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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Jim and Blanche Gray,
The Palace Tavern and
the Sedro-Woolley Library

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, ©2003
      The story of Jim and Blanche Gray illustrates the two sides of a frontier town like Sedro-Woolley. Jim owned one of the rowdy saloons on Northern avenue that made the town "wild and woolly." Blanche was determined that she would bring civilization to the town in the name of a lending library. When Blanche came here as a bride with Jim in 1898, she found a small company town with muddy streets and more saloons than churches. There were precious few amenities for a young schoolteacher who grew up in the urban city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

(Northern avenue 1899)
      This photo of Northern avenue in old Woolley was taken by Darius Kinsey in 1899. At the left is the drug store that F.A. Douglass built sometime after moving here in 1890. Next is a small building with J. Henry Smith and Sinclair, attorneys. Next is Thomas W. Stranger, confectioner, who sold tobacco, fruit, knick knacks and soft drinks and also had an employment office, pool and billiards hall and a laundry for loggers who climbed off the train across the street. The meat market was then owned by a Mr. Byham after Bill Doherty. Next was the Grand Rapids furniture and second-hand store, Fellows and Lucas owners. Next is the Gem Saloon, H.C. Hosch & Co. owners, which Jim Gray bought in 1902. At the far right is the Keystone Hotel with the balcony, W.M. LaBelle owner, with Gray and Doherty's saloon downstairs. Photo courtesy of the book, Kinsey Photographer.

      We found on an old Sanborn Insurance map that the first "reading room" in Woolley was opened by the summer of 1899 under the auspices of the Seattle & International railroad in a small building near the Osterman Hotel on Metcalf street that lawyer William H. Perry had recently vacated. Rooms like that one were apparently the only lending libraries in town for the next nine years. The 1905-06 Polk directory noted that the city did have a library, probably for subscribers at that point.
      James Gray first came here from Nova Scotia in 1889 and soon started working for a logging camp, possibly for Charles Warner, who was clearing Mortimer Cook's land for the town of Sedro in preparation for the railroad crews of the Fairhaven & Southern line. His obituary in the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times noted that he "had led an adventurous life before coming" and a 1939 article mentioned that he was from a fine English family. He was born in England on Aug. 14, 1862, and the 1900 federal census notes that he emigrated from England in 1879. He became a sailor as a young man and sailed around Cape Horn on an old fully rigged sailing ship, coming to the West Coast sometime in the 1880s. He sailed twice to the Bering Sea in the same sailing ship and under the same captain Jack London later made famous in his book, The Sea Wolf. Sometime after those trips he apparently learned about the logging camps of the Skagit River and left the ship and its domineering captain.
      By 1894 the arduous life in the woods lost its luster for him and he decided to become a bartender, deciding that catering to men's "needs" might be a lot more profitable and a lot less backbreaking. Bill Doherty owned a meat market on Northern avenue, the main drag in old Woolley, and he and Gray opened a saloon that year in the new Keystone Hotel, a prime location just across the street from the depot that then served both the Seattle & International and Seattle & Northern lines. The hotel rooms and brothel were upstairs with a long balcony extending across the front. [Ed. note: the term, main drag, derived from the days when logs were drug through small logging towns on the way to log dumps on the water, possibly dating back to when logs were transported down the steep Yesler way in Seattle to Henry Yesler's sawmill.]
      Sometime by 1898 he traveled back to Nova Scotia and while there he either met or re-met Blanche B. Somers, who was a schoolteacher in Halifax. She was born in that city on Aug. 11, 1864, the daughter of Sylvester and Annie Oram Gumb Somers. Her paternal grandparents, Philip and Margaret Egan Somers, emigrated from Ireland to Nova Scotia via Newfoundland. Blanche received a good education and attended Delhousie College. According to the 1889-90 Halifax city directory, she began teaching that year while still living at home. That same directory listed her father as a tailor. We do not have their wedding information but Jim and Blanche were married by the time they returned to Woolley. They probably traveled by train since the Canadian Pacific Railroad connected by then with the Northern Pacific north of Sumas. Soon after Blanche arrived, the town of Woolley buzzed with excitement over the prospect of merging with nearby Sedro to form a new "twin cities." Her mother, Annie, eventually moved out here to live with them and died here in 1916; she is buried in the Sedro-Woolley cemetery.
      The young couple lived someplace outside the city limits in those early days. Family records show that Blanche homesteaded a quarter section of land and James homesteaded the adjacent quarter. In 1902, Gray opened the Palace Tavern next door to the hotel in what had formerly been the Gem saloon. That business remained a fixture in the city until it and the Keystone were torn down in the 1960s to be replaced by the new Safeway Market building, which now houses a hardware store. We do not know if Doherty stayed in partnership but he may have bought the Keystone at that point. Doherty died in 1903 and his widow, Charlotte Doherty, sold the Keystone in 1906.
      The late A. Bingham, who knew the couple from his boyhood days as the son of banker C.E. Bingham, suggested that the couple's lives were quite different. Jim spent most of his time running the Palace saloon while Blanche's interests were more cultural. We are still researching school records of the time to see if she taught after moving here. In a 1939 Courier-Times article he was described as a fair and honest man who brooked, no monkey business and hated publicity. That latter attitude may have been fostered in the very early years of the century when the Keystone was derided during a mayoral campaign as a den of iniquity. Back in 1894, Gray bought the lots at the southwest corner of Ferry at Murdock and built a large home there. I can still remember when I was a child that there were huge chestnut trees in the yard. The house was razed in 1953, three years after both Jim and Blanche died, and was replaced by the Hunter Clinic.

Blanche was the key library figure from the beginning
      Although we knew that Blanche was a key member of the library board, we did not know the full extent of her role until researcher Roger Peterson corresponded with Linda K. Berkeley-Bulliqi, the granddaughter of Blanche's sister, Florence Somers Berkeley. Linda lives in England and after reading the story of Sedro-Woolley Carnegie Library on our website page about Junius B. Alexander, she wrote to us and provided a wealth of information about both Blanche and the early libraries in town. The documents — including census records, library forms and family records, have allowed us to flesh out this story.
      Her records show that a committee was formed in the early 1900s to plan for an eventual library. The members included Julia Bingham, the wife of the pioneer banker, a Mrs. Pingry, Mrs. Fred W. Seidell, and Blanche. Blanche said that a small library was originally housed in the corner of a drugstore, possibly that of F.A. Douglass or Mott and Rhodius, and city residents were encouraged to trade books that they had read for ones that they had not yet read. The early reading rooms depended heavily on the businessmen and professionals of the community and their wives who had libraries in their homes and could afford to lend or donate books. Some Bingham descendants said that Julia donated as many as 1,500 books, but that total seems a bit high. Harry L. Devin, the city's first real estate developer, maintained an extensive reference library in his home at the corner of Fourth and Warner streets and he may have loaned or donated books to the initial project.
      Roger Peterson and his daughter Debra, who is the current Sedro-Woolley city librarian, found records in the library archives that detail a meeting on April 30, 1908, of the Ladies Library Association in the crypt of the Episcopal Church that was called to discuss establishment of an actual public library. Reverend George Buzzelle proposed at the meeting that $500 be raised by subscription of $1 per person and that a search should be started for an inexpensive building to rent. Sometime in that year, the Commercial Club — the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, provided a room for a small lending library in a building that was then located near the corner of State and Third streets, where the Mission Garage/Market was later constructed.

The early days of the library
      Mrs. Berkeley-Bulliqi obtained copies of official records from the state of Washington that give minute details of the various libraries over the next 40 years. The 1910 annual report to the state was signed by Blanche Gray, librarian, and shows that the institution was a subscriber library with membership at $1 per year. It was open for 68 days from July 1, 1909 to June 30, 1910 and purchases for 626 books are noted for a total of 626 on the shelves, so the earlier date may have been the official opening of the library. The books cost a total of $302.41 — an average of 50 cents apiece, so most were probably not bought new, and no money is noted for salaries so apparently Blanche was not paid. Rev. George Buzzelle was president of the library association.
      The Oct. 21, 1914, state report shows that by then the city had taken over operation of the library since January 1 of that year. Seven trustees oversaw the library operation and they were the cream of the local crop: Junius B. Alexander, who was a principal of new Sedro and majority owner of the Sedro Land Co.; J.C. Ames, barber and furrier; A.F. Baker, mortician; C.P. Gable, attorney; Mrs. W.R. Morgan, whose husband owned the electric light company and water company; Julia Bingham, who was the figurative 800-pound gorilla of the local social scene; and Blanche Gray.
      By then, the library had 2,500 books, which were bought by then from a city fund. It was called a public library, borrowers had free access to the shelves and it was located in a rented building, which we assume was still on the 1908 location. By then, Minna L. Dorsey was librarian. The city control apparently resulted from an ordinance of the city council dated Aug. 24, 1914, that created a department of government known as the Sedro-Woolley Library Association. The association was open to membership for anyone living in town and the members then elected the trustees. Eventually the board was reduced to five members for "sake of efficiency." A state law passed in the legislature earlier in the year that authorized library boards in cities and set up a reporting system.
      A Dec. 8, 1914, article in the Mount Vernon Argus reported that the only other libraries in the county at that date were located in Burlington and Anacortes — but not in Mount Vernon. Those other two libraries were built with the Carnegie Endowment, which was established in 1911. Sedro-Woolley soon decided that they wanted to join that group.

J.B. Alexander and the Carnegie library

(Carnegie Library and new Sedro)
      This Frank LaRoche photo was taken shortly after the Carnegie Library was built in 1915. The library is the short, squat, white building in the middle of the empty lot in the right center. Across the street is the high school, which was built four years earlier. We are looking east from the railroad tracks and downtown Sedro-Woolley is to the far left. The center portion of the photo was originally new Sedro, which Norman B. Kelley platted in 1889. It merged with Mortimer Cook's old Sedro near the river to form one incorporated town of Sedro in March 1891.

      The Carnegie Library in Sedro-Woolley was the brainchild of J.B. Alexander [you can read his biography in the optional Subscribers Edition in Spring 2005]. To summarize, after the library association was formed, Alexander took the lead in obtaining a Carnegie grant. He appealed to Andrew Carnegie directly and reminded the philanthropist that he was related to Col. James Anderson, who was Carnegie's ironic inspiration for his grants to local libraries all across the United States. Peterson found a letter that Alexander wrote to Sedro-Woolley attorney Art Ward in 1945, 30 years after he moved to Santa Barbara, California. In the letter, he recounted:
      Also perhaps, the fact that my relationship to Col. Anderson made it possible to get an immediate donation for the building from Carnegie, in spite of the fact that at the time of my request there was a very long list of applications ahead of me, when I told him of this relationship after I had agreed to give the site, emphasizes the gratitude he expresses in the words accompanying the picture.
      Blanche Gray was president of the library board when the Carnegie library opened on Third street on Oct. 28, 1915. Blanche's family records have a note that she traveled east to help secure the Carnegie funds but we have not been able to find a newspaper from that time that would verify that. At the time that the new Carnegie library opened, the entire wide block over to the Northern Pacific tracks to the west was completely open and the western half still had stumps all over it. Records of that time are very scarce but we think that the block had been vacant since the three-story Hotel Sedro burned in about 1897. The hotel was the original project of Alexander's company, the Sedro Land & Improvement Co. of Seattle, which he took over with his financier father's help in 1890 after graduating from Harvard University and moving here from Brooklyn. That location was in the heart of what is often called new Sedro. It was a boxy sort of a stone building that was hardly beautiful but it immediately became a cultural center of the town, joining the Opera House, four blocks north on State street, and the Dream Theatre, built in 1913 on Woodworth. After the landscaping and surrounding trees grew out by the 1950s, the building was quite attractive even if a bit plain.

(Carnegie Library)
      Frank LaRoche took this photo of the Sedro-Woolley Carnegie Library soon after it opened in the fall of 1915. We are looking southwest from the present high school. The Library stood from 1915-64 on the former location of the old Hotel Sedro and was replaced by the present high school gymnasium.

Administration of the library
      The state report of June 30, 1918, showed that the library was then open for 360 days and had a total of 3,182 books on the shelves for 1,961 registered borrowers. By that year, librarian Minna Dorsey earned a $480 salary and $220.70 was spent on books out of total expenditures of $1,088.84. Income was from a combination of $1,000 collected from a two-mill annual tax levy and various fees, for a total of $1,366.11, carrying over $280 for the next year. Gray was again the president and Julia Bingham was the board secretary. In the 1920 report, Blanche P. Dorsey was librarian and earned $600 for the year, as borrowers rose to 2,449 in the midst of a local post-war growing economy and 3,465 books were on the shelf.
      Sometime soon after that, a librarian took over for a long reign in the job and she is most remembered by very old timers here. Mrs. Marie LaPlant was the wife of local contractor and dairy owner J.C. "Baldy" LaPlant, and she was a cousin of Julia Bingham. A member of the large wave of emigrants here from the town of Marengo, Iowa, in the 1890s, she became a fixture at the library until retiring in 1944, a year before her death in 1945.
      In 1929 the library received a bequest from a surprising source. Mary C. Birkle, age 74, died on Dec. 16, 1928, after serving 30 years as housekeeper for C.E. and Julia Bingham. She turned out to be an exceptionally thrifty woman who saved a whopping total of $21,000, the equivalent of nearly ten times that amount in 2003 dollars. She left $500 to the library, which was used for incidentals for the building and grounds and kept separate from the city library fund.
      The next available state record for the library is the report for year ending Dec. 31, 1935. In the depth of the Depression, the librarian salary for 25 hours service per week had been cut to $480 per year and a part-time assistant received $31.25. The total volumes on the shelves had reached 6,432 and the number of borrowers had decreased to 1,633. Total income was $1,231.16, including $1,066.14 from local taxes and no balance was forwarded to the next year. A handwritten note explained that local donors had saved the library quite a bit of money by lending all the periodicals and newspapers except for one, in addition to donating many of the new and used books during the year. By those days, the library was open five days a week and closed on Sunday and Thursday, with hours open from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Blanche Gray was still president, Julia Bingham was treasurer by then; Mrs. J.J. Ross was secretary; trustees were Mrs. Albert Bingham, Mrs. S.S. McIntyre Sr.; Mrs. W.R. Morgan and Q.P. Reno, Mrs. LaPlant's brother.
      The 1938 report is much longer and richer in detail. Sedro-Woolley and Skagit County had come out of the Depression earlier than some areas of the country and the library was finally able to pay its staff competitively, pay for long-needed repairs to the building and complete its catalog system, which had taken 18 months to compile. During that catalog process, 1,640 volumes were withdrawn from the shelves that year; those may have been donated to the Northern State Hospital library. The fund allowed purchase of 145 books, supplemented by 73 donations. Except for the period during repairs, the library was closed for only eight holidays that year The non-resident fee was $1 per year, compared to $56 in 2003 and high school students living outside the city were charged 25 cents for the year. Mrs. LaPlant and her assistant were paid $840 for the year, part of $1,426.50 in expenses. City taxes brought in $1,287.12.
      In the 1940 report, the last year before World War II erupted and the last full year of Blanche Gray's board presidency, enough funds were available for purchase of 408 books, bringing the total volumes back up all the way to 5,848, including 1,086 in the juvenile section. The local library tax levy was two mills, which resulted in $1,754.11 from the city. Total assessed valuation of the property in the city was $877,000. For the first time in years, a balance was passed over to the next year's budget. That was the last year of available reports.
      During the 1940s Junius B. Alexander arranged with the American Weekly magazine to obtain the original painting of Andrew Carnegie in his home library that accompanied a 1942 advertisement explaining why and how he set up his library endowment. The ad and painting were then hung in the library but the painting disappeared several years later. An acquisition that was made in 1951 is also lost and it would be considerably more valuable today. In September that year, the board purchased a Sydney Eaton painting for $50. Eaton grew up in Sedro-Woolley and taught at Skagit Valley Junior College for three decades and along the way he became a noted abstract artist. I can still remember the painting hanging over the fireplace in the beautiful front reading room of the library.
      After Mrs. LaPlant retired in 1944, Mrs. Stella Stenberg became librarian and served in the position until 1952. Mrs. Lois Brevik was next from 1955-57. She was replaced in 1958 by Delores Stendal, who equaled Mrs. LaPlant's tenure by serving as librarian through May of 1982. Three years after she took over, the wrecking ball destroyed the Carnegie Library so that the new high school gymnasium could be built on the site. She was the wife of John Stendal, whose father, Puss Stendal, was the longtime mayor. I told her many times up until her death six years ago that she inspired me to read voraciously from the time of my high school years. Like many other students who loved books as much or more than sports and fishing and hunting, I spent hundreds of hours on rainy afternoons, curled up on one of the easy chairs or in one of the alcoves. After Delores retired, Theresa Johnson was an interim librarian for a few months, replaced by Jane Blume from 1982 to 1985. At that point, Debra Peterson was hired and has been chief librarian since then. Both she and her father are tremendous assets to the community.

The later years of Blanche and James Gray
      Blanche Gray retired in 1941, joining her husband at home after he also retired from 45 years as a bar owner. Back on Nov. 1, 1939, he leased the Palace to Louis Stiles and Ray Martindale; Martindale's father built building back in 1902. During Prohibition, the business had become a pool hall and card room, but locals knew that both moonshine and friendly ladies were available in the back room. After repeal of Prohibition, the Palace became a tavern, serving beer and wine, in 1934. In the decade after Gray's retirement and after he eventually sold it, the tavern became famous for its sometime manager, Alice of the Palace.
      Blanche had spent 33 years as the "mother" of the original library, then as its librarian, and then 26 years as president of the Carnegie Library board. Her work and dedication has not been properly acknowledged. The Grays never had children. Blanche died on March 5, 1950, of myocardial failure after an illness of several years. Mrs. Berkeley-Bulliqi shared a family story that Blanche's younger brother, Louis Alfred Somers, was originally an engineer but he moved to San Francisco and founded a religious group that conducted faith healings. At one time he planned to travel north and heal Blanche but he died in 1944 before he could visit. [Ed. note: Physician, heal thyself.]
      James Gray died six months later on Sept. 19, 1950, also at Memorial Hospital and the cause was listed as senility. Their estate was modest, with a net of just over $20,000. At the time of his death, James still owned the brick Swastika building in the 700 block of Metcalf street, which then housed Fred Bryant's barber shop and Trudy's Beauty Shop, the Liberty Cafe West's Dependable Grocery. The building was appraised at $18,000. The late Howard Miller told us that Gray at one time owned more property downtown but had lost some of it during the Depression of the 1930s. They still lived in their Murdock house at the time of their deaths. James's obituary noted that he had one time served several years on the city council and was active in county politics. We hope that a reader will have a photo of either or both of the Grays and of the Palace. To that end, we are very impressed with the lengths that Linda has gone to as she has tried to find relatives from her generation. Her arm is tired from addressing more than a hundred letters, she has grown weary of the taste of mucilage on stamps and she deserves a purple heart for the paper cuts. If you have information about her family, please contact her by email:

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