Living with the Pioneers
by Elizabeth Bret with photographs from her personal collection,
When I was asked to write about what it was like living with the Percivals I wasn’t sure how to begin. I was six years old when we left Santa Monica, my mother driving me and my 15 year old brother Ross in our car stuffed with our possessions up to my grandparents house on Water Street. It was 1931. My grandmother had visited us several times in California. She had told me stories of Olympia and my grandfather and I was excited to see “Grandmama” again and to meet “Granddaddy” for the first time .
My great grandfather, Captain Sam W. Percival, had forsaken the sea in 1853 to become an entrepreneur of several businesses in the new little town. When my grandfarther John Percival was 16 he was put in charge of running one of them, the Percival’s dock, which he did for the rest of his life. But that is another story. Another sea captain from England, Charles Grainger, had settled in Olympia around the same time. His daughter, Elizabeth, was my grandmother. John and Elizabeth had two daughters, my aunt Marjorie and my mother Lorraine.
MEETING THE PERCIVALS
As we drove up to the curb in front of the house on Water Street, between 16th and 17th, both grandparents came out to greet us along with a bald man who my mother seemed to know. He was introduced as Mr. Rankin. It was many years later my brother told me the Rankins had been friends of my grandparents. Mrs. Rankin had died and my grandparents had invited him to stay with them until he resettled. As it turned out he stayed for thirty years until he died a few years after we arrived on the scene.
My grandfather looked exactly like the pictures I see of him today. Always dressed in a suit with a rather high starched shirt collar and often a bow tie. His thick steel grey hair parted in the middle, topped a kindly face. I started babbling to him and following him around the house when my grandmother told me that he was deaf and could not hear me. I soon learned If I shouted he could hear me and he could hear if adults spoke loudly. In those days hearing aids were monstrous ineffective contrivances.
My grandmother had the erect posture of the Victorian woman. How one walked was a judging point in her eyes. An accolade for someone would be “She has beautiful carriage.” Because I was tall she was constantly admonishing me for any sign of slumping She resembled the Queen Mother Mary of England, grandmother of the current Queen. I’m sure she was aware of it. She wore the small pillbox style hats Queen Mary wore. Her long white hair swept up in a French twist at the back of her head. intensified her sparkling blue eyes. I have a picture of her in her early nineties still standing tall and straight in her black suit and the pill box hat, looking very formidable although she was only about five foot five.
LIFE ON WATER STREET
We quickly adjusted to the household routine. Every morning Granddaddy would put on his hat and swinging his cane would go for a jaunty walk down Capitol Way to the dock. At lunchtime he would go to the Olympia Oyster House for his favorite oyster stew. In the late afternoon he would take the bus back (uphill) and first thing would open a can of salmon to feed his cat, Smokey. Can you imagine! Occasionally on Fridays he would come home with a bucket of Olympia oysters for our dinner. After dinner he would play solitaire at the dining room table. Later he would teach me to play checkers on the chess table. I wasn’t very good and he would chuckle as he won the game.
My brother, who loved boats, went with him often to his office, the walls of which were completely covered with photos of various ships. My brother had worked months building a scale model of Old Ironsides. the USS Constitution. My grandfather took it to his office and Noyes Talcott, a friend of my mother’s, displayed it in his jewelry shop window when the famous ship came to Olympia on its world tour.
Grandmama began working on my manners which weren’t up to her standards yet and soon had me visit her friend Mrs. Lord up the street a few blocks to “the Lord Mansion” (the current state capitol museum) to test out the manners lesson. “Remember when she comes in the room, you stand up and don’t sit down until she does. When I introduce you you say how do you do, Mrs. Lord” .and look at her face. After passing that, table manners came next. First the cutlery and when to use it and other esoteric skills, such as slicing off the top of a soft boiled egg in an egg cup. To this day I can put a Samurai to shame with my egg topping.
Mrs. Lord’s daughter lived in California so I apparently substituted for her grand daughter. She would occasionally invite me to stay the night especially on Hallowe’en when she opened her house to all children to come in and perform…. dance, recite something, play the piano, whatever. Any effort was rewarded with a small present –mostly candy. In the summer time she would move to her summer house near Butler’s Cove just south of the Country Club. Once my grandmother and I were invited for dinner and I was to spend the night. After dessert her maid carried in a silver tray with one stick of gum on it for Mrs. Lord. I was not allowed to chew gum so this was impressive but Grandmama explained the doctor had prescribed it for her digestion.
THE DARNING CLUB
The ‘Darning Club” met on a regular basis. The women had been friends since young brides. Besides Mrs. Lord was Mrs. Ingham, Mrs. Mills (Mills Funeral Home) Mrs. Bridges, and several others whose names I cannot remember. They would meet at each others houses and have lunch and then darn or sew and chat away the afternoon. On the days Grandmama was hostess Granddaddy left earlier than usual and I played outside with the kids from the neighborhood.. However I was expected to come in and speak to each of the ladies. I remember once they were discussing a book , “Oil for the Lamps of China.”
When the club met in a house on the bay I was always invited to come too and go swimming and bring a friend. If the house wasn’t within walking distance Mrs. Lord, who had a chauffeur named Ben, would pick us up. Grandmama also played bridge with some other ladies on a regular basis. Through the prism of childhood it seems life in those days was more leisurely. The depression was the reason given for my not having some things I dearly wanted…..a Shirley Temple doll, a bike, otherwise I wasn’t aware of the turmoil in the country . The occasional “tramp” (today we call them homeless) would appear asking for food and my grandmother would fix a sack lunch for him. We never saw “tramps” otherwise. They kept to the woods and the railroad tracks. Once a very old lady came to the door selling packages of needles for ten cents. My grandmother was very distressed about that.
Grandmama wasn’t a great cook. When my mother was growing up their home had been somewhere where the capitol grounds are today. They had a Chinese man named Toy who did the cooking and a lot of other things. But he had gone back to China “to die.” So we had English fare…..roast beef or lamb and lots of peas with mint sauce and creamed potatoes.
After my mother moved to Seattle I spent every school vacation with my grandparents until in high school when I had a summer job. My brother meanwhile at age 17 had shipped out on a Luckenbach merchant ship helped by my grandfather and was gone for a year. As the war built up he became a merchant seaman,
There were a number of items in the house, a chest, some chairs and the piano with red satin behind the delicate wooden carving on the front which had “come around the horn,”which meant they had come by ship around South America from Massachusetts, from Captain Sam’s and Lurana’s home. It had great significance to them. I started piano lessons from Mrs. Partlow and I practiced and practiced on that piano. It was sadly out of tune. Granddaddy had been in the Olympia Band as a young man and had been quite a musician so was lucky to be deaf and not suffer the twanging. But not deaf enough apparently. One vacation I came back and he had tuned the piano and was so pleased I had noticed, when I shouted “thank you for fixing the piano!” As a footnote I ended up with the piano in California and kept it in storage until the owner of Denny’s Restaurants bought it since he was a collector of antique musical instruments.
On Thursday Grandaddy would leave after dinner and go to the movie theater downtown. They had hearing impaired devices of some sort and they had a game, maybe Bingo, which he played. I don’t recall his ever winning anything.
On Sunday my grandmother would take me with her as she walked to the Episcopal Church which was where the current Baptist Church is now I believe. She always sat in “the Percival pew” which was next to the window with a brass plaque honoring Sam’s wife Lurana.
There were two things I can think of that totally upset my Grandmother. One was the tearing down of the original Sam W. Percival home at the east end of 4th Street Bridge in 1937. It had even once served as the temporary Governor’s manse. And the other was newspaper stories about Wallis Simpson who was marrying the Prince of Wales. She never spoke her name, only referring to her as “that woman” for ever more.
As W.W. II was developing overseas, my grandparents would sit by the radio (my grandfather cupping his ear) after dinner, in order to hear Edward R. Murrow reporting from London with the sounds of the bombs dropping in the distance and in his sonorous voice …”and that’s it from London, good night and good luck”.
I wish I knew so much more about my grandparents. If only I could ask those questions today. Therefore my memories are from conversations overheard. One was how Sam Percival had been logging on Squaxin Island for his mill at Tumwater and had fallen from a tree breaking his leg. The Indians had bundled him up in a blanket and paddled him home by canoe , bringing him up to the house and unrolling the blanket on the floor.
Once I heard them speak about Lurana Percival’s walk across the isthmus of Panama when returning to Olympia from Massachusetts. Her sister had died in childbirth. Lurana, carrying the newborn baby, chose to cut out the arduous five month trip around the horn and instead rode a mule and walked through the jungles and heat to catch a boat on the other coast. But that too, is another story.
Another was about the time Grandmama and her two daughters were on the steamship,The Queen, when it caught fire off the entrance to the Columbia River. It was February 1904.They were returning home from a trip to California. Everyone was ordered off the ship but my grandmother refused and stayed in their cabin until the captain came to her and said “Mrs Percival, I will charge you with mutiny unless you leave the ship.” The daughter of a ship’s captain understood that and they went to the lifeboats. As luck would have it the boat tipped over as it was being lowered throwing them all in the water. As they clung to an oar for quite some time in the icy water my grandmother admonished the two girls to stop crying and to act with bravery. Obviously they were rescued but fourteen others were not so lucky
END OF AN ERA
My grandfather died at age 82 in 1942. It was only then after reading the editorial in the Daily Olympian dedicated to my grandfather that I realized who the Percivals were and the part they played in the development of Olympia. It mentioned the honor and integrity of those days when contracts were sealed with a handshake and the part John Percival and the Percival dock had played in the history of Olympia along with the other early pioneers. There were more stories about him in the Marine Magazines calling him “the Dean of the Sound.” While reading old books and papers I have come to admire the toughness and fortitude, the character and ethics of those early citizens who created “our town.”
After several years my grandmother sold the house and went to live in Los Angeles with my aunt Marjorie and came home to Olympia in the summers to the Olympian Hotel traveling back and forth on a Greyhound bus. There were still some of the Darning Club left . We exchanged letters weekly and she would write of an active social life going to a “sherry tea” or luncheons .
I lived in California then and luckily my children had a chance to know their beloved “GiGi,” now in her early nineties. She came to visit us often and always arrived bringing gingerbread men from Van de Camp’s bakery. She continued to read and keep up with the news. Our friends enjoyed her company. We would ask her to stay and linger longer but she would go back to L.A. saying she wouldn’t outstay her welcome. She died in L.A. in 1962 at age 98.