History’s living chain

Posted by Tom Camfield


The next time some Tea Party sort blathers inanely about Abraham Lincoln having been the first Republican president, I hope someone calls him or her out with the Gettysburg Address in which Lincoln concluded his remarks describing our nation’s new birth of freedom and a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” that “shall not perish from the earth.”—Nov. 19, 1863. Republicans were a different breed back then than they are today. Lincoln would fit in better today as a Democrat. He had a social conscience and his honesty was legendary.

My own history is not that far removed from the life-style of Abraham Lincoln’s legendary younger years of reading a book by the light of a fireplace in a log cabin. My father was born in the cabin pictured here, the sixth of an eventual over-all 10 siblings. I doubt he had any books to read—although there eventually was a school in the area, built in large part by my grandfather.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact I knew I personally for quite a few years a personal ancestor who was a 10-year-old school girl when the Civil War ended and that famous Gettysburg speech was made. My paternal great grandmother Fannie Warner (Camfield) was born in Ellenburg, New York, in 1853—two years after the official founding of Port Townsend. The fates and peripatetic-pioneer family members brought her eventually to Port Townsend in 1931. She lived next door to me in my pre-school days out on 22nd-23rd Street. She died here in 1952, when she was 98 and I was 23.

So I was acquainted with a witness to Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime and to the Civil War. (Pretty much by token of my age alone, I also was acquainted—during my early newspaper years with the Leader—with a number of people remembering Port Townsend’s colorful 1890s).

Fannie spoke occasionally of the “War of 1861,” but young people, such as I and my brothers were then, are notoriously bad about listening to the reminiscences of elders. In later years, when finally smitten by the allure of history in general, I could only regret that I hadn’t paid closer attention, sucked smilingly on her horrible horehound candy and spent more time at her bedside. She traveled to Michigan by covered wagon, through Indian territory, at a young age—and recalled how the women dressed like men to indicate a larger-than-actual fighting force and discourage attack.

In any case, I’m thankful that Fannie’s kindly nature and the pragmatic way in which she aged, eventually using a cane (which I have as a keepsake) much as I do at present, helped build my soul . . . also passing along to me a few dominant and commendable family genes.

My ancestors, throughout the history of this country, worked the soil— beginning 399 years ago. Some soldiered in time of war . . . the Indian Wars, the Revolution, the Civil War (for the humanitarian freedom sought by Lincoln). But it was always back to working the earth in alliance with Nature.

My grandfather Ernest L. Camfield, born 1874 in Michigan, ranched there and in South Dakota and Alberta, Canada, before coming (via Salem, Oregon) to Port Townsend in 1927 (his wife Mary by then having given birth to 10 children). Then in his 50s, Ernie helped build the local paper mill not long before the stock market crash and the Great Depression handed the country by President Herbert Hoover, who was in office when I was born.

My own father—Warner B. (Tom)—born in a log cabin in Alberta in 1907—was 22 when he and my mother Gladys moved here to this Port Townsend area of opportunity early in 1929. He became the first non-homestead farmer on my American family tree, although he never shook off all of his roots. He was a combination mill worker and partner of the soil. In his discretionary time between mill shifts, he built two of our homes, a barn and other outbuildings, raised and butchered our meat, kept chickens, a cow (which I milked) grew a large garden, cut and hauled firewood, etc.

Like his father before him, there was nothing he couldn’t do, no limit on what he could accomplish when it came to family well-being. All four Depression-born sons of this mill worker and his wife graduated from college, one with PhD from Stanford. And three of us served in the U. S. military.

My father inherited his building talents from his father, who had been a major builder of such things as the community schoolhouse as a pioneer in Alberta, then also worked. among other things, in the building trades in Salem. I might add here that Ernie’s wife Mary (Custer) was “Pennsylvania Dutch” and no one was better than she at cooking dandelion greens, keeping a crock of sauerkraut under the sink or utilizing everything but the squeal after Ernie came by and helped my father butcher our pig.

There was a proud humility in my family down through the years—although things flapped a bit loose on my mother’s branch now and then. Her mother (orphaned young during the Oklahoma Land Rush) was a wonderful survivor of life-long family dysfunction who eventually carried on as sole support of the last of her eight children. She also wrote poetry, and I have a copy of her published book.

But I guess you get my drift. I’m a true son of the soil who still enjoys sifting a bit of rich soil through my fingers. I continue to work with vegetables and flowers as best I can after 90 years and defend the environment to the best of my ability against the continuing onrush of increasing population and the domination of industrial wealth.

So it’s little wonder that I cast my lot with everyday grass-roots Americans such as farmers and mill-workers, so many of whom have no open road to a bit of pride and a decent existence these days. Our society has been abducted at the government level largely by a greedy faction seemingly in search of personal adoration and totally devoid of the humility and altruism that were the ambience of my youth.

My grandparents and parents also lived through Prohibition (the repeal of which in 1933 that I can recall as red-letter day for the common man). So, I raise a glass now and then to the likes of my immigrant ancestors, my Revolutionary War soldier ancestors, my traditional grandfather, and my Great-Depression parents—and to the progeny to whom I will bequeath my genes.

Said progeny also are benefitting from my wife Jean’s (Westall) family, historic land-dependent pioneers from until her parents turned to teaching, a profession for which I also have developed reverence through both osmosis and experience—as Jean also retired as District 50 finance officer. At 90, I remain in tune with students of all ages—and their teachers.

I’ll try to put Jean’s family on record here in the future. Such tributes are just a small piece of where Port Townsend came from as the years passed by.

Many readers don’t give a rat’s patoot about all of this ancestry, but it matters not. My job as I see it is to get my people on record here and there, which everyone deserves after a challenging lifetime. Why don’t I just write a family book? I’ve already done six of those, with another still in the oven.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment