the floor and take turns choosing our favorite pieces to build houses and stores and make into people. We’d play there for hours. Her older brother and sister had rooms upstairs as well, but Linda, who was far more timid than I, would not trespass on their territory. For some reason, perhaps because they were not my siblings, I managed a peek or two into the forbidden rooms before losing courage and quickly closing the door.
In the early 1950s, a penny would buy us some candy at the Red and White (I think it was the general store in downtown Snoqualmie once owned by the Reinigs). I had my eye on some wonderful erasers that actually fit on top of a pencil—it was something new that I’d never seen before and I really needed one —and Linda already had one, which made it all the more important for me to have one, too. Besides, this was the answer to my all my pencil problems. I wanted one so badly I could almost taste it…but it cost two cents, and I didn’t have any money.
One day I wandered into the Red and White to make sure my erasers were still there. I looked around, and seeing no one, I slipped a packet into my pocket and left the store. On my way home I felt queasy. I knew I’d done something wrong, and of course, when I walked through the door, my mother confronted me. Mom had received a phone call from the store clerk. I was to return my precious erasers, apologize for stealing and await my punishment. Although I begged Mom to go with me, she refused. Humiliated and frightened, I walked into town by myself, returned the eraser and apologized. It was awful, but she forced me to accept responsibility for my own actions. It was the best thing she could have done, although at the time, I thought she was the most horrid person ever to make me do it alone.
Every month or so, Linda and I would set out on a treasure hunt. We discovered the best places to find our treasures were on the street next to the curb where people parked their cars—tax tokens! Tax tokens by the dozens! They often fell out of pockets and most people didn’t bother to retrieve them. They were there, lying on the ground, just waiting for us to find them.
Tax tokens were set up so people wouldn’t be overcharged for sales taxes on small nickel and dime purchases in only 12 states, including Washington. They were first issued during the Great Depression, but in the early 1950s, at least in Snoqualmie, they were still accepted as 1/20th of a cent. We learned that if we collected twenty of them we could spend them as if they were an actual penny—and forty would be enough to buy my coveted erasers.
It took many trips to find enough tokens and once in a while we’d even find an actual penny! Linda and I would split the proceeds—and eventually I headed to the Red and White to proudly buy my erasers with my forty tokens. It was great.
I loved those erasers. I could make changes or correct my writing and drawing mistakes with ease—while it lasted, that is. All too soon I had worn off the top of the eraser and the sides were so weak they finally split.
However, by then there were other things I wanted that would require me to find hundreds of tax tokens and they were getting harder to find. I was surprised to learn that in exchange for chores around the house and yard, my parents were willing to pay me a small allowance. I don’t remember for sure, but I think it may have been a nickel a week—enough to buy two erasers a week if I wanted and still have a penny for some candy. My days of treasure hunting were over.
Two of my favorite people lived only a few doors from us. Mr. and Mrs. Lane— Walter and Elizabeth—were the perfect substitute grandparents: kind, loving and always happy to see me. All but one of my grandparents had passed away before I was born and this wonderful couple filled the void. Years later, when Mr. Lane had a stroke, Mrs. Lane took care of him herself. By then, they were both in their late 80s. She would bathe him, get him out of bed and sit him in a large wheeled chair with piles of pillows propped around him. She’d cook and clean, then go outside and mow her lawn with a push lawn mower, pull the weeds and cut flowers for a vase she set near her husband. Nearly every day she walked the block or so into town to pick up the mail and as much groceries as she could carry home. By the time Mr. Lane was in his late eighties, she was was no longer able to take care of him and had to put him in a nursing home where he passed away a short time later. Mrs. Lane passed away in 1987 at the age of 101. I still have the vase they sent as a wedding gift and the booties she knitted for my first child, now 55 years old.
Between Dad’s old family home and our house was a large vacant lot where our father, probably with the help of neighbors, dug a huge shallow pit. He would fill the pit with old branches from the apple tree in our yard and other brush cleared from the property. The apartment had a huge weeping willow tree in the back yard that shed branches like fur from a dog. These were added to the pit. I remember neighbors bringing their brush to add to the pile and at some point during the summer, Dad and the neighbors would set the brush on fire and stand at the ready with buckets and a water hose to make sure it didn’t spread.
After the fire had burned down and white-hot coals appeared at the bottom of the pit, people showed up with large potatoes wrapped in tin foil. They stuck them into the hot coals, turned them occasionally, and waited for them to cook through.
Once cooked, they retrieved their potatoes and took them home to eat. They were the best potatoes I’d ever tasted. By nightfall, the fire had died and been watered down and the men set to work covering the pit with the dirt they had left on the sides when the pit was dug. Within a few weeks, no one could tell there had been a big bonfire there.
Next to the vacant lot, in our yard was an old apple tree with huge branches that spread out over the yard. The tree had been planted by my grandparents, Clara and Joseph Emery in the early part of the century. She had “mail-ordered” it from a catalogue and was expecting a MacIntosh apple tree but it was something entirely different. No one could ever figure out what kind of apple it was. It did, however, produce some of the biggest apples ever. It was the perfect tree for climbing and sitting with its many thick branches running nearly parallel to the ground. In the summer, the leaves offered cover for us while we hid in its branches and watched what was going on in our neighborhood. When we moved to Issaquah in 1955, Dad took a cutting and grafted it into our new garden where it produced huge apples until well into the 1980s.
We had a small garden that grew the best peas and Swiss chard ever. Linda and I would sneak out and pick the peas, eating them where we stood, or we would grab the sugar bowl and sprinkle sugar on damp chard for a sweet treat. Soon, Dad would burst out the door and yell at us to get out of the garden—but oddly, never until we had eaten our fill.
Next to the garden was a shed that housed some of the most fearsome geese and ducks on this earth. I avoided them at all costs. Not so with the neighbor boys. They lived in one of Dad’s apartments and were a wild pair, always in trouble or looking for it. Dad was constantly after the oldest boy—David—to leave the geese alone, but David loved nothing more than poking and hitting the geese with sticks.
One day, while absorbed in his favorite pastime, the huge gander had enough. Although he was unable to fly, he flapped his wings enough to get over the short fence around the pen and chased David down the alley behind our house. When Dad finally found the gander, it still had a piece of David’s pants in its beak. David never teased the geese again. Dad & I used to sit on the couch and read the Sunday Seattle Times together.
Sometime around the summer of 1954, I think, I noticed a photo of our goose nemesis, David and his younger brother in the paper. The headline said they had drowned in the Snoqualmie Slough (aka Meadowbrook Slough). Dad had not told me they had died. I had only played with the boys once, which was enough for me, but I was sad to hear what had happened to them. Aside from the death of my brother in 1948 (by then, I did not remember him as I was quite young when he died) they were my first encounter with death.
Dad told me that they had gone swimming in the slough—which was one place had yet to visit—and subsequently never would. He said the youngest boy, whose name escapes me, slipped off the end of a boat they were playing around and David tried to help him—they both drowned. They were sent to a make-shift morgue in Meadowbrook, a small community that Linda and I rarely visited. It was quite a long walk and most of the buildings there were old and vacant—there was nothing to see. Of course, now that there was a reason to go, Linda and I set off to see if we could get a peek inside the morgue. Thankfully, the windows were all papered over and once again, there was nothing for us to see in Meadowbrook.
In the summer of 1955, my parents sold our house on Olmstead and prepared to move to property they had purchased near Issaquah. The move was a difficult one, especially for my sister, who had just finished her freshman year in the newly built Mt. Si High School and did not want to move. We gave up our seemingly idyllic life in downtown Snoqualmie where everything was at our fingertips. Our parents packed our furniture and all our worldly goods onto our old 1938 flatbed truck. Dad had built a fence around the truck bed so things wouldn’t fall out on the trip. My sister and I crawled into the back with all our worldly goods and Mom and Dad sat in the cab. Off we went, ala Beverly Hillbillies, and moved to a property in the wild countryside near Issaquah, five miles from the nearest store.
Every night I listened to coyotes howling nearby and occasionally a cougar would scream. I could still hear them—even after piling blankets and pillows over my head and wearing earplugs. Attacking hobos were never as scary as this! At the time, I would have given anything to go back to what I considered my real home in Snoqualmie rather than listen to all that wildlife outside my bedroom window. I was a small town girl at heart.
Snoqualmie has changed over the nearly 70 years since we moved away, but much remains remarkably similar. The old family home where my father grew up and the vacant lot where we roasted potatoes, has been replace by an attractive rambler that sits in the middle of the site. Our old house with the imaginary rat infested attic and cold bathroom is still there but additions and remodeling have made it almost unrecognizable. Across the street, Linda’s old Craftsman house has not changed a bit. Mr. and Mrs. Lane’s house looks much smaller than I remember, but only the color has changed.
The school I attended now houses the school administration, yet looks nearly the same. The fire station on Railroad Avenue and the Red and White have been replaced by new businesses. The “railroad graveyard” cars on the way to Snoqualmie Falls remain, but have been integrated into the Railroad Community Park. The depot is now a railway museum. I never really noticed it as a child, but now it is a destination. I still visit Snoqualmie every once in a while and reflect on those times gone by. It’s a place full of good memories of an idyllic childhood in an idyllic 1950s town.