In an earlier post to this blog (Illegal Immigrants) I introduced my grandfather, Oscar Fritiof Danielson. In this entry, I will sketch out the history of his farm on Lower Crab Creek. But first, a little about his background.
Oscar was born in a small town called Slatthog in southern Sweden in April 1885. A number of his brothers seem to have left the area, and Oscar followed. His arrival in America is shrouded in mystery. I found what appears to be his name on the 1910 census, as a boarder in a lumber camp at Avondale in King County. He is listed as a lumber worker, 29 years old. The age is right, but his birthplace is given as Minnesota. And on closer inspection, I think I see the ghost of the word “Sweden” under the heavier writing. Somebody changed his birthplace, perhaps the same person who scribed out the date 1899 in the column provided for year of immigration. Family tradition holds that Oscar was serving on a Swedish vessel in 1905 when word arrived that the Norwegian Parliament had dissolved its relationship with Sweden, an act that could lead to war. Oscar reportedly jumped ship in either Canada or the United States to avoid being drafted. He probably had no papers to show that he had legally immigrated, and lying about it on the census may have seemed dangerous to him. I recently located a naturalization record for him in King County, dating from 1912. On this document he gave the date of his arrival (by way of Liverpool) as March 28, 1906. Only one ship arrived in Halifax on that date from Liverpool, the Corean, and Oscar does not appear on the manifest.
Within a couple of years he appears to have joined a thriving Scandinavian community that possibly included a brother who went by a different name, Elmquist. Oscar reportedly took a job at some shipyards in Renton, where he built ferry boats and submarines. His tool chest included some heavy chisels, augurs and planes that a carpenter would have used for framing timbers.
I’ve never been entirely clear on how Elmquist became Elmquist (my father always referred to him that way, or as Uncle Elmquist), but it was certain that Elmquist was descended from the same Daniel Jonorson whose given name provided my family’s surname. One story told in our family reports that Elmquist was given that name when he entered the Swedish army, because there were already too many Danielsons on the roster. The two brothers and their families kept in close contact with each other for their entire lives, and my father continued the contact until his generation passed away.
Oscar met Edla Margareta Norberg in Seattle soon after arriving there. She and a brother, Gustaf, had immigrated aboard the Mauritania around1906. She was employed as a domestic in the Bagley household near Green Lake. Oscar completed the process of naturalization in 1912, which probably made it easier for him to purchase land. By 1914 Oscar and Edla were married and she was pregnant with their first child, my father.
Around this time, he made plans to acquire farmland, which was available in Eastern Washington for a fairly reasonable rate. BLM records show that in 1920 he acquired two parcels of land under the Desert Land Act of 1877. These were a half section and a smaller parcel, both in Section 30 of T16N, R28E, located about a half mile from the present course of Lower Crab Creek in Grant County.
It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between the green rolling hills and countless lakes of southern Sweden and the blistering heat, the ragged canyons and sand wastes of the Lower Crab Creek. Oscar had to possess boundless optimism to believe that he could prosper on his desert acres. But he gave it a try.
Call it the American way, but Oscar initially succeeded by working hard alongside his neighbors. To the east there was another searing range of rock and sand called the Frick homestead. On the west of Oscar’s land was what became known as the Orchard. My research hasn’t extended to uncovering who owned these plots, but whoever they were, they must have realized that they could only survive by working with their neighbors.
By horse and mule, shovel and pick, with perhaps a bit of dynamite when there were stony obstacles to be overcome, Oscar and his neighbors built their own irrigation system. They dug a trench around thirty feet wide for a couple of miles through the desert, wide enough to accommodate the flow of Lower Crab Creek. To provide sufficient headwater for a pump-operated irrigation system, Oscar threw a wooden dam across the canal. There was enough water impounded behind the dam to provide for a cool swim in the summertime. It became a site for social gatherings where all the neighbors and their children could come for a good time.
Oscar purchased a load of wooden pipe wrapped with steel wire from the City of Seattle when they pulled the pipes out of their streets and replaced them with more modern metal pipe. Using a single-stroke engine, he pumped water out of the reservoir to irrigate several acres of potatoes, wheat and alfalfa.
Virtually everything they needed was shipped into the valley on the Milwaukee Railroad, offloaded at Corfu, Washington (of which barely a trace survives), and then lugged by horse-drawn wagon several miles over sagebrush and stone to the site of the homestead. As the family grew, Oscar’s children attended a two-room brick public school that stood on a terrace at the bottom of the town. (The Corfu schoolhouse was burned by vandals in the 1980s so that they could recover the bricks.) Later, the children were sent to a different school located on a broad terrace below the Milwaukee tracks at the little substation of Taunton.
The reason we still have so many images of this era is that somebody decided early on that they ought to own a camera. Edla’s brother, Gustaf Norberg, and his wife Olga helped Oscar and Edla build and maintain their homestead. Photographs from very early on feature the children, Oscar and Edla, and Olga, but Gustaf rarely appears. Perhaps it was his camera.
Oscar and Edla had a number of photographs taken of the farm itself. They must have been extremely proud of the products of their labor, wrenched from desert sands at the expense of so much work.
Several years of effort established the farm. There were fields of alfalfa and wheat, gardens with melons, corn and potatoes, livestock, including sheep, cattle and chickens. Besides the wooden pipes, Oscar dug and blasted ditches that followed the contours of the land to irrigate more distant fields and to flood low areas, creating ponds to provide for livestock. The productivity of places like Oscar’s farm could be pointed at as evidence of the potential of all that Eastern Washington desert. Perhaps Grand Coulee Dam was built because of farms like this one.
The land, of course, had seen plenty of human endeavor before my grandfather arrived. Native Americans continued to cross the farm as they migrated from the Yakima Valley to the Okanogan to take part in the fruit harvest. Their ancestors left chips and beautiful stone points scattered over the dunes near Crab Creek. After visiting an exhibit of Plateau Indian culture at the Burke Museum, where a reconstruction of a Wanapum longhouse was displayed, I stumbled across the footprint of a longhouse on the banks of Crab Creek not far from what my family has always called grandpa’s homestead. I’ll devote a future article to a description of the historical significance of this area on Lower Crab Creek.
It seems like Oscar’s thriving farm was only beginning to produce when disaster struck. In that era, Crab Creek was still flowing the way it always had. When sand dunes swept across the creek, it was dammed up and it created a natural reservoir, which we call Moses Lake (after the local Sahaptian chief, Sulk-talthscosum). Sand also blocked the channel of Crab Creek near where Oscar’s home was located. At its best, Crab Creek had always been unpredictable. Historically, it seldom reached the Columbia River as a surface stream, sinking into the sand several miles away from its confluence. And the sand dunes that blocked the creek, creating Moses Lake, had already washed out once, in 1904. In the late 1920s another flood occurred. Heavy rains sent a flood of raging water southward into the Lower Crab Creek Valley. When the flood reached the pioneer irrigation diversion dam, it carved a deep ravine through which the stream would flow forever after. The canal feeding the Danielson Dam was left stranded high above the level of the normal flow of the creek.
Suddenly, years of labor and effort were made worthless. From that point on, the irrigation system would never function again. The fields dried up as the canal failed. The family fell into poverty. Eventually Oscar moved the family into a small house on the lands they called the Orchard. He drove bus, cut firewood, did odd jobs of all sorts to support his family. By 1941, Oscar was dead.
The homestead has remained an essential memory in our family. My father took us out to visit it a number of times when I was young. Over the years we witnessed the way nature reclaimed all the work my grandfather spent to make it into a profitable home for his family.
Edla and Oscar raised seven children on this land, and there are multitudes of descendents from this family. Over the years we have made a number of pilgrimages to the site, which is now on a section of private land nearly surrounded by the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. My most recent visit was made because I had the opportunity to show the place to my son.
As you follow Highway 26 between Othello and Royal City, you come to a place where the highway crosses Crab Creek. Looking northward, the land looks bleak. It seems like it has forever (that’s where the image that forms my blog’s banner comes from). It’s hard to believe that people earned a living there, but they did: Native Americans, trappers and traders, cowboys and cattlemen, soldiers, immigrants and orchardists. Today, it’s gone back to desert but its secrets are there to be read. I’ve always told my wife that Eastern Washington is an honest land: evidence of everything that’s happened there remains to be seen by the alert observer.
Oscar’s homestead is located on private land. Please do not trespass.