Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Karen King's Story

A Sense of History

While reading the article Asarco: The End of an Era by EVE BYRON - Independent Record - 11/11/07 I realized that the Town of Ruston is almost a mirror image of East Helena, Mt.

The article highlighted the legacy this small community, now all but a ghost town, inherited from ASARCO after the smelter was closed. And while reading about East Helena and comparing it to our Town of Ruston, I realized that all too soon our community will also have lost its history unless we embrace the past and insist on keeping the past alive.

As a young child living in my grandmother’s home, I can remember so many things about growing up in this town, both good and bad. Living in Ruston we had the extended family, three generations living together under one roof. It included my grandmother, mother, three uncles, (an aunt who was already gone), and me and my two sisters. Eight people living together under one roof and only one bathroom! How did we ever manage? The extended family wasn’t unusual for the times, as many families were just like ours. My grandmother became a widow at an early age, and besides raising three sons and two daughters, she now had responsibility for me and my two sisters, while my mother worked two and three jobs.

Memories are wonderful because we tend to remember the best of times, the roar of the lions before feeding time heard all the way to Ruston School; or my aunt going off to nursing school and two older uncles off to the navy, leaving us with our youngest uncle, Ed. He seemed more like an older brother to us since he was so close to his nieces in age.

What a devil he was, always pulling pranks and the incessant teasing. Now I think back to that time and realize how difficult it must have been to have lost his father (my grandfather) as such a young boy. On the other hand, I remember my oldest uncle, Rick, occupying the bathroom for hours on end come Friday and Saturday nights, anticipating dancing with the girls at the Big Bad Wolf until the wee hours of the morning then hitting the Three Pigs (both now Ruston Inn) for some early morning breakfast. I also remember my other uncle, Tom, serving in the Navy, then returning home sharing his bigger than life stories of travels and adventures around the world. My aunt, Mary Jane, was attending nursing school, living and working with another family in order to pay her way through school.

Ruston was a tight knit community settled by immigrants who came to this small company town more than a hundred years ago. These were our ancestors, great grandparents, and grandparents. As time passes and more of the old time residents die off, a little more of the history and flavor of this community is lost. It saddens me to think that we’re losing our sense of history and soon Ruston will be just another bedroom community of Tacoma, an extension with no distinction.

Over this past holiday season, my sisters and I reminisced with family members about the “good ol’ days” remembering the men first hired by the smelter and stories of our neighbors. While recounting these memories we talked about our ancestors who were immigrants from all walks of life, who wanted only to provide a good and solid community in which they could raise their families. Ruston was made up of folks who moved here from Italy, England, and Scandinavia just to name a few: They were our grandfathers and fathers who worked hard, returning home at the end of their shift laden with dirt and dust and carrying their empty lunch pails. Our grandmothers suspected long before it had a name or became public that this dirt and dust was contaminated and toxic. Yet despite the fact that these were tough men, physically strong, quick tempered and all too often cranky (the arsenic I suspect), they all too often died in the prime of their lives. Our ancestors toiled every day in the bowels of the smelter, concerned only with doing the best job they could and proud of their labors, expecting in return a decent weekly pay check in order to support their families.

Ruston was a company town and families lived their lives around the smelter. Nowadays, company town has such a derogatory connotation, but in those days it was a source of pride. We could set our clocks by the smelter whistle, waking up to the plant whistle sounding the start of the work day, and beckoning students not to be late for the start of school. It blew at 8am, 12 noon, and 3pm sharp. This was a comforting sound to us. But when the smelter whistle blew four short blasts, it also meant impending doom to us, meaning there was a fire, accident or some other catastrophe.

The smelter not only provided our families with the means to support their families, it also provided the tax base to support our town. Garbage pick up was provided free of charge and not just once a week. The smelter originally provided a community center located at the bottom of 53rd Street overlooking the waters of Commencement Bay. The center included a skating rink, bowling alley, pool tables, a boxing ring, and a variety of other activities available for town residents. It later closed and sat abandoned for many years, subject to vandalism and squatter kids taking it over as their club house. Later it was completely torn down. And although I don’t remember the community center, I do remember Fun Land located on the hill above the yacht club. The games, swings, bumper cars were just a few of my favorites. But it was the cotton candy that really captured me and for years I resented my Uncle Ed for having eaten my cotton candy I had stored in the pantry. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered cotton candy evaporates leaving only a puddle of pink sugar behind!

I sit in amazement listening to my mother and uncles tell stories of their childhood and growing up in Ruston. I listen to them describe the pranks they pulled while houses were being built. Like the Gallagher house on the corner of 53rd and Winnifred. A construction crew was using a horse and plow to dig the basement of the home. One of the boys (I dare not say who) decided it would be fun to see what might happen if they shot the horse with their sling shot. Needless to say the horse shot up on its rear legs, turned and ran towards Fun Land, dragging the plow behind. Or one Halloween when several of the “boys” filled a bag with horse manure, setting it on fire while placing it on a certain neighbor’s porch, then ringing the door bell and running. There used to be a lot of crab apple trees kiddy corner from what now is Don’s Market. Several of the town “boys” would fill their pant pockets with this ammo and as the train roared by, they would pellet the hobos riding the steel wheels. Only one day, one of these hobos jumped off the train and chased the boys down the east alley of Winnifred. While much too afraid to even look behind them while running, once they reached the safety of their yard they then dared to peek to see if they were “home free”.

My Uncle Ed had free access to almost any area of the Point Defiance Zoo and he often took care of the lions, feeding them and cleaning their cages. One time, on a hot summer day, he and his friend, Kenny Pitts, found a bowling ball and took it into Norma’s cage as a new play toy for her. Unfortunately for the boys, Norma really liked the bowling ball and fell asleep with it under her paw. Not thinking twice, Uncle Ed snuck into Norma’s cage attempting to remove the bowling ball. Norma became startled at being awoken and grabbed Uncle Ed’s arm clawing it almost to the bone. Knowing he would be in deep trouble if his mom and dad saw the wounds when he got home, Uncle Ed put on a long sleeve shirt before sitting down to the dinner table, but sweat was running off his forehead from the heat. And then my Aunt Mary Jane told grandma she should ask Eddie why he was wearing a long sleeve shirt during the middle of summer on such a hot day. (Ruston has always been a small town, and there are no secrets, not now, and not then.) As it turns out, someone had seen the incident and told Mary Jane who at the time was working at the drug store. Grandpa told Eddie to roll up his sleeve and said something like “doesn’t look too bad to me; put a band aid on it”. And Grandma told him he should probably stay away from the zoo for a few weeks, resulting in completely demoralizing Mary Jane who had hoped Uncle Ed would get into big trouble.

It seems like everyone had a vegetable garden in those days. We had a large garden that included tomatoes, string beans, snap peas, carrots, corn and probably several others that I’ve forgotten. We also had a plum tree, along with apricots, raspberries, strawberries, pears, apple and cherry trees. Grandma did a lot of canning using the bounty from her garden, and was an avid baker. She managed to accomplish these activities despite the fact she had no kitchen counters!

Mondays were always wash day and these were the days before automatic washers or dryers. Grandma always hung her laundry to dry, using the woodshed that fenced the alley, the clothes line if it wasn’t raining, and always the back room or what we now call the utility room. I never once saw my Grandmother wear pants, as she always wore a dress. Sundays were a big deal in our house. It started with Grandma getting us ready for church wearing our best shoes and outfits, while she always wore a hat, gloves, and of course a dress. We attended the Lutheran Church located on the corner of 52nd and Pearl, then returned home where Grandma would fix a pot roast with all the trimmings for dinner.

To the south of our house lived Mrs. Wallace. As kids we were always kind of scared of her. Grumpy, frumpy, and always complaining, we hated it when Grandma would have to go some where and we would stay with her even if just for an hour or two. Her house was located on the property where Patti and Lyle Hardin currently live. Mrs. Wallace’s house sat way back on the property hugging the alley with a very long side walk leading to her house. There was a short white picket fence that separated her yard from ours and Mrs. Wallace would always come to the fence and yell “yodie, yodie” in that high shrill voice calling my Grandmother to meet her at the fence. Mrs. Wallace always conned us into doing chores for her in exchange for a few pennies, but the pennies seldom ever came.

Speaking of pennies. The corner store then owned by Diek and Ruth had penny candy. We could pick from bubble gum, wax lips, peanut butter squares, little coke bottles filled with some kind of sweet liquid, and so many other candies. Or if we had been really good and completed all our chores, we might be able to get a fudge bar that cost seven cents or popsicles that cost a nickel. The bus cost a nickel to ride, and the movies were ten cents, unless you went to the Blue Mouse where they charged only a nickel! As kids, we were given a weekly allowance of 25 cents. Early on we discovered that if we planned it well, we could ride the bus to the movies, pay our way into the movies, buy a treat and still have a nickel left over for the return bus ride home. Sometimes we spent too much and would have to get our bus money in pennies, hoping that the bus driver never noticed that we shorted him a penny or two.

Our community was so close knit, we never locked our doors. In fact, the milk delivery driver from Foremost always brought our milk and eggs into the house and placed them in the refrigerator. Bob the mailman always stopped at our woodshed to use the ax to cut his Blackjack gum pack in half, then doled out a half of a stick of gum to each of us kids. What a treat that was. Like a town crier of old, he always brought grandma the neighborhood news of who was ailing, who was moving, or who was returning. Postage was 2cents then, or a penny for a postcard.

As kids attending school at Ruston we had to be on our best behavior because our teachers had also taught our Mom, aunts and uncles. They knew who to call if we talked out of order or how to handle our excesses. One time I had my mouth taped because I talked too much. (I won’t say which teacher.) The school basement became our best friend since the weather prohibited us from playing outdoors at recess most times. We could play dodge ball, kick ball and other games without becoming drenched. We also huddled there during the duck and hide earthquake drills.

Ruston was a community in the truest sense, where each person could count on the person next to them, their neighbors and friends who didn’t need to be asked to help, but who always seemed to show up on the door step at just the right time. Neighbors helped each other out without regard to pay or favor. Kids were expected to help out as well, regardless of how small their efforts might be. Sweeping the snow off of an elderly neighbor’s walkway, mowing their lawn, helping to paint a house, whatever the task might be.

I still remember gathering flowers for favorite neighbors on May Day and ringing bells, leaving the flowers on the door matt and quickly running and hiding somewhere from behind a tree where we could peek and her them callout a "Thank you. They're beautiful. Happy May Day." Of course the flowers we picked came from their yard and usually included their prize roses or some other grand flower.

We all pitched in creating a community we were proud to live in. Nowadays we hear people say we either have or don’t have a “sense of community”. That’s unfortunate, because growing up in this community we had the real deal, which brings me to our current status.
Our town council is comprised of newcomers who have no history or roots to Ruston. They extol the virtues of wanting to live in Ruston because of the ideal of a “sense of community” that Ruston provides. But the concept and the agendas of community are in conflict.

In order to have a community we as a people must come together to work for a common ground. We don’t want or need a “sense of community”, but rather neighbors who truly care for one another, and know that we’ll be there for each other. Regardless of political or religious affiliation, we need to support what’s best for the community as a whole. Right now we are facing the battle to hang on to our Town of Ruston. We are facing a huge hurdle of many Council members who are willing to sell out Ruston and annex us into Tacoma.

They have demoralized the fire fighters who constantly train to keep their skills polished in order to deliver the best possible service available. Yet many council members have over stepped their authority, usurping the Mayor’s responsibility, by attempting to dismantle the fire department and again, rely on Tacoma for services that will cost more and require a longer response time. Think of the jump in property taxes alone that would come with annexation to Tacoma!

Personally, I don’t understand the move to dismantle the fire department that has served us extremely well over the years, and is comprised of volunteers who continually practice their skills in order to deliver prompt and quality service. Why anyone would want to pay more for less and poorer quality of service seems to reflect the disposable fast food mentality of these newbie’s.

We can no longer sit back and think that because someone was elected that they will do the right thing, or will adequately represent us and the town's needs. The current council is arrogant, has a personal agenda that doesn’t reflect the needs or wants of Ruston, and believe they can bully the citizens into submission. We can do nothing and become part of Tacoma or we can stand up and be counted if we want our community to survive.

Come to the next meeting on: Monday, Jan. 14th
At: 6 pm

Your neighbors, the Algeos and the Kings at 5227 No. Winnifred invite you to our home prior to the work session on the 14th, to share your memories of Ruston over coffee & light refreshments. Then we can walk to the meeting together (or ride) and listen to the "powers that be" - then chorus our "Keep Ruston” opinions.

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