EACH YEAR on the second Saturday of August, a gathering is held at the Woodland Community Center of a group called "The Water Babies," which also includes their relatives, neighbors, and friends. When called a "Water Baby," you have the distinction of being born in the vanished valley of the North Fork of Lewis River.
In this valley there are three lakes which are very beautiful--Lake Merwin, Yale Lake, and Swift Creek Reservoir. The first lake, Merwin, is almost fifteen miles long . People travel from near and far to view the beautiful mountains and valleys which surround this lake. Large forests of fir, spruce, maple, dogwood, hemlock, cedar, and many other species of trees cover the hillsides and crowd down to the waters edge. This lake was formed in 1930 by building the cement dam located in a canyon called Shirt-Tail, which is located on Lewis River about thirteen miles east of the town of Woodland. The North Fork of the Lewis River flows into the Columbia close to Woodland.
Always, as I look at this beautiful, peaceful scene around Lake Merwin, I see so many other things of my past. I see another valley with old-growth trees, a great variety of wildlife, rich farm land, abandoned pioneer orchards with an abundance of fruit, weatherworn homes, barns and outbuildings, rushing streams, and many waterfalls. This picture is gone forever beneath the waters of the lake.
My great-grandparents, the Andrew Jackson Birts, came to the Lewis River Valley in 1870 when homes were located many miles apart. In fact, great-grandfather came before 1870 on his first journey from California, and then traveled by canoe up the river to find a likely spot for a homestead. He had a farm of 250 acres in the San Joaquin Valley of California, but he had an adventurous spirit that urged him to come north and settle in the wilderness. He filed a homestead claim, returned to California, and brought back his wife and nine children to start a new life about one mile east of the present Merwin Dam, which would be almost in the middle of the bottom of the present lake.
This homestead remained in the family for three generations before I was born on May 27, 1917, in the old farmhouse where so many of my ancestors had lived and held family gatherings. Our old home was a two-story building with rough board and batten as siding. It was painted with homemade whitewash, which peeled off after a time. There was a long front porch the length of the house. Our living room and the main part of the house was kept warm by a potbellied heating stove. The floors were covered with rag rugs five feet wide, which were made on old-fashioned looms. The strips of homemade rugs were sewn together by hand and covered all of the wooden floor. The kitchen and dining area was a one-story, shedlike addition with a wood floor, cook stove, and a large, long table with benches. Most of the walls in our old home were covered with heavy paper and painted with kalsomine. A few walls had old-fashioned wallpaper.
Our home was surrounded with a large yard, which had five old locust trees towering over the buildings. Part of the yard area was blanketed with a ground cover of myrtle. There were many flowers which had grown there since the 1800s. A picket fence enclosed the yard area, house, woodshed, root cellar, separator building to store and separate the cream from the milk, and the outhouse. Our home sat on a little shelf of land above the large meadow which extended to the edge of the river. Our fields were edged with a growth of alder, maple, fir, vine maple and other small bushes. Salmonberries were in many areas, too.
During some of the springs of different years, the high water would come and cover the fields. Where the water was shallow and the current was not strong, our parents would let my older brother Mel and me take a ride in the old family rowboat.
Life was very peaceful and at a very slow pace compared to the present time. For a few years we had neighbors living within a mile of our farm. Soon one neighbor, Mr. Brown, died and the family sold out to the Northwestern Electric Co. and moved to California. The electric company was slowly buying all the farms as they became available for sale. No one thought too much about it at that time.
The only unhappy thing I can recall in my early childhood was the fear of losing my home someday. I can always remember my father saying, "When the dam comes we will have to move to another place." I always hoped that would be many, many years away. I slept in an upstairs bedroom in the old home, which had a ceiling that was not finished, so we could see the shingles that covered the roof. While the rain was hitting the roof, I remember crying myself to sleep worrying about losing my home. Even to this day, I do not like to hear rain falling on a roof. It makes me sad.
JOY OF A SMALL SCHOOL
I had an older brother Mel, a younger brother Bob, and a baby sister named AnnaBelle. When I first started school at the Marble Creek District, my walking companions were brother Mel and neighbor Ralph Brown. I will never forget picking up fallen, colored leaves from the trees in the fall to take to school to the teacher. Our art assignment would be to trace the leaves on paper and try to color them as closely as possible to the original leaf. During our walk to school, we had to cross a bridge and climb a long, gradual hill. We walked in the rain and snow--sometimes our father would take us in a wagon or car if the snow was too deep. I remember that in some of the bad weather we would arrive at school with very cold hands. The teacher would rub our hands with snow, which she brought into the schoolroom in a granite pan. I always felt it was the wrong thing to do as it added insult to injury, but it always worked out well.
As we walked to school during the different seasons, we observed many things. When it rained very hard, little streams of water would run along the sides of the road. We would dam the flow of water with mud and rocks and then observe what remained on our way back home from school. Sometimes we were successful in our control of excess water along the road; but we had many failures, too. We watched the skunk cabbage grow and Johnny-jump-ups bloom in the spring. There were nests of different kinds of birds in the trees, snakes slithering across the road, frogs in the damp areas near the road, and an occasional deer looking at us from a distance. Squirrels were very common to see carrying hazelnuts in the fall so they would have food to eat in the coming winter.
One picture of spring will always remain in my memory. While walking home from school we would look down at the large field toward the river and watch our father walking behind the horses and guiding the two-handled plow. We would look every day to see how much smaller the green part of the field was in size. It would take my father two weeks or more to finish a field that could be plowed with machinery of today in a very short time. We would hurry home, change our clothes, do our daily chores, and then run to the field to walk behind our father as he made furrows around the unplowed area of ground. I can still remember the sound of the plow cutting into the rich soil and turning over the green sod.
As soon as we reached home from school, our mother would remind us that the chores should be completed before it got dark. Mel would go to neighboring farms or in the pasture to bring cows home and put them in the barn. Our cows had no bounds as to where they could go during the day for grass to eat. Of course, they all had cowbells on their necks so we would hear them from quite a distance. In the summertime, Mel would take the cows over a mile west to an empty farm where Merwin Dam is located now. In the evening he would bring them down the narrow county road where very few cars traveled.
My chores were to fill up the coal oil lamps and clean the chimneys so they would be ready for us to use when evening arrived. My brother Bob packed in the wood and kindling so there would be a good supply when fires had to be built early the next Morning. Now, when our electricity fails us from time to time, I think how important those chores were.
A GARDEN WITHOUT BUGS
My father raised seed potatoes to sell to wholesale dealers and also to stores in the area. He never had to spray or dust his potato vines for insects. Before he planted he would cut the potatoes, dip them in formaldehyde and roll them with lime. He always did the planting of his crops by the dark or the light of the moon. Crops growing underground were planted in the dark of the moon and those growing above were planted in the light of the moon. My father always had an abundance of whatever he planted, whether it was potatoes, corn, hay, rutabagas or garden produce. Our garden was large and we gave vegetables away by the box.
Down on the edge of our meadow close to the river, there were five peach trees, which had been planted about 1890. We took a wagon every year when the peaches were ripe, and came back with the bed of the wagon filled up with tasty fruit. We never sprayed these trees for insects or blight and had all the peaches we needed to eat, can for winter use, and give to neighbors. Behind our barn were some more peach trees. The meat in these peaches was white and very tasty. These took no care either, but always produced a good crop of fruit. In the last few years we lived on the homestead, we had the use of neighboring orchards, too. The farms were all vacant, so fruit went to waste. I remember we went to one farm to gather greengage plums and to another for Gravenstein apples.
We had delivery of mail an Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We had a leather mail bag with a hinged lid. We placed the bag out in a box beside the road with our letters and packages on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It would be picked up by our mailman Mr. Buckbee, and then returned to us the next day when he made his trip back up the valley from Woodland. We always looked forward to his arrival, as we liked Mr. Buckbee and sometimes he had passengers to visit with, too. Mail days always added a little excitement to the day.
WATCH OUT BELOW!
Across the river from our farm was a large, long log chute that came from the top of the mountain down to the Lewis River. We would always know when a log was coming down the chute because a whistle would blow several times. The log chute was made of three logs placed together to make a steep trough. Sometimes the sides and bottom of the trough of logs were smoothed and greased. If water was available, it would run in the chute, too. The logs would come down the trough or chute at a high rate of speed, smoking from the friction. When the log hit the water it made a tremendous splash as it disappeared under the water. It would float to the surface, sizzling and steaming in the river.
We never got to observe that chute very much, but there was another chute about two miles east of us toward the community of Ariel. A bridge carried the cars and wagons across the chute where it bisected the road going east. If we were in the car, my father would stop to see if he could hear a log coming. Sometimes loggers had a bell they could ring, which we would listen for very carefully. If we were in a wagon with horses, we stopped and waited longer before we crossed the bridge, as the log coming down the chute could spook the horses and cause them to run and maybe turn over the wagon. I remember witnessing a log speeding down the chute and disappearing into the river. It was a sight that one would never forget, as the log bobbled back up out of the water surrounded with steam.
Every year we would look forward to the log drive. During the spring and summr months, logs being floated down the river for sale would get caught or tangled together along the riverbanks. A logging donkey and cable would be mounted on a large floating scow made from several logs tied together. The loggers would wrap cables around the stray logs, and the donkey engine and drum would pull them into the middle of the river so that they could float to their destination near Woodland. If it was too difficult to get the logs loose when they were in a large pile, the men would set off some dynamite among the logs and loosen them with a blast.
The men, wearing caulk shoes and working with steel-pointed pike poles and peaveys, would jump from log to log. Occasionally the men would fall into the river and a few times during the years, lives were lost by drowning.
On another log scow, a temporary cook house was set up under a tent or large tarp. Some of the meals were provided for the men by the cook on this second scow. Most of the time the men tried to stay at different farms nearby. Mel and I would always walk across the meadow and visit the cook, as he would always give us doughnuts or some other good food.