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Evergreen Journal: A Pioneering way of Life Winds Down in Startup

Hatcher, Candy. "Evergreen Journal: A Pioneering way of Life Winds Down in Startup." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Staff. 26 December 2000.


STARTUP -- Most people know this place only as a brief stretch of two-lane on the way to Stevens Pass. They see the drive-through burger joint, the art gallery housed in an old church, the sporting goods shop that also used to be a place of worship.

Teenagers gather at the Alpen Village, a hamburger stand on U.S. Highway 2 in Startup. From left are Jenny Sherrill, 17; Julie Graham, 18; Melissa Coffman, 18; and Mikell Schlewitz, 16. Progress is slowly changing the town’s sense of community. Ted Mase / P-I Photos
That's about it. Startup's original attractions have disappeared. The gold never panned out. The mill burned. The pioneering spirit that defined this community for half a century is nearly gone.

That's about it. Startup's original attractions have disappeared. The gold never panned out. The mill burned. The pioneering spirit that defined this community for half a century is nearly gone.

But take a break from the bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. Highway 2 and meet the real gems of the Skykomish Valley -- the hardy souls who came here from North Dakota and Oklahoma and Russia, who built farms and worked hard and appreciated every opportunity this little logging town presented.

There's Elizabeth Keck, 100, the community's oldest resident, who left Russia for America when she was 7 and has lived in Snohomish County since 1935.

There's Bertha Roesler, 89, Startup's Avon lady, who moved to the valley in 1922 after frigid winters as a homesteader in North Dakota.

Mary Dell Daniel, at 91 still keeping her friends in stitches with her stories, will tell you about the droughts and floods in Oklahoma in the 1930s that made her appreciate Western Washington's temperate climate and beauty.

And Clarence Gatzke, 83, a Startup native, recalls the timber industry's heyday, the lure of mining, and Startup's diminishing sense of community as commuters have moved in.

It's not completely gone. Despite the ever-present traffic, unincorporated Startup doesn't have a McDonald's or a school or even a traffic light. Phone numbers here are given in four digits. People still use the railroad tracks, the river and the post office to navigate.

Work boots, symbols of a simple life, hang between two pulleys in Startup.

At a time when strip shopping centers are defining rural communities, and housing developments peer through the woods, Keck and Roesler and Daniel and Gatzke remind us not to take for granted the places and things that haven't kept pace.

What's in a name?

Startup isn't where you start up the mountain, and it isn't linked to the Internet, at least not yet. The community of 648 people got its name from George Startup, a former Ballard mayor who moved to the Skykomish Valley in 1898 -- when the town between Sultan and Gold Bar was known as Wallace.

Wallace initially drew gold prospectors, but they didn't get rich. Timber made the town prosperous. George Startup invested in the Wallace Lumber and Manufacturing Co., provided jobs for 160 men, and built the company into one of the biggest in the area. A flume carried rough lumber by water from the Kellogg Lake Mill to the Startup Mill for final cutting.

By 1906, according to writer Nancy Moore, the town had two general stores, two hotels, a meat market, livery stable, jewelry store, blacksmith shop, two confectioneries, a barber shop, two churches and one school.

But people -- and the postal service -- confused it with Wallace, Idaho, so residents changed the name to honor George Startup. In 1916, a fire destroyed the mill. George Startup stepped in again, helping found the Citizens Bank of Sultan and promoting the building of Highway 2 through the Skykomish Valley.

Alethea Butler and her 3-year-old daughter Sherri stop by a farm in Startup that has donkeys and dogs. Butler and her daughter moved to Startup from Sultan about a month ago.

Clarence Gatzke, 83, was born in Startup the following year. He remembers baseball rivalries with Gold Bar and Sultan. He recalls Startup's school district, and the school gymnasium the town built for about $30,000. Basketball games and other activities were held there during the Depression, he said. The gym, now dilapidated, is the only part of the school still standing.

Most people had small farms, about 20 acres. There was some talk of mining -- "hit-it-rich mining," Gatzke called it. "But nobody ever did."

He recalled one man trying to make a living off a pear orchard, but the operation "took more money than it made."

Gatzke, a retired raspberry farmer, has always lived in the Skykomish Valley, but he grew up hearing about how tough life was in other places.

His father came from a German community about 40 miles from Warsaw. He'd heard about the good life in America, how he could own 100 acres in North Dakota. "He could be rich." But when Gatzke's father arrived, he looked at the land "and there was nothing on it," Gatzke said. "He cried and said if he could only go back. But he couldn't."

Those were "awfully hard times," Gatzke said. His father stayed in North Dakota for four years, then in 1910, moved his family to Washington. He had distant relatives in Startup and Index -- both booming lumber towns. He raised dairy cattle, chickens and pigs, and sold cream to the butter makers in Sultan.

Elizabeth Keck lived just long enough in North Dakota to appreciate Startup. She came from Russia as a child, and remembers the ship rolling from one side to the other for six weeks. She was seasick and homesick. And then, before she could get used to New York, her family boarded a train bound for North Dakota.

The family stayed there only a year, she said. Life was just too harsh. Her father had relatives in the Skykomish Valley, so they moved here and bought cattle and 1,500 chickens.

Keck married, raised a family, moved to Sultan and then back to Startup in the 1970s.

Bertha Roesler has lived here since 1922, when her family headed west from North Dakota. She was 11 and remembers coming to Snohomish County and thinking: "It's so nice and warm!"

She's been the community Avon saleswoman for 36 years, driving between Monroe and Gold Bar to sell her products. "I still like this little town," she said.

Mary Dell Daniel, 91, lives down the road, on property she and her husband bought in 1941 -- 55 acres for $4,000, she said. "This was the best part of the valley, right here. I got five acres that'll grow anything."

Daniel walks with a cane. She doesn't hear as well as she'd like. But she doesn't miss a thing. She remembers how she came to the Evergreen State. Her brother-in-law, already here, beckoned. Western Washington, he'd said, had "apples in every orchard, and it rained, and then had beautiful weather. And mountains. And it didn't get real cold, and it didn't get real hot.

"And everything he told us was the truth, but we knew he told a good story," so they didn't really believe him until they saw for themselves.

They left Oklahoma, where they had "hauled water eight or nine miles for cattle." When they arrived, Startup had a school. The post office was a corner of the grocery store. There was a service station and "two beer joints" -- though Daniel never could understand why any self-respecting woman went there.

In so many ways, things are different now, she said. Startup is losing its charm, its sense of community.

Gatzke blames it on commuting. "Seems like everybody's going to Seattle to work." With all the driving, "you lose the small-town atmosphere. We're losing it now. But Startup probably still has more of it than most places.

"I go downtown Seattle, and I'm glad to get back here."

The road to progress

Startup, population 648, is on the way to Wallace Falls and the reptile zoo. Seattle residents pass it when they head east on Highway 2 for hiking, skiing, camping, fishing -- or just to get out of the rain.

The road is three lanes now, and most see that as progress that eventually will lead to Startup being swallowed up by Sultan, population 3,180, or Gold Bar, population 2,000.

But right now, Startup is zoned rural residential, with a few areas designated "rural business." "The only thing that's organized in Startup" is the water system, said Bill Schlicker, an artist and co-owner of the Parallax Gallery.

He and Toni Makinaw, a picture framer, bought the old Startup Baptist Church building, fixed it up and turned it into a showplace of Northwestern art.

"It used to be that you'd leave Seattle and the housing prices would go down, down, down 'til you got to Startup, and then because of the recreation, they'd start going up again."

Ken and Donna Rice, for example, bought the house where George Startup lived for $10,000 in 1975. "We don't have sidewalks or sewers and all that," Ken Rice said. But "it's quiet. We have a view of the mountains."

But those deals are long over, Schlicker said. "The days of the $30,000 shack are gone."

Linda Palmer left Seattle in 1981 to keep her children from being bused across town. Four years later, she bought the Sky River Pub, Startup's 60-year-old bar. Her children went to Sultan's schools. "Here, everybody's in the same community. It's smaller. A much more peaceful life.

"I love the valley," Palmer said. "On a clear day, I get off the four-lanes and look at my mountains. When I see the 'V,' I'm home."

Reprinted with permission of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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