History: Edmonds’ home life 1885 to 1905 — Part 1  

Wash day in Edmonds, circa 1895. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Part 1 of 2 parts.

In the late 1860s, the heavily forested area that would become Edmonds was home to primarily animals. There were a number of small creeks running through the dense forest, but no significant rivers that would have supported a settlement by the natives. Hunting parties and gatherers would have occasionally gone through the area looking for game, berries and other edibles.

But the early settlers who came two decades later reported an abundance of cougars, bobcats, deer and bear. The trees were so dense with towering Douglas firs, giant red cedars, smaller firs and alders and thick underbrush that sunlight seldom touched the ground. The only sounds that broke the stillness were the occasional sound of an animal, a fish splashing in a creek or a bird’s call.

It was this environment that attracted the lumberman and earliest settlers to the Edmonds area. Logger George Brackett, who is recognized as the town’s founder but not the first person to live here, purchased 147 acres of waterfront timberland in 1872. In 1876, Brackett moved his family into a cabin that he had built and started logging the land that he had purchased.

But eight years later, at the end of 1884, there were still only a few homesteads scattered around the area. There were no established roads and the only steamboat that stopped at the Edmonds “settlement” was the Buckeye, a rather small and at times unreliable form of transportation. The Buckeye oftentimes couldn’t come into Brackett’s dock or the larger dock owned by Captain Hamlin, 200 yards south of Brackett’s, due to the shallowness of the water. As a result, someone had to row out to the Buckeye and offload passengers and/or supplies if they wanted to come ashore. The situation was certainly not ideal for women who were wearing long dresses.

The “Buckeye” circa 1885. (Photo courtesy Everett Library – Northwest Room)

By January 1885, George Brackett had cleared away most of the marshy tidelands along the shoreline and had built a larger house for his family, replacing the original cabin. Despite the rustic nature of the settlement, people were beginning to arrive in the area and put down roots. There is little doubt that some of them stayed based upon a rumor that the Great Northern Railroad was going to build a railway along the eastern shore of Puget Sound, resulting in an economic boom for the Edmonds area.

The early pioneers who did stay had a difficult road ahead of them. How difficult life was, is hard to fathom. Fortunately a number of them left written and oral histories that provide us with a glimpse into life in the earliest days of Edmonds existence.

The following topical areas mirror what the early pioneers reflected upon the most when they recorded the aforementioned histories.

Author’s note: It was in the autumn of 1884 that Edmonds had its first “school.” At the end of the first school year, eight children from three families were receiving educational instruction in the back of George Brackett’s feed store. You can read more about Edmonds early schools here.

Clearing the land

When the first settlers arrived, they either had to log off the trees that were on their acreage or more often had to deal with a lot of underbrush, rocks and huge stumps left behind by logging operations. The following are a few recollections:

“When my father first cut down trees on our property, he hauled them down to the waterfront and then he went to work removing the stumps. The first stumps that were removed were where the house and other buildings were going to be. In other parts of the property he let the stumps rot so that he could burn the interiors later and then pull them out of the ground with his team of horses.” Edith Brackett Cary 

“The trees were cut down during the winter, when farm work was considerably reduced. After a tree was felled, a stump had to be removed. Grubbing the stumps started in spring as soon as the frost was off the ground. After the tree was felled, branches were cut off and the tree rolled away. A grub ax, 4 to 8 inches wide and flat on one side was used to dig around the stumps and cut off the small roots. A pick ax which had two sides was used to cut off the larger roots, loosen the soil around the stump and break up rocks. In the early days, men in the area came and helped each other cut away the roots, and remove the loose dirt until horses could pull out the stump. Everyone worked together to remove those large stumps. The branches, brush, twigs and stumps were then piled up and burned. The remaining roots in the ground were left to rot in the early days. Once rotten, the ground could be tilled and the roots were removed leaving a fertile field for planting.” Mathew Hyner

Burning brush and stumps near Edmonds, circa 1890. (Photo courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

“Some of the stumps were extremely large, six feet high and eight feet in diameter.  When dynamite became available multiple charges were often used to blast the stump apart. In some situations dynamite also had to be used to blast away the larger roots that stretched as far as thirty feet away from the stump.  Once the blasting was done, the pieces were picked up and piled up to be burned.  You could hear blasts going off all day long in the early spring, and the work was extremely dangerous.  Children and women were not allowed to be  near where the blasting was being done”.  L.C. Engel 

Advertisement for dynamite at the Edmonds Hardware store. Note: dynamite could be purchased by the stick as well as in “ton lots.” Fifty-pound boxes of dynamite were also available. (Photo courtesy Sno-Isle Genealogical Society)

Establishing a home

Most of the early settlers had traveled a great distance, often coming from as far away as Pennsylvania or New York. Several of them had moved to the Midwest first, typically farming, and had run into crop failures, extreme weather and financial disaster. When they arrived in Edmonds they had very little to begin with. Men generally went to work in the logging industry during the day, and came home to work the land in the evening. The wives/mothers had the primary responsibility of creating a home for the family.

In the earliest days, a small one-room cabin was often built to house the family while other parts of the land was cleared and developed.  Additional structures were then built to support the family and the homestead. Later the original cabin was added onto or a larger house was built.

“Besides the house itself we had several small houses including a milk house, a root cellar, a smoke house, an ‘out-house,’ a shed for firewood, and a small barn and pens. When a kitchen was added on to the original house there was an additional washroom and tool shed also built.” Edith Brackett Cary 

George and Etta Brackett seen in front of their second larger home, circa 1895. A barn can be seen in the background.  (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

“My father bought a tract of land in 1890 and built a house on it. He had to clear away stumps to build the house, a large root cellar, out-house and a small barn for his farm animals. He was able to dig a well while he tilled around the remaining stumps, starting a small orchard and a vegetable garden. My mother, I and my 7 siblings arrived from Kansas the following year. The original house had two large rooms on the ground floor, and two large bedrooms upstairs. My father later added onto both the front and back of the house.” Carrie Jane Yost

An outhouse and root cellar built into a hillside. Underground root cellars were used to keep vegetables and dried and canned goods cool, as refrigeration was not available. (Photo courtesy University of Washington Digital Collection)

Numerous accounts allude to the fact that the early pioneers built their home and cleared their land over multiple years. Small portions of the land were cleared and tilled, and gardens or orchards planted, which provided more food for the family. Then another portion of the land went through the same process. In some cases, it took over a decade for the early pioneers to clear away five acres of land.

A horse (circa 1890) dragging a log so that the land could be cleared for planting. Notice the amount of downed trees, stumps and limbs that would have had to be removed before actual tilling of the soil could begin. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Living off the land

If the early settler was going to claim land under the Homestead Act, they had to live on the land for five years. They also had to improve the land, which meant they had to plant trees to provide for the next generation of timber and/or to increase the value of the land through food production. Many of the early settlers either brought, or bought fruit trees to fulfill the Homestead Act requirement and to also feed their families.

Every family had their own garden and root cellar. People sometimes bartered but very seldom purchased any food, except the essentials from the town’s merchants.

“The first crops were planted while we were still grubbing stumps, often around stumps. We chopped up the sod and planted crops.  We were planting crops while still killing the roots because younger trees and young shoots would still come up. We worked the land and still were able to get a crop off it. It didn’t take much of a piece of ground to raise a crop. We grew huge cabbages to make sauerkraut. We grew all kinds of stuff – carrots, big son-of-a-guns, and pumpkins and squash. Every year more land was grubbed, an acre or two every year. The more you worked on the land, the more crops you’d get.” As told to Eleanor Milholland by her mother and grandmother Yost.

“Around the homes were orchards with every conceivable kind of apple, from late summer, to fall and winter. Pears, cherries, plums, prunes, berries of all kinds…gooseberry, raspberry and currants!  There were corn fields, potato patches, garden areas and later fields where wheat was grown for the cattle.

We bought very few things from the grocery store, flour, sugar, spices, coffee & tea, corn meal, plus wheat and oats for cooking.  There weren’t any dry cereals, what we had – we had to cook for a very long time.

We made our own jams and jellies, canned fruit and vegetables and other garden produce which we stored in the root cellar through the winter.  We churned our own butter, made our own cottage cheese, collected our own eggs, butchered pigs and cows for meat and had chicken whenever we wished.  We also smoked fish and salted pork.”  Edith Brackett Cary

Root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and yams were often stored in boxes over the winter in root cellars. Canned fruit and other vegetables were most often stored in jars that sat on homemade shelves within the root cellar.
Churning milk – making butter by hand, circa 1895. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)

 “When we made butter, a cow was milked the day before and then the milk was set out in a large bowl or pot for a day. When the milk separated, the cream rose to the top, where it was skimmed off and placed into the churn. An up and down action with a wooden paddle would turn the cream into butter. The separated milk that was left over was often made into cottage cheese.” Arp family memoirs

“My mother canned hundreds of jars of fruit and vegetables every year. We had canned cherries, peaches, prunes, pears, blackberries as well as tomatoes, green beans with bacon, and pickles in various shapes and sizes. The mason jars were carefully stored with their rims each year after we emptied them. Every year my brother and I would go into the woods and pick the wild blackberries, huckleberries and gooseberries that grew everywhere. The land provided a tremendous amount of food for us.” Frances Anderson

We picked wild blackberries in the logged off lands around Edmonds, which I took home to our mother to can. I also remember the dark cold windy nights on the beach at low tide, holding the flickering lighted lantern for my mother so she could see to dig clams. It seemed a long time before her pail was full. In winter, the only good clam tides were at night.” Clara Marie Everton Strance

Weekdays – household chores

In the early days of the Edmonds School District, classes were only in session for three months each year. As a result, students were at home and helped around the house and in the yard/garden unless “shooed away” and told to “go play in the woods.” The chores were numerous and continuous. There are several recollections that alluded to the fact that “idle hands” were frowned upon.

“With a family of eight my mother was cooking all the time.  We cooked on a wood burning stove, baked our own bread, cakes and cookies.  We used heavy pots and pans for cooking. The stove had a warming oven in front and we would sit a bucket of water behind the stove to keep the water warm for cooking. We had a ‘wood’ box near the stove that we had to keep filled with wood and kindling to keep the fire going.  Three meals a day were prepared on the stove so it was in constant use.” Edith Brackett Cary

A wood-burning stove and warmer oven with cast iron pots and pans, circa 1900.  (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“One of my jobs as a child was to keep the wood shed filled with chopped wood and kindling for our kitchen stove. The stove was not only used for cooking, it was the main source of heat for the entire house. If I had failed to keep enough wood chopped, I would have been taken ‘out behind the wood shed.’” Paul Hyner

 “My grandmother had a spinning wheel; she carded wool to spin yarn to knit socks and mittens for family members and to occasionally trade. I was responsible for keeping the yarn from getting entangled. It wasn’t a chore that I liked much.” Jessye Engel Cogswell

“We got our light from kerosene lamps, and one of the jobs we ‘disliked’ the most was cleaning the lamps’ chimneys, caring for the wicks and replenishing the oil. The oil came in ten gallon tins, which, when emptied were used for various storage purposes.”  George Brackett Jr. 

Cabin with wood-burning stove and a kerosene lamp used for lighting. (Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin Library – Digital Collection)

“I helped my mother ‘bleach’ out flour sacks for kitchen dish towels, we never dreamed of paper towels. We then used what we called roller towels for our hands and face. They were long strips which fitted over rolling pins that were attached to the door usually.” Edith Brackett Cary

“We made our own soap out of “cracklins” and lye. We used the same soap for washing clothes, dishes and ourselves.”  Carrie Yost

“My father had a grinding wheel, which spun when someone pedaled it. He would sharpen all of his tools and knives on it, while us kids pedaled. It seemed like hours before he got all his axes, saws and knives sharpened.” Cris Wilsted

Saturday chores

Saturday was definitely not a day of rest. Saturday was “wash day” for most of the early pioneer families, as Sunday was “the Sabbath and the only day of rest.”  “Wash day” was not only the day for washing clothes, but also the day when family members took their weekly baths.

“We washed our clothes in wooden tubs, scrubbed them on wooden wash boards and then hung them out to dry. We felt all white clothes had to be boiled, and we had large copper containers for that purpose” Edith Brackett Cary

Wash day tubs and wooden scrubbing boards. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“One of my Saturday chores was hanging clothes out on the clothes line to dry. One of the problems I had as a child was the clothes line would swing in the wind. I had trouble attaching the clothes to the moving clothes line using the wooden clothes pins that I had to use. If I dropped the clothes, they had to be taken back to the wash tubs for another washing and scrubbing and mother was never happy about that.” Carrie Yost Astell

Washing tubs, scrub boards and clothes hanging on the line while being fastened with wooden clothespins. (Photo courtesy Forks Timber Museum)

“Ironing was done on a home-made fashioned board covered with a thick pad of a quilted blanket with a part of a worn sheet over it.  The irons were heated on the stove and we had to pick them up with thick pads as the handles were made of metal and would have severely burnt our hands. Later this kind of iron was replaced by irons with wooden handles that could be removed while heating.” Edith Brackett Cary

 “When we took baths on Saturday night we used the same wooden or copper tubs that we used to wash our clothes.  Usually instead of the water being heated on the stove, the water was heated in the tubs while they sat next to the stove”.   Elsie Yost

In many cases, due to the fact that water was not readily available and it took a long time to heat, the same bath water was used by all the family members. You can imagine what the water may have looked like if you were a member of a large family, and the last person to take a bath. It is believed that the expression “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” may have come from this practice. The baby possibly would have been the last one to be bathed and the water would have been dirty enough that it might have been difficult to see the baby in the murky water.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Full credits will be given at the end of Part 2.

    1. I knew Mrs. Clara Strance. She was a lovely soft spoken woman. I recall beautiful grounds to her home which sat on the corner of 5th and Pine. There is a condominium there now but one tree survived. It sits in the front lot on 5th. She was born here, in Edmonds A small home which sat on fifth and Holly. North corner. That home sat next to Pete’s Automotive. It was retail, antique and book store at various times. Before the Gregory Bldg. came to be. It was still a small working beach town with a working waterfront when many of us grew up here. A lot of my school mates still live within a stones throw.

      1. Helen, thanks for all the extra information on Clara Strance. I will make sure it gets added to the appropriate historical files.

        When I have referenced her in previous stories, people always point out the beautiful gardens and exotic plants that she and her husband had in their yard. I unfortunately have not been able to find any photos of their yard or gardens.

  1. Thanks everyone for the comments. Part II will round out the story of the early days, without references to work or school.

  2. Love this info. They sure had to work hard to feed their families. Chores were just part of life and the reward was being a family that worked together. Thank you, Bryon.

    1. What a great interesting article thank you Bryon these early pioneers indeed had a very hard life

  3. I worked for Clara Strance as a grounds keeper and general home helper during my mid 1960’s H.S. years here. Her husband had passed by this time and she lived on their estate at 5th. and Pine as noted above. I was there virtually every Sat. year around and she always had plenty of chores for me to attend to punctuated with frequent cookie and juice breaks when the weather was hot and she didn’t want me to get too exhausted or over heated. She taught me a lot about gardening in general and I loved using and maintaining her power yard equipment which was state of the art at the time. When she had a garden party planned the work intensified and I often worked after school during the week to prepare for those. She insisted on paying social security taxes on my wages as she said it was important for my future. She influenced me positively in so many ways. Thanks for bringing back the memories Byron.

    1. Thanks Clinton for the amplification about Clara, her gardens, the lessons she taught you etc. I am also thankful for people in my life who were both kind, and provided me the opportunity to learn about work ethic and responsibility during my formative years.

  4. Byron, THANK YOU for all of this excellent information about our history here in our community. It is so important that we know the origins of our town. Well done.

  5. Hello Byron,
    What a great job you did of researching all this material. I told a friend the other day that the two most household helpers I cherish are the dishwasher and clothes washer. Settling here in the early wilderness decades took strength, devotion and endless hard work, I am sure if we tried just one day of it now we would collapse.
    Thank you so much for this very interesting and illuminating account. I look forward to the next read.
    Ingrid Wolsk

  6. Hello Byron,
    Thank you for this lovely article! It was wonderful to read comments form my great-grandmother Amanda Yost, Gramma Carrie Astell Yost, and Great-Aunt Elsie Yost Russell. Both grandmothers were gone before I was born, but I did know Aunt Elsie. As all the women were of these times, they were very hard-working. All through my life, I have heard about the many vegetable, flower gardens, and orchards in Edmonds. Carrying on with family tradition, I still make my grandmother’s dill pickles and make jams every year! Thank you, again,
    Diane Schoppert Swope

    1. Diane thank you for the kind words. Your family most assuredly has a lot to be proud of. On a side note, I am a huge fan of “dill pickles”…maybe I can purchase a jar off of you sometime, when you have a jar to spare. 🙂

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