Stories both large and small, glued together by the human mind are called history. What you see below is an unglued version awaiting your enjoyment — and maybe a little glue.
Over the past few years I have been asked questions by several people what it was like in Walla Walla during the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s, so I thought I would put it on paper. I can remember clearly those early years but if you want to know what I had for lunch yesterday, I probably can’t tell you. Such is old age. I tell this information in storybook form as opposed to textbook form for easy reading.
I have lived in Walla Walla all my 95 years of life except when I served as a deck officer in the Navy during World War II, so I think that gives me expertise about the history of the area, because I lived it.
My earliest memory is of seeing some machinery being hoisted to the top of the Marcus Whitman Hotel as it was being constructed in 1927. My father was an electrical engineer working for Pacific Power & Light, and its building was on the corner of Second Avenue and Rose Street, and I must have been visiting him when this event occurred.
My father, mother and two brothers grew up living in the house at 927 Bonnie Brae St. This was the only home they ever had, and the city listed its value for tax purpose (1920) at $250. An interesting sidelight is that there was no key to the place thus no locked door. We would leave for a vacation and never worry. To my knowledge, no one ever took anything from the house.
There were a lot of kids in the in the block to play with, game names like kick the can, annie annie over, hide and seek, softball work-up, marbles, mumble peg, etc. In reasonable weather, we were always outside interacting with other kids in the area.
In the snowy weather, we had Stadium Hill where we could do our sledding. Within the block, there lived three doctors, so our medical needs were assured.
We had an ice box to keep our perishables cool. Shady Lawn Creamery would deliver a large block of ice every third day, and one had to dump the melt-water container once a day. We also had a washing machine with a hand operated wringer. The final step in the washing day was to hang the washed items on the outside line set between two T-shaped poles.
Washing took most of the day to complete. The same lines were occasionally used to clean the house rugs by hanging them up and beating them with a metal tool somewhat like a tennis rack without strings. Vacuum cleaners were few and far between. I can’t remember any wall to wall carpet in those days.
Writing down Shady Lawn Creamery brought forth memories of wonderful times we had going to the side window of the creamery building and paying 5 cents per cone for the best ice cream I have ever tasted. It contained “good stuff” like real cream and other things that are deemed negative in today’s weight-conscious society.
There were no longer electric trolley streetcars running in my youth, but tracks ran all over the town. There was an interurban rail car that ran between Walla Walla and Milton. The depot was across Main Street from the Court House on Sixth Avenue, and if you will look at the side of the building, you will see where a large door has been covered over. That was the entrance for the trolley.
In my early years, I can remember families going to the city park on Sundays after church with their full picnic basket and a blanket. It was usually Ma, Pa and a couple of kids with a dog. The park was full of people interacting with other families, talking or playing games. It was the thing to do to keep up on the latest gossip.
A flood of epic proportions
Walla Walla’s big flood occurred in 1931. All of nature was aligned just right to produce a flood of epic proportions throughout the Valley. Our neighborhood was not flooded, but downtown itself was like a running river.
All the kids in our area gathered to go see what a flood was like, starting with Clinton Street. The bridge over Mill Creek was washed out, but the streetcar tracks over the water were intact. We watched a house wash into the raging water, but luckily there were no people in it.
Our group moved its observation post to the edge of town, where we saw water running in and out of buildings. Cars were piled on the edge of streets with mud and rocks everywhere. The land just south of where Home Depot now is was formerly just dirt but the flood deposited rocks, and even large boulders, giving the farmer problems for the future.
Because of the damage, the town leaders lobbied the government for a fix, and the Mill Creek Flood Control Program resulted. It cleaned out the river channel, built cement walls along the river, and constructed a flood-control dam that brought about the formation of Bennington Lake east of town.
In 1934, the Lincoln Day Riot occurred at the Washington State Penitentiary, and we could hear the sirens loud and clear on Bonnie Brae Street. The newspaper made a big deal out of it with big, bold type. The National Guard and the State Patrol were called in to support prison staff. Eight prisoners and one officer were killed.
The radio was introduced to Walla Walla when I was a kid. It was magic to hear voice and music coming out of the little box. It not only gave news and stories but was a status symbol. I can remember the family gathering around the radio in the evening to get the latest news, and sometimes we would get to listen Tom Mix or William Boyd tell us about cowboy life.
Kids who wanted to become instant radio engineers could buy a kit to make a crystal radio for a buck or so, I’m a little fuzzy on just how it worked, but the kit contained a rock-like crystal about the size of a dime that you mounted in a frame. The other part consisted of a bar on a fulcrum. One end had a thin wire, and the other had a handle with wires connected to earphones.
I can’t remember if it had an antenna or not. The trick was to position the wire on the crystal just right, and you would hear the nearest radio station.
Watching the World Series
What is now the Union-Bulletin had its office and production facility on the south side of Alder Street between First and Second avenues (there is a bank there now). During the baseball World Series, the street was blocked off and bleachers were set up on the north side of the street. A very large image of the baseball diamond was set up in front of the U-B building that showed players as they worked their way around bases.
This was before radio was a standard in households, so the paper must have had an open phone to the game because as soon as a player had a hit, someone would move the image of the player down to first base with appropriate comments from the announcer, and so on. This went on for the entire series, and money kept moving around the bleachers as the businessmen would wager on their favorite team. All games were played during the day for there were no lighted ball fields. The kids were in school but could attend on their days off.
Operators made phone calls
Telephones were fairly common in Walla Walla households. The instrument was about seven inches high with a mouthpiece at the top, and on the side hung the hearing piece attached to a cord that connected you to the operator when picked up. You would hear her (always females) say “number please,” and you would give the number of the people you wanted to contact (three digits long). And she would magically hook you up to your party.
Farmers had a different set up called a party line with a different type of phone. It was a box hanging on the wall with a mouthpiece on a little arm out the front, and on the left side was hung the earpiece, and on the right side a little handle that the caller would rotate (ring) to get the operator. There could be up to seven farm families on one line, and each one was given a defining ring. When the recipient picked up the receiver and put it to their ear, they were connected to their caller. There was, however, a problem: Any of the other people on the party line could listen in on the conversation and did. There were no secrets between farm families.
There were a number of outlying schools for remote farm families with school names like Luckenbill, Rulo, Clyde, Valley Grove to name a few. They were usually one room, had one teacher, and all grammar school grades taught. The schools had separate outhouses for boys and girls.
There were no kindergartens when I grew up, so my school career was launched in the first grade. I was thrown into the arms of St. Patrick’s grade school wearing my knickers. Almost all the students walked to school, at least that was the case for me, some three miles. I can’t remember seeing a school bus during my three years at St. Patrick’s.
Our teachers were nuns who wore traditional habits. School was a house of learning and very little play time. We didn’t draw pictures, and there was certainly no horse play.
The Catechism was a reading assignment for its content and readability, so said the nuns. At the time, I was not happy with this thing called education, but as I look back on it, we students got a sound, basic chance to learn. If you didn’t take advantage of it, the sisters would see to it that you did. You paid attention to those in authority like the priest, the nuns and even the janitor, and did what they told you to do without any backtalk.
All male kids in the early grades in school wore knickers, and the greatest day of my life was when I got to wear long pants. I later transferred to Green Park School.
Next to St Paul’s Episcopal Church sat St. Paul’s School for Girls (there is an apartment house there now). It had a fine reputation and a good percentage of the students came from out of town. Hedwig Zorb was the longtime administrator (head mistress) and had a reputation for excellence in education. They would have a few dances a year and invite high school boys to make up the other half of a dancing couple.
Pencils were the main writing instrument, but we also had pens for special assignments. We used a wooden shaft with a replaceable pen point, or nib, at the end. There was a hole in your desk where the small ink bottle would sit. You would dip the nib into the bottle and could write a few words before dipping again. Usually at the end of the day you had ink splotches on your clothes. What a wonderful invention the fountain pen was.
A group of us from St. Patrick’s always walked home together after school, and sometimes we would detour a bit and go by the gas plant on Sixth Avenue, which is now the Power House Theatre. It was fascinating to watch the workers shovel coal into the flaming furnaces.
We also walked by what we called “China Town,” located on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Rose Streets. It consisted of two buildings three or four stories high with Chinese men hanging around. There was a rumor, among our walking group, planted by old boys, that these men ate little kids so we move through the area rather fast.
While attending Green Park School I was close enough to my home that most days, I came home for lunch. Miss Thomas, the principal, had a paddle she was not afraid to use if any student misbehaved. I don’t think there were many disciplinary problems because teachers had control at all times.
High school was a new experience because we moved between rooms to attend individual classes, instead of having all classes in one room as in grade school. For the freshmen, this was a big deal. High school was a melting pot of kids from all over town, and by the very nature of things, you were forced to make friends with other students from all grade schools (there were no middle schools) that had different cultures, manners and interests.
It was a great time to cement friendships and learn from others. The teachers wore suits and dresses, and the students were well dressed (no shorts). Some farm students came in overalls, but they were clean.
Dancing class and dances
I must mention Mrs. Ransom’s dancing class for that was part of our extracurricular learning. She had a big house on Valencia Street. She and her husband were hit rather hard by the Great Depression, so once a week she would clear out the front room and roll up the rugs for her dancing class to make some money. Many of the boys and girls in the upper grades of elementary school would come to the class on ballroom dancing. She was a “class” lady and would teach not only dancing but how to act in polite society. I’m sure we paid something for those sessions, but I don’t know how much.
There were dances during our high school years. Each couple had a paper program that listed the dances by number. The girls would fill out the exchanges with other couples ahead of time so after each dance you had to find the other couple before the music started. Sometimes the music came from a record, but now and then, there was a live band.
Several students had paper routes, which is not big news, but how they delivered the paper was fascinating. When the papers were delivered to them, they had to fold them up in a special way. The end product was an eight-inch square held together by tucking the paper edge into the cross seam. This allowed the lad to ride his bicycle down the street and throw/sail the paper, much like a modern Frisbee, onto the porch. This was much faster than walking up and dropping it off. You had to allow for the wind and curve made by the floating effect so sometimes the paper ended up on the roof. Modern term: product delivery efficiency.
The police had call boxes located downtown every couple of blocks hanging on telephone pole with a direct line to the station. There were no field radios, and this is the only way a cop could keep in touch with the Police Station.
There were three and a half movie theaters in town, The Liberty, The Roxy, the Capital, and sometimes, the Keylor Grand would have a foreign film. When you went to the movies, there were female ushers in fancy uniforms carrying flashlights who would show you to your seat.
Saturday morning movies for kids were offered at the Roxy, and the price of admission was 5 cents, and the shows were usually a cowboy movie we called “horse operas.” The leading men were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, a young John Wayne and others. The main requirement for the star was a cowboy hat (no acting ability required).
The admission package included a cartoon and a serial. The serial was a short 8-minute movie about a villain and a good guy. It always ended with the damsel in distress and a big note on the screen saying “to be continued” so you needed to come back next week to see what happens.
We had a real treat when Marion Anderson, a nationally known classical singer, came to the Walla Walla High School auditorium for the Community Concert Series. She was refused a room at the Marcus Whitman Hotel because she was black, so she stayed at the Grand Hotel which was considered a second-tier accommodation. Sometime later she was to sing in Washington, D.C., but was unable to find a venue because of the color of her skin. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, interceded and made arrangements for her to sing to thousands of people as she stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
There were no supermarkets in those days. You got your groceries from individual meat, dairy, produce and bakery stores. You didn’t wander around picking up what you wanted; instead you told the counter man and he would get it for you. — “Give me a can of beans, please.” Also, there was a network of little neighborhood grocery stores usually within walking distance of your house (Timm’s Grocery, Hartley’s Grocery, etc.). These little stores carried many a farmer on the books until he got paid for his crop.
Our family drank a lot of milk, and it came in a glass bottle about 10 inches high with a large neck and a cardboard lid. Thick cream made up the top 3 inches in the bottle and could be poured off to put on your cereal or if you shook the bottle it would blend in with the rest of the milk. The creamery truck came by very early in the morning and would leave, on your porch, as many new bottles as you left old ones and bill you monthly.
Depression changed Walla Walla
The Great Depression stands out in my mind as a major event that change Walla Walla forever. It lasted from 1929 until our country’s participation in World War II. Our community experienced the same problems as the rest of the country — very little cash flow, large employee layoffs, no jobs. We faced a very bleak future.
The town had a somewhat stable base with wheat, but unfortunately, the price of wheat hit an all-time low (25 cents a bushel), which negatively affected that base and the town.
My family had a paycheck coming in each month with my Dad’s job, but it was small and didn’t go far with five mouths to feed. We were better off than some but worse than others. There was an informal class system consisting of the rich, middle class and poor. You were middle class if you could make it on your own. You were poor if you had to rely on others for housing and food for your family. The rich and the middle class had to step up to the plate for the survival of the poor. That’s just what was done. There was no government help and very little organization, but they got the job got done.
Even though my family didn’t have much, my mother always adopted a Catholic family that was struggling and made sure they had enough food to eat and clothing to wear. Each Thanksgiving and Christmas, that family was at our dinner table. This was the normal thing to do in town. Families shared with those less fortunate. The farmers helped with produce and meat at very little cost, for they couldn’t sell what they had. Impeccably good manners and mutual respect existed between most people.
My folks had all their savings in the Peoples State Bank on Main Street, and it went broke and closed. They had something like $250 in the account and each of us boys had around $10, that was a lot of money in those days, and it was all gone.
There was a lot of bartering going on in town where services were provided for food. With two train stations in town Walla Walla had a fair number of homeless men that were called hobos. These men frequently used hitched rides on trains to relocate to new communities. They had camps set up at various places around town, and you could always count on one or two of them knocking on your door every day asking to work for a meal. On the main, these were good folks down on their luck as opposed to bums who were out take from you; it was an art to tell the difference.
Rabbit appeared on the menu now and then because it was cheaper than chicken, available in stores, and tasted about the same. I recall that a good many people raised rabbits in cages in their backyards. Alfalfa was grown in vacant lots around town so rabbit owners could feed their bunnies. If you had the right mix of does to bucks, there was a continuous supply of rabbit meat. The Poultry Shipping Co. would process them for you free if they got to keep the hide.
One professor at Whitman College raised raccoons in a cage in his back yard. He not only ate the meat, but he made a coat for his wife from the hides. If you had such a coat, you were really “high society” in those days.
To the west of town were located both Chinese and Italian vegetable gardens which provided our city with fresh food at a reasonable charge. Every other day or so, an old Chinese man would come by the neighborhood in a horse drawn wagon selling vegetables that he had picked that morning. It was fun listening to my mother haggling with him about the price of cabbage.
When we were kids, our family always ate meals together in the dining room. I remember the greatest food to eat, in my eyes, was a banana. This happened rarely, and you didn’t get a whole one, only a half, so I would split it down the middle and it seemed as though I had twice as much banana. I still do that today.
My mother always had a basket full of socks with holes, and in her spare time, she would mend them. To help in this activity, she had a wooden ball with a handle on it that she would insert into the sock and with a needle she would weave a patch over the hole. It was wasteful to throw away a pair of socks just because they had a hole in them. During the Depression, you only threw out those things that absolutely could not be repaired.
There were two shoe repair shops in town. You didn’t junk a pair of shoes if they had a hole in the sole or the heel got worn, you had them repaired. Those repair shops were a thriving business. They also made custom shoes. There were a couple of shoeshine parlors along Main Street to serve the downtown businessmen. While on the subject of shoes, you should know what “spats” are. These are a fancy canvas item that goes around the ankle halfway down the shoe with laces up the side. All the really dandy men wore these on formal occasions to the delight of the women.
Big bands came to town
During the late 1930s and 1940s, famous big bands came to our fair city to play for dances at the Edgewater Dance Pavilion, an outdoor site with wavy wooden floors located on the east side of Colville Street next to Mill Creek. The challenge for the kids of course was to sneak into the dance because none of us had the price of admission. I think they probably knew we were going through the fence, but we were just observers not taking space on the dance floor.
Stores of note were AM Jensen, The Bee Hive, The Book Nook, Gardeners, Woolworth & Co., Sears, Montgomery Ward, Val Jensens and Bendix Music.
I bought my first bike at the Montgomery Ward store for $29, and it took me four months to fully pay for it. It came in a box that required me to put it together.
The “word” around when we were kids was that we had three brothels in town. I remember, when I was older, the fight in the newspapers with the town leaders to eliminate them, which eventually succeeded. I was told that jewelry stores took a financial hit as a result.
Each drug store in town had an ice cream parlor, and if you had a nickel or dime, that was the place to go for a milkshake or malt. There is even a term today, “Ice Cream Parlor Tables and Chairs” that describes the type of furniture used in those places.
Does the term “two bits” mean anything to you? It is slang for 25 cents. While on the subject you would also hear “four bits” (50 cents) and “six bits” (75 cents) in conversations about money.
As I remember, there were only two banks in Walla Walla that survived the Depression. The Baker Boyer Bank run by the Baker family and the Seattle First National Bank (where Banner Bank is now located) managed by Nez Ankeny. There may have been more but I don’t remember for I didn’t have money to put into banks.
Swimming at the Nat
The Natatorium, or the Nat, was the town swimming pool. It was located on Wilbur Street just south of Mill Creek and on the east side (an apartment building is there now). It was a fairly large pool with shallow and deep ends. The main thing I remember about it was it had a 24-foot high diving board that was scary. The facility also offered a dance floor for parties, and at one time, it acted as a roller rink. Sometime in the late 30s, Graybill’s Swimming Pool was built south of town and opened to the public.
An interesting thing about the swimming in Walla Walla during World War II when the Army Air Base was here the enlisted men used the Nat for swimming, and the officers used Graybill’s — black soldiers were not welcomed at either site.
I became interested in skiing in 1936 when the Boy Scouts had a three-day ski camp for members from surrounding towns, located in an old railroad hotel at Kamela between Pendleton and LaGrande. There was no such thing as a tow in those days, you herringboned up the hill. We got to the bottom by going straight down the hill, if you felt you were going to fast you sat down. Skis and bamboo poles were furnished by the hotel and the “bindings” was a leather strap your boot toe went into, nothing holding the back of the boot. By the end of the camp we could turn a little bit. Skiing became a big part of my life from then on.
The main highway to Milton-Freewater was an extension of Ninth Avenue and is now call Plaza Way. I think the only house as you left town was the Ritz Mansion (still standing), and it was surrounded by fields and orchards. The first road you would come to was Country Club Drive off to the right as you were going to Oregon. As you turn to go to the Walla Walla Country Club on the right, where dwellings stand today, was a grouping of mini houses with a big sign saying CABINS. (The word motel had not penetrated Walla Walla vocabulary yet.) There must have been eight or ten of them. Early on there was a thriving business for my memory tells me this was the only such facility in town. It shut down during the Depression, but the structures remained (and deteriorated) for years.
The Country Club was indeed in the country since it was surrounded by active farms and orchards. It was built in the mid 1920s with only nine holes, which is the back nine now.
I have two memories regarding the Clubhouse, and I don’t know why as a kid I was there. Memory one is of seeing the main room filled with slot machines and little old ladies feeding them. Rumor has it that dues were one dollar a year during the “slot” years. Memory two is, after slots were declared illegal, walking up a “pull down” staircase in the dining room and seeing the attic filled with slot machines. Sometime later, I was asked to write a history of the Club, which I did, and it was lost in the fire that destroyed the clubhouse.
The Italians in the community produced the only wine made in the Valley. I don’t think the wine was sold commercially, but they did pass it around to friends. Contrast this to what is going on in the Walla Walla Valley as of this writing.
Farms were smaller in the early days, but they all had free running chickens and a few cows. The farmer was tied to the farm for he had to milk the cows twice a day. He not only had milk for the family, but he sold to the local dairy. He had a special cart (Fort Walla Walla Museum has one on display) to wheel his milk cans out to the road, and the dairy truck would pick them up and leave empty cans. On his rare trips to town, the farmer would bring some chickens in a gunny sack and eggs to sell at the Poultry Shipping Co. for cash.
Prohibition affected Walla Walla just about the same as most of the other towns in the nation. We had a few “speakeasies” operating in town serving illegal drinks, but most people made their own alcohol just to defy the government. My folks were in that category. I can remember them making wine in the basement, and they didn’t even drink.
We had a lot of snow during the winters, and city workers would clear the outer parts of the streets downtown and pile the snow in the center. Sometimes that pile would be eight- to 10-feet tall, which presented a problem for people crossing the street mid-block. The city hired an old guy with a horse to plow the sidewalks in the neighborhoods. His plow was a couple of vertical two by twelve boards nailed together to form a “V” with a platform for him to stand on. We loved to see him come by and, of course, we had to go out and pet the horse.
Basketball was a different game than what you see today. At the start of the game, the teams had a jump off just as it is done today, but after each basket was made, the two teams would come back to the center and have another jump off. There was no shot clock so if one team got ahead by a few points, the strategy was to keep the ball away from the other team by stalling, thus the ending score might be as low as 13 to 9. Not a very interesting game for the spectator.
Football also was a bit different in that there were no hash marks on the field, so if the ball was just inside the out of bounds line, that is where it was played from, and the team would line up accordingly infield. The center had to be careful not to step out of bounds when he centered the ball. Innovative plays were interesting to watch.
Torture at the dentist
One always dreaded visiting the dentist because it was like a torture chamber. You sat in what seemed like a torture chair including a contraption with a long arm and pulleys, a leather belt driven by a noisy hidden motor that made the drill work. The most important thing was a small sink, called a cuspidor, that was mounted next the left arm rest of the chair. This item was to accommodate you when during the drilling you needed to spit, because there was no such thing a suction tube. My dentist must have been good for I still have all my teeth.
Starting in the late 1930s, most of the high school kids had jobs during the summer. My first job in 1939, at age 15, was on a farm some 40 miles from town. I was paid $1 per day and keep, but during harvest, they paid me $2.50. I hoed weeds, drove truck and tractor. We bunked in a shed and had a 50-gallon drum on the roof that fed our shower. We would fill it in the morning, and the sun would heat it during the day, so we had semi-hot water for a shower when we returned from the fields. We had an outhouse sometimes called a “chick sales.” A good crop in those days (before fertilizer) was 30 to 35 bushels per acres. Almost every harvest, we found ourselves fighting a wheat fire on some farmer’s property. We used wet gunny sacks to beat out the flames.
Bob Freeman retired in 1975 as Associate Superintendent at the Washington State Penitentiary and then formed a consulting business that helped design prisons nationwide. He lives in Walla Walla and is now totally retired. He can be reached at email@example.com