Bygone Walla Walla blogger Joe Drazan and I had a lot of fun with a historical mystery back in 2015 regarding the Thelma-L of Walla Walla, the 42-foot charter boat that took the Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy family salmon fishing off the Washington coast out of Westport.
Award-winning Walla Walla Union-Bulletin photographer Bill Lilley captured the family dockside in a series of photos when he and wife Nellie saw the Kennedy clan there 57 years ago. Bill often fished at Westport.
Joe said Ed Harding bought the boat with the Thelma-L name already on it; he just added the Walla Walla label. “Don’t know how long he owned it between tavern businesses; he was at the right place at the right time to meet the Kennedys though!”
The Kennedys chose Ed’s charter fishing boat for their outing, according to a June 12, 1987, story about Ed by former U-B colleague the late Vance Orchard.
The Thelma-L was piloted by skipper Chuck Frazier for Failor’s Charter Service.
A jack of all trades, Ed was 75 at the time of the interview with Vance. He reminisced about his working life, which started after eighth grade when he announced he’d rather work than attend high school.
He’d already gained experience growing up on the farm and family home at Last Chance Road and at their other farm at Wallula Road and Pine Street.
He found himself doing repairs on the latter place, which prepared him to take on a dilapidated ranch in Northern Idaho in 1949 between Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry.
The 320 acres had a nice stream running through it, he said. But the wreck of a home hadn’t been painted in 65 years, the barn had collapsed and it was two years before electricity was brought in after he and wife Evy bought the place.
Five years later, the Hardings sold it, returned to Walla Walla, bought the Crystal Tavern on West Main Street and constructed a home on Monroe Street.
His bar lined up with other businesses on the north side of Main between Third and Fourth avenues, including Lenfesty Hardware, then The Headquarters, S&S Cigars, Greco Tailors, the Crystal — “I always figured Skid Row started after me” — then the Victory Tavern, Horace and Al’s, the Emerald, Lutcher’s and the pawnshop on the corner,” he said in the U-B article.
But the Crystal was ultimately a disappointment. “I didn’t like it. It wasn’t my idea of a tavern,” he said.
Selling the place, he considered but rejected the idea of joining the police department here and instead sold cars. With all his work contacts, he found success for six months in this enterprise before buying The Lounge on East Main Street, adjacent to J.C. Penney Co.
After selling the lease, he went out to the new Eastgate district, took over a mom-and-pop grocery and rebuilt it as the Blue Mountain Tavern.
Selling it, he headed to the Washington coast for charter boat fishing after whetting his appetite by catching a salmon out of Westport a few years before.
And that led to the salmon fishing outing with the Kennedy party of 17 on Aug. 8, 1962.
Bobby was U.S. attorney general at the time. He and wife Ethel sailed aboard the Thelma-L with four of their children and two other couples while Eunice Kennedy Shriver, kids and other adults went aboard the Sir John for the seven-hour outing.
The Kennedy entourage spent more than a week in the Northwest, first stopping in Seattle for the World’s Fair.
After fishing on the coast, they connected with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and wife Mercedes for a weeklong horse-pack camping trip along the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula.
In about 1972 Ed moved on to buy a tavern in Port Angeles and cleared five acres of land behind the tavern for a trailer court.
He and Evy came back to Walla Walla to settle on a small ranch they bought near Tomlinson Dairy lands, later turning it over to Walla Walla College.
Among his many occupations he was also a slaughter house worker with Walla Walla Meat and Cold Storage, a truck driver with Consolidated Freightways, charter fishing operator with Ed Mead and a rancher.
But his favorite by far was the tavern business.
“I got along with the public real good ... no problems with anyone that was halfway sensible,” he said.
The Thelma-L led to Etcetera column items on Aug. 30, Sept. 2, 6 and 17, 2015, with comments and more information about Ed and the boat and Bill Lilley from family, friends and neighbors.
Follow Joe’s online historical project at wallawalladrazanphotos.blogspot.com/.