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Mike Vouri: The Photograph on the Vanity

  • Written by Mike Vouri

While my mother lay dying at 96 last December, a visiting hospice nurse studied the family photos on my parents’ bedroom wall. They were the usual thing: photos of my sister and me as small children, my parents at their 1945 wedding and in later years. And tucked into a corner was a snapshot of five children, two of them babies, nestled in the tall grass of a farm field.

Norine Bentley, the author’s mother second from left,  is entertained by the children of a dairy farmer near Orick, California, c. 1928. (Vouri collection)

“That’s very sweet,” she said. “Was that your family farm?”

“No,” I replied. “It’s a long story.” And so it was. We went on with the business of making my mother comfortable and she let the subject drop. It was not until I returned a few months later to help pack up her belongings that I studied the photo once more, and recalled the story and the moment it was told.

Every family has stories that are passed on and retold by succeeding generations. I listened to plenty of them when my wife Julia and I were compiling our 2009-10 “Images of America” photo histories of San Juan Island, whether from interviewees or participants in the firesides held at the time in the public library. A few of the anecdotes ended up in the books, thanks to venerable homegrown islanders such as Jim Cahail, Al Sundstrom, Al Nash, and Nordine Jensen, all of whom are no longer with us. 

History is truly all about stories of big events and small that form our shared past and help us understand who we are and where we come from. In focusing on San Juan Island and Northwest Washington over the last 40 years, I lost touch with my own family history, which for me personally unfolded in my native California. It was Al Sundstrom who rekindled my interest by one day asking, “You’re sure learning an awful lot about us, but who are your people, Mike?”

Good question, especially from Al, who even in his late 90s could quickly reference the family tree of every pioneer family on San Juan Island. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. 

We all come from somewhere else. Our great-grandparents and those who came before them made a leap of faith and, risking all they had, struck out for a frontier still raw with more-than-enough pitfalls to balance the triumphs. I had learned this first-hand from my maternal grandparents, Paul and Marcella Bentley, who in 1953 left their home in Lafayette, California for Mount Vernon in Skagit County, where they lived out their years. Although I could not possibly have understood it at the time—being six years old, dazed and broken-hearted at the loss of “Grandma and Grandpa”—this was the last push in a journey for our branch of the Bentleys who left England for Rhode Island in 1671.

The pioneer spirit still ran strong in Paul. His father, William, had passed along all the essential skills required for homesteading, which he demonstrated repeatedly by designing and building almost every house they occupied over a 50-year period until Paul died in 1988, followed by Marcella in 1990. The houses still stand, the last one a strikingly modern building among those that flank it on Cedar Street in Mount Vernon.

In 1879, William and Nellie See Bentley packed up a Studebaker wagon with his machine tools and their infant daughter, and set out for California from Perry, Michigan on the Overland Trail. Their son, Paul (pictured above), arrived as a surprise in 1896. (Vouri collection)

Paul was a fun-loving man with a Puritan streak inherited from my great-grandmother, Nellie, who traced her antecedents to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. My great grandfather, whose own ancestors landed in Rhode Island from England in 1671, had left their home in Perry, Michigan for California in 1878, liked what he saw and returned for Nellie and their daughter Lucille. They packed their belongings in a Studebaker wagon and came west on the old Overland Trail, which was much cheaper than taking the train and accommodated William’s machine tools. (A daughter was born in the back of the wagon along the way.) They eventually settled in Winters, southwest of Sacramento, and for years accompanied threshing machines during the harvest in California’s Central Valley, William repairing the machines, Nellie baking bread. In late middle age, they sold their Winters farm and bought an apartment house in Oakland, which they ran from a cottage William built among the vegetable and ornamental gardens in the backyard.  

Paul Bentley and Marcella Irvine on date on Paul’s motorcycle, c. 1924. She used the beanie her hand to cover the license plate while they were being pursued by a policeman. (Vouri collection)

Nellie exerted a powerful influence over her prized son. He neither drank nor smoked, but he did have an eye for the ladies and fell in love with my grandmother, who was exceedingly attractive and, at 16 years of age, 10 years younger. Their primary means of conveyance while dating was Paul’s motorcycle, which my grandmother said he operated with youthful abandon. While speeding with her on the back one evening, a police car pulled out and gave chase. “Your grandfather shouted, ‘Hide the license plate!’” she recalled. “So I held on to him with one arm and covered the plate with my beanie. We left that cop in the dust.” Marcella and Paul waited a year before tying the knot, after which Marcella found herself under her mother-in-law’s keen eye in the family apartment house. 

Marcella subverted Nellie’s rules whenever she could, and as such viewed as an escape one of my grandfather’s schemes to leave Oakland in 1928, bound for Orick, California, a rainy logging town located on the fringe of today’s Redwoods National and State Parks. Paul had formed a partnership with another man to build what was then called a “motor court” in anticipation (pre-Great Depression) of increased automobile traffic. 

It was the kind of adventure my grandfather loved, although in this instance it nearly brought his young family to grief, and this is the story I did not share with the hospice nurse.

I had been aware of the photo, displayed on a frame on my grandmother’s vanity, from the time I was a small boy. I knew one of the babies was my mother, but beyond that I had assumed they were either friends or relatives that I had never met or did not recognize. I asked her about it at long last as a way to to distract her from pain while awaiting the ambulance that would take her to the hospital, where she died a few days later.

“That was one of the happiest days of my young life—I was only twenty, you know—though it did not start out that way,” she said, as she studied the photo. Then she proceeded to tell me the story, which was laced with those elements that ensure it is never forgotten: among them fear, helplessness, treachery and injustice—followed by just enough kindness and generosity to restore lost faith in humanity.

Marcella helps Paul wash up in front of their tent after a day building a motor court in Orick, California. (Vouri Collection)

The Orick expedition was challenging from the start. Following a two-day drive, they had arrived on the outskirts of town near the mouth of Redwood Creek, where trout still jumped and salmon spawned and Devlin’s Inn, a three-story wooden pile with a veranda, dominated the nascent tourist trade. Marcella and Paul soon discovered that there would be no house for them, not even a mean cabin, to live in while my grandfather built the motel cabins. Undaunted, Paul located a canvas wall tent, cots for sleeping, an ice chest, and an early model Coleman gas stove for cooking. There were also matching wash tubs for laundry, essential for staying ahead of my mother’s diapers. Fortunately, in addition to high-end hotel rooms, Devlin’s also had a general store, a bar that opened at 5 a.m. for the commercial fishermen and a bait shop for the sport fishers. 

The motor court under construction, replete with water tower and a privy behind each unit. (Vouri Collection)

Motor courts, also known as tourist cabins, the forerunners of “motels,” came into vogue in California following passage in 1923 of a two-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax levied to pay for new roads, among them the Redwood Highway (US 101). Work had begun the year before on the route engineered to run from San Francisco to the Oregon border, passing through Eureka and then Orick all the way through to Crescent City. 

By the time you reached Orick, you would be at the gateway to some of the few surviving groves of redwoods trees (Sequoia sempervirens), some of which began life around the time Henry V exhorted his “band of brothers” at Agincourt (1415). Visitors could now fill up the tank and come by automobile. Here was a bonanza worth exploring for Paul, with his trunk load of tools, an eye for design and the frontier skills I mentioned earlier.

Marcella Bentley with the day’s catch.

However, it was a little too much “frontier” for my grandmother. As the eldest of five daughters (a brother drowned at age 10 in Oakland’s Lake Merritt), she was more accustomed to an urban life that included at the very least a backyard privy. She remembered the dirt, the diapers, and the shovel with the toilet paper roll on the handle, which was carried, along with the soiled diapers, to the adjoining woodland. Dinner dishes were washed and rinsed in the laundry tubs filled with well water drawn with a long-handled pump. Bathing was done in the creek and via sponge baths until Paul completed the first unit and managed to find a portable bathtub. The creek also offered the bounty of coho salmon, which my grandmother was tasked with cleaning, something she refused to do thereafter for the rest of her life. Bread and rolls were baked in a Dutch oven over an open fire that also provided warmth and a degree of reflection and entertainment in the evenings.

“We were kids,” she recalled. “It was another of your grandfather’s adventures. I adored him and was willing to endure anything so long as he was happy and chasing his dreams.”

Those dreams came to a crashing halt about halfway through the project when a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the building site and arrested Paul. He had been accused of stealing tools and building materials. Memory failed her about the accusers. It either had something to do with his partner in the motor court enterprise or involved Devlin’s hotel in some way. A perusal of Humboldt County archives has, thus far, not turned up the arrest record.

There was no question of Marcella’s dismay and panic, though, as Paul was manacled and deposited in the back of a Model A Ford to be transported to the county jail in Eureka, 30 miles south on the Redwood Highway. She was alone with a toddler, little money and hundreds of miles away from family and friends with no way to communicate.

“I was pretty scared,” she said.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, a benefactor appeared, very likely the result of the community grapevine. She was the wife of a local dairy farmer, arriving in a pickup truck with her husband at the wheel, determined to right an obvious wrong. The next morning her husband would drive Marcella to the county seat, where they would put her in touch with a lawyer and see if they could straighten out the mess or at the very least arrange bail. 

Meanwhile, with Marcella and my mother tucked into the cab between the driver and the wife, they negotiated a network of rural roads before arriving at the farm, which occupied a clearing below the foothills of the Coast Range. Marcella and my mother were directed to a bathroom with all of the modern conveniences where they were able to freshen up before enjoying a bountiful meal. After dinner the children cavorted in the fields below the house, barn and another outbuilding. The eldest daughter, hair cut short with bangs, minded and entertained my mother, while her brothers alternately tended their baby sister. It was a gentle tableau that demanded a camera.

“That’s when the photograph was taken,” she said. 

The next morning my grandmother and the farmer drove to Eureka, where they discovered that the charges against Paul had been dropped and he was released. As Marcella recalled, my grandfather had been able to prove his innocence even before they arrived and was attempting to work out transportation back to Orick. The three piled into the farmer’s truck—Marcella in the middle—and on the long drive back to Orick my grandfather barely said a word. They picked up my mother, thanked the family and returned to the unfinished motor court and their family tent, where my grandfather’s silence persisted into the next day. Finally, my grandmother confronted him. Being unjustly accused of theft and jailed was cause for upset, she could understand, but why was he taking it out on her?

“As it turned out, he was angry because I had ridden with that farmer, all alone, in his truck on the way to Eureka! And then sat next to him on the way home. Can you believe it! He was green with jealousy. If that didn’t take the cake.” This was one of her standard expressions (passed on to my mother, by the way), which was used to either express surprise or, as in ancient Greece, that you won first prize. In Paul’s case, it was the former, although the latter could have been applied to an imbecility competition, in my grandmother’s view.

“How did you react to that, grandma?”

“I wouldn’t speak to him the rest of the day.” 

Paul and Marcella in front of their house in Oakland, California, the Orick experience far behind them. (Vouri Collection)

Paul and Marcella with their great-grandson, Alex Vouri, in 1982 in their Mount Vernon home, built by Paul in the mid-1950s.

My grandfather finished the project a few weeks later without incident and the little family returned to Oakland and Nellie’s apartment house. Nellie’s reign of terror ended when my grandfather caught the wander bug (not for the last time in his life) and moved the family to Lafayette, then a village east of Oakland. The state had driven a twin-bore tunnel, nearly a mile long, through the hills that divide the East Bay from the Diablo Valley, paving the way for the nightmare commutes of today. They were living in the second of two homes my grandfather built on a corner lot, before he uprooted her once again for Washington State. Family photographs reveal a perfect country home girded by a white picket fence, flowers and shrubs and the smiling faces of his wife and children.

All of these would find a place in the albums, but only one would rest on my grandmother’s vanity. It was the finishing touch to a day of unreserved kindness from strangers who were strangers no more. 

And it remained with her to the end of her days.

 

 

Last modified onThursday, 30 November 2023 01:27

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