Bill Long 11/26/04
Uncovering a Forgotten Past
The other thing I did this afternoon was to venture to the Northeast corner of Long Beach Peninsula to visit the oldest town in the area: Oysterville. It has all but disappeared today; several older homes and a post office and general store are almost all that remains. Nevertheless, an hour or so visiting these sites provided a nice retreat.
The current Oysterville is off the state highway and primarily consists of two roads, which bisect each other: Territory and School (though the latter may not, in fact, be School; it is where the 1907 school still stands). Oysterville was founded in 1854 when R.H.Espy and I.A. Clark were guided to the spot of the town by a friendly Chinook chief. The rich pools that swirled offshore, perfect for oyster life, were the result of a stew of salt water from the ocean and fresh water from eight streams and rivers flowing into Willapa Bay (Shoalwater then). Demand for the oysters was great, and immediately the town sprang up, mostly to provide the demands for San Francisco oyster lovers. By 1855 there were 500 residents and for most of the rest of the nineteenth century Oysterville was a thriving and wealthy town. The depletion of the oyster supply, coupled with the fact that the railroad didn't make it to Oysterville, led to the gradual decline of the town.
Walking in Oysterville
You actually can pick up a brochure in the community church (built in 1892), which provides a brief walking tour of the town. I headed south on Territory Street, stopping to look at the older homes along the way. They were mostly distinguished by age, not by architecture, though an interesting story arises from one of them: the "Ned Osborne" house, built in 1873. I discovered that the brochure describing the house and the sign in front of the house told different stories. The sign in front of the house, which most visitors will see, offers the "sanitized version" of the building of the Osborne house.
This version says that Ned began building the house in 1873 for his bride-to-be but, unfortunately, she died before the wedding date. "Faithful to the end," the sign goes on to say, "he lived a bachelor all his life in the house." Then we hear the brochure: "He began building this house in 1873 for his bride-to-be and, although she jilted him before the wedding date, he continued to work on it. However, when she married another, Osborne stopped his building project and never completed the upstairs bedrooms. Ned lived a bachelor all his life in this house."
Interesting differences, aren't they? In both instances Ned comes out looking pretty good--overwhelmed with grief at the loss of his fiance, he stays single. But the nature of the "loss" he suffered differs--either the pain of humiliation or the pain of her death. Quite a difference, don't you think? Maybe the person who painted the sign in front of the house didn't know the word "jilted" and thought the word was "kilted" and interpreted it to mean she was killed. I doubt it. It just shows that the historical record is replete with a word here, a phrase there, that can completely alter our evaluation of the past. I didn't have the interest to try to track down what happened to Mrs. Osborne-to-be; I just chuckled at the ways that we create and recreate the past.
Schoolhouse and Courthouse
On the road perpendicular to Territory is one old structure, the 1907 schoolhouse. It actually was the town's third schoolhouse (it seems obligatory in Western history that one or two schoolhouses always burn down) and is not now used for that purpose. But more arresting to me was a sign on the other side of the road from the schoolhouse. The sign commemorated the location of the Pacific County Courthouse, built in 1875. A picture of the courthouse on a town map from those times shows it to be a large two-story rectangular structure. Here again we have two interesting historical "takes" on the courthouse. This time the brochure gives the sanitized version: "After the County Seat was moved to South Bend, the courthouse building was used for the Peninsula College and was later dismantled." Ok. Sounds pretty innocuous, right?
Well, the sign has it a bit different. It says, "South Bend 'Raiders' came here Sunday, February 5, 1893" and carried away all the county records. Hm. Quite a different story, isn't it? It was not unusual in the old West to have vigorous competition among towns to be the county seat. It meant lots of revenue and stable jobs. If all you knew was what was in the brochure, you would think that a calm, deliberative body decided to move the county seat to South Bend.
However, it appeared to be anything but that. The sign gives us all we need to begin on our mental journey of imagining a Sunday raid of the records when everyone was at Church. While singing a "Mighty Fortress is our God," the town fortress (the courthouse) was being raided. You come home from church and find you are no longer the county seat. It adds to the rough and tumble of the West, doesn't it, when you read the sign?
Not only, then, was I delighted with the old homes and the impressive Monterey cypresses, brought back from San Francisco to provide ballast for the ships, now in front of the I.A. Clark place, but I was intrigued by the mysteries of Mr. Osborne's fiance and the raiding of the County Courthouse. Maybe I will never learn what happened in fact. But, in the meantime, I sure have lots of fodder for the imagination!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long