Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Woodinville: The Wine Country Next Door

About four years ago we wandered into a quiet wine bar called Purple in a strip mall near Woodinville’s old Hollywood School building. It was a fun spot, we had a terrific late lunch, a wonderful conversation with the bartender and vowed to return soon. Of course, we did not. Last week, we finally did return and found that the entire strip mall and a couple of houses nearby had been taken over by wine tasting rooms, Purple was jammed and wineries had moved into the historic grade school nearby.

In the four years we procrastinated about returning to Woodinville's Purple, an additional seventy wineries set up shop in Woodinville, most in the Hollywood District and what the wine community calls The Warehouse District, where much of this wine is made. Others are dotted about the landscape though well concentrated around the city.

Later, we’ll get into some of the reasons why they are all here, but the outcome is terrific. I’ve always envied the close-in wine experience that northern California has where a dash from San Francisco to Sonoma is an hour and a half, or the experience in Walla Walla where many of the tasting rooms are located in the downtown. Now we have something close by as well, even if I wasn’t paying attention to it.

We’ve always had good wine close by in Woodinville, just not enough variety. Since the 1970s, Ste. Michelle and a bit later Columbia Vintners and DeLille Cellars provided a lovely nearby wine experience, but wine tasting needs lots of new tastes.  Tasting is about discovery.

Among the reasons for this explosion of tasting rooms was a law passed in the 2003 state legislative session that allowed vintners to have two tasting rooms. For a small winery on the east side of the state that meant your one-to-one relationship with the customer was subject to the limits of Benton City’s charm. A new economic impact study of the state’s wine industry sets out the numerical values of a more urban location. The study reports that about about 30,000 wine country visits occur annually to the central and south central Washington homes of Washington wines in Yakima, Prosser, Benton City and Walla Walla, while 500,000 people a year make their way to Woodinville.

This is valuable to some established desert wineries who now have a visible presence on the west side of the state – Covey Run, DiStefano, Facelli, J.Bookwalter, Silver Lake, Long Shadows, among others. It is also extremely useful to Woodinville wineries with active special event venues, like DeLille, where its winery is completely booked for weddings and other major events that lock out the taster. DeLille tried to make tasting by appointment only but the events still overwhelmed their ability to bring people to their lovely venue and splurge on a few bottles of very special wines.

But the greatest beneficiaries are, of course, the dreamers, the garageistas who want to throw it all in and make 2,000 cases of the best wine nobody has ever heard of – yet.

After lunch– we were just able to get into Barking Frog before it closed its lunch service – we strolled back and forth across the parking lot of the strip mall, meeting some of these people, hearing how they got into the wine racket and how they had thrown everything into the pot, committed to the wine life as nothing before. It was very sweet and we grew attached to them, aided by mostly generous pours.

Later that week, I went to the website called ‘Woodinville Wine Country,’ the association site for many Woodinville wineries, and read through each website, 57 in all. While websites do not necessarily offer a window into the soul, they often speak in the true voice of the owners who put them up. I noted the start dates of the wineries, which showed the growth pattern of the industry here. Of the 57 wineries listed on Woodinville Wine Country site, 37 had started after the year 2000. Of that number, ten got underway after 2006. Ten of the wineries listed on the site started business during the decade of the nineties, four during the 1980s and two before 1980.

Some of the stories of the 57 are lovely. There are lots of love stories in the wine business, and not all centered on a particular grape. Two of the new winemakers described their beginning with a honeymoon in northern Italy, one couple deciding, in a kind of half-baked way to start a wine store, followed by a shrug and a shout – “hell, let’s sell our own wines! ”Another was a corporate pilot who flew a couple of established winemakers back to Seattle and, by flight’s end, was smitten. A guy and his brother-in-law cashed in a Wisconsin dairy farmer’s life and started making wine in Walla Walla. Another story is Guardian Cellars, a winemaker who has a day job as a cop. Many apprenticed somewhere in the wine business, fronting in the tasting room, spending their vacations as a volunteer at crush. Some came from brewing to the vineyard, others were second or third generation wine kids. A large number of them had a combination of University of California at Davis, Washington State University, South Seattle Community College and the Boeing Wine Club associated with their journey.

Best typo of the 57? “Give us a swirt!”

The most common word used, without a doubt, was “passion.” The second most common word would be“quality,” for the kind of wines they want to make. Another very common word of this group was “sourced,” meaning they had no vineyards and would get their grapes from people who did own vineyards and grew the best grapes.

It is easy to like these people, easy to like their wines and easy to worry about how their dreams will work out. They face an array of issues in today’s wine business led by the continued fall out of the recession on the premium wine business and too many winemakers chasing too few grapes.

Among the impacts on the industry of the Great Recession’s was consumers moving away from super premium wines, those more than $15/bottle and ultra-premiums, those over $30. Many wineries either sold lower or held back inventory hoping for a quicker recovery from the recession than we have experienced. While these higher priced wines are making a recovery in 2012, they are still not back at pre-recession price levels. Another recessionary impact is that the value of many properties went down, making it harder to use land to leverage financing.  2010 and 2011 were difficult years for the wine industry, particularly in California. There were 18 defaults of growers or wineries in the Napa Valley in 2010. In 2011, 31 wineries in California, Oregon and Washington sold, some of them distressed sales, though others associated with generational change.

Another major issue is the growing shortage of the fruit these winemakers want to buy. The average cost of a ton of grapes in Washington state is about $1,100 a ton, but the premium red grapes these winemakers want to crush cost four times, even ten times as much, because of the quality of soil they grow in, their well-earned name and cultivation techniques that reduce the volume of fruit but concentrates the flavors in the remaining clusters.

One rule of thumb says that a ton of grapes will make about 600 bottles or 50 cases of wine. For a winemaker trying to make 2,000 cases a year, that means 40 tons of grapes, or about $160,000 just for the fruit, assuming you can get it. Once you’ve bought fruit, you then have to get it across the state to Woodinville. 

The size of the California industry and demand for fruit have made shortages a major issue. Last year, California added 400 wineries and very few new vineyards.  The good side of this phenomenon is that recession struck wineries desperate to sell will be let down gently –provided they own grapes.

Even in a time of high demand, we are not growing enough grapes because new grapes take lots of time to reach maturity and require a lengthy financial commitment, expensive land and don’t forget the water. All of these things are in very short supply. It takes three years before you can harvest a grape and five, even six years before the vines are in full production. According to a University of California at Davis study, a generic 35 acre farm with existing vines that you want to take out and replant with 30 acres of a more desirable grape, will cost $160,000/acre over three years to produce just one ton of grapes/acre in year three. Assuming $4,000/ton for those grapes, your income over three years is $120,000 against $4.8 million in cost. By the way, the UC Davis study doesn’t count the cost of the winemaker's salary.

While the Columbia Valley is one of the most desirable areas for growing fruit in the state, water there is a real difficult part of the equation. It’s very hard to find water for additional grapes in the Red Mountain AVA around Prosser, one of the state’s high end grape producing areas. While there is water in the Columbia Valley, there are many competitors for it, like federally protected fish. The only sure way to use additional Yakima water is to save substantial amounts of it from current uses. The Department of Ecology and the Kennewick Irrigation District have embarked on a plan to divert Yakima water further east into the Irrigation District’s delivery system, establish an aggressive conservation campaign while reallocating former farmland water in urbanizing areas, all to create about 3,000 acre feet of new water that would be used, in part, to irrigate 1,750 acres of new wine grape production at Red Mountain and add some additional water for salmon in the Yakima River. The best case scenario has this being done by 2015 at the earliest with a cost of $15,000,000.

These great wine growing areas are also heavily allocated over significant periods of time to existing wineries, who buy blocks of grapes for long periods of time and have them tended just so. We once bought a wine tasting dinner at an auction donated by an owner of a farm in the Red Mountain AVA. We tasted wines produced from grapes growing within a few feet of one another, but farmed differently and made with the style of the different wine makers. We tasted these grapes as relatively new vintages and ones that were many years old. The way they performed over time, the craziness of wet springs and dry harvest and other weird weather, the style of the winemakers, all conspired to splash, across the tongue, the incredible magic of wine. I guess I digress, but the rather woozy point here is that those winemakers are not going to give up those beautiful grapes anytime soon to a growing group of winemaking newbies. Sourcing great grapes, the single most important step in making great wine, is one of the first problems as they shut the garage door and head for Woodinville.  

The recession shows through in the grape acreage stats. In 2010, just over 1100 acres were planted after several years of 3,000 acre/year plantings.

A consumer squeeze on wine producers, the growing shortage of grapes, the cost and financial risk of producing new grapes, the difficulty of distribution, along with the maturing of the state’s wine industry all come together to induce consolidation. Precept Wine, once a small outfit who then partnered with a wine entrepreneur in 2003, is now making a million cases a year. It recently purchased Canoe Ridge and Sagelands in Washington as well as Ste. Chapelle in Idaho. In addition to these three, Precept owns Apex, Waterbrook, HOUSE, Washington Hills, Willow Crest, Primarius and Sawtooth Estate in the Pacific Northwest. It is the largest private winemaker in the region and has 15 vineyards totaling nearly 4,000 acres, about 8% of the state’s total wine grape acreage and 11.5% of the state’s producing vineyards. Their focus is on the $15 bottle market and further expansion.

In addition to Precept, Gallo has now entered the Washington market with its purchase of Covey Run and Columbia, a company that is the ultimate image for these new young winemakers, a direct descendent of a Laurelhurst garage in 1962. Who knows where it all leads, but Gallo and Precept will certainly acquire more brands in the state, but can they carry the weight of new grape production?

There’s another force for consolidation, coming a bit down the road because Washington winemaking is still a relatively young industry.  Many of the industry’s founders in Washington are getting older and ready to shift the business to another generation or sell to a company that is crazy to get its grapes.

Perhaps the most newsworthy sale in Washington state last year was the Betz Family Winery to an Arizona entrepreneur. Betz wines are among the very best produced in the state and Bob Betz is a Master of Wine, one of perhaps 300 people worldwide with that certificate. Betz is one of the many gifted winemakers who emerged from Ste. Michelle over the years.

A survey of the California growers and winemakers by the California Wine Institute revealed that 60% of them said they contemplated generational or ownership changes taking place by the end of this decade.  We should expect that is well.

On one of our trips across the parking lot of the strip mall, we were holding a tooth brush from Dusted Valley winery, a benefit of being a new member of the Stained Tooth Society, aka their wine club. We talked to a friend of my wife’s from Washington State University, a former tech industry and now wine industry entrant celebrating her one year anniversary of selling William Church wine in the Hollywood District strip mall. We also made a beeline for DeLille, a wine we enjoy. We thought it cost less than it once did and responded in kind, buying a couple of bottles more. 

We left Hollywood to catch JM Cellars before it closed, a lovely space on top Bramble Bump, a hill across the railroad tracks from the Columbia Winery Chateau and capped with a small house in a forested perch once owned by two very serious plant people, who brought home and tended exotics, mostly trees, from around the world.

Margaret and John Bigelow are, in many ways, the success story so many of these young winemakers have in mind. Both were tech business people, both yearned for a better lifestyle – the same hard work but richer emotionally –and started making wine in their basement in 1998. Soon, they were preparing a place to make wine in the light of day, atop Bramble Bump.

They wanted to get to 2,000 cases, a kind of magical accomplishment that carries some respect. But John needed to know more. On top of his voracious reading and seminars at UC Davis and elsewhere, he added work in Walla Walla, apprenticing during the summers to some great winemakers.

Not yet ready, in ‘03 he returned to the tech biz for three years while he continued to prepare and make wines at night and on weekends. In ‘06 he returned to winemaking full-time. The ability to make good wine is the ultimate calling card and, in 06, a call came from the Leonetti people in Walla Walla, Washington state wine royalty, to be sure, and they wanted to know if the Bigelows were interested in owning a piece of a new vineyard they were starting up -- then came a timely call from an investor, Mike Bezos, Amazon Jeff’s stepfather.

Their place is modest, but somehow it shines. You don’t realize that the house is a modest split level home from the early 60’s, but it is painted dark gray and updated with iron work, cool glass and all encompassed by the exotic trees. The fact that the father of one of the owners lives upstairs gives its shine a human scale luster, a glow you won't get in a corporate giant.

The wine, by the way, was wonderful and we set outside with a glass of pinkie boy and let the sun wash over us until the groom and his father-in-law arrived for the wedding that would be happening within the hour. Because of the location, parking is at a premium, so a valet helped shoo us out.  The guy bringing out our car was someone who worked as an analyst at the financial services company where my wife also works.

“I’ve been doing this for years,” he says. “I love anything about the wine business. And the owners are great- they treat us like members of the family.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

George Bartholick and how he fixed the Pike Place Market

The recent completion of the Pike Place Market $70 million infrastructure replacement project is now done and the market looks fit and hardy, proving that the market at 105 years, is really the new 50. 

It was all done just in time for the start of the cruise ship season and the crowds of tourists that come in the summer, crowds I don’t necessarily like but support fully because they benefit the city and my many friends who work in the market and because the place is such an American treasure we simply have to share it without too much complaint.

The remodel made me much more aware of the many changes in the market that somehow slide into the place and seem old on their second day. Except the pig, the brass piggy bank at the market’s entrance under the clock, which has been under the clock since 1986.  I still feel highly Seattle when I say “meet you under the clock” and have tried to stick to that description for many years. The pig has changed the whole thing around and when I email “meet you under the clock” I get a response that says “why don’t we meet at the pig?” followed by a Smiley Face emoticon. 
I love the gum wall, something that just showed up and must drive the health department crazy.  Another is the bierstube that Uli’s Sausages created.  I went in the other day and had a spicy Italian sandwich and a brew and felt pretty good about where I was sitting and what I was doing.

The Pike Place Market After Its Completion
UW Collections
While there, I asked myself if George Bartholick would have thought the place a good idea.  George was the architect and planner we entrusted with the complete structural remaking of the market beginning in 1974 and who completed the job six years later in 1980.  It is one of the great historic preservation jobs of its time and remains a great one today.  Little was known about how the market had been constructed or how the damage from fires and earthquakes had been repaired, if they had.  Record keeping had been sloppy, plans and documentation often absent.  The original construction was done in haste and on the cheap.

Its reconstruction was not.  The project had a lot of surprises and all those surprises cost a lot of money.  Planners in the Department of Community Development took to calling the project “Our Vietnam.”  They also worried whether the investment would truly pay off.  When the renovation started, 80% of the market was not rented. 

Seattle PI
George explained to me once that he had essentially put a new backbone of steel running north and south of the main market structure.  To that, he added steel ribs running east to west.  The buildings were attached and hung on that basic structure.

It was a bohemian place that he took on and he put back largely unchanged, still bohemian, however updated, and with a backbone of steel.  He often won credit for checking his considerable ego at the door and putting the market back pretty much as it was physically.  He had no control what happened to the spaces he remade, but they seem to fit today.

Courtesy of Robin Bartholick
George is the little guy to the right of the
steering wheel
George was able to do what he did, in part, because he was a bona fide bohemian himself.  He grew up in Bellingham, the son of a shoe shop owner who liked to do things up right, like building a giant, mobile shoe that was a mainstay in the little parades that popped up around Bellingham, like the Tulalip Days Parade.

George was just the right age to join the greatest generation’s great quest, serving as a navigator on B-24 bombers making up the 446th Bomb Group.  He guided his aircraft, the I Hope So! to Dresden the night of February 13, 1945, the night it was destroyed, the night some of Europe’s finest architecture collapsed into the firestorm. 
446th Bomb Group
George is kneeling on camera right
Getting the airplane back was the biggest problem for the young navigators of the time, like George.  After crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, The 446th Bomb Group deployed in England in November of 1943 and finished in April of 1945.  In their first missions, beginning the last two weeks of December, 1943, 31 crew were killed during six bombing runs over Germany, mostly over Bremen.   In January, February and March of 1945, the war resistance on the ground was waning but the crews flew nearly every day into seas of flak.   George would have seen the new Messerschmitt jets the Germans built and deployed late in the war, their appearance is noted in the logs of the 446th.  I knew George pretty well and he never talked to me about this part of his life, though I certainly wish he had.

He came back to the University of Washington, got an architecture degree there and headed back to Europe where he worked over the next six years in Holland, Sweden and Switzerland.  He also exercised his skill in drawing.

In 1953, George showed up one day at the Paris home of Alex Trocchi, a Scottish writer and one of the founders of the literary magazine Merlin, the first magazine to publish Pablo Neruda and Samuel Beckett and frequently Henry Miller.  It was highly competitive with The Paris Review and Trocchi was among the first of the Beat Generation.

George had drawn several panels showing Crusader soldiers and Muslim soldiers fighting with a red cloth as their banner.  At the end of the panel, all the soldiers on each side were dead and only the red cloth remained.  It got into the magazine along with a piece of criticism by Beckett, then almost completely unknown to American readers. 

George was very tall, had a full head of gray hair and expansive eyebrows.  I’ve never seen bigger.  He frequently wore black and in the winter he would wear a black wool cape, attached 19th century style at the neck, over his suit. 

George kept odd hours, working most of the night and then sleeping through the morning, arriving at the market for breakfast about one o’clock.  His staff had been working since early in the morning and would prepare materials for his review.  While a supportive and kind man, George could be picky and demanding.  He wanted things done right, but mainly he worked for the joy of it and the relationships he found at work.

Sometimes his staff would play tricks on George, like designing an apartment that had a shared medicine cabinet with the unit next door, mocking a commercial for Right Guard Deoderant then receiving heavy play on televised sporting events.  George would take home such plans, discover the joke, and glow with the knowledge he had hired some fine, clever people but who had to be watched. 

He liked to say about the market project that it was like a forester restoring a mountain meadow, “If he does it right, no one will know that he was there.”

Western Washington University
We entrusted George with three of western Washington’s most important institutions.  The market, of course, is probably the most visible, but his first great project was Western Washington State College where he was the campus planner and architect from 1963-1979 and, with legendary state senator Barney Goltz, was largely responsible for one of the state’s most lovely college campuses, a sculpture park long before we got one in Seattle.  As the campus architect and planner, George always had a commission for some of the state’s best architects like Fred Bassetti and Ibsen Nelsen, as well as for the artists they liked.  A Bellingham native, George also provided the emotional and technical energy necessary to save the old falling down City Hall, now the amazing Whatcom County Museum.   

The third project was his most controversial and one he considered a failure, though, on reflection, it was just the start of a process that led to a great outcome, today’s Woodland Park Zoo.
Zoo on the left, Aurora Avenue and
Lower Woodland Park
Google Earth
A Nova Scotian named Guy Phinney built an estate around his home at the top of the hill overlooking Green Lake and surrounded it with 90 acres of trails, landscaping, a band stand, a bathing beach and a few deer and other exotics, all connected by his own, private trolley car.  There already was a zoo in Seattle, privately owned, in the Leschi neighborhood, where a trolley line, a casino, a bathing beach and a few animals behind fences lured Seattle residents to the new real estate
opportunities looking out over Lake Washington. 

The city annexed the Phinney property when it annexed Fremont, in 1891, and finally bought Phinney’s estate in 1900 for $100,000, causing a fire storm of complaints about purchasing a rich man’s private park, now known as Woodland Park and located so far from Seattle. 

When the Olmsted brothers started work on the comprehensive parks plan in 1903, they were delighted to include this property into their plan and added some playfields along the Green Lake side of the park and thought it a good idea to expand its tiny zoo with ‘hardy animals.’

After the lots had been sold in Leschi, the developers thought to gift the animals from their zoo to the city’s collection.  Other acquisitions followed, often through gifting.  One of the largest acquisitions was Tusko, the elephant thought to be the largest elephant in captivity.  Tusko died after creating a great drama in Seattle, being seized by Mayor John Dore and dispatched to the Woodland Park Zoo until the city was paid for his up-keep by the deadbeat owner who, some said, was plotting to kill Tusko and stuff him for a museum.

Tusko in 1933
Seattle PI
While a diversion from our story, Tusko requires some of our attention.  Tusko was known to have a temper and if you had been treated like Tusko, you’d have a temper too.  By 1933, the biggest elephant in captivity had been sold by a legitimate circus to a series of small time operators who would show up at local events with Tusko and his size as the attraction. 

Tusko was well-known in the Northwest because, eleven years previous, the animal had gone crazy in Sedro-Woolley where he threw his trainer, took off through town where he broke up a street dance and continued on a 30 mile, two-day rampage destroying cars, a couple of barns and many utility poles before he came upon a still outside the town in the woods where he ate all of the fermenting sour mash and calmed down.   I'm not sure about the still but the Bellingham Herald was and it remains part of the lore.  Everybody knew Tusko.

Later, while with his small time torturers were exhibiting him in Portland over Christmas of 1931, Tusko began ripping up his tent and stood triumphant among the debris with all but one of his tethers broken.  Jack O’Grady and Sleepy Gray, who had bought Tusko for his feed bill at the Oregon State Fair, where he had been abandoned, quickly called police.  The police chief, Leon Jenkins,  decided on the spot to shoot Tusko and assembled several officers to do the deed.  However, Portland Mayor George Baker wouldn’t have it and ordered the police to holster their weapons.  The Mayor had in mind keeping the elephant for the Portland Zoo, but as in so many events in Tusko’s last years, it all fell through.  Tusko, the biggest unwanted elephant in the world, soldiered on. 

While in Seattle in ’33, Tusko got the attention of another mayor, John Dore, who waded into a controversy and a comedy of errors that left the elephant stranded in downtown Seattle with the city feeding him.

Then Dore heard that his owner planned to shoot the animal, stuff and sell him.  That was enough for Dore.  He seized the animal for non-payment of feed and proposed taking him to the zoo, which authorities ultimately did, closing down streets along the way and walking Tusko up to the zoo. 

Just as they got Tusko settled and, after 80,000 visitors came to the zoo to see him, the zoo started a campaign raise the money to keep him fed and in a decent shelter.  Weeks later, Tusko laid down on his side and died of a blood clot to his lungs.

Seattle PI
Just to the south of the zoo the George Washington Bridge was being built, a high level crossing of Lake Union.  It was, until 1932, a kind of bridge to nowhere as citizens had Seattle’s very first freeway fight over what they then called a ‘speedway’ through Woodland Park.  The speedway would turn out to be Aurora Avenue North and it would, save for a a trio of small and little used bridges, divide the park into Upper Woodland and Lower Woodland after an initiative to abandon the speedway project died.

These two events motivated George Bartholick.  The horrible treatment given animals by most zoos – sterile cages, restraints, nothing to break the monotony of imprisonment – and the division of Woodland Park by Aurora Avenue moved George to weave those two unrelated events into a singular theme that George saw as the centerpiece of his zoo project.  He wanted to cross Aurora with a superlative, glass covered zoo exhibit and that would create room for expansion of the zoo into Lower Woodland Park where animals could have more room for natural living spaces.

Aurora Avenue
UW Collections
Rather than solve the divisions created by Aurora, George’s plan made them sharper.  The fact that this really cool idea doubled the budget was a problem and the recreation interests, seeing a major encroachment, organized.  And a woman named Benella Caminiti, who George could never understand because she both worked at the Washington Primate Research Center and hated zoos, became involved and became a powerful opponent.  Passionate and tireless, Caminiti ultimately got George’s plan to the Seattle ballot where it was defeated.  The zoo director, an interesting and  creative businessman whose own passion was a world class zoo, resigned. 

George was devastated, but as things happen, a young man named David Hancocks, who was part of a consulting team brought in after the election, became director of the zoo and soon created a natural space in which lowland African Gorillas could live much more normally and still be seen closely.  The exhibit was fantastic and put the zoo on the international map.  It also became the standard for further exhibits at the zoo that respected the animals.  Other exhibits followed, the African Savannah, Asian Primates and a New England Marsh followed.  Ultimately, the zoo’s exhibits won county-wide financial support and gave it the resources to set out on another series of terrific exhibits that mark it as one of the fine zoos in the world.

George got to see many of the changes to the zoo and they made him less bitter about his zoo plan.  He moved on to the Pike Place Market Project and made his great mark there and was famous everywhere for his skill at historic preservation.

He moved about – teaching in Mexico, fixing buildings in Mt. Zion Monument Park and finally back to Bellingham, where he died, in 1998.

I figured that George would have thought Uli’s place fit into the market because it was simple and fun with no pretense.  Like so many places in the market it is a hole in the wall that shows off a fine surprise when you enter.  I also figured it would be terrific to have George be able to see how the market fits into the plans for the new waterfront, with a kind of cascading connection down from the top of the hillside, where the market sits with its steel backbone, down to the waterfront.  George would have something to say about it and would know viscerally what it might do or not do for the market.

I thought about another beer at Uli's but decided against it and made my way through the market, buying peonies and early raspberries, all the time wishing that George would have made that play on Aurora Avenue and wondering who in the future will rise up to his cause and unite Woodland Park once again.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Finding Charley Royer

I have the cattle industry in Wyoming in mind today because my grandfather was a cowboy there who never got to tell me his stories because he died 100 years ago this year, a 40 year old man with a wife and two children who was swept off a snowy Wyoming mountainside near where he had homesteaded, in Jackson Hole. 

They found him eight hours later. His heels were up against his head and the crowbar he was using to wedge dynamite into rocks along the path of the Nelson Irrigation Canal was resting on his chest. 

We know most everything about my Mom’s family.  The Hampsons were grocers and shopkeepers, many college educated, all documented in hundreds of pictures and letters, well-positioned on the Internet today, waiting to be found with a few keystrokes. 

Not so my Dad’s family.  They were roughnecks.  They lived on the edges of the continent and sometimes fell off, or got sick or had something fall on them or blow up in their hands.  Their afterlife on the Internet is, like their real lives, on the edge.

The Internet is one kind of life after death.  If you can be found, you can be still be alive to the people who matter.  That’s why I’ve been looking for Charley Royer.  I want more of his life. 

I have a handful of possessions that tell me something about Charley Royer.  One is unusual in that it is a candid photo shot in the A. A. Brown Studio in Rawlins, Wyoming.  He’s about to lick the edge of a cigarette he has rolled while another person -- turns out it is his father-in-law to be, my great grandfather – who is looking on across a fake tree stump and other props populating the studio.  The sun has badly faded this photo, propped, as it must have been, on a windowsill for many years. 

David Cripe had bicycled from Delphi, Indiana to Wyoming and settled with other Dunkards at Spring Creek, where with members of the Foutz family, built a pretty big house near the creek.  David axe-hewed the locally cut timber, put it all together and started taking in boarders.

That's where Charley Royer met Esther Cripe, David's daughter and just 18, while Charley boarded.  They are standing in front of the home that David Cripe and the Fautz family built five miles north of Saratoga.  Charley has a ridiculous tie on, the bottom part cut off, perhaps to repair a quilt.  Estie is her earnest self, staring at the camera just like she played cribbage, one hand behind her back.  On the front, she has written, "Just Married."

A third photo shows a few heifers in a field of sage brush.  On the back, with her shaky handwriting, my grandmother writes:   

“Charley’s and my start.”
That was Charley Royer's 'herd,' a handful of cattle that made him a rancher, gave him status in his tough town and, during the good times there, provided well enough.

Something happened recently that gave me a few more items to think about and add a bit more flesh to the cold bones of Charley Royer. 

Pick Ranch Round up Crew, 1894
Charley Royer is second from left
University of Wyoming Collections
First was a picture I found in the University of Wyoming Photography Collection when I changed the search from Charley Royer to Chas. Royer.  Bingo!  There’s the young cowboy, 22 years old in 1894, working on the Pick Ranch Roundup. 

Calm and confident, he looks into the lens with his legs around an odd looking horse with a speckled face, but I’m guessing a damned fine horse that performed to Charley’s considerable horse expectations. 

Charley’s hat is cooler than most of his colleagues and his forearms are crossed easily over the top of the saddle pommel.  He looks ready for work, a tough western kid who knows hard work and doesn’t complain, though I wonder, looking hard at the photo, if he didn’t leave his rope back in the tent.

That’s the Charley Royer I’ve been waiting a long time to see.

The other thing that happened is that I found the Wyoming Newspaper Project, an on-line, searchable data base of more than a million newspaper pages.  Charley, who moved to the Snowy Hills area of Wyoming in 1893 when he was just 21, exists on a lot of those digitized pages. 

Created by the Wyoming State Archives, the Wyoming Historical Society, the Wyoming State Library, the University of Wyoming Library and the Wyoming Press Association, the data base allows you to search by newspaper, by county, by city or by key words across the data base.  It started in 2009, long after I thought I had all the information I’d likely be getting about Charley Royer without moving to Wyoming.  While still a work in progress, it will only get better – and it is free.

Charley’s choice to move to Wyoming feels like a difficult one and made just as he was coming of age.  Born in Logan, Ohio in 1872, his father, Israel Royer and mother, Nancy Ann Fox, were rural people living in a southeastern Ohio town separated from the rest of the state by the Ohio hill country and the Hocking Forest.  Charley’s birth there would have pushed the population of Logan one person closer to 2,000.

The family bumped along, south and west to Indiana, likely into Kentucky and up to Southern Illinois where Nancy Ann Fox had family.  Babies came along the way and Charley’s dad, Israel, honed his skills as a tree fruit expert and planted fruit trees for the farms they passed through and sometimes settled in. 

When Charley was in his teens, Israel answered an ad from the Sac and Fox Indian Agency in Oklahoma, then known as the Indian Territory, where several tribes were settled under government protection.  It was part of federal policy removing tribes from the east and south to the Midwest that would, President Andrew Jackson argued, make both Indian and settler safer.  The policy also contemplated a transition into agriculture and small farming for the resettled Indians, though many wanted to keep the culture they grew up in.  Israel would become a part of that policy with his tree fruit expertise.

Moses Keokuk in 1868
American Tribes
Soon, the Sac and Fox lands were full of fruit trees and Israel was friends with the Sac and Fox chief, Moses Keokuk.  When the chief’s wife died, it was a tradition to burn the teepee they lived in, but it seemed a shame to burn the brick house built for Keokuk by the government when he brought his tribe to the Indian Territory.  He moved out of the brick house and gave it to Israel for his family.  Charley probably lived in that house for a time.

However, government policy on the Indian Territory changed as pressure mounted from settlers who wanted much of the Oklahoma lands opened up for homesteading.  Israel by now was running a transportation business around Stroud, in the Indian Territory, his horse and wagon bringing goods and supplies to the Sac and Fox Agency.  In 1889, the first of several “runs for the land” occurred, with settlers allowed to claim unassigned lands in the Indian Territory.  As federal policy changed further, additional land runs were held until in 1891, Israel would join thousands of others to run for the land on the Sac and Fox reservation where the tribe ceded its reservation in return for 160 acres to each of the nearly 600 tribal members, the remaining land subject to the run for the land settlers. Israel was successful, got his land and is buried there.  The property is still in the hands of his descendants. 
That year, when he was 21, Charley headed up toward Wyoming.  He was no tree fruit guy.  Charley Royer was a cowboy.

When Charley arrived in Wyoming, the state was in considerable turmoil.  An open range war was taking place, the Johnson County War, with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association deciding on violent action against smaller homesteaders who they liked to call rustlers.  It was a particularly tough time for anyone ranching in Wyoming.  Their stock operations were badly damaged by the cattle die-offs during the blizzards of 1886/87.  It wasn’t all weather that worked against them.  The monopoly practices of the stock growers, who decided what cowboys would be hired for the round-ups, what unbranded cattle would go to whom and who was a rustler and who was not.  Those who were deemed rustlers by the association were lynched or otherwise murdered at no legal risk to the association or to their employees who actually looped the rope around the necks of people they believed were rustlers -- or those they thought were about to become one.

In 1892, the small groups homesteading in the north of the new state formed their own association, a move the stock growers, urged on by the big Johnson County ranchers, saw as abetting the rustlers. The stock growers decided to do something about it once and for all.  They first hired some muscle, 21 gunmen from Texas and one from Idaho.  Their plan was to take the train from Cheyenne to Casper, gather there and head up to Buffalo, the county seat of Johnson County, where they would seize the court house, get hold of the heavy weapons stored there and chase off or kill somewhere between 15 and 70 people they had on a list.  All of this, they thought, would take place with the full support of the good citizens of Johnson County.

On the way, they stopped at the big Tisdale Ranch, picking up some reinforcements, but while there they heard that 14 rustlers were holed up at the KC Ranch nearby.  They changed plans and laid siege to one of the cabins on the ranch where, in fact, two local cattlemen and a couple of trappers were staying there.  The two trappers tried to escape and were captured by the stockgrowers.  The private army then opened up on the cabin, killing one of the residents and, after they set fire to the house, capturing the other.

Two locals passing by saw what was happening and were detained.  However, they managed to escape and lit out for Buffalo, bringing news of the insurrection.  Buffalo was not a friendly place for the big ranchers and people there believed the big guys were after small ranchers, not rustlers, who many people in Buffalo used a different name for -- neighbors. 

After the confrontation at the KC Ranch, one of the Johnson County ranchers urged caution and the insurrection went to a ranch nearby to consider options.  Soon, the Johnson County Sheriff and a number of locals surrounded the ranch and were reinforced by state militia.  After two days, the stock growers and their muscle gave up, were arrested and several were later charged.  None were brought to trial. 

In 1897, Charley had to return briefly to the Indian Territory to help bury his dad, Israel, who died of ptomaine poisoning while transporting goods from Guthrie to Stroud. 

Estie Cripe at about 16 years
When Charley returned, he signed on as one of two boarders in John Cripe’s house in South Spring Creek, outside Grand Encampment.  David's daughter Estie lived there and soon her sister, Sadie, joined her. They had come from Indiana where the family was part of the German migration that took place before the Civil War and had a role in saving border states for the union, especially Missouri.  The Cripes were Dunkards, full immersion protestants, and Wyoming was promising.

When Charley went to his dad’s funeral in the Oklahoma Territory, Grand Encampment, Wyoming was a cattle town.  When he came back, it was becoming a copper town.  Nearby, copper ore yielding nearly 33% copper had been discovered at the Ferris-Haggarty Mine.  Soon, the Boston-Wyoming Smelter Company found a lot of money to build a smelter and an overhead tramway that ran 16 miles from the mine face to its smelter in Grand Encampment.  Suddenly, Grand Encampment was thinking about incorporating.  And it did, in 1900.  It also thought about hiring Charley Royer as a town Marshal, which it also did, in 1902, paying him $90/month. Soon they needed an opera house, and they got one of those too.

Charley worked at just about everything, calling himself a rancher, a miner, a butcher and a cowboy.  He was well-liked and wowed the folks at a costume dance in 1998 which he attended with his brother Lew as an Indian Chief, perhaps something he brought back after Israel’s funeral, perhaps something given him by Moses Keokuk.  His costume was voted the most beautiful.   

His companion at these dances was Estie Cripe and, in June, 1900, they were married in Saratoga, at the home of the Justice of the Peace -- just family present.  Then they went out to the house on Spring Creek and posed on the porch.

Grand Encampment, About 1900
His wedding announcement had him also working as a butcher partnering with a man named Norwich.  Moving into Saratoga from the Cripe place at Spring Creek.  Then he became Marshall in Encampment and he bought half a block along with his brother in laws.  There is evidence they were doing well.  Chas.  Royer, for instance, had a telephone, #55.  Marshal Charley was praised highly in the Grand Encampment Herald in the spring of 1903, a few months after my dad was born:

"The town of Grand Encampment is an orderly place, one of the best behaved mining camps known.  This fact is due chiefly to efficient officers such as Marshal Charles Royer and Night Marshal Ben Gabbott, who have been reappointed by the city council.  These gentlemen are indeed stars in their line and know how to keep order."

On the other hand, Estie and Charley frequently showed up in the newspaper listing properties to be sold for non-payment of property tax, on which was added a late fee and a charge for the advertising announcement in the paper.  While Charley worked hard, he appears to have been a lousy businessman.  Even worse, the combination of law enforcement and cattle ranching made life dangerous for him.  

“Chas. Royer Shot.”

“Tuesday, while looking for stock in the Jack Creek country, Chas. Royer was fired upon by an unknown party, inflicting a flesh wound just over the kidneys.  Royer rode to the ranch of Alex. McPhail on Spring Creek after receiving the wound, and Wednesday was taken to Encampment.”

“Royer had dismounted to water his horse and take a drink of the water from Jack Creek, himself, when he felt the twinge of a bullet and the report of a rifle.  The bullet entered the left side, passing just under the skin and missing the backbone by but a hair’s breadth.”

Saratoga Sun, May 1905

My grandmother, not much of a talker, told me once as a child a story of their returning to Saratoga from Encampment late at night in a carriage.  Three toughs on horseback followed them the whole way, a hundred yards back.  Charley loaded his rifle and handed her his pistol. 

I asked her what she expected to do.

“I’d of killed those that Charley didn’t.”

Two fires at the smelter, a stock scandal and a drop in copper prices took the Grand out of Grand Encampment and the mine and smelter closed in 1908.  There was no one to police or cut meat for and a brief item in the Rawlins newspaper notes that a certain plaintiff, the Cosgriff Brothers, the largest sheep owners in Wyoming, had won a judgment of $569.56 against Chas. Royer, six months pay if he was still working as a sheriff, which he wasn’t.

Charley and Estie did what many people in dying communities do – they turned to tourism.  In 1908, they guided two couples from Chicago into the lake country around Spring Creek for a month’s worth of fishing and hunting.  The Grand Encampment Herald was effusive:

“They went with a complete pack out-fit and with Mr.  Royer as guide they are assured of having a splendid time in the hills.”

The Sidleys and the Copelands of Chicago came back the next year, 1909, and spent a month in Yellowstone.  Charley and Estie decided to just stay there in Teton County, filing papers on a homestead in Jackson Hole where they continued working on what they called a dude ranch, taking in people at their house or guiding them into the wilderness.  Charley was particularly well-known as an elk hunter and brought some fancy names, like Robert W. Service, the poet, to a big game prize. 

After they buried Charley, Estie tried to hold on to the homestead, but took up with a cranky older man named Roth who was mean and had just one eye but promised to take care of the kids.  He ran off after she had one of his.

Estie turned to cooking in logging camps while raising her three children.  But the dangerous world that was Wyoming in the first two decades of the last century fought her the whole way.  One son died in the great influenza epidemic, another was crushed in a railroading accident and a third blew off his hand while playing with a blasting cap. 

She didn’t say much, never wept and was a cutthroat cribbage player, even while teaching a child.  She worked.  She’d kill a chicken for Sunday dinner while pulling weeds in the garden.  There was nothing sentimental about her, except I knew, somehow, she loved me. 

I have no idea what she did when they told her what had happened to Charley up on the Nelson Irrigation Project.  But I have an informed supposition.  The snow slide happened at 5:00 PM and they found him at 1:00 AM. 

I’m almost sure that when the men who delivered the news left, she went back into the kitchen and started breakfast for the kids, who’d be waking up soon, and she needed to carefully figure out the 35 or so words she’d have to say to them.

Oklahoma State Oral History, Israel Royer Farm

Wyoming Historical Society, Johnson County War