RASAR STATE PARK TOUR
A walk back through time
May 18, 2002
Nature Trail Along Skagit River
Rasar State Park
August 4, 2001
In August, 2001 I invited our two children, Mark and Karen Halliday, to take a "family history tour" of the Skagit River valley, in northwest Washington, where many of their ancestors on my branch of the family tree have lived. On my von Pressentin side, we found some homes still existed, and even had the opportunity to tour two of them in Sedro-Woolley and Birdsview.
Red Star indicates location of Birdsview, WA
General Area of Skagit Valley
Red Star indicates location of Birdsview
I was less optimistic about locating my Kemmerich grandfather's homestead in Birdsview, Washington. I had been to the ranch just once, in August, 1978 when my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the area. My uncle John arranged for a group to visit the Kemmerich ranch at that time. Other Kemmerich relatives had visited the property at various times, but their knowledge of how to find the ranch was just as uncertain as mine. At the time of those visits there was a small house on the property, but I don't know when it was built. In 1978 the house was vacant and the bottomland was being used as cow pasture. Access at that time was down a narrow lane, closed with a gate near Cape Horn Road.
Somewhere near the ranch house foundation.
L-R: John Kemmerich, Julius Kemmerich,
Barbara Halliday, Noel and Alphonse Kemmerich
Birdsview, WA August 31, 1978
Julius Kemmerich and wife Margaret,
Clara Kemmerich Bartosz
near probable boat landing site by Skagit River
Birdsview, WA August 31, 1978
House on August Kemmerich's ranch
Birdsview, WA August 31, 1978
Ranch "residents" in 1978
Kemmerich Family at August Kemmerich's homestead site
Birdsview, WA August 31, 1978
L-R: Clara Bartosz, Betty & Noel Kemmerich, Barbara Halliday, Alphonse Kemmerich,
Ross Kemmerich's stepdaughter, Julius, Ross & Margaret Kemmerich
Now, in August 2001, I told Mark and Karen, "I really have no idea how we can get onto the ranch property--or even who now owns it."
I did have one good clue--thanks to Jessie and Marlin Miller of Sedro-Woolley. Jessie's stepfather was my uncle, John Kemmerich, and Jessie had recently sent me some items she found among my uncle's effects. Among these were maps of Birdsview, identifiying property boundaries and owners. There were four of these maps, dated 1913, 1935, 1950 and 1983.
1983 Assessor's Map
August Kemmerich homestead land is located on north side of Skagit River, across from mouth of Boyd Creek (on south bank)
By 1983 the property was divided into three parcels: Daniel Rasar owned the western portion, A.E. Langendorfer owned the 2 eastern parcels.
Detail of assessor's map, 1983
Shows 3 parcels comprising August Kemmerich's original Birdsview homestead
These maps gave me a good picture of how August's homestead had moved out of the family and into ownership by others. It also helped narrow the location of the ranch, but still, I didn't see how we could hope to get on to the property.
In conversation with people in Birdsview, I asked if anyone could tell me how we might locate the old ranch and showed them the maps. Finally, someone said, "Hmmm, I think that's about where the new state park is located." With that clue, we set off for Rasar State Park--one of Washington's newest parks, dedicated in 1997. The park is located at the western end of Birdsview, off Cape Horn Road. There are directional signs to the park on the main road, Highway 20.
As we drove past the entrance and headed south toward a high bluff above the riverbottom land, I recognized that this must have been the road to my Aunt Anna Ackerman's ranch--which had been located on the western half of the Kemmerich homestead. In the late 1930's and early 1940's, my family occasionally drove up from Oregon to visit Anna, Bill and their daughter, Pat, at their ranch
We drove to the end of the road, where a Day Use Area occupied the land on the edge of the river bluff.
photo by Joe Napier
We found a paved footpath leading from the edge of the bluff, down to a large hay meadow that fills the riverbottom. With those assessor's maps in hand, we knew we'd found August's ranch!
Barbara Halliday at Hay Meadow, Rasar St. Park
August 4, 2001
A plaque at the park noted that Mr. Rasar had donated this land to the state of Washington, to honor his parents, who were also Skagit County homesteading pioneers. There was no mention of August Kemmerich on any of the park informational signs, and I wondered if anyone now knew that it was August Kemmerich who laboriously carved a ranch out of this wilderness in 1878?
There were no park staff members around to consult with about my "find," but on our way back to Salem, Oregon, we made a stop in Olympia at the Washington State Parks offices. There, I was given documents that confirmed that yes, Rasar State Park occupies the western half of August's homestead. However, the park staff I talked with had no knowledge of the early history of the property.
In the fall of 2001, I contacted the WA. State Parks historian in Olympia, who was very interested in the connection between my grandfather and Rasar State Park. He put me in touch with the manager of Rasar Park, and after a series of e-mails, it was agreed that we should meet at the park, and provide the WA. Parks with what we knew about the early history of the property.
The culmination of all the e-mails, and phone calls to cousins and WA. Parks staff was a walking tour of the park on Saturday, May 18. It was a sizeable group that assembled that morning at the park:
Nine of August Kemmerich's descendants drove up from Oregon:
Pat Ackerman Napier, who lived on the homestead property from birth until she was 14 years old.
Mark and Roa Napier, and Joe Napier, Pat's two sons and her daughter-in-law.
Mark Stupfel, grandson of Mary Stupfel, August's oldest child.
Dorothy Duyck, and Beatrice Peters, both daughters of Mary Stupfel.
Barbara Halliday, daughter of August's youngest child, Alphonse Kemmerich.
Karen Halliday, granddaughter of Alphonse.
Representing Washington State Parks were:
Kevin Kratochvil, Rasar Park Manager
Ted Smith, Historian/Natural Resources Specialist from the Burlington regional office.
Two descendants of other Birdsview pioneer families who had been good friends of the Kemmerichs. They both knew Pat Napier when her family lived on the Kemmerich ranch:
Barbara Thompson, descendant of the Savage family, now living on the Savage property in Birdsview.
Glenrose Williams, descendant of the King family, who grew up in Birdsview, now living in Snohomish, WA.
Noel Bourasaw, editor of the Skagit Journal website, devoted to the history of the Skagit Valley, who has taken a keen interest in the history of both my Kemmerich and von Pressentin ancestors.
Girlhood Friends, Reunited After 58 Years!
L-R: Barbara Thompson, Pat Napier and Glenrose Williams
at Rasar St. Park Day Use Area, May 18, 2002
Our tour of Rasar Park was especially significant for Pat Napier. For the first time, since 1944, she returned to her birthplace. Best of all, she was reunited with three of her childhood friends.
Pat Ackerman Napier (right)
with girlhood Birdsview friend, Lois Thompson
Pat Napier, who was born in 1930, was the only one among the tour group who had ever lived on the property, so she was the main resource in identifying where structures once stood. She recounted that she and her parents, Bill and Anna Kemmerich Ackerman, had originally lived in August's ranch house on the east end of the homestead.
When Pat was about four years old, her family returned from a trip to Hamilton for groceries to find the ranch house enveloped in flames! Apparently their hired hands had built too hot a fire, to warm their Sunday bathwater, and a chimney fire started. All that was rescued from the house was a trunk of documents, and the kitchen stove. Pat's family had to sleep under the fruit trees near the house that night.
Pat's parents later built a house on the western half of the homestead. Today the park day use area is sited where her home once stood--on the bluff above the riverbottom land. Pat said the land on the bluff was always wooded, and their garden was located below, where the hay meadow now stands.
With this background information in hand, our group left the Day Use Area of the park, walking down the handicapped-accessible paved path to the hay meadow. With Kevin and Ted Smith leading, we made a complete circuit of the riverbottom land, coming back along the river's edge to the Day Use Area.
Off we go!
L-R: Roa Napier, Kevin Kratochvil, Ted Smith, Karen Halliday, Beatrice Peters and Dorothy Duyck
Hay Meadow from descending trail
photo by Joe Napier
As we continued walking along the hay meadow, Kevin Kratochvil commented on the management of the park's land today. The camping areas and all structures are located on the bluff level while the hay meadow area adjoins the Skagit River. Nature trails are located along the river's edge and through the wooded areas. All the river bottom land is now designated as within the river's flood plain and no buildings can be placed on it. Instead, the park hopes to use this area to demonstrate the historic uses of the land, as pasture and meadow. Both the park's lower level and the eastern half of what was August's homestead are being farmed as one unbroken area. The eastern portion is owned by a trust, and by agreement with the park, a local resident farms the entire meadow as one unit. Future plans for the land may include some cattle grazing. This is very close to how August Kemmerich farmed his land!
Karen Halliday & Kevin Kratochvil
Looking east across hay meadow
Hay Meadow, looking west toward Rasar Park.
Kemmerich ranch buildings would have been near this point.
Our major goal was to identify the location of August's ranch house. On my visit to the ranch in 1978, my father could still point out the slight outline of the house's foundation but in 2002 it was no longer discernible.
Kemmerich Ranch House, front (south) side
Photo date (1913?)
As we were scrutinizing the ground at the eastern end of the meadow, someone commented that there were two very old fruit trees in the area. Suddenly, it all "clicked" for Pat and she said, "O.K., the fruit trees were just west of the house!" In checking over the area near the trees, a slight depression could be seen. The group agreed that this was the likely location of August's ranch house. Ted Smith took GPS readings at the spot, and Noel Bourasaw commented that with today's detection equipment, it might be possible to locate some artifacts, even though the meadow has been tilled and the earth "rearranged" over the ensuing years since the house burned down.
With the house tentatively located, it was easy to place the other ranch buildings. Just east of the house, John Kemmerich had once built a potato shed, just in front of the barn.
Timber scales (?) at left, John Kemmerich's Potato Shed on right
in front of Barn
Photo date unknown
We located an old, moss-covered fence and cattle chute just south of where the barn would have stood. A rough lane led from the fence down to an even lower level that adjoined the river bank. We surmised this would have been the cow pasture. And so, a picture of what the ranch once looked like began to form in our minds.
Beatrice Peters commented that her family records say there was a well near the ranch house. Parks HistorianTed Smith said that would be very likely--the difference in elevation between the ranch house location and the river is only about 20 feet. "A well wouldn't have to be very deep either. All that area is sitting on top of a gravel bar--you could get all the water you wanted."
We walked down the lane that August's cows once followed, and went out to the river bank. Family records mention a landing where the sternwheeler riverboats once tied up, but we saw no evidence of this. No doubt the Skagit River has made many changes to the river's course in the last 124 years! In mid-May, the Skagit was running full and its power was very evident.
photo by Joe Napier
Near the river bank, Ted Smith noted a large Black Locust tree and smaller saplings near what would have been the edge of the lower pasture land. He said that when you see an old Black Locust tree, you know that there must have been a homestead nearby. The trees were not native to the Northwest, but they were a desirable tree, and often planted by the pioneers. Mark Stupfel commented that Black Locust makes excellent fence posts--which can last for 75 years. Once the wood is dried, it will last "forever."
Karen Halliday by old Black Locust Tree
As we walked west along the river's edge, Pat recognized a large gravel/sandbar. She said "When I was a little girl (in the early 1930's) the Indians would come here to fish. They built little wooden houses on the gravel bar and traded their salmon for the produce my folks grew in their garden."
photo by Joe Napier
Cousins at the sandbar
L-R: Karen Halliday, Beatrice Peters and Dorothy Duyck
There were other comments about the native Americans who once called the homestead home. Noel Bourasaw commented "In research in Bellingham, I learned that there was a small Indian cemetery, located 'somewhere west of the sandbar.'" Pat recalled seeing Indians, in the early 1930's, going through the ranch, on their way up the Skagit Valley to pick berries. "They had horses, with things dangling off the horses' saddles (cooking utensils?). I remember our mothers gathered all the little kids in the houses because they were afraid the Indians might steal us."
Rasar State Park Manager, Kevin Kratochvil
In response to questions about what life was like for Pat and her parents on the ranch, she said that she and her mother would take the Birdsview ferry across the river to pick blackberries on the hillside, directly opposite the sandbar. The Birdsview ferry location is now hard to find--but was just east of the homestead, probably at the end of Russell Road.
Barbara Thompson commented that the families living on that opposite "uncivilized" south side of the Skagit River in August Kemmerich's day would have been: the Savages (her ancestors), and the Boyds, while the Minklers and the von Pressentins lived just a mile or so east. Those assessor's maps attest that these early settlers left their name on the land. Creeks and parcels of property with all these surnames are on the maps. A very small community indeed! And with a wide and powerful river dividing them.
Some early pictures that Noel Bourasaw has posted on his website show the shallow, cedar log canoes that were the common mode of transportation in the first decade of settlement in Birdsview. Looking out at that fast-running water, we all had to admire the hardy souls that used canoes for moving up and down their only "highway"--the Skagit.
From the Skagit Journal website:
Handmade cedar canoe, Skagit River, 1880s
This was the main mode of travel on the Skagit river for the first few decades. Men would split a cedar log lengthwise, burn out the center and then scrape away the residue until they had a sturdy craft, just as the Indians had done it for eons. As you can see, several people could board. Such canoes were often lashed together to carry goods and ore weighing a ton or more. This photo was taken by a photographer named Ewing from Anacortes. It is apparently a group of Indians from the Sauk River region being transported to the new reservation at Swinomish, near LaConner.
- - - with appreciation to Noel Bourasaw for this picture and caption
Noel also shared his theory about why August Kemmerich, Mr. Minkler and Mr. Grandy all found the Birdsview area attractive for settlement:
"I'm surmising that the reason for coming up to Birdsview was related to clearing the immense logjam in the Skagit River just above Mt. Vernon. In 1876, the pioneer settlers of Mt. Vernon tried to get Congress to give them money to clear up the logjam which completely choked off the river--there was no way to get a boat up the river through the jam. The settlers tried to get $75,000 from Congress, but the legislators would only give them $25,000. It was impossible to do it for that price. The settlers in Mt. Vernon all owned lots in Olympia or Seattle. They mortgaged those lots to raise funds to clear up the logjam. Others in Seattle and Olympia got wind that the Skagit River was now open and that's when everyone started thinking about the Skagit Valley for settlement. Up until that time, nobody wanted to try to live above the logjam because you had to portage three miles around the jam, carrying everything on your back."
Noel noted that when Wilhelmine von Pressentin and her small children came out [in early 1878]to join Karl on his Birdsview homestead, the logjam was still there. "She had to carry a small infant and lead a four-year-old along the portage around the logjam. Everything she brought, including the sewing machine she bought in Mt. Vernon, had to be carried around the barrier."
"I really think that's what happened. August Kemmerich and Mr. Grandy heard the logjam was gone and were attracted to the Skagit area. Seattle was too civilized for them (or the good land was already taken)."
Noel mentioned that August must have lived in some small shelter while building the ranch house and barn. Barbara commented:
"According to a note attached to August's will, he had built the house, with the help of his uncle, Augustus Kemmerich, before going to Chicago and marrying Barbara Hommerding in 1883. He took up the homestead claim in 1878, so he had five years to work on the ranch before his bride came West with him in April, 1883."
West end of Kemmerich homestead
The hay meadow has (almost) been cleared;
Do the few tall snags indicate the forest
to the west has been logged?
Date of photo not known
Pat related that in the 1940's she and her mother earned some extra money by cutting Cascara bark in the wooded area at the western end of their property. Cascara was used in laxatives and was a "cash crop." Once, they found an operational "moonshine" still in the woods. Its location would probably now be in the campsite area. Pat said August's son, Mark Kemmerich, had once owned this part of the ranch.
Interpretive Sign along River Bank Nature Trail
Rasar St. Park, May 18, 2002
photo by Joe Napier
As we walked along, probably literally in the footsteps of the August Kemmerich family, with the rolling river, the hay meadow, and the still-dense forest on the bluff above, it was not that hard to look back through the mists of one hundred and twenty-four years and see what they must have seen. At one time or another on this tour, we all voiced our admiration for the people who came to this wilderness, coped with the challenges they faced, and laid the foundation for the comfortable lives we have all enjoyed.
At the end of our tour, Park Manager Kevin Kratochvil thanked the group for the historical background they had provided about the land on which Rasar State Park now stands. He said he hopes that it may be possible to develop an historical interpretive display at the park, using the information and pictures August's descendants have provided.
Tour Group dwarfed by tree--growing around a huge stump!
L-R: Joe & Pat Napier, Karen Halliday, Noel Bourasaw, Barbara Halliday
Beatrice Peters, Mark Stupfel, Dorothy Duyk and Mark Napier
For most families it would not be possible to return to the place where their ancestors once lived and find anything that looked remotely as it did one hundred years ago. This could easily have been the experience of our family, but thanks to the vision of people within the Washington State Parks Department who saw the need to preserve a portion of the Skagit Valley before it was all transformed and to Mr. Dan Rasar, who generously provided this beautiful land, we were able to walk back through time today.
Members of the Rasar St. Park Tour
L-R, front: Lois Thompson, Pat, Joe and Roa Napier
back: Beatrice Peters, Mark Napier, Dorothy Duyck, Karen Halliday and Mark Stupfel
at North Cascades Inn, Concrete, WA
May 18, 2002
Skagit River at Sunset
Along Rasar St. Park Nature Trail
May 18, 2002
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
To read about August and Barbara Kemmerich, go to: August Kemmerich Biography
To see pictures of other Skagit Valley sites visited during our May, 2002 trip, go to: Upper Skagit Valley Scenes
Two other excellent websites for Skagit Valley history are:
The Skagit Journal, edited by Noel Bourasaw.
Noel is a longtime resident of Sedro-Woolley and his website encompasses the entire Skagit Valley area.
Dan Royal's Stump Ranch. Dan is a descendant of the Boyd family--early pioneers in Birdsview.
Dan lives in Birdsview and is concentrating on the historical heritage of this section of the upper Skagit Valley.
Unless otherwise noted, text and photos are the property of Glenn and Barbara Halliday, © 2002