Nespelem oral history
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 Nespelem oral history

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Nespelem oral history

AUTHOR: Clara Whyatt

Nespelem at one time was a sub-agency for the Colville Reservation and is the site of the tribal headquarters today.

The town of Nespelem, situated on the Colville Indian Reservation derived its name from an Indian word meaning either "large meadow beside a stream" or "a beautiful valley between the hills," depending on who you talk to.

Little is known about this valley prior to the 1880s, although about then there were, apparently, at least two families permanently settled in the immediate area of Nespelem, those of Johnny Frank and Nespelem George. Other Indian families lived along the Little Nespelem River, east of where the Confederated Tribes have their headquarters now.

Still others lived near Owhi Lake, Johnson Lake, and Gold Lake to the north. During summer, the Indians hunted deer back in the hills around Gold Lake and Moses Mountain and along the San Poil. They fished for salmon in the Columbia River and collected roots and berries.

Probably by the 1880s, early-day traders, trappers and prospectors were beginning to settle down, marrying Indian women. Chief Moses and his Columbias and later Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce were added to local Indians on the reservation.

Joseph’s first camp site at Nespelem was near where our telephone office now stands. For many years Indians held their encampment circle around this spot, until the town was built up too solidly to leave room for their teepees. Later the government built a house for Joseph across Nespelem River, near the old rodeo grounds.

The government also built a grist mill and sawmill for the Indians. They were located across the footbridge over Nespelem River, across from where Hattie (Redstar) Andrews lives now. They were about halfway between Begg’s Service Station and the Nespelem school and about a block south from the Whyatt-Duncan sawmill. Herman Friedlander, now 82, remembers these two structures standing side-by-side. He says power was provided by a steam engine which, however, could only operate one mill at a time. He says both were eventually destroyed by fire.

In 1898 Congress, pressured by miners and without consulting any Indians whatsoever, opened the South Half to mineral entry. This produced a swarm of miners with ore wagons rumbling past Nespelem and steamboats loading concentrates at the mouth of Nespelem Creek. At this time, he sub agency exploded into a town.

It has been estimated that as many as 1,500 prospectors and other whites were waiting just across the Columbia River, and that signal fires were built when official word of the opening was received. These fires touched off a rush and many claims were staked.

Of the 11,072 mining claims eventually posted on the South Half, most were fraudulent, intended mainly to reserve land until such time as it could be legally occupied by whites for farming or grazing.

But a certain amount of mining was done, though the Klondike rush of ‘98’ drained off many of the miners. Some of the ore was hauled by 4-horse teams to the railroad at Almira. Other loads were hauled to the mouth of the Nespelem River and transported by steamboat to Bridgeport for reloading on railroad cars. Most of the ore went to a smelter at Tacoma.

The mining rush made quite a supply center of Nespelem, which until then had been mainly a depot where reservation Indians drew supplies. It's first store was opened by F.M. Daugherty.

One of the prospectors was a physician, Dr. F.O. Hudnut who had received his medical degree at Ann Arbor, Mich. He came west in 1889 and for many years administered to the medical needs of this community while prospecting and promoting mining developments on the reservation and in the Conconully area.

Single when he arrived, Dr. Hudnut later brought out a bride from Chicago. Their son, Arthur, lives at Elyria, Ohio. Joe Ott of Nespelem worked for Dr. Hudnut for 16 years as a young man. The Hudnuts are buried in the Nespelem Community Cemetery west of town.

The first official agency doctor was the zealous photographer Edward H. Latham, who arrived at Nespelem in 1890. His charges included an effort to overcome the "superstitious rites and barbarous customs" of local medicine men.

In 1907, Fred Evers established a mail and stage route linking Nespelem and Almira. The trip with a horse-drawn hack or wagon took from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., with one stop at a halfway house for a meal and to change horses.

In 1915, Mr. Evers began using his first truck. Cable ferries were the only means of crossing the Columbia River until a bridge was constructed during the early days of building Grand Coulee Dam. Mr. Evers carried mail, freight and passengers for 26 ½ years. He is now living in Omak.

The government maintained a blacksmith shop and a commissary here for the Indians. The Colville Agency Headquarters had been located at Chewelah, Fort Spokane, and Miles, Washington, before moving to Nespelem in 1912-13. But there was usually an agent of some kind here, in addition to a government farmer, a matron field nurse, and a doctor.

The function of the government farmer was to teach the Indians how to plant wheat, oats and other crops, also potatoes and other vegetables. The matron covered many miles with her horse and buggy, trying to teach Indian women the "white man’s way" of cooking, sewing, baby care, etc. When the Agency was moved to a site two miles south of town, the lumber and furnishings were brought down the Columbia on boats.

In 1910 the business district of Nespelem included the post office, a rooming house, hotel, meat market, livery barn, and two general stores. When the South Half of the reservation was opened to homesteading in 1916, the first real wave of permanent white settlers arrived.

Many proved up on claims. Others became merchants. Farmers raised cattle, horses and sheep and harvested good crops. Sacks of threshed wheat were transported down the river by boat to Pateros. Nespelem became a thriving community. A confectionery store and harness shop were added to the business community.

The Jesuits had worked among the Indians here for many years. But it was Father Edward Greva, who came riding into Nespelem on a bicycle in 1914 from St. Ignatius, Montana, who built the Roman Catholic church which stood on the hill back of the Nez Perce cemetery. This landmark could be seen for miles around, and the tolling of its bell was heard throughout the valley.

Constructed in 1915, the church was destroyed by fire in 1948. The Jake Koontz residence was purchased to serve as a Catholic church until 1964 when the new Sacred Heart Mission church was erected.

The first Protestant worship services were conducted in 1913 by a traveling evangelist. After several ministers visited here, the Methodist Board of Missions sent a Reverend Thompson here. During his 2 year pastorate, a Methodist church was constructed by volunteer labor. It was completed in 1915. The Pentecostal church, on a hill in the east part of town, was erected in 1953.

Platted in 1913, Nespelem was incorporated on May 3, 1934. Mel Parmeter, a dairyman, served as the first mayor. He was a good speaker and imitator and his wife, Mamie, was a fine musician. The two helped at many entertainment's.

Early-day celebration's at Nespelem were highlighted by Fourth of July festivities, with Indians pitching their teepees in town and stick games and ceremonial dances following the horse races.

For a number of years starting in 1926, the school and churches cooperated in May Day festivals with a parade and other events. The first Christmas entertainment was held in 1913. Pioneers gathered in the old schoolhouse and the merchants of Wilbur and Almira sent boxes of treats for the children.

The late J.W. Davis operated the first movie show in Nespelem. It was held upstairs over his confectionery store.

Clyde Pangborn, the famous pilot who flew nonstop from Japan to Wenatchee, occasionally visited Nespelem. His mother lived here briefly. She also lived near the Keller Ferry and at Bridgeport for a short time, but was a resident of Moses Lake when she died a year ago, in her 90s. Clyde Pangborn died in 1959. He has a brother , P.C. Pangborn, living in Bothell. Two of his cousins are Mrs. Edna Krofcheck of Coulee Dam and Dale Nissen of Nespelem.

The real boom at Nespelem occurred not when the South Half was opened to mineral entry but when construction of Grand Coulee Dam began in the early 1930s. A number of construction workers moved here.

Downtown streets were paved for the first time, a community waterworks was completed, and an REA-financed cooperative brought in electricity in 1942. Telephones were installed. Log cabins began to disappear, only a few are left standing.

During construction if the dam, Nespelem’s population increased to about 500. This also brought a big improvement in roads. For a long while Nespelem had only a winding, primitive road, built by the Indian Department as far as Armstrong meadows.

When Jake Koontz of Nespelem was elected a state senator in the late 1930s, he introduced a bill providing for a state highway from Coulee Dam through Nespelem to Omak. As near as I can remember, it was open to traffic from Nespelem to Disautel and Omak in 1939. Earlier, the only way to get to Omak was along the Columbia River and up through Kartar and across the South Half.

Nespelem had two general stores for many years, Louie Prince built a store here in 1934, later selling it to Ed Neal. Mr. and Mrs. Art Rhodes operated this store for a few years, they now have the Thriftway store in Omak. Neal’s store burned on February 25, 1966. Since then, Casey’s has been the only general store.

In November of 1961 the Colville agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved from Nespelem area to Coulee Dam and the Colville Confederated Tribes took over the former agency as their headquarters.

Nespelem has had its quota of pioneers. Many came when the South Half was opened to homesteaders in 1915. They included the first mayor, Mr. Parmeter, and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Steve Avard, Mr. and Mrs. Dick Kinkaid, and Mr. and Mrs. Bob McClure. They all homesteaded north of town.

Mr. and Mrs. Fred Hunt lived down on the Columbia River. Mr. and Mrs. John Cleghorn bought the Bill Condon place. Andy Hartman and the Johnsons homesteaded on Owhi flat. Other early arrivals were Mr. and Mrs. Rube Crook and the Linder family. Mr. Crook opened a new store and Mrs. Crook, now Mrs. Joe Ott, later became post mistress.

The Canterberry family moved here in 1920 and the Earl Brittains in 1921. Sam Garber farmed east of the agency. L.A. Gray came out from Washington, D.C., in 1913, and was later joined by his family. He operated a blacksmith shop for the government.

Jake Koontz came in 1916. He worked in the DeCamp store. The next year Mr. Daugherty built what is now the Grange hall and leased it to Mr. Koontz as a general store. Mr. Koontz married Dessie Tussler who came from Almira to teach school.

Harry Potter ran a livery stable, selling it to George Cleghorn who moved from across the Columbia River. One of his sons, George, Jr., is now police chief at Omak. Katherine Waters arrived in 1913 to become a matron for the Indian Service. The next year she married James L. Davis in the first wedding at the new agency. Mr. Davis operated the Davis Drug and Confectionery store until his death three years ago.

G. H. Beggs, E. Christianson, William Barnard, Gene Smith and Frank Ostroski were among the early prospectors in this region.

Oscar Schilling and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hulbert moved here shortly after World War 1. Mr. Schilling settled north of town. Later he went out and brought in his bride, and the whole community turned out to welcome her. His widow, Nettie, still lives on the farm. A daughter, Mrs. Annabel Glassford, lives in Omak.

The Hulberts bought the Steele Hotel. Later he operated a fish hatchery at Owhi Lake. Three of Wild Goose Bill Condon’s grandchildren live in Nespelem, Dan and Jack Condon and Mrs. Verne (Lillian) Blough. A complete list of longtime residents would be much longer.

About The Author:
Clara Whyatt was born in 1896 at Leavenworth where her father, J.H. Clepper, was the first school teacher. The family homesteaded on Tunk Creek in 1908. Mrs. Whyatt attended school at Synarep and at Omak, where she lived with the W.S. Shumways, baby-sitting their daughters, now Mrs. Helen Ringheim and Mrs. Mildred Pentz.

Clara married Richard Whyatt in 1918 at Omak. Her husband operated sawmills at Tunk Creek (with Frank Figlenski) and at Conconully from 1928 until 1935 when he moved the mill to Nespelem, entering a partnership with J.R. Duncan. Richard Whyatt died in 1960.

Mrs. Whyatt has five married children, a brother, Carl Clepper, Spokane city auditor, and two sisters, Mrs. Olga Kaufman of Okanogan and Mrs. Ada Noonkester of Wenatchee. Mrs. Whyatt still lives in Nespelem (1967).

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