Archive for the ‘Willard R. Espy’ Category

The Scribbling Aunts

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

Mona, “the eldest daughter” on the left

My cousin Mona sent me some of her (as yet unpublished) children’s stories to read.  They arrived by email this morning and I am sorely tempted to drop everything and get to it but my own writing calls so I’ll probably leave Mona’s treasures for evening “dessert.”

Mona is my uncle Willard Espy’s daughter.  His “eldest daughter” she likes to say, pointing out that she arrived six minutes earlier than her twin, the late Freddie Espy Plimpton.  I wonder if Willard ever read any of Mona’s writing and, if so, what he said.  I’m sure he was encouraging.  He always was.  But getting helpful criticism from him?  Never!  At least not in my experience.

On the other hand, it was Willard who gave some of his great-aunts the sobriquet, “The Scribbling Aunts.”  I always took his reference to infer that they weren’t particularly good writers but when I read his descriptions of them in Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa’s Village, I decided that what I took to be a pejorative description was probably just Willard being Willard.

The “scribblers” were my great-grandfather Richardson’s sisters Mat Richardson White and Shae Richardson Stein and their cousin Mary Bamford.  Of them Willard said: it was the women who set the cultural and intellectual tone of the Richardson household. By today’s standards, women in the 1880s and 1890s were chattels.  If so, somebody forgot to tell grandpa’s sisters and his cousin…

A Bit after Mary Bamford’s Time

Mary Bamford, he wrote, wound up with the curious title of Poet Laureate of Oakland…  Of Mat he said:  After a disastrous first marriage, she had to write frantically for newspapers and magazines to keep herself and her children fed, clothed, and roofed… And of Aunt Shae: …the most inveterate scribbler of all…  Her outlets included Golden Days, The Portland Transcript, The San Francisco Examiner, The Interior, The Congregationalist and Boston Recorder and The Youth’s Companion then known as The Companion.

So, if Willard referred to his sainted older relatives as “scribblers,” I wonder how he might have referred to us younger ones who do a bit of writing, especially his eldest daughter Mona. After reading all of his comments on those illustrious women forebears, “scribbler” might actually be considered complimentary in the extreme.  I’ll have to ask Mona if she has any thoughts on the subject… after reading my dessert!

Appreciating Willard Some More!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Willard’s “Bound” Copies

I may not have thought so at the time, but one of the enduring gifts that my uncle Willard Espy gave me was a sense of stewardship of “the family papers.”  That’s what we all called those boxes and boxes (about 100 of them eventually) of documents, letters, junk mail etc. that were stored in the “woodshed” as Willard called it.  He had been working with those papers since the 1930s.  They were the basis for his family genealogical work and ultimately for his 1977 book Oysterville, Roads to Grandpa’s Village.

Truth to tell, by the late 1970s, those papers were stored in the woodshed, as well as in the attic, the barn across the street and in the house just south of town that had served as home to my grandfather’s ranch foreman.  When my folks retired to the H.A. Espy home in Oysterville (where my mother and Willard and the rest of their siblings had grown up), they gathered all of those papers into one place for “safekeeping.”

One of Willard’s Labels

Shortly after I moved here full-time in 1978, Willard hired a student from Evergreen College to sort and catalogue them.  He asked me if I would help her out and for a year and a half Barbara Hedges (now Canney) and I forged a forever-friendship and learned more than we could ever have imagined about the Espy family, the pioneer days in Oysterville and the Peninsula, the trek across the Oregon Trail, the Civil War, the voyage around Cape Horn and on and on.

When we were “finished” the material was contained in twelve four-drawer, ‘fireproof,’ file cabinets in the storage area between our house and garage.  Willard still called it the “woodshed” as it was in the general area that had, indeed, been the woodshed of his childhood.  My folks called that area “the workroom” because my dad continued working there for a few years after they moved here, manufacturing plastic gift items.   Nyel and I now call it the “back forty” and it serves as a catch-all place for everything we have no room for elsewhere – the picnic items, card tables, chairs, Christmas ornaments – you name it.

A few years before he died, Willard made arrangements to gift all of those family papers to the Washington State Historical Society.  They would be transferred up to Tacoma to the Washington State Historical Research facility “at my discretion.”  That happened in the early 2000s, although we continue to find and deliver bits and pieces.

A New Project Begins

Meanwhile… I still have at my fingertips the typewritten (on a manual typewriter, no less!) copies of hundreds of letters that Willard transcribed back in the 1930s.  He felt the originals should stay here, undisturbed, but he wanted them in New York where he was living for reference.  So, each time he was here in Oysterville, he made copies – a laborious task in those days before copy machines and electric typewriters and the computers, printers and scanners we take for granted now.

And, once again, Willard has me involved!  I am transferring all those letters – from my great-grandparents and beyond – into archival sleeves and accessible binders.  The old spring-closed albums they have been in are beginning to deteriorate and… thanks again, Willard, for another “project” but, mostly, thanks for the hours and hours and hours you spent transcribing for posterity!  I hope I gave you enough hugs when you were still with us!

Going Gray in Oysterville

Friday, August 25th, 2017

The Red House

It’s been seventy years since my Uncle Willard Espy began painting the town red.  Well… maybe not the whole town of Oysterville, but certainly two of the most significant buildings in this little village.  It was 1947, the year of his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.  The celebration was to take place around Thanksgiving and, even that summer, preparations were under way.

At that time, Willard owned his grandfather’s house up the street a block or so from where he and his six siblings had grown up.  He and his (then) wife, Hilda Cole Espy, had purchased the house from the R.H. Espy Estate shortly after World War II.  Or maybe during the war – I don’t really remember.

1947 Golden Wedding Dinner

What I do remember is that for several summers in a row (including 1947) their four daughters – my ‘much younger’ cousins were here, as was I.  Willard, wo was then Public Relations Director for the Reader’s Digest in New York.  He took his vacation weeks here and, that year, he painted the R.H. Espy House red.

I was eleven that year and I don’t specifically remember the painting project.  My oldest cousin, Mona – never mind that she was a twin; she took great pride in being the eldest daughter, even if only by a few minutes – was six and she does remember.  Sort of.  She remembers her father laughing and laughing after painting the horns of the bull out in the pasture – red!  We both think that Willard had taken a break from painting the house to have a little fun with the neighbor’s bull and, in our minds, that dates the year that the house color changed from yellow (we think) to the red it is today.

The Little Red Cottage, 1977 – 2017

For the next thirty years, people referred to the R. H. Espy house as the “Red House” because it was the only one of that color in town.  Then, in the mid-seventies, Willard and his (then) wife Louise purchased the little cottage that had once served as the first courthouse in Oysterville.  It, too, was soon painted red and we began to refer to the two structures as “The Big Red House” and “The Little Red Cottage” to distinguish which we were talking about.

Yesterday, as we drove into town after being gone for eight days, there were indications are that we will not need to differentiate between red buildings from this point forward.  We noticed that the erstwhile “Little Red Cottage” now has a gray façade – perhaps the first step in the newest owners’ renovation scheme.  For now, the rest of the house remains red – a two-toned look that is distinctive in itself.

The Little Gray Cottage, 2017

Whether in his parents’ home, his grandfathers’ home or the erstwhile first courthouse, Willard spent much of his life here in Oysterville.  He, himself, grew gray over his long lifetime and I think he would be amused to think that his beloved Red Cottage had now entered its own gray stage.  Like Willard, himself, it’s looking quite dignified and distinguished in gray!

Convoluted Connections

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Willard and Dale, 1914

I’ve been thinking of Willard lately.  Willard Richardson Espy, my mother’s “twin” – well, they were 11 months apart but for all of his 89 years, Willard would write mom on her November 13th birthday and remind her that they were now identical in age until December 10th when he would become a year older than she.

Willard was not only my uncle, but was also my Godfather.  When I once challenged him about having fulfilled his duties in that regard, he archly asked, “Are you not a moral, upstanding woman of good character?’  When I answered in the affirmative, he said firmly, “Then I have done my job.”  I never questioned him on the matter again, though I did occasionally wonder how he thought he had accomplished that triumph of my development, especially considering that we lived on opposite sides of the continent for all of my formative years.

Willard and Sydney – 1938 in Oysterville

As I approached middle age, though, and Willard edged closer to his golden years, we had opportunities to spend more time together.  I had moved to Oysterville and Willard was spending about half of each year in his little red cottage here.  He had always been my role model with regard to his career.  I, too, had visions of working for a newspaper and of spending my life writing and hobnobbing with the literati and the sophisticates of the world. And, once we began spending more time together, he also became my mentor, encouraging me to complete my book about his oldest sister, Medora, and offering to write the foreword, though he would not live to see its publication.

Red Cottage 1984

So, fast forward to my here and now at Emanuel Hospital, eighteen and a half years after Willard’s death.  I think of him almost daily here – not for reasons you might think.  I think of his all-consuming interest in words – in their derivations, their meanings their misinterpretations, in the way they look and all the weird and wonderful things about language – ours and others.  He was called “The Wordsmith” and, though those of us who are aficionados of Oysterville, love his book, Oysterville, Roads to Grandpa’s Village, out in the greater world he is known far better for his fifteen books on words.

Willard, 1981

Yesterday, the discussion between patient, cardiologist and surgeon concerned a blood clot that has formed in the left ventricle appendage.  That’s a new situation and before surgery to correct his mitral valve can take place, they are trying to dissolve that clot.  It isn’t yet “organized” we were told.  Which means, it seems, that the blood has gathered and has coagulated to a gelatinous-like consistency but has not yet clotted – not fully organized.  That’s a good thing, apparently.  Willard would have been so intrigued…

Enjoying the Begats!

Thursday, January 21st, 2016
The Tiadaggtin Elm (in 1939), site of the Fair Play Men's Declaration of Independence

The Tiadaggtin Elm (in 1939), site of the Fair Play Men’s Declaration of Independence

Alexander Hamilton, Indian killer, was my grandfather’s great-grandfather, or my father’s great-great-grandfather, or my own great-great-great-grandfather, depending on how you want to put it. His daughter Anna married Tom Espy, who… begat the first Robert Espy, who begat the second, who begat papa, who begat me.

So wrote Willard Espy in his book, Oysterville, Roads to Grandpa’s Village. If you know that my mother was Willard’s sister, it doesn’t take much to figure out where I hop into the picture in that long line of begats. Nor does it take much further reading to realize that this Alexander Hamilton isn’t the famous one. But, he had an interesting life all the same. Most importantly, he made his own contributions to the beginnings of our country as one of the signers of the Pine Tree Declaration of Independence, drawn up and dated (by extraordinary co-incidence) on July 4, 1776.

My Great Grandfather R.H. Espy (The H is for Hamilton)

My Great Grandfather R.H. Espy (The H is for Hamilton, of course!)

“Our” Alexander Hamilton and the other twenty-two signers of that remarkable document called themselves the “Fair Play Men” but have come down in history as a group of illegal settlers (squatters) who established their own system of self-rule from 1773 to 1785 in the West Branch Susquehanna River valley of Pennsylvania in what is now the United States. Or so claims the not-always-reliable Wikipedia Online Dictionary.

I’m not much of a genealogist, myself, but I sure am glad that Willard was. And I’m even gladder that he chose to write about our forebears in his marvelous book about Oysterville. I just love those begats – especially the way Willard told about them!

Playing Second Fiddle

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Willard Espy, circa 1980

I’ve begun to take a better look in the Crosscut file box – the work of Ilwaco High School journalism students in late 1970s. The notes and tapes from twenty interviews of local residents are a treasure trove of recent Peninsula history and, I hope, will make for an interesting Observer series.

The subject of one of the interviews (done by Paul Yunker, April Williams, and Lisa LeClaire) was ‘Sydney LaRue’. That, of course, was me-before-Nyel, and probably took place in 1979 or 1980 just a few years after I moved full-time back to Oysterville. Unfortunately, none of the interviews are dated, and I have absolutely no memory of the experience at all.

I had to smile as I read the first couple of questions: “How are you related to Willard Espy?” and “What is he working on now?” I wonder, in retrospect, why they didn’t just interview Willard, himself. He was living here six months of each year and was famously accessible. Even now, people love to tell me how they knocked on his door one afternoon to have him sign a book and he invited them in for a drink and a chat.

img388The interview eventually became more about me but the way it began – in fact the entire tone would be repeated many years later when David Campiche interviewed me for Coast Weekend. My Dear Medora book had just come out so it must have been 2007 and the resulting story that David wrote turned out to be almost entirely about Willard. Years later he and I laughed about that, he a bit apologetically as I remember.

The truth is, if it’s a matter of playing second fiddle to someone, I can’t think of any better company to be in than Willard’s. I adored him and vice-versa. He was my uncle, my Godfather, my friend and my mentor. How lucky I was to have him in my life!

Election Day 2015

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

thToday is Election Day but, somehow, it doesn’t have the same cachet as it did in the years before the mail-in ballot. Now, except for being a day away from finding out the results (maybe), it’s a day like any other day. I miss going to the polls.

My favorite all-time Oysterville Election Day story is this:

Dear Daughter: This has been election day and some way it has been strenuous. Thus began a letter written by my grandmother, Helen Richardson Espy, on Tuesday, November 3, 1914. She was writing to her oldest child, Medora, who was away at school. The letter continued:

Oysterville's Polling Place, 1908-2008

Oysterville’s Polling Place, 1908-2008

Papa, Mr. Stoner and Mr. Goulter have charge of the polls. Mrs. Stoner took the men up their noon meal and I sent dinner tonight. Our stove has been smoking to beat its record, and I had an awful time getting anything cooked. To top it off, your three year old brother went off with little Albert Andrews today and had an undress parade right down Fourth Street. I was so provoked. They were not together fifteen minutes. This happened while I was off voting. Willard has been threatened with dire results if he went ever since their last “undress parade” so I punished him this time and think he is duly impressed. It just goes to show that women belong at home and not at election polls.

Medora’s “three-year-old brother” was my venerated Uncle Willard Espy, author of Oysterville, Roads to Grandpa’s Village. And, I might also note that in the next election it was my grandmother who “had charge of the polls” – her first and only paying job. Presumably, by then, Willard had outgrown his penchant for walking through town without benefit of clothing.

I suspect my grandmother would have enjoyed the convenience of voting by mail. But I don’t know what she’d think about the question regarding the secrecy of the mail-in ballot. And, I very much doubt that she’d buy the arguments that more people are likely to vote by mail or that the process is justified because it costs less to manage a mail-in vote. Or maybe I’m confusing my own reactions with what hers might have been… Wouldn’t be the first time.

Visiting & Voyeuring, Clapping & Cheering

Saturday, March 7th, 2015
Starring My Cousin Freddy (among others!)

Starring My Cousin Freddy (among others!)

My friend Linda-of-Seattle is the best informed person I know. She is always up to the minute on almost any subject that comes up. I’m not quite sure how she manages, but she seems to have time to see the latest films (but also the oldies) and read up on the stories behind the headlines (local, domestic, and foreign), even as she is traveling to exotic lands and leading a rich cultural life in the big city.

So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when she sent me a sympathy note about my cousin Freddy’s death last week accompanied by a link to a PBS documentary I’d never heard of: “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.” It definitely didn’t surprise me that I’d never heard of it. Even though it came out in May 2014 and Freddy (as George’s first wife and mother of his two eldest children) has a prominent role in it, I had no idea…

So, yesterday morning I spent ‘at the movies’ right here in my office. Never mind that my computer was calling out to get back to a couple of looming deadlines of my own. I was thoroughly enjoying a visit with the past and “re-visiting” with my relatives, Freddy and her grown children Medora and Taylor none of whom I’d seen in a decade or more. And, as icing on the cake there was a glimpse of Willard, himself, at one of George’s infamous cocktail parties at the Paris Review.

Summertime Linda

Summertime Linda

It was a grand peek at the life-and-times of the jet-set that most of us only know by dint of rumor and gossip. I loved the glimpses of the ‘rich and famous’ – emphasis on the famous because mostly they were writers and, with a few notable exceptions, were far from rich. There were some surprises, too, like Ken Burns weighing in. I would not have associated him with George, but of course the fact that he was made perfect sense.

Plus, I loved seeing George on his own turf. I had met him just once – his only trip to Oysterville. We lunched together at the Ark back in 1999. He and Freddy were in the ‘neighborhood’ for Taylor’s graduation from Reed and they nipped up here to pay respects to the family. Willard had died in February and George, standing in the middle of Territory Road in front of the church, remarked, “I just can’t picture Willard here.” I replied, “And I can’t really picture him anywhere else.”

But, of course, I could. We had visited with Willard in New York on many occasions. And, when I was growing up he was part of my life everywhere I lived – in Boston, in Portland, in Berkeley and Castro Valley. We even lunched together once in London. But… I digress. If you want a little taste of how the other half lives, check out the film. You can get it on Netflix or stream it live on your computer.

Meanwhile, I think of Linda as part of that ‘other half’ just like Freddy and George were. (Perhaps it’s the other ‘other half.’) She’s always on a cutting edge that is unknown territory to this Oystervillian. Thanks for keeping me in the know, Linda!

My Uncle Wede? Feet of Clay?

Saturday, February 7th, 2015


Willard Espy, 1975

Willard Espy, 1975

When it comes to writing and storytelling, especially about Oysterville, my uncle Willard Espy has always been my role model. Even before Willard got into the book writing business and certainly long before my own writing interests became focused on this beloved little hamlet, Willard (or ‘Wede’ as the family usually called him) was my own, personal shining star.

Partly, it was because I considered his life romantic. He had gone to Paris to study at the Sorbonne in 1930 and eked out a living there as an artist’s model. He returned to the states and worked for a string of small newspapers in California’s San Joaquin Valley during the depths of the Great Depression. He went to New York City, lived in Greenwich Village, worked for an avant-garde magazine and eventually went to work at the Readers’ Digest.


Willard at Work, 1945

That was in 1941 just about the time I began first grade. During my most impressionable years I would hear about the interesting people Wede met in the course of his job with the Digest. His title was Public Relations Manager and part of his responsibility was to ghost write the back cover of the magazine which was always a testimonial by a famous personage. Over the years he interviewed folks even I, a little girl in far off California, had heard of – Groucho Marx, Albert Einstein, Lillian Gish.

In addition to all those romantic aspects to his life (he was even married to an artist/writer and they had four daughters within three years!) I was very early aware of Wede’s work ethic. No matter what else was happening in his life, Wede wrote. Beyond his everyday job (which, itself, involved writing), Wede wrote stories and articles and novels and news pieces. It was a lifelong habit. It wasn’t until after he had begun to collect social security and had semi-retired that his first book was published. There would follow many more.

Oysterville by Willard Espy

Oysterville by Willard Espy

Yes, he was a wonderful role model. But just recently I’ve begun to understand that he was not a perfect role model – certainly not in the matter of historical accuracy. Not that ‘historian’ was ever one of his claims to fame, but he was a genealogist and was meticulous in his searches for forebears back in those days before modern aides such as the internet. And he was a superlative storyteller, especially in the matter of family history.

So, it has come as quite a shock to me to find that several of the stories told in his Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa’s Village are riddled with inaccuracies. Take the story about how his grandparents met and married – that in 1869 R.H. Espy traveled to Salem with Lewis A. Loomis (later founder of the local narrow gauge railroad) to choose a teacher for the Oysterville School.  Loomis didn’t come to Oysterville from New York until 1872, though his brother Ed was here. Wrong Loomis, Wede!

And take the part of the story where the young (eighteen-year-old) teacher Julia boards at the Stevens Hotel where there are four unmarried daughters about her age. Not! The two eldest Stevens girls were married and long gone; the two youngest were nine and eleven – hardly competing for the eye of bachelor R. H. Espy.

Historical facts, notwithstanding, Willard was a consummate storyteller. He’s still my role model. It’s hardly his fault that I get hung up on the details. But I do wish he were still around so I could chide him… just a little.

Espy’s the name: E-S-P-Y

Friday, January 23rd, 2015
Espy Coat of Arms... Pehaps

Espy Coat of Arms… Pehaps

Last Sunday I met a woman who said she knows one of my relatives – “Sue Espy” who lives in Portland. I know (or think I know) all the descendants of my great-grandfather, R.H, Espy and, in addition, I know many of the descendants of his brothers and sisters, but I don’t know of a Sue with the Espy surname. I’m afraid my response to my new acquaintance was a bit skeptical but I hope someday to meet Sue Espy and learn more.

It was my uncle Willard who was considered the genealogist of our family and his response to such information was always, “Yes, we probably are related.” I concur with that. I just don’t know the how of my connection to Sue. If I had Willard’s interest in my family roots, I could undoubtedly find out, but I don’t so I probably won’t. I do often think, though, how much easier his quest would have been these days with internet access to sites like and social media conversations galore with the strike of a key.

Willard did most of his searching by good, old-fashioned longhand correspondence or by traveling to interview possible sources in person. His archive has entire boxes devoted to queries to and responses from county clerks and veterans’ organizations and individuals all over the country. He compiled his information into three large loose-leaf binders, copies of which he supplied to all of his immediate family and to all of his eighteen first cousins or their offspring. The pages of those books are chock-a-block full of amazing information!

He also checked out the origins of the family name. A certificate from Halberts in Bath, Ohio says that there are approximately 400 heads of households (yielding about 1,280 people) in the United States with the old and d Espy distinguished Espy name – a name with the most prominent variations being Delespie, Epis and Espie. (There is no mention of the Espey spelling which my own branch of the family used briefly in the 1890s.) Unfortunately there is no date on the Halberts certificate, but I think Willard received it in the 1960s or ‘70s.

Besides all that interesting information about our far flung “cousins” and their name-spellings, the certificate shows and describes the Espy Coat of Arms: Quartered: 1) and 4) blue, a gold ear of wheat in left diagonal position; 2) and ) silver, a red bull walking and in the black upper third, three silver shells. It goes on to explain: the surname Espy appears to be occupational in origin, and is believed to be associated with the French, meaning, “one who was a farmer.” Furthermore, according to Halberts’ certificate, Family mottos are believed to have originated as battle cries in medieval times. A Motto was not recorded with the Espy Coat of Arms.

Family Name Certificate

Family Name Certificate

So, if we were to believe all that, the Espys were farmers, not soldiers and possibly of French origin. I don’t know what Willard thought of Halberts’ information. He did claim that the origin of the Espy name was French – he said from the word espier meaning to spy. (The first known use of the word espy was in the 14th century – or so the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary reports.) So maybe we were spies and attached to the military, not farmers after all?  When all was said and done, however, Willard did not believe that any of our forebears were illustrious enough to have warranted a coat of arms.  Nor do I.

Perhaps of note:   the source of this lovely certificate, Halberts Publishing Company, is now out of business and according to many online reports, its information was not reliable. In fact, says   Beware of family history scams: First it was Halberts of Bath, Ohio Then Morphcorp in Denver, Colorado. is the latest to promote the scam!

Who knows… maybe Willard’s hand written queries and in-person visits were the best way after all.