Oscar Danielson found out that making ends meet on his Lower Crab Creek homestead wasn’t the easiest thing to do. From the beginning, Oscar kept meticulous notes about his finances, even before leaving Renton to build his farm. His ledger is filled with minutia, and in addition to mundane expenditures for a growing family, the way the entries are written record Oscar’s assimilation into his new country. In the beginning his notations are mostly in Swedish, but over the course of several years, Oscar adopts more and more English phrases for his entries. Perhaps he had to share the book with a banker who didn’t understand Swedish!
There are a number of local history books that do a great job of describing life on an Eastern Washington homestead. One of them, Laura Tice Lage’s Sagebrush Homesteads actually mentions Oscar and his homestead. Ms. Lage relates a family story, probably learned from my father. In this tale the pioneers have decided they are losing too many crops to a plague of jackrabbits. My grandfather has an experience that demonstrates another unexpected problem concerning rabbits. Out in the field one day, with a young Walter perched on the seat of the buckboard, Oscar spots a jackrabbit. He does what any of his contemporaries would do, he snatches his shotgun and takes aim. Whether he hit the rabbit is not recorded, but the shotgun’s blast spooked the horse and suddenly the five-year-old Walter was on a runaway wagon.
Cattlemen had been using Lower Crab Creek for grazing since at least the 1850s. Army surveys make note of the bunchgrass prairies in the area, a nutritious wild plant which, coupled with a reliable water source, makes for good grazing. By the time the Milwaukee Road was built, though, the heyday of running large cattle herds had passed. Some of Oscar’s photographs testify to the fact that ranching was still going on, though.
Cattle contributed to the Danielson family’s income, but the amount they earned was still meager. While the canal was still in operation, cattle could roam the arid hills surrounding the farm, grazing on the native grasses and drinking from pools of standing water near the homestead or from the flowing waters of the creek and canal. Free range cattle were rounded up once a year to check on how the herds were growing. Calves were sorted out and branded, according to which brand the mothers bore. Pioneers in the Lower Crab Creek sometimes used box canyons to conduct their round-ups. Red Rock Canyon, which is now inundated by Red Rock Lake, was sometimes used as a natural corral for the round-ups. Poles or logs were laid across potential escape routes and all the free-ranging cattle of the area were driven into the canyon to be sorted.
After the canal was destroyed in the 1927 flood and irrigation of the homestead fields became impossible, cattle became a far more important part of the Danielson family income. The homestead itself became untenable, so Oscar moved his family to a small frame house in the orchard. There he continued to run cattle on the land he still owned, and took odd jobs to help pay the expenses. His ledger reports income from selling firewood to the Othello School District.
He took up hunting to provide variety for the family table. Sometime around 1928 Oscar bagged a snow goose with a 72 inch wingspan, then held it up for the camera while some of his admiring youngsters assisted.
This was not an easy place to raise a family. In the beginning, Oscar and Edla and her brother Gustav and his wife Olga tried to import cosmopolitan habits into the country. They posed in a wagon in front of huge lumps of basalt dropped by the Ice Age floods, as if they were only tourists on a vacation.
Neighbors, too, acted as though life on Lower Crab Creek was just like it was elsewhere. On major occasions, like the Fourth of July, they gathered to celebrate together. This sometimes occurred along Crab Creek, but on at least one occasion, the celebration took place at the Danielson Dam.
But the reality was that life on a homestead in Eastern Washington was tough. Although he was only crying because he slipped into the irrigation ditch outside their house, Walter’s tears might have expressed the hardships a family faced in such a challenging environment.
Children provided help in the fields, in the barns and around the house. They learned to raise livestock and tend gardens because these were chores that had to be done for the survival of the family.
But they found time for pleasure as well. They joined the school band, the baseball team, they spent time with cousins visiting from Seattle, or made the long trip to Seattle to visit their cousins there. They took advantage of the weather to swim in the creek or to build a snowman when winter came.
As Oscar’s boys grew up, they followed the Crab Creek Road to work, to play (the jazz band Walter played trumpet with was called The Five Jives, and they played dances in many Central Washington towns), and to travel longer distances. In spite of the Great Depression, the family did well enough to allow George, Walter and Elsie to make a trip to the San Francisco World Fair.
The orchard home was only a temporary location. Oscar’s family purchased a ranch house near the point where Crab Creek runs into Saddle Mountain, where today’s State Highway 26 crosses the creek. Here Oscar revived his farming method, pumping water out of the creek using a single stroke gasoline engine to water fields of alfalfa. The Danielson Ranch was also the headquarters of their cattle business, which continued to operate in the area until Walter moved the family to Glenwood in Klickitat County.
During the Second World War the Army extended the Yakima Firing Range over the Lower Crab Creek valley. Pilots in training for the Army Air Corps flew missions across the countryside. Walter sometimes claimed that the pilots were occasionally trigger-happy, taking strafing runs at grazing cattle. Angry ranchers who confronted officers at Larson Air Field were told to get the tail numbers of the airplanes so the culprits could be identified. A reasonable request, except that the shooting usually wasn’t discovered until long after the plane had landed.
The Danielson children attended elementary school in Taunton and Corfu, where two-room country school houses were built. The former schoolhouse from Taunton was moved into Othello, where it was remodeled into a duplex rental. The Corfu schoolhouse was a beautiful red brick building. One of my uncles rather shamefacedly pointed out the place he’d carved his name onto a door jamb when we visited it when I was a boy. By the 1970s the Corfu school had been torched and its red bricks had disappeared. It wasn’t too much longer before the last of the structures that made up Corfu vanished. Now you notice that people once lived there only if you catch a glimpse of a concrete foundation where the store used to stand. In its day, though, Corfu served a community of ranchers, orchardists, farmers and railroaders. It was a crossroads, served by several highways, including one that struck out up the steep face of Saddle Mountain directly south of the railroad tracks. The zig-zag pattern of the Corfu Switchbacks is still evident, and hardy four-wheelers like to use the road even today.
High School was only available in Othello for the children of Lower Crab Creek. Oscar drove a bus from the creek to the town, nine miles to the east. He also contracted to supply firewood to keep the stoves burning at the Othello School. When I attended high school there, graduation pictures of early classes still hung in the cafeteria. Amongst them I enjoyed picking out my uncles and aunts. The classes were small back then.
Oscar died in 1941, of a disease Walter said would have been curable if he’d had the proper medical care. But it was a long way to a hospital. World War 2 brought about massive changes in the little backwater that was Lower Crab Creek. Walter held onto the ranch and farmed along the creek, which bought him a deferment from the draft: he supported his mother and a number of minor siblings. But the next elder brothers joined the fight. George, Robert and Lawrence were all engineers in the army.
George became a member of the 19th Army Engineers, and he shipped out for North Africa. He told me that he was at Kasserine Pass about an hour before Rommel arrived, but there was more to the story. The 19th Engineers were not trained to fight tanks, but they held the pass against the Germans while the rest of the army escaped.
Lawrence arrived home on leave during a cold snap. Snow covered the valley, but the chores still had to be completed. Heavy coats and gloves were the order of the day. After his leave, Larry was sent to fight the Germans in Europe. Robert was also posted to Europe, but following VE Day, he shipped out for the Philippines before returning to the states.
At home, cattle remained the focus, but the Danielsons retained a certain sense of humor. Like Sam Hutchinson had done before them, the Danielson business plan lay in control of water rights while their cattle grazed large areas of grassland away from the creek. Each year the range cattle would be rounded up and branded, or perhaps ridden!
It’s not clear to me what made my father decide to leave Crab Creek. Stories range from competition with other local ranchers over the water rights to being fed up with dust and heat. At any rate, but just after the war, my father was searching for a new home. He toured through the Saint Mary’s River country of Northern Idaho but he ended up buying a farm in the isolated logging and ranching community of Glenwood, at the foot of Mount Adams in Klickitat County.
The Crab Creek Ranch was sold, but the many relics the Danielsons left behind were always considered part of their heritage. As we drove along Highway 26 where it crosses Crab Creek, Uncle Bob would point out the nearly concealed flywheel of the single-stroke gas engine that powered his father’s irrigation pump. The pump had served a term at the Danielson Dam before being hauled to the Creek Ranch. For years it stood neglected in the sagebrush along the highway. The same was true for my father’s Model T, which we would occasionally visit as we drove down the gravel road that was once the Corfu Highway. Our family’s connection to this land was not over, for Walter brought his family back again in the 1950s, opening up farmland to be watered by the new Columbia Basin Project.