It’s common wisdom that living in the present moment is healthy, but sometimes, I like to let my mind drift into past worlds. Walking through my neighborhood, I imagine how it looked before the native forests were cleared. Where were the biggest tree groves, the stream drainages and waterfalls, meadows or wetlands? And later, when it was a growing community in the early 1900s, what kind of people lived in my tiny (at that time) farm-style house? How did they make their living? What was their life like?
But, when you visit May Creek—the wooded riparian area in Renton I told you about last week—you can do more than just wonder about history.
Clarissa Colman, the woman who homesteaded May Creek from the late 1800s through the early 1900s made daily diary entries describing her life—a rare first-hand historical account of life along the shores of Lake Washington. The diary is archived at the Eastside Heritage Center.
Clarissa lived at the mouth of the creek with her husband James until he was mysteriously murdered in 1886. After that, she lived as a widow with her children, raising her family and running her small farm. Her words, written in pen and ink in longhand, describe her grief and loneliness after her husbands’ death and how she struggled to make ends meet. She tells of watching Indians paddle their dugout canoes on Lake Washington, of steamships and coal-filled barges crossing the lake, of seeing the sky glow red from the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, and of the hardships of farm life—everything from making her own soap, baking bread, sewing, and handling household repairs.
The diaries were donated to the Eastside Heritage Center and have been digitally recorded. When I was designing the interpretive signs at May Creek for the City of Renton, the Eastside Heritage Center provided photos and some excerpts of Clarissa’s diaries for use on the sign. I only had room for a few sentences on the sign itself, but there were many other interesting passages. Here are some examples:
In her own words…diary entries by Clarissa Colman:
November 2, 1886
I have been debating in my own mind for sometime, whether I should go to the Polls & cast my vote; a thing I have never done yet, but as the country seems to be going to the bad, I think I will have to do all I can to save it. I therefore have concluded to go & vote. So Jim took Clara & myself in the buggie to Newcastle.
(Note: women in Washington Territory had the right to vote from 1883 until 1887 when the voting rights law was overturned. In 1910, the State Constitution was amended granting women their right to vote in Washington. It wasn’t until 1920 that all women in the U.S. were granted their voting rights).
Feb. 23, 1888
Jim went to NewCastle, carried up apples & butter & brought down the 40 books we sent for all in one vol. Canoe with Indians at the mouth of the brook hunting. Dan Murphy went past about noon going up the lake. George finished hauling manure for Ross.
March 4, 1889
Foggy all the morning. When the Boat went past it was so foggy that it could not be seen from the boat house but in a little while after it was perfectly clear. Jim has commenced working on his boat by himself. George hauled wood off Mr. Rosses place. I worked out in the afternoon. Jim butchered Pattie’s calf. A great deal of firing up at NewCastle, firing Cleaveland out.
June 7, 1889
The big smoke we saw was Seattle in flames. The whoe business part is burnt. Dan Murphy came down this morning for hay & told us. Jim, Mathewson & Goodycootz went to town. They took Mr. Rosses boat as Dan had asked for ours, theirs being all gone to town. Mrs. Leifhelm & children were down & bought a gal of strawberries. Those men who were in the meadow fishing were here when the boys strated for Seattle & they bought a half gal. strawberries.
August 30, 1905
No rain. High wind. Mrs. Gibson came & done washing. She was to have come & picked prunes tomorrow but is going to Olins to do washing. Mrs. Olin has a daughter born on Monday. Allie rode by on a gray “hoss,” said she was going to the Shingle Mill to meet the boat.
Visit the Renton Parks site: http://rentonwa.gov/living/default.aspx?id=65
Read an interesting Seattle Times article about the diaries: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20060805&slug=diary26e
Visit the Eastside Heritage Center: http://www.eastsideheritagecenter.org
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