Experience life in Issaquah 100 years ago — outhouses, saloons and all

February 21, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Forget the buttoned-up suburb, circa 2012, to envision Issaquah from a century ago.

Issaquah in 1912 included more saloons than churches. The coalmines and logging camps attracted a tough-as-nails crowd. The era required a little more steel in the backbone.

Townsfolk eked out a hardscrabble life, but still managed to loosen up at the Stockholm Hotel & Saloon or Clark’s Place. In homes, simple conveniences — indoor plumbing, for instance — ranked as unheard-of luxuries.

Imagine a typical day from 1912.

The chill February air is a bracing alarm, almost as difficult to ignore as the crowing rooster outside.

Outside, people start to stir on unpaved roads and wooden sidewalks. The horse-drawn buggies responsible for hauling passengers and freight around town clatter along muddy streets to the Issaquah & Superior Coal Mining Co. or the lumber mill along Lake Sammamish.

The scene is typical for folks rising to face the day in Issaquah on a February morning a century ago. Some already descended into the earth before dawn to mine coal, or rose to milk cattle at the Pickering farm.

Issaquah in 1912 is at a crossroads — no longer on the frontier, but not quite genteel enough to lose a long-held reputation as a rough-and-tumble outpost.

Settlers pushed into the Squak Valley decades earlier, attracted by fertile land and, later, rich coal deposits buried inside the mountains. Still, despite coal and timber booms, Issaquah — a recent name change for a town founded 20 years earlier as Gilman — remains a flyspeck on maps, even a dozen years into the 20th century.

For most of the 700 or so people in Issaquah a century ago, days revolve around toil on a farm, in a forest or, most commonly, deep inside a coal mine. Life is simple, but far from painless.

Even the morning routine necessitates some elbow grease. The day often starts by emptying the chamber pot or sauntering to the outhouse. In rustic Issaquah, a flushing toilet does not answer nature’s call. Newfangled indoor plumbing remains rare, although electricity is available day and night in homes.

1912: behind the scenes

In order to offer a glimpse into life in 1912, Erica Maniez, Issaquah History Museums executive director, plumbed the organization’s extensive collection to find documents and artifacts to demonstrate how locals lived a century ago.

Material from the Polk Directory (a guide to cities launched in the late 19th century) and The Coast (a magazine chronicling the Pacific Northwest) offered useful nuggets about everyday life in the then-20-year-old city.

Photographs from the museums’ archives and vintage recipes from the collection rounded out the portrait.

In the late 1880s, townsfolk used wooden pipes to link the settlement to the Lake Tradition watershed and create a sophisticated water system. Though potable water is plentiful, residents must trudge to a communal pump to collect water for washing and more.

Smoke from fireplaces and stoves lingers in the still air, a gray blanket clinging to the cold ground. The smoke comes, for the most part, from coal-fired stoves, so the smell is less aromatic than the curls rising from a wood stove.

In Issaquah a century ago, after all, coal is king.

Breakfast, for instance, is cooked on a coal stove. The meal is ample and, because people in the early 20th century do not fear fat, salt or sugar, all appear in abundant amounts. Most jobs in Issaquah require brawn for men and women alike, so townsfolk need to consume more calories — to fuel tasks, sure, and to generate enough energy to remain warm in a cool climate.

Though railroads enable far-flung areas to sample exotic spices, tastes remain simple in the rural community. Eggs come from the chickens scratching in the yards and lanes throughout Issaquah. Flour for bread and biscuits comes from Gibson’s, a general store, or Cubbons’ Grocery; bacon from Fischer Brothers Meats. Long before the locavore label made farm-to-table eating fashionable, residents relied on local food sources out of necessity.

Other meals include simple fare, too. Staples at lunch and dinner fall into the meat-and-potatoes category. Sunday suppers or a visit from out-of-town guests merit a more upscale menu — creamed salmon and devil’s food cake, maybe.

The division between genders is less pronounced in Issaquah and other settlements, but cooking, cleanup and most household duties remain tasks for women. Men spend the days in the coalmines, forests and farms responsible for powering the local economy. Some women hold jobs as seamstresses or laundresses, usually out of necessity.

The near-constant logging and mining reshaped the Issaquah landscape in the years before 1912. The mountains arranged around the hamlet bear scars from logging past and present — a patchwork as uneven as a mangy dog’s coat. Strong men continue the backbreaking work to chop trees from the mountainsides for bustling mills in the area.

Downtown is a ramshackle collection of shops, saloons and houses alongside wooden sidewalks — a Wild West scene in the Cascade foothills. Despite rail access to points beyond, Issaquah remains isolated.

People mill along city streets in plain clothes fashioned by hand from cotton and wool. Most garments originated at home, though a handful of seamstresses and Van Winkle’s Store offer more polished pieces. The predominant looks: high collars and long skirts for ladies; hats and work clothes for gentlemen.

The streets have names, by the way, but numbered addresses do not yet exist.

Though Henry Ford unleashed the Model T in 1908, a car is a rare site on Issaquah streets. The first car arrived in the city in 1911, delivered on a train. Men unloaded and assembled the vehicle.

Most fuel for the vehicles along city streets comes from the Issaquah Hay & Grain Store. The horse and buggy is still the most common conveyance in the 1910s.

Newcastle, Renton or Seattle — nearby cities after automobiles and interstates transformed the region — still require a long trip, either by train or, in a speedier setup, by auto stage, or hired car. (The journey to Seattle by auto stage ended along the Lake Washington shore; passengers boarded a ferry for the next leg.)

Still, the trip to Seattle lasted about 90 minutes on auto stage and ferry, and longer on a train. The distance does not stop comings and goings from Issaquah. Townsfolk head across the lake each day to conduct legal business at the King County Courthouse in Seattle, call on family and friends, or receive specialized medical treatment. Otherwise, affable Dr. William Gibson — or Doc Gibson to townsfolk — could handle routine medical matters. (The doctor also serves as Issaquah mayor in 1912.)

Mail arrives at Gibson’s Drugstore. The proprietor, John Gibson, is also the postmaster. Telegrams — a more rapid form of communication — come to the train depot.

Commerce established a beachhead early in downtown Issaquah. The stately Bank of Issaquah is palatial inside, down to the polished spittoons near the teller windows. Albin’s Place proffers candy and soda to children. Townsfolk snag some popcorn from a cart set up outside on sunny days.

Come nightfall, after men ascend from the coalmines and descend from the logging areas, residents clean up to see vaudevillians or other traveling performers at community halls. Others troop to meetings of fraternal organizations — Freemasons and Odd Fellows both put down roots in Issaquah early.

Saloons entice patrons inside for refreshment after long days. Though Issaquah in 1912 is home to Baptist, Catholic and Methodist churches, at least eight saloons quench patrons’ thirst.

Some folks stay home and read by electric light or a kerosene lamp, perhaps a book checked out from the small library operating at the town hall.

Darkness causes the pace to slow, but activity still buzzes along the muddy streets until late into the evening. More toil starts early the next morning, but in the meantime, Issaquah rests.

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