The Blurry Edges of Memory… and History

Emmett Oliver

Many of us who live within the Oysterville Historic District were somewhat dumbstruck a few weeks ago when we read our erstwhile neighbor Nancy Lloyd’s Observer article, “Ah, Oysterville: Small Skirmishes in a Coastal Village.”  Perhaps you felt the effect of all of us gasping at the same time – it sorta sucked all of the Peninsula’s air northward.

Those of us who still live here don’t remember the “skirmish” quite the way Nancy described it.  In fact, we don’t really remember a skirmish at all.  It may be one of those in-the-eye-of-the-beholder things, but even so…  If the incident Nancy speaks of is the one I was directly involved in, her version and mine are the proverbial apples and oranges.

Johnson House to left (south) of Oysterville Baptist Church c. 1902

The way I (and several others) remember the story, it began some twenty-five years ago, back in the mid-nineties.  Emmett Oliver (1914-2016),  was a Quinault elder and an educator and a friend.  Most pertinent to this remembrance, he was a descendant of James and Cecile Haguet Johnson who lived in Oysterville from 1870 to 1896.  Emmett felt strongly that the place where they had lived should be recognized in some way and he approached the Oysterville Restoration Foundation (ORF) to see what could be done.

They were not responsive, mostly because they felt (perhaps understandably) that they couldn’t honor just one once-upon-a-time family.  Where would it all end?  Emmett was insistent.  “That was where Myrtle Johnson Woodcock was born,” he said.  “The last princess of Oysterville,” he said.  To no avail.

Somehow, perhaps because I was a fellow-educator, he came to see me where Nyel and I then lived on the bay just south of the Oysterville Historic District.  “Will you help me?” he asked.  I had long felt uncomfortable that Oysterville had not given so much as lip service to  the Indians who had lived here, albeit seasonally, for centuries before white settlers arrived.  At Emmett’s pleas, all my sense of fair play (and no doubt a large dollop of white man’s guilt) kicked in. “What can I do?” I asked.  “How can I help?”

Johnson Homesite Sign and Marker

As it turned out, Emmett had had a marble marker made at his own expense.  He met me by the Oysterville Church one afternoon and while I fetched water from the hose bib on my folks’ property (where Nyel and I now live), Emmett dug a hole and mixed the cement to set the marker just outside the churchyard fence, about in line with where he determined his ancestors’ house once stood.

No one noticed for a long time.  When they finally did, the ORF Board felt that perhaps an explanatory sign might be in order.  To make the marble marker look less like a gravestone.  They had a sign made in the manner of the signs that the Shoalwater Chapter of the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington had provided for other historic properties a decade or two previously.  And they placed it on the fence just behind Emmett’s marble marker.

There is, of course, more to the story.  Tune in tomorrow… as they used to say in the old radio serials.  Quick!  Before our history gets changed once again!

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