February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
All that is left now of Grandpa’s village is a handful of well-worn homes on the peninsula side of Shoalwater Bay (now officially Willapa Harbor—but the water remains shoal), a small estuary of the Pacific Ocean in the sparsely populated southwestern corner of the state of Washington.
Four hundred feet of salt meadow protect the village from the bay, but the breastwork is a porous one. In December swollen morning tides turn the meadow into an archipelago of gorse-topped islands. My parents’ home, now the property of their surviving children, seems afloat then, and I have known the street behind it to become a waterway for rowboats and rafts.
A hundred inches of rain fall in a normal year; we have mutated so that we breathe comfortably in air that is half water. I suspect that if the peninsula sank, we could live under water entirely.
Grandpa’s village is a far reach from the rest of the world even today; but when I spent my knee-pants years there, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the reach was even farther.
We lagged by a half century in physical comforts—and, I suppose, in social attitudes. I was more than six years old when the first automobile reached us and more than ten before we Espys had a car of our own. I was eight before we could boast a gramophone—a wind-up contraption that pitted a revolving black cylinder against a scratchy, grimly determined needle. I was fourteen years of age when we blew out our last coal-oil lamp and flushed our first toilet.
We stayed still while the seasons revolved around us.
In January tens of thousands of brant, a seaweed-eating goose that we mistakenly considered inedible, outlined the bay a few hundred feet from shore. Their quacking was as mournful, ominous, and interminable as a Greek chorus.
In February herring (tastiest of fish they seemed to me then) swarmed over the ocean bar in such prodigious quantities that they must have raised the level of the bay. The ebbing tide left them thrashing in backwaters; we scooped them up in buckets, sieves, souwesters, and, if all other containers had been pre-empted, in the sweaters off our backs.
By March the sound of the brant was fading, but lovesick frogs in the marshes were calling, and tadpoles in stagnant ponds were dreaming of the records they would break once they had their hind legs.
In April leaves replaced the pussy willows, and a green haze blurred the silhouettes of the alder trees.
In May lilacs, azaleas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons caught fire in the rain, and we suddenly realized that the gorse had turned golden and the Scotch broom canary yellow.
In June, if we were lucky, there were traces of sun. In July we counted on a northwest wind to spring up every afternoon and spin the vanes of our mill so that it would pump until the water barrels on the roof ran over. When the wind failed, we children did the pumping.
August was the month of dahlias, marigolds, and chrysanthemums. September brought school and equinoctial storms. In October we harvested cranberries, inching on hands and knees, straddling rows that were low and red and wet. In November ducks and geese cried endlessly in the flyways, marshes, and lakes.
In December the old folks died.
The name of Grandpa’s village, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, is Oysterville. You will find it on few maps, today. Yet in 1891 an Encyclopaedia Britannica map named it in type three times the size of Seattle or Tacoma. At that time it was the center of the oystering industry on the Pacific coast … the seat of Pacific County … a way station for sea traffic between San Francisco and the Puget Sound.
The story of its genesis, rise, and decay goes back a hundred and twenty-four years.
It all began when the schooner Robert A. Bruce dropped anchor on the mainland side of Shoalwater Bay in December, 1851.
In those days California prospectors were squatting all day by gravelly streams, panning for gold and subsisting on hardtack, beans, and coffee, with an occasional dividend of venison or bear meat. When at long intervals they flung themselves into San Francisco’s open and undiscriminating arms, they gave rewarding food priority even over obliging women. To palates depressed by hardtack any seafood was a salty and invigorating miracle. Oysters were a resurrection.
This brings me to the Bruce boys, who were not boys but seven Maine fishermen who had called on Lady-Luck in the gold country and found she was out. They decided to cut their losses and prospect for oysters instead. To this end they pooled their money to hire the Bruce , an eighty-two-foot two-master abandoned by her New York crew in favor of the gold fields. The Bruce boys sailed northward for Shoalwater Bay, reputed to grow the tastiest oysters in the world.
There they built cabins and hired Indians to gather oysters for sale to later comers. Soon the whole mainland side of the bay was their oyster.
Shoalwater Bay’s miniature oysters, no larger than a silver dollar, were bought by San Franciscans for a silver dollar apiece; and the Bruce boys prospered. They shared their comforts liberally with all visitors, including my grandfather, Robert Hamilton Espy, who wintered with them in 1852-53. He referred to them in later years as “very clever fellows,” meaning they were generous providers and agreeable company.
Grandpa, then twenty-six, hailed from Pennsylvania, where he had been apprenticed to a tailor, by way of Wisconsin, where he had learned logging. When he signalled to the Bruce boys that he would not mind trading his felling axe for a pair of oyster tongs, their attitude toward him changed; they signalled back that in the future they would prefer his absence to his presence. So as soon as the rains let up, he made his way south along the bay to the mouth of the Palix River, where he built a cabin and logged. In the fall he was joined by a band of Indians, who crossed from the peninsula to the Palix every year to catch and smoke dog salmon. Nahcati, their chief, took a shine to Grandpa, and Grandpa took a shine to him. This led to an intriguing revelation: the peninsula side of Shoalwater Bay, said the chief, was choked with fatter, tastier oysters than any ever longed by the Bruce boys. Grandpa promised to come and see for himself the following spring. He did, and the oysters proved even better and more abundant than Nahcati had claimed. So Grandpa and Isaac Clark, another Wisconsin logger, built a cabin of alder shakes and became oystermen.
The Bruce boys, naturally enough, were not pleased. I do not know how they treated Mr. Clark; but when Grandpa built his first oyster plunger, the Bruce boys set it adrift. When he built a bigger boat, they burned it. At last, though, he acquired a plunger that made the biggest the Bruce boys owned look like a one-brave canoe. At that point the Bruce boys gave up. The opposing sides swore eternal friendship—and, as far as I know, abided by their oath. With more than enough oysters for everybody other white men came and settled down.
Oysterville was born.
In the 1850’s reports of Indian uprisings sent spasms of apprehension through the settlers of Oysterville, so they formed a militia and elected Grandpa commander. Finding that the available ordnance consisted of a dozen single-shot rifles and about the same number of shotguns, Grandpa dispatched an urgent call to the nearest army post for a supply of regulation rifles and put his militiamen to work constructing a log fort north of the village in case our own gentle Indians should start on a scalping spree. In fact, the Indians performed a considerable part of the carpentry, though they preferred to stay at the edge of the clearing, exchanging ribald remarks while the white men worked. By the time the walls were up, the whole project had come to seem a bit silly, and the roof was never completed. The settlers and the Indians returned to their oystering. Months later the rifles arrived. The whites, having no use for them, sold them to the Indians.
And that is how Grandpa became a major.
For a quarter of a century after Oysterville was founded, the only overland connection with the outside world was the ocean beach. It was a hazardous connection. The peninsula from the bar at Cape Disappointment to the bar at Leadbetter Point was a graveyard of ships; by the turn of the century parts of more than a hundred oceangoing vessels were littered there. Year after year their hulks would sink slowly beneath the sand, only to reemerge as slowly, until the time came when they emerged no more.
Three days a week a stagecoach drawn by four horses travelled between Oysterville and Ilwaco. When the tide was low, the horses wove in and out of the breakers at full gallop, dodging driftwood and wrecks, even detouring around bulges in the sand lest they dislodge gas from some decomposing cadaver of fish or man. “Besides handling the ribbons,” recalled Charles Burch, one of the early drivers, “a man had to be a first-class navigator. Many a time I have had a big swell lift horses and wagon and toss the whole shooting match up and around like a toy.”
In the i88o’s a narrow-gauge railroad, running just inland of the sand dunes, replaced the stage. It too ran by the tide, since it had to meet the Astoria steamer at Ilwaco and the steamer could dock only at midflood. So the train schedule moved back fifty minutes a day for a week and then jumped six hours ahead.
But the train ended its run at Nahcotta, five miles short of Oysterville. The fortunes of Grandpa’s village were on the wane.
I he delectable native oyster, Ostrea lurida , began to lose heart in the i88o’s. As its numbers lessened so did those of the oystermen.
Scientists are still arguing about what went wrong with the oysters.
Oysterville had been the county seat since 1860; but the village lost heart along with its oysters and did not resist too much when finally the county voted to reseat itself at South Bend, an upstart lumber town at the mouth of the Willapa River, on the mainland side of the bay.
Grandpa, who had little schooling, was determined that all his sons should go through college, and they did. Uncle Ed became a lawyer; Uncle Will was water engineer of San Francisco; Uncle Cecil was an Oregon banker. Only Pop returned to Oysterville to make his career, and not by his own wish. He had planned to become a classics teacher but halfway through the University of California switched from Latin and Greek to an engineering major in order to help his father recover oyster money drained off by gold mines. Pop’s mining career was aborted almost at once when his father, falling ill, called him home to nurse him and his landholdings. Pop spent the rest of his life in Oysterville, ranching, politicking, and snapping up oyster beds whenever the state sold them for taxes. A frustrating life, on the face of it, for an ambitious and energetic man; but if Pop was ever discouraged, he did not let it show. Genial, talkative, gregarious, he would never have dreamed of admitting that he considered the welfare of the few people left in Oysterville, and indeed of the entire population of Pacific County, to be his personal responsibility by inheritance. He carried out that responsibility unassumingly and with good humor, liking them all.
At one time or another Grandpa had acquired land scattered all the way from the Canadian border to Los Angeles—land of which his children became co-owners as stockholders in the Espy Estate Company. Pop owned in addition a couple of thousand acres of Oysterville upland and as many of empty and valueless oyster beds. So we were land-poor. I have known Pop to postpone mailing an important letter because he could not find two cents to buy a stamp. Once in a while, however, the Espy Estate Company would dispose at fire-sale prices of a few hundred acres of timberland or a few thousand square feet of city realestate, and for a little while there would be cash all around. On those occasions Pop would bring gifts from South Bend; I cannot for the life of me remember what they were, except that books were generally included and that the most costly present, clearly chosen with love and infinite care, always went to Mom. Then Pop would pay some thing on his debts, buy some more empty oyster beds, and we would be poor again.
After fifty years my mother still could not believe that Oysterville, dearly as she had come to love it, was real.
That was the fault of her background. Helen Medora, born May 28, 1878, was the only daughter of Daniel Sidney Richardson, Consul General of the United States in Mexico City, and Annie Medora (Taylor) Richardson, whose father had huffily removed his wife and family to Mexico after his side lost in the War Between the States. Before Helen reached her first birthday, family matters called Daniel back to his California home. Husband, wife, and infant returned to the States along trails so infested with bandits that a squad of Mexican soldiers was assigned to escort them to the border.
Helen grew up in the San Francisco Bay area—a quiet, dreamy girl, much given to reading (a dubious habit that she was to encourage later in her own children). From her mother she inherited a passion for privacy, a pinch of snobbishness, and a devotion to her family that verged on idolatry. Helen’s mother considered San Francisco so barbarous by comparison with Mexico City that she seldom left the shelter of her home. (•Do you know,” she wept to her husband soon after their arrival, “that in this country the washerwomen are called washer ladies ?•)
If San Francisco seemed primitive to Grandma Richardson, I leave you to imagine how Oysterville seemed to my mother.
Her arrival was unpropitious. The next-to-the-last leg of the trip was via the narrow-gauge railroad of the II-waco Railroad and Navigation Company, more commonly known as the Clamshell line.
“The conductor,” she recalled years later, “asked if Pop and I had seen the wreck of the Petrimpus , a three-masted German bark that had recently come ashore. We hadn’t, and he insisted on stopping the train so that we could walk through a quarter of a mile of soft sand to look over that stranded boat. We held up the train for forty-five minutes. And nobody seemed to care at all!”
The train stopped, reports Washington historian Lucile McDonald, “on the slightest excuse—to pick up a family carrying tired children, to shovel drifting sand from the track, or to shoot a bear spied in a field. Once passengers waited while the engine crew captured a runaway horse. Another time a woman dropped a ball of yarn out of a coach window; the conductor halted the train, got out, retrieved the wool, and rolled it.”
Before Mom’s first visit to Oysterville she asked Uncle Ed, then just starting his law practice in San Francisco, whether the Espys lived in the country. “Oh, no,” he replied—”we are right in the middle of town.”
It was, come to think of it, a typically legalistic reply. He did not mention that his definition of town bore no relation to hers.
Mama had never seen a water pump in a front yard before and was not so impressed as Pop by the fact that the Espys, as the first citizens of Oysterville, were the only family to have a pump right in their kitchen. She did not understand why Grandma Espy used whale ribs as chicken perches; in fact she did not understand why there were chicken perches on the place at all.
A few years later, when she and Pop came to settle down, she was not surprised to be met by a driving rainstorm. It depressed her, however, when she woke up next day to find her front yard immersed in bay water. Nor did it make her feel more at home when a caller arrived without advance notice and my mother, in a flutter, sat on a hot stove lid.
She wanted to like the Oystervilleans, but she found it even harder to understand them than they did to understand her. She did not know how to reply when a visitor, seeing her after-dinner coffee cups hanging from hooks, asked, “What are those things? What you people in the city use for champagne?”
Grandmother Richardson had borne in on her daughter that if she never learned to wash dishes, she would never have to. But Grandmother Richardson was wrong; Mom had to wash dishes every day. Aunt Beu, herself an alien to Oysterville but one of a tougher breed, said Mom never reached an accommodation with housekeeping. “When she dusted,” said Aunt Beu, “she would not use a regular cloth; instead she took one the size of a lady’s handkerchief and wrapped it around her index finger.”
Despite these handicaps Mom saw to it that the table for every evening meal was set, if not with linen, at least with white cloth; if not with crystal, at least with goblets; if not with sterling, at least with Rogers silver plate.
One day, having arranged the table to her satisfaction, she left the dining room to replenish the wood in the kitchen rangé. On her return she heard the table grunting and saw it pitching like a dinghy in a storm; with each tilt dishes slid to port or star-board, and glasses splintered on the floor. A hog was happily rubbing its back against the table’s underside. Mom beat the beast with a broomstick, but it went on contentedly scratching. Fortunately my eldest sister, Medora, then aged ten, knew better than her mother how to handle a hog; she brought in a bucket of swill and waved it before the hog’s nose. Eagerly grunting, it followed her back to its sty.
Yet my mother eventually carved out a rewarding and even happy life in Oysterville. Shifting to her husband and children the devotion that she had once lavished on her childhood family, she created for us an enclave of civilization in what seemed to her to be a wilderness. Book by book she accumulated a five-thousand-volume library; and between household chores she read. When she discovered any local boy who seemed to have a spark of ambition, she would encourage him to go on with his schooling; one of these returned years later to tell her, “Mrs. Espy, you are the first person who ever taught me how important pronouncination is.”
Though she remained faintly embarrassed with most Oystervilleans, she became genuinely fond of them—and they, I think, of her. She never visited them in their homes, to be sure, but the cause of that was simple lifelong shyness. She welcomed them when they came to visit her, which they did more and more often as the years passed, in spite of feeling they had to come in their Sunday clothes.
It took fifty years, but Oysterville seduced my mother in the end. “Eike the Prisoner of Chillon,” she said in her old age, “I have come to love my chains.”
It took Mom fifty years to make her peace with Oysterville, but we children were born to the place like tadpoles to a pond. To us cutting Canadian thistles, stomping hay, pumping water, herding cattle, and crawling under the barn for chickens’ eggs was the way life always had been.
The basics of Grandpa’s village have changed little since I began my growing up there. I think one new house was built, in 1930. A few other houses have fallen down. Otherwise the village looks much the same as ever.
Even the wildlife has changed little. There are still bear, deer, and elk—not to mention skunks—in the woods, and the flyways in spring and fall are as alive as ever with geese and ducks.
The canaries have gone, though, and so have most of the snipe. The snipe were once so thick that Mrs. Will Taylor brought down three hundred and fifty of them with a single blast from her shotgun. In my boyhood snipe still clotted so thickly on the hard beach of the ocean at low tide that an automobile could (and often did) charge through a flurry of them and kill or cripple enough tiny birds to fill a gunny sack. Today we would celebrate if more than a hundred snipe appeared in a single flock off Oysterville.
I said Oysterville has not changed greatly in the fifty years since my departure for the outside world; but I fear that I have. When I return there now, my first impulse is to visit the cemetery on the ridge, where through a hole in the spruce trees I can watch the slow breathing of the bay, six hours in and six hours out. I pause by the gravestones—of Nahcati, and the nameless sailors whose bodies washed ashore long ago, and Grandpa and Grandma, and Pop and Mom; and I feel very much at home.
Then I drive west a mile to the ocean beach, which I am sorry to say has changed more than Grandpa’s village. When we travelled to the ocean in my boyhood, Dolly and Empress had to labor mightily to pull our wagon to the top of the first dune. Now my car does not notice that there is a climb. The dunes still stretch down to the ocean breakers, a quarter of a mile away; but they have grassed over, and developers have built cottages and laid out roads and dug canals where there used to be only gray driftwood and bone-white sand.
Still, I have no reason to complain. When I walked the other night along the hard sand between high-water mark and the surf, the ocean was a forest fire of phosphorescence. The breakers marched in ranks of yellow-green flame and flung off sparks where they crashed. The sand was suffused with microscopic organisms of light; my footprints followed me in fire. Tiny stars hopped about me.
It is not everywhere, or every night, that a man can stride among constellations.