It was Laura who first took us to Monroe. It was one of the places on a tour she gave us of the small towns north of Seattle. It was a beautiful little town then, with nice well-kept homes along its two major intersecting streets: Main Street, which went out to the Stephens’ Pass highway, and Lewis Street, which headed south to Duval over the Lewis Street Bridge. And the setting was wonderful—the swift flowing Skykomish River, the jagged peaks of the Cascades to the east. The day we drove into town was one of those sunny May days when the sky is intensely blue, the grass vivid green, the rhododendrons people’s yards covered with bloom. We fell in love.
Noticing a realty office on Main, we decided to stop and check things out. The realtor was in, and we told him our situation. We said we wanted a place in the country, a few acres with trees and an old house. He had just the place for us three miles out of town. Leading us down Main, we crossed over Hwy 2 and headed up a tree-covered ridge, a pretty valley visible through the trees on our left. At the top of the ridge we came to an area of lovely homes set among trees and beyond them a manicured golf course with groves of tall Douglas firs. Further down the road we passed a couple of farms surrounded by pasture, then woods on both sides of the road before we came to clearing with a small, wood house set in pasture on the right and just beyond it on the left, an old log house with a big river stone fireplace. This is where the realtor turned in.
We were charmed with the place—a real log cabin, a real fireplace set in a weedy clearing surrounded by forest. I could see fruit trees and a fairly large out-building behind the house. The field on the east side of the house had a big blackberry covered stump next to the trees along the fence line. It looked like it had once been a well-loved little place that had subsequently been neglected. That neglect was part of its appeal. I immediately wanted to rescue it, fix it up.
We followed the realtor as he drove into a grassy area one the west side of the house, parked and got out of the car eager to investigate. The front door was nearly hidden by a huge laurel hedge. A small covered porch sheltered a windowed door that opened directly into the living room which took up all the log part of the house. Linoleum on the floor, dark, varnished wood walls–a big, dark empty room. In the back wall was a cased opening into the kitchen, another big room that took up most of the addition behind the log part of the house. This room was painted pale green and looked lighter than the living room even though the only windows were the double windows over the sink in the middle of the counter that ran clear across the west wall. All the other walls had doors in them to other rooms: on the far wall a door opened into what looked like a small bedroom; on the east wall two doors—a door with a window in it opened onto an enclosed back porch; the other door opened into the bathroom. On the wall between the kitchen and living rooms was a big, old cast iron wood cook stove. This was the only source of heat for the house other than the fireplace.
Investigating the rooms that lay off the kitchen, we saw that the bedroom was small and dark, but big enough for our bedroom furniture. The bathroom, which had an old shower stall in the corner and no tub, was quite big and had room for our washing machine. But where would the girls sleep? There was just the one bedroom. We looked at the enclosed porch on the back corner of the house. Painted pale pink, it had a band of windows wrapping around the east and south walls. We could put in bunk beds across the far end, create a make-shift bedroom for them.
The house was definitely not ideal. I had hoped for an old two-story house with three bedrooms, one for each of the girls, a house we could simply paint and wallpaper. This place would take real work at some date. The logs of the front of the house looked like they lay directly on the ground; the back had pre-cast cement piers. The front of the house, the log part, looked like it had real promise, but the back part was very cheaply built, looked like it would be best to simply tear it down and rebuild. However, it would give us a place to live while we saved the money needed to make it into the kind of home we wanted. The property also had a good, deep well, and since most of the five acres was tree-covered, we would have all the wood we would ever need for heating. The out-building was good, in better shape than the house, and had electrical service. We could put our freezer out there.
We loved the location.The price was definitely right: $5,500. We could resume the present contract at $50 a month with an eight-year payout. The taxes were only $25 a year. I don’t remember how much down payment was required, but it wasn’t much. Basically, considering everything, the place seemed just what we were seeking: a good piece of acreage and a location that delighted us at a great price with a place to live in until we could remodel. All in all, it seemed like a great opportunity to get a great piece of property in a beautiful area before land prices climbed out of our reach, which we knew would eventually happen.
Now for a job for Ben. The realtor said that the Washington State Reformatory on the hill just outside town usually had job openings. Ben had been scouting out the job situation and knew that jobs were scarce. Boeing, which was way down in Renton was not hiring. In Everett, which was fairly close, there was only Scott Paper where Walt worked. It, too, wasn’t hiring. I don’t think Ben even considered the lumber industry, and everything else was small shops, the jobs already filled by locals. So when the Reformatory offered him a position after he went up for an interview, Ben took it. We immediately went to the realtors office and signed the papers on the house. Everything, the job, the house purchase all took place in one or two days. And since we were assuming a mortgage with the local bank and the house was empty, we were able to take immediate possession. We went back to Granite Falls, loaded up our stuff and hauled our big trailer over to our new home and moved in.
It was about the third week of May when we moved, but it was not one of the gorgeous, sunny days like the one we first saw our new home. It was wet and grey and to us former desert dwellers, definitely chilly. What a cold, dark house that that place was! And after being empty and unheated for I don’t know how long, felt damp and smelled musty. There was no dry wood on the place to start a fire in the wood stove, so after unloading our things from the trailer, we went down to Safeway and bought Presto Logs as well as groceries. A by-product of the lumber industry, Presto Logs were cheap, which was fortunate for us because they were going to be our only source of heat until we got some good, dry wood. When and where we got good firewood, I don’t remember. I just remember that heating that place was one of the first problems we had to tackle. Without wood for the stove we had no heat, no hot water. I couldn’t even cook. So another trip back to town to the Coast-to-Coast where we bought an electric kettle, an electric skillet and a little electric space heater. Another immediate purchase was a new toilet seat for the absolutely filthy toilet. I think I cleaned the bathroom and toilet even before we set unleaded the trailer and set up the beds.
Our next immediate task was to rig up the back porch as a bedroom for the girls. We had twin beds for them, and we needed to make them into bunk beds. Ben went down into town again and bought some plywood and 2x4s, while I swept and cleaned the place as well as I could. When he came back, he created a platform at the sill-level of the windows that wrapped the outside walls. We put one of the twin bed mattresses on it. This became Renee’s bed. Under it, we put the other mattress with box spring and frame. This was Beni’s bed. They now had a place to sleep, but it was a far from perfect bedroom. It was still basically a back porch with just the exterior tongue and grove siding for walls, drafty windows, the door to a leaky-roofed car port opening directly into it. There was gravely dirt outside the door, so every time someone came into the house through that door they tracked in dirt and little rocks onto the worn, broken linoleum. The old carport remained leaky the whole time we lived there. Why we didn’t just get a roll of tar-paper and fix the roof, I don’t know. It was a very small carport; it wouldn’t have cost much.
We did do a lot of other work on that place, though. The bathroom was our next priority after setting up the beds. The shower was almost as disgusting as the toilet had been, so we decided to replace it with a claw-foot tub we got from the second hand store. We tore out the old shower and found that it had been draining directly under the house We tore out all the old linoleum and replaced rotten areas with new plywood before putting down vinyl tile. We then put a new electric water heater into the corner where the shower had been and put the bathtub under the window. I also painted the room and put up curtains while Ben rewired the house for 220.
We then tackled the kitchen. First, out with the old cast iron cook stove, then new linoleum on the kitchen floor and a new Frigidaire electric stove with oven over the pull-out burners and storage cupboard beneath. Finally, a new Ashley wood heater, like the one in Laura and Walt’s house, went into the space where the old cook stove had been. The house was now livable, but the work was definitely not done, nor were we through spending money. We needed firewood, a lot of wood to take us through the coming winter, and that required a chain saw to cut down trees and a tractor to haul in the logs so Ben could cut them into stove-lengths before the chore of splitting. The tractor was a second or third-hand tricycle-style John Deere that Ben drove back from Duval while I followed in the car. The ax and wedges he got from the second hand store. The chain saw we bought new. By the time winter came in we had a stack of still rather green wood, a freezer full of meat and fruit, jars and jars of peaches, pears, pickles and jams.
The food was wonderful. We got all the strawberries we wanted for free from Aunt Laura, and I froze enough to have strawberry shortcake twice a week for a year. On top of that went whipped cream taken from the top of the milk we got from Barb and Al Mann across the road—50 cents a gallon with 3 cups of that gallon cream. Fresh cream was poured on top of the raspberries and blackberries we picked on our place and froze for the winter. Whipped cream went on every dessert—the 18 pies I made from apples picked from our own trees and put in the freezer; pies made from the 40 lbs of blueberries Ben bought and I froze. Also wonderful was the fresh bread I made twice a week, four loaves at a time, almost a whole loaf eaten when it was fresh out of the oven. In that freezer, too, was excellent meat: beef we bought from Walt and Laura; beef and chicken from my dad’s cousin Nick Willems and his wife Catherine who lived in Blaine; delicious young venison Ben shot on a hunting trip to eastern Washington with some of the other guards at the Reformatory. Fresh vegetables from the garden were also good, but the 120 quarts of Blue Lake green beans from our garden that I froze were a disappointment, tough even though I’d followed freezing instructions carefully. I learned later that Blue Lakes were specifically developed for canning and were not good freezing beans.
Our Northwest life was a lot of work. We not only had wood to get in and a garden to tend, we also got the place ready so we could buy a cow. We bought barbed wire and a wire-stretcher. Ben and I then proceeded to fence the perimeter of our five acres. Finally, we put up fence around the house, garden and yard. When hay in our area was ready to cut we arranged to buy the hay from a field Barb Mann’s dad owned that we got for the price of cutting and baling since he had no use for it. Ben and I did the loading and hauling, with me driving Walt’s old truck on a steeply sloping field, trying not to jerk the clutch and dump the bales that Ben was lifting and stacking.
That we would want to add the work of a cow to all the other work on that place when we could buy milk from Barb and Al for 50 cents a gallon escapes me now, seems really stupid. Fortunately, the beautiful little jersey we bought, “Twinkles”, was still a heifer. By the time her calf was born we were back in Phoenix, and she was back at the farm she came from. We never had to milk that skittish cow twice a day no matter the weather, nor did we have to worry about the birth of her first calf.
We got tired of work hanging over our heads all summer long, but we really did feel lucky to have that place. It was beautiful country, and we owned a piece of it. We had Walt and Laura a short drive away; wonderful friends at the First Mennonite church in town; good neighbors our own age who had children the girls could play with. I would walk over to Barb’s house with Beni and Renee. Barb and I would drink coffee and talk while Renee and Beni played with Suzanne and Roger. We sewed together, laughed, told each other our life histories. Our second summer in the house, when Ben was out of town for two weeks at a time working on reformatory forest camps, Barb and Al were my life-line. I was home alone with the girls without a car each of those two-week sessions. Barb took me grocery shopping; Al helped me corral Twinkles when she climbed through the fence and got out on the road. Whenever I was lonely, needed company, I could take the girls and walk over to their place, knowing that I was always welcome.
Summer in the house was like living in a vacation cabin in the woods. The girls could play outside, and I could work outside as well as inside the house. On rainy days, Beni and Renee could play in the big living-room, the wood stove burning off the chill and damp. But vacation cabins are not meant to live in during winter. Winter was a whole different thing. Winter meant confinement to a dark, cold, drafty house. With no insulation and leaky windows, it was never truly warm in winter even with the wood heater going full blast. The fireplace had no damper and created huge drafts so we put a blanket over it. That helped, but wasn’t enough. We put a blanket over the opening between the living room and the kitchen and gave up trying to heat the big living room. That helped a bit more, but the house was still drafty and cold. We even shut the doors into the bedroom and back porch, used those areas just for sleeping. Daily life in winter was confined to the kitchen. It was the only the place the girls could play, and when Ben was on grave-yard shift, demanding that the kids be kept quiet so he could sleep, I felt trapped.
Both Ben and I felt trapped. We had always seen that house as temporary, but Ben was making only about $350 a month at the reformatory. We could manage to get by on it, but that “getting-by” took every penny. We could see no way on that salary of ever being able to finance the rebuilding the place needed, and, though Ben hated the reformatory, wanted desperately to change jobs, there really were no other jobs available in the area. Staying in Monroe began to look more and more like being stuck forever in a damp, drafty old house with the girls sleeping out on the cold back porch.
So, as 1961 moved into winter darkness and cold, we decided to return to Phoenix. Ben again had no job lined up, but Phoenix had a bigger job market and we had family to stay with. We had good friends, contacts and connections. There was the memory of sunshine and beautiful winters and the good life we had experienced in Phoenix before we moved to Monroe. We left our log house just before Christmas, all of us on the bench seat of the cab of a one-ton truck carrying all our household possessions.
Did we feel discouraged by our failure to realize our dream of making a home in the Northwest? No, we were young. We were still just getting started in life. There was time for many adventures, and our Northwest dream was not dead. We hoped someday to be able to come back to Monroe. Returning to Phoenix was simply a re-grouping, one we intended to enjoy to the fullest, make the most of while we were there. The city in the desert still felt as unsustainable as it had when we moved up to Washington State, but we would set that aside for now and focus on the desert’s beauty and the good life we knew we could make among family and old friends.
We were able to return to Monroe. This time, however, we did not go without a job. I had a contract to teach English at Monroe High School. Two years after we returned to Phoenix I enrolled at Glendale Community College later transferring to Arizona State University in Tempe where I completed a B.A. Ed. with a major in English. I graduated in June 1968, and we left for Monroe as soon as I finished my classes. When we arrived we found that Boeing was hiring for its big new facility in Mukilteo, an easy commute from Monroe. Ben was able to get a job at Boeing, one that he would keep for the rest of his working life. Our marriage, however, did not survive all the changes. We separated in September 1972, right after our seventeenth anniversary. I was thirty-four years old. I’d been married half my life. The divorce became final the following January.
Thus ends the story of my first attempt at building an adult life. I don’t regret that first attempt, though. Ben and I were too fundamentally different for our marriage to last, but he was a good partner for my late teens and early adult life. We were both willing to dream and eager to realize our dreams. We were both willing to take chances. We had fun. I’m grateful for that time of crazy adventure.
© Loretta Willems, September 4, 2020