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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit.

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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The Kiens brothers homestead
north of Woolley in 1884

(Davison-Caskey logging)
      The Davison-Millett-Caskey logging operation and mill on John Kiens's homestead in the 1890s.
—Photo by Darius Kinsey

      Ed. note: Larry Kiens is quite proud of his pioneer family who homesteaded north of Woolley. After discovering that local histories had ignored their accomplishments, he researched the history of the Kiens brothers — John and Fred, for at least ten years and then wrote stories to link his discoveries together. No one has worked harder at researching basic documents for family records and he went so far as to write several essays about family anecdotes and incidents. We are happy to share the introductory chapter, which is based on his fine work and that will be followed with others that provide greater detail. We will add photos of the family members in 2006.

The Kiens brothers emigrate to the U.S. from Germany
      If you wondered how Sedro-founder Mortimer Cook slipped through the cracks of local history, you will be really amazed when you read the stories of German immigrants Fred and John Kiens and how local historians passed them by almost totally. We have worked hard for the past 12 years to make sure that they are included in the historical record. After settling here in 1884, the brothers mined for gold, produced whiskey, blasting powder and many other items of value after hacking and hewing away at trees on their property with only an ax and saws.
      Frederick Kiens arrived in America in September 1883 and spent six months in Illinois with his older brother, John. John had emigrated there in 1872 and worked as a blacksmith. The brothers always told their family that they had left Germany to escape a militaristic society. Their home location there is unknown but Fred was stationed around Dusseldorf in Germany Army from 1880-82.
      In April 1884 the brothers moved to Skagit County and took adjoining 160-acre homesteads a half mile north of the future town of Woolley. That was two months before Mortimer Cook arrived and built his general store at the site of old-Sedro by the river. We know the exact location of John's homestead because researcher Roger Peterson found the homestead patent dated Feb. 19, 1891. The legal description was the southeast 1/4 of Section 13, Township 35 North, Range 4 East. Fred's homestead was west of there from the present Birch lane and Garden of Eden Road on the west to a spot about 250 feet east of the railroad tracks that were laid in 1889 by the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern railway. John's property was east and extended to Township Road.
      Although the Kiens brothers were more closely associated with P.A. Woolley and his company town, they arrived in this area five years before Woolley began scouting out locations where three proposed railroads were expected to cross. They would have shopped for staples at Jesse B. Ball's general store at the town of Sterling, on the north shore of the Skagit River, about two miles west of future Sedro. That is also as far upriver that sternwheelers progressed in many months of the year, so in at least the early years when they settled here they would have picked up machinery and equipment there at Ball's Riffle and transported the material up to their claim by horse and wagon that they could not carry on their backs..
      When Mortimer Cook opened his store in 1885, he also built a wharf for sternwheelers. We assumed incorrectly that the Kiens brothers would have split their trade and travel between Cook's wharf and the one in Sterling at that time, but Larry Kiens insists that he found nothing indicating any such business relationship. Fred Kiens was away from his homestead much of the time before P.A. Woolley established his company town in 1890. He has found extensive records of Fred Kiens conducting business in Mount Vernon and meeting with lawyers in Mount Vernon, Seattle and Bellingham, to discuss the Kiens land claims and conflicts with the railroads that ran through their property, starting in>       Fred built a log cabin on his homestead about 150 feet east of the second railroad trestle in the area, the one that now crosses Sapp Road, on the south side of Brickyard creek. That trestle was built in 1889 for the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad, and was eventually owned by the Northern Pacific. John built his cabin of cedar planks. It was located 150 feet east of Fred's cabin on the north side of creek; a sewer lagoon is located there now. John hewed the front door by hand from one plank. Guy Rowland's family lived on part of that property years later. Fred built a larger farmhouse on his property in about 1892-94, located west and north of the second trestle. He died of a sudden heart attack in that house in 1911. Brother-in-law Ed Thiele built a large white house for John Kiens in about 1919, but John remained a bachelor and stayed in the cabin that he originally built on the property, dying there of pneumonia in 1925. Errol Hanson lives on part of the original Kiens property and knew the family descendants, so he also suggested material for this story. Larry Kiens remembers that house well because his family lived there from 1944-56 before they moved to Seattle.

Fred takes a wife
      The story of Fred's marriage is a sweet one. While many loggers and farmers around him took Indian wives since there were so few Caucasian girls of marriageable age on the frontier, Fred would have none of that. He corresponded with Mary Thiele in New York. They met back in Germany during the time that Fred was serving in the Army, when Mary's bootmaker father cobbled a pair of boots for Fred. She also arrived on a ship in New York City from Germany in 1883 and she worked for wealthy families in Manhattan. Maybe they were on the same ship over here; Larry is not sure. But by the fall of 1885 Fred wrote to her to join him in Seattle and apparently sent her fare out west.
(Fred Kiens)
Fred Kiens

      Both were born in Germany in 1859, he in January, and she in November. We know that he was about 5-foot-nine and smoked a pipe and in that year he sported a beard as was common in those days on the frontier. That led to confusion when he sat for days in early December in the lobby of the Pioneer Square hotel where she was to stay. She didn't recognize him with the beard and passed him more than once, on possibly more than one day after she arrived. They married in Seattle on December 11, 1885, and then probably took a steamer north through Puget Sound since the railroad that would pass their cabin was four years from fruition.
      We can only wonder what Mary thought as they took a sternwheeler up the Skagit and then arrived at the Ball's camp wharf at the future town of Sterling. She would have found herself in the middle of a dense forest that surrounded the swamp that would eventually be the town of Sedro-Woolley. She noted later that she was very frightened when she saw deer and bears and other wild animals along the shores of the river and in the woods. From Ball's wharf, Fred and Mary walked to their honeymoon cabin on Fred's homestead about four miles to the northeast. Like Amariah Kalloch III, who settled a few miles northeast at Cranberry Lake, Fred probably carried Mary's belongings on a packboard on his back, just as he would have carried supplies from Ball's store.
      There were only a few pioneer wives in the area then. Catherine Woolley, who became one of the dominant women of the area, would not arrive until November 1889, but Mary got to know her afterwards. Out of the original four bachelors who settled the area in 1878, only David Batey had married — in 1880 — and he and his doctor wife, Georgiana, lived two miles southwest of the Kiens property and just northeast of Sterling. Eliza Van Fleet and her husband Emmett had homesteaded in May 1880 in the Skiyou area two miles to the southeast. Larry Kiens finds no family record of Mary socializing with Cook's wife Nan and their daughters, Nina and Fairie. When Mary arrived by sternwheeler at Ball's wharf at Sterling, she was probably welcomed by Emma Ball Welch, Ball's daughter. Larry found that Mary preferred to socialize only with other wives and families who spoke German, including Henry Holtcamp, the Dreyers, and later the Fritsches, who moved to old Woolley after they were flooded out at Sauk City
      We do not know much about Mary and those early days, but she dug right in like the other wives and helped make a home for Fred as he and his brother cleared their property, which was thick with Douglas fir rising 200 feet high. "My grandmother, Mary Kiens, is said to have single-handedly hauled her first kitchen cookstove from Sterling to their log cabin in the late 1880s. They must have had a horse, although parts of the stove were carried on her back," Larry recalls from family stories. "She was of small stature, about 5-foot-2 or less." Their first three children were born in that log cabin and the last four were born in the larger house, which burned down in about 1936. In those early years, Fred had to go work on farms on what was called the LaConner Flats between that town and Mount Vernon. He must have worried at first since he had to be gone all week. Indians would come by and want to sell or trade items and they would stay around awaiting Fred's return. She was very fearful, having heard stories of the Old West. Eventually Fred's homestead produced enough that he could stay home and sell cattle and timber along with land tracts along the north side of what is now the Jones Road.
      Larry's father, Joe, remembered that his father Fred was a strict disciplinarian with his family and required them to speak German at home. His old-country ways caused a problem when he tried to force one of his daughters to marry a neighbor and she left home. The three boys were required to sleep in a separate out-building and it was there that they took up chewing Days Work plug tobacco, a custom of the day that lives on. Joe also recalled that Fred took them by train to the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in 1909, a real treat for farm boys who rarely traveled outside their home county.

Fred is bitten by the gold bug
      Although Fred arrived in the Northwest more than 30 years after the gold rush of California and five years after the mini-rush of the Ruby Creek area in the Cascades, he, too, was bitten by the gold bug. Maybe he was urged on by Albert Mosier, the man who platted both Woolley and Sedro. Mosier's true love outside of surveying and engineering was geology and mining. Whatever the cause, Fred would spend all his free time until the end of his life trying to extract gold from Kiens Rock, or hill, which is just north of the present Brickyard Creek Estates at the city's northern boundary.
      As Larry Kiens recalls, Fred's mine included a shaft on the hill itself and a hydraulic operation on the south side of hill, just north of the present Sapp Road. The shaft was back of where Lee Swihart's house later stood on Eikleberry Court. The shaft sloped down and back underneath the rock, following a quartz vein. Gravel from the front of the rock was washed away by water, using a wooden flume from Errol Hanson's farm by Birch Lane, and large hoses that transported water from two different springs rising out of the hillside and the creek that now runs alongside Bernard Nelson's nursery. The gravel tailings were used to gravel the first streets of Woolley in the 1890s and to build the foundation of the Catholic church in 1910 and the first buildings at Northern State Hospital from 1911 on. The front of that hill, the south side, was cut back several hundred feet by the hydraulic process. Although he never made any really good money from the mining, Fred continued it right up to his death in 1911.

Fred Kiens was friend and early client of Henry Kaiser
      We were fascinated to learn from Larry Kiens that his grandfather sold crushed rock from the gold mine to Henry Kaiser so early in that businessman's career. We know that Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, in Sprout Brook, N.Y. After several years of searching, we finally learned about Kaiser's early life from The Kaiser Story, published by Kaiser Industries:
      Henry J. Kaiser was an enterprising young man. When he was 12 years old he borrowed $5 from one of his sisters, quit school, and left home in Whitesboro, N.Y., to look for work to supplement the family income. At various times he worked as a cash boy (at $1.50 a week), retail clerk, and owned photographic studios and supply stores on the Atlantic coast. In 1906, even as his businesses were flourishing, he decided to head west and approached a hardware store in Spokane, WA for a job. The store owner had no openings, but Henry was persistent. He spotted some tarnished silverware in the store and offered to polish it up and sell it. The owner agreed, not knowing that Henry would hire 30 extra girls to do the polishing. After the project was completed, Henry sold the silverware, paid the girls and himself and gave a handsome profit to the store owner. He was placed on the payroll.
      From another family member, we learned that Kaiser returned home to marry his childhood sweetheart. When they returned to Spokane, she encouraged him to leave clerking and take more entrepreneurial risk. He soon began selling road equipment and then entered the gravel business. About that same time, in 1907, the Dempsey brothers from Michigan joined with Ed English, one of the founders of Mount Vernon, to build a logging railroad to compete with Great Northern railroad. As early as 1905, English complained to the Hamilton Herald that Hill's rail line was gouging logging companies. The result was the largest of the Pacific Northwest logging roads, the Puget Sound & Baker River Railway. Larry Kiens shared from family documents how Kaiser was involved with that project:
      Henry Kaiser played a central role in the construction of the Dempsey logging railroad line [Puget Sound & Baker River Railroad] when the rail bed was laid underneath what is now the Jones Road and John Liner Road. The right-of-way was purchased from the homesteads of both Kiens brothers. Fred Kiens arranged to sell crushed rock from his gold mine, negotiating with Henry Kaiser, who represented the Dempsey company. The rock was sold for $45 per ton and was hauled by wagons from the mine to the railroad site. Fred claimed that the rock was more valuable than any gold taken from his mine.
      Larry recalls that Kaiser was employed by a firm headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., during that project in 1907. A profile in Encyclopedia Britannica notes that, in 1913, Kaiser was working for a gravel and cement dealer in Washington when one of his clients, a Canadian road-building company, went out of business. He got a loan to take over the company's project and finished it with a profit. Larry is also researching to establish a possible family relationship between Fred Kiens and Henry Kaiser back in Germany. The next record we find of Kaiser is from 1918 when he convinced the contractor on the new Avon-Allen Road to use an asphalt mixture that Kaiser had concocted. The book, Skagit Settlers, notes:
      The paved road opened in 1919. the asphalt proved durable but the inadequate foundations in time made it a very wavy surface as the buried puncheons and gravel sunk in the swampy peat soil. Kaiser's original pavement still lies beneath the pavement. . . .
      From there, Kaiser moved on to a railroad project in California, then construction of large public works at Boulder Dam and Grand Coulee Dam. During World War II his shipyards at Portland and Oakland on the West Coast developed methods to mass-produce 1490 Liberty ships. After that he entered steel making with a major plant at Fontana, California; aluminum production in facilities first leased and later purchased from Alcoa; produced Kaiser-Frazer autos in Detroit with his partner, Joe Frazer of Jeep fame; built cargo planes for the military, and pioneered healthcare maintenance organizations through the Kaiser-Permanente system. Kaiser lived to be 85 and he and his son Edgar and their families built a summer retreat at West Sound on Orcas Island.

John Kiens has a blast with whiskey and bricks
      John Kiens was just as determined to carve his own niche and was a bit more successful at it after the turn of the century. The brothers let the Davison-Millett timber company log much of their land from 1895-97, which probably brought them the best returns from their homestead. After that logging was done, John had three different businesses on his property: a distillery, a blasting-powder factory and a brick works.
      He produced bricks first. Larry's father, Joe, remembered that the bricks were used for the first brick buildings in Woolley on the east side of Metcalf Street near the Seattle & Northern railroad tracks and along Northern avenue across the street from the train depot. They were also used for chimneys of local homes. Larry notes that the bricks were not of high quality and most of those buildings were torn down in the 1920s and '30s.
      His brickworks was located in the drainage area of the creek by the Nelson nursery and spread from there to the west end of what would be developed decades later as Sedro-Woolley Heights along the McLean Road. After that initial effort, John apparently got out of that business. Another person subsequently built another brickworks along the Sapp Road that supplied bricks for construction of Woolley buildings after the great July 1911 fire.
      A few years after the Davison-Millett logging operation ended, John leased out part of his property to a company that supplied a product that warmed many a logger's belly during a drizzly Northwest winter. The company used the old mill buildings for a distillery operation, with some for drying barley sprouts grown on the fields surrounding, and others for bunkhouses for the workers. Most of those buildings were just north of where the late Arnold Donovan lived decades later; Donovan's wife was the granddaughter of Ad Davison. The actual distilling was done some 300 feet east of the mill buildings where the manufactured-home park is today. This was not an amateurish still operation. A federal liquor inspector was appointed just for the location, a civil war veteran named Kit Carson. We have also heard many old timers refer to Carson and we hope a reader will share family memories about him. Larry never did hear what the name of the distillery was, so we hope some reader will have a memory of it. We know that the Duke of Duke's Hill used to have his Japanese houseboy drive him down the hill in the wagon to pick up refills of the staple of his diet. The distillery crew was made up mainly of Tarheels from North Carolina and was headed up by Herman Gillespie. Herman was the son of Martin Gillespie, who owned the Sedro Dray line, which transported goods from Cook's wharf. Herman came to the area in 1889 at age 17. Larry remembers Gillespie when the old timer lived on Birch lane after his legs were amputated. Herman died in 1961 at age 89.
      Starting in 1905 until about 1910, John used the same old mill buildings for production of another product that was badly needed by farmers whose property was dotted with stumps left after logging. His powder works must have been a welcomed business locally, considering the freight costs that locals were paying to have blasting powder shipped from as far away as Seattle or beyond. Larry remembers finding an old wooden door that was originally operated on pulleys and a track, with larger painted letters of "Explosives and Blasting Powder," but he cannot recall the company name. Both brothers benefited financially when Woolley incorporated less than a mile south of them in 1891 and thereafter.

Fred dies in 1911
      Just before his death, Fred bought the 80-acre Poley farm on the east side of Hansen Creek on the old Lyman-Minkler highway, just north of the Van Fleet homestead. After Fred's death on March 30, 1911, Mary had a barn built there by Fred Grandy of the Birdsview-area pioneer family. Grandy also built barn for John Kiens in 1911 on his homestead after John's original barn flattened by heavy snows in winter of 1910. The Kiens boys helped ditch and drain the land on the old Poley property so that they could grow oats there. Joe recalled that he and his brothers, Frank and Johnny, rode in wagons driven there by their father and later by uncle John over the two and a half miles through the woods.
      Mary turned into a shrewd businesswoman over the years. She had to be tough as the Northern Pacific lawyers battled her in court in 1916-17 to condemn part of her property for the new route up to Sumas. She was no doubt relieved that her younger brother, Edward B. Thiele, bought part of John's old property sometime after Fred's death. Thiele emigrated to the U.S. in 1894 and wound up in Vancouver, B.C., where he worked as a carpenter, and then moved to Fairhaven (South Bellingham), where he was a building contractor for many of that town's early buildings and the Bellingham Normal School (now Western Washington University), along with the Leopold Hotel. The Arnold Donovan family now owns the house that he built near the Sapp Road in 1925. Thiele must have been of great aid to his sister. Larry Kiens has found several Kiens families listed in Germany, the Netherlands and Ontario. "There also is a whole separate lineage of Kiens in southern California, including a family that owned two Kiens pharmacies in San Diego. Any possible connection to my grandfather would have to date back prior to 1883 in Germany."
      Larry shared a story about the failure of the First National Bank in February 1932. Back about the time of the stock market crash in 1929, Mary was in the process of selling much of Fred's original homestead. She received a check around the first of February 1932 and took it to the First National for deposit. On February 2 the bank was declared insolvent and closed its doors. Mary would have been ruined financially but the next morning banker John Guddall rode out to her ranch in his buggy and gave her the check back. He had not yet processed it. Mary died on April 3, 1947, and although she remarried to James Dillon in 1922, she is buried in the plot with Fred in the Sedro-Woolley cemetery. There was closure to the family circle in 1948 when her grandson, Larry, attended the second grade at Central School in Sedro-Woolley. The same Miss Nellie Morrow who had taught his aunts Anne and Babe at Franklin School after the turn of the century was now teaching him nearly forty years later.

In the near future, we will be sharing stories on some of the Kiens businesses plus the experiences that the Kiens boys had with local railroads and brothels, and a fascinating story about a cattle drive. Larry Kiens has supplied several stories that help us understand how one pioneer family carved their niche in the forest north of Woolley.

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Story posted in 2001 and last updated on December 1, 2005
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