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Gail Bertsch Chism -- Lowell (Everett) history collector and activist
HistoryLink.org Essay 10251
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This People's History was drawn from an interview recorded on June 2, 2012, with Gail Bertsch Chism (b. 1945), a resident of Lowell, Everett's oldest neighborhood. At the time, Chism was helping to plan for Lowell's 2013 Sesquicentennial celebration, reflecting back to the community's beginnings in September of 1863. Introductory material was provided by HistoryLink.org staff historian Margaret Riddle. Gail Chism moved to Lowell with her husband, Ron, and daughter, Michelle, in 1964, two years after Lowell's incorporation into the city of Everett. They wanted to buy a home and Gail was drawn to the neighborhood because its small-town feel reminded her of her early life on a farm. Gail knew nothing about Lowell but began listening to longtime residents. This led her to collecting, preserving, and celebrating Lowell's history. The Chism's also had two sons, Ron Jr. and Todd. Following a divorce, Gail worked for the Department of Social Health Services (DSHS), raised her three children and, as a caring citizen, became a neighborhood activist working for community change. Off and on for more than four decades she has served as chair of the Lowell Civic Association.
A Farm Girl
I was born in Everett General Hospital, as were my
children and two of my grandchildren. I was raised on a dairy farm between
Hartford and Lochsloy. I just came across a note that I wrote to my mom on an
envelope saying, "Mother, dear, please wake Joan and I up at 6 a.m. for
berry picking. Please make our lunch." I
was 9 years old.
We used to have a field that was our garden and us kids
would take fruit down to SR 92, on the way to Lochsloy, down our Lemon's Hill
Road, and set up a vegetable stand and sell vegetables. And I would go around with
my wagon and sell door to door and pick all the wild blackberries along the
side of the road. By the time I got back, they would be all soggy.
We bought our farm from Peter Thanum, our school bus
driver, and he was a member of our Hartford Community Church. I have the
original contract (for the farm), although I loaned it to the lady who now owns
the farm and she hasn't given it back, but I think it was $3,000 for 40 acres
and then X amount of dollars for machinery and a hay wagon and all that kind of
stuff. (Gail's siblings disagree on the price
and size of the farm). One of my favorite memories is gathering the hay and
putting it in the barn. Then we'd jump from the hayloft into the fresh hay.
The farm is gone now. We originally bought 40 acres and
then 40 adjoining acres. So one day my dad said he was going to sell it for $1,000 an acre and we thought he was crazy. Well he DID, and part of the farm is now a mobile home park, but the farm house is still there and the stream too. I couldn't believe that my stream was still there.
Part of our other field was wetlands and at both places
we would take walnuts and make ships out of them and we'd watch the fox with her babies going across the road. We had rabbits and my dad said he was tired
of raising rabbits, so he let them loose one night. They soon multiplied and at night we could see their eyes glowing in the dark.
I came to Lowell in 1964 so I never saw the old Lowell
School, but I remember the post office. We had a freezer in a grocery downtown and there was Al Beilfus's Confectionary and Soda Shop and we'd buy fireworks
and everything in Lowell, and go through the car wash. On certain days the mill smoke would come through and the city dump would start burning and then there was a rendering plant between Everett and Marysville -- a horrible stench. So we got it all. But most of the time, the smoke went up into the nicer homes, on View Drive.
But a lot of people had homes here and walked to the
mill. That's how you did it in those days. Families lived in Lowell and worked at the mill. It was like a company town. And it was very sad in one way when the paper mill closed (1972), but I also look at it as the start of the rebirth. Lowell in the '60s was redlined because of the mill and that type of thing, but if you really looked around, the houses were in very nice shape. After the mill closure, many homeowners turned them into rentals and moved away. And I shudder because, in the early '60s, people took great pride in tearing down derelict houses and those houses were probably some of the most historically significant ones at that time, but that's how you looked at older homes then.
When Lowell was annexed into the City of Everett (1962),
the first big thing they did was put in a park. And they held a contest and Rob O'Brien, a local Boy Scout, won an award for naming it Candy Cane Park. Later the name was changed to Lowell Community Park and then someone had the bright idea to name it Harriet Olson Park (after a Lowell resident). But Harriet never wanted the park and didn't want it named for her, so another neighbor and I picked
up Harriet to take her to the City Council meeting. This was the first time I ever spoke at City Council and Harriet said, "I don't want the park named after me." That's just how she was. The story goes -- and I don't know whether it is true or not -- that City Councilman Pete Kinch had a Harriet OlsonPark sign already made. So that was my first talk. I said if you really want to
honor Harriet Olson, you know they had just torn down Miller's (the Colby Building). Make that Harriet Olsen Plaza, do something like that. And City Councilman
Moe Michelson came over and shook my hand and said, "That was a good job, young lady."
After the Paper
We worked with Simpson (Lee Paper Mill) after their
closure. And in 1980 we did what was called The Lowell Plan. We all made
concessions. Simpson wasn't happy with the Lowell Plan. We weren't really happy
with it either, especially at that time when we were starting to think about
industrial vs. wetlands and the environment. But the City never adopted the
plan. Earlier than that, in the late '70s, Simpson wanted to develop the
property and make the Lowell Junction their main entrance, with a 4-lane road,
and the neighborhood objected. I was interviewed on the radio then and I
remember one lady telling me, "When I heard your name, I knew it was the
truth." That's what she said. It made me feel good. And the Council for a
Greater Everett was involved at that time and we had a big meeting up at the
school and over 50 people came.
But out of that effort to make a plan came a sense that
we really wanted to save our unique neighborhood, save our history and learn to
appreciate it more. There was a strong push to document that history, so we
hired Don and Kajira Wyn Berry and they met with our group down in the church
annex and we went around to all the houses and surveyed our properties. We were taught about the Bungalow and Craftsman styles, and then we went around and
documented the housing types. We also did oral history interviews, although no one knows what happened to those tapes. And we did the book, Lowell Story (authored by Don Berry) and the survey, which is at the Everett Library.
There were so many issues that were happening. There was
the Board of Adjustments, a committee of people appointed that could give adjustment to property size because there was X amount of square footage, like R2, and if
it didn't fit in that, you could go to the Board of Adjustments and they could say, "Fine, I've got lists of duplexes that were built that way." And I always thought I didn't like duplexes because they were taking over our neighborhood, but one time I said, "For example, there is one duplex next door to me and it fits perfectly into the neighborhood. It's nicely kept."
And the property owner was in the room, so I was really glad. I became friends with her and she started attending our meetings and was on the committee. Home ownership, as far as duplexes, is a big issue.
In the 1980s there was illegal dumping here in Lowell and
it started on a Friday night. We got that stopped, with the help of Larry Crawford of Public Works. I called him at home and he was in the process of moving out to Lake Stevens. The next morning we're going out for breakfast and we see
this big truck loaded with dirt, so we followed it, and, lo and behold, it was dumping in Pigeon Creek, by Forest Park. They didn't have a permit and so we made phone
calls and a group of us stood around joining hands and the driver said, "I thought I told you housewives to go home." And I yelled, "I'm no housewife!"
They used to dump on the Simpson property all the time,
so we had lookouts all the way along South 2nd. They dumped everything imaginable, old telephone parts and just garbage, straight into the wetlands. They always went for the wetlands. And I got a call, "They're dumping." So I went down there and said, "You can't do this," and so he left. I got another phone call that they were dumping again. Larry Crawford at the City came and put a Stop Work order sign on the locked gate. I was watching with my binoculars and I raced down there and saw a guy throw the sign in his truck, unlock and go in. So the third time he dumped, I called Larry again -- another Stop Work order -- and this time when the guy came back, I took a picture of
the truck. I said, "Oh, this sign says if there's any illegal dumping, there's a reward for the conviction of the perpetrator and oh, the number to call, let me see, is on your truck." And I took a picture of it because it was the caretakers of the Simpson site who had been dumping.
Then There Were
The City contracted to collect and recycle old tires on City property near Lowell. When we found out that the contract was coming up for renewal, we had Craig Fullerton from the City come down and I said, "This is not what we're trying to do. We're trying to clean up the land." Let me back up here. When we became a block grant neighborhood, we asked why one of our neighborhood boundaries was Pacific Avenue and were told everything south
of there would affect the neighborhood. So we said "OK" and we brought up the problem with the tires, since we were starting the Lowell Plan
and that was not a good thing for us.
We thought of the possibility of a fire and a small one
started (1983) and then the second fire, which was huge, (1984) and the City didn't tell anybody to leave. One morning the brilliant sunshine woke me up and I looked out. I don't know why I had my camera upstairs but I took a picture and called it "Sunrise over the Everett Tire Fire." It was taken from my bedroom window and you can see the valley with the trees peeking out. (Friend
and Lowell resident) Karen Williams and I we went down there and took pictures. You know, it wasn't blocked off and of course the fire department was putting I don't remember how many billions of gallons of water on it, until the
Department of Ecology told them to stop. The runoff was going into the Snohomish River and into the wetlands.
I had first become really involved and an outspoken
critic gung ho for Lowell in 1979 when the City was going to have a growth-management committee. I applied for it and got it. And I always said they put me on it to
shut me up. But instead I organized the Everett neighborhoods. And that was
when I first met David Dilgard (Everett Public Library historian). I was
interested especially in Colby Avenue development and all the older homes being
taken out and horrible buildings being put up in downtown Everett. So he gave
me the wording I needed. It said if a building is built next to a historic
structure, the new building should reflect the character of the historic
Then I advocated for a committee on human environment,
because it affects us all. And that led me to meeting a lot of Everett's movers
and shakers, like planner Reid Shockey and city councilwoman Judy Baker. I just
saw Reid Shockey recently and when they built the 41st Street Overpass, he
supported making that the gateway to Everett, up on Colby Avenue, and a lot of
houses would be removed. Reid was the attorney for the owner of the properties,
so he and I were at odds. I had called him and he said, "Someday Gail we're
going to be in an old folks home, sitting out on our porch in our rocking
chairs, still disagreeing. That's how it will be; we'll be poking our canes at
one another!" I said, "Yes, but I always liked you," and he
said, "I always liked you too."
But Judy Baker did her homework. She didn't always agree
with the "powers that be." I door-belled for her when she ran for
city council against Ray Stephenson (city councilman and later Everett mayor). And
for our annual Lowell Days celebration that year, Judy was in our parade. We
loved her and she was sitting on a convertible and waving. And there was Ray
Stephenson putting flyers on all the car windows.
The Getchell House
Well, we heard that there were plans to tear down the
Getchell House (built 1892) and put in a duplex and we didn't want it. It was
the last remaining link to the E. D. Smith era, one of the Getchell family
homes and the Getchell family was important to Lowell's origins. The house was
in pretty bad shape but we had strong community support for it. Our
neighborhood wanted to use block grant funds to restore the house. Other
neighborhood organizations used this money for infrastructure projects. At the
time, Bill Moore was mayor and his priority was always infrastructure. He wanted
us to spend our allocation on sidewalks and drainage and I remember (Lowell
resident) Hazel Clark saying, "We're a small rural community with our
winding roads and we need to leave it that way." And we all stood up and
agreed and I talked about speeders. Speeders were a big problem in Lowell at that
time. So the City said, "You haven't had any (neighborhood organization) elections
in three years" and asked us to reorganize. And they set up the meetings
at Lowell School. So some of the city workers that lived in Lowell showed up at
the meetings because, you know, it was sanctioned by the mayor at the time so
we voted in a slate of officers. And we had voted before on the Getchell house
and it passed and we voted again and it passed.
So the City devised a plan for us to choose priorities:
one was the Getchell House, one was drainage and one was sidewalks. A flyer was
made that confused the voters and everyone said, "What do we do?" So we
decided to not vote for a second or third choice because that would dilute (support
for) the Getchell House. Someone later confessed that someone in Lowell had
helped write the flyer. So you could vote, with a locked ballot box, and you
had to sign in while they physically watched you put one vote in. I went down
there to see how it was going and I was accused of stuffing the ballot box for
the Getchell House. I had to go to a graduation that same night and I was a
nervous wreck because I knew they were going to be counting the votes. Then my
friend Karen called and said, "We won, we won!" And there was a guy
from Germany visiting -- the parent of an exchange student who was graduating
-- and he couldn't understand my excitement. Of course back where he came from,
he lived next to a castle and he couldn't understand the importance of this
little old Getchell House. So I went down to Karen's house and the city block
grant coordinator, Faheem Siddiq, said, "Well, there's nothing they can do
to you now." That was the beginning of the end of it. Faheem was put into
a horrible position. The president of the Lowell Civic Association had a bottle
of champagne in the back of his truck because he was sure that "sidewalks"
were going to win and he went off in a huff and never celebrated the Getchell
It was a short-lived victory since, in the end, the
Getchell House was condemned and torn down. I wrote a poem in its remembrance
and read it at the Everett Historical Commission's annual William F. Brown
Awards: "Who am I, this lonely house/so high up on the hill/What's the
fuss to cast about/If the future were only mine/To feel the touch of a workman's
hand/Oh do I dare /I only sag because I thought no one cared/ to release the
secret of my heart-shaped trim /It was only my smile/waiting to be appreciated
again." Anyway, I wrote a whole page and the last part of it was a decree
to save the house so it will go down in history.
Sharing Lowell's Past
I've been interested some in history from a very young age and so, when
I moved to Lowell, it was just a natural thing for me to search out Lowell's past,
and the more I learned from oldtimers, the more I realized the value of our
history and who we are as a community. We've always been fiercely independent
and stood up for ourselves and that's the only way we have remained a viable
neighborhood. If you go down to Smith Street and look (along the river, north
of Lowell), that used to be a viable neighborhood and now what's there?….nothing,
all the homes are gone. And so bringing attention to Lowell's history and
values is very important to us, especially as Lowell turns 150 years old, and
my hope is that in the next 150 years, people can look back and thank us for
what we tried to do at this time.
I feel it's very important to educate our youngsters. I just learned
that mostly old people go to the National Parks now. The youngsters don't have
that pride and we need to create it again. I talk about Lowell everywhere I go
and people say, "I didn't know that. That's so interesting." We have
the oldest continuing industry in Everett; we have the Lowell Park that was
done by volunteers; we have the only pesticide-free park in Everett; and we
have the oldest church structure in Everett, which suffered a devastating fire
in 1984. We all pitched in and gutted it to the outside 2 x 4s.
My kids grew up here and they loved it. They have their stories. My son
and his friends hopped freight cars all the time. Kids would go up in the water
tower and throw fireworks and they loved the wetlands and the wildlife. One
reason I picked Lowell to live was that I was raised in the country and I
wanted my kids to have the same kinds of things I had. There was undeveloped
property across the street and the kids made their camps there and they made
lifelong friends. Donna (Ransopher) Wirt's grandfather built this house and I
met her at one of those home interior parties in the '60s. She lived in the
Prudden house down on Main Street and our kids were raised together and we're all
still friends. And their kids are like my kids and just so many memories of so
many kids came through this house. My kids made lifelong friends here and they
all still keep in touch on Facebook, and they're starting to realize Lowell's importance.
They used to say, "Mom, we've heard it all. Don't tell us anymore."
But they're starting to appreciate things about our community, especially my
son Ron, Jr. He wants this house. I had surgery in 2009 and, in making out a will
there was a big fight between my grandson and my son over who wanted this house.
Ronnie always dreamed of moving back to Lowell. He loves Lowell. And when I was
recently in the hospital, some of the old Lowell kids came up to see me. By the
way, Joyce Ebert lived across the street and she was pro-tem Everett mayor for
a time. And Stan Boreson lived in Lowell. We've had our celebrities.
I'm not a writer but we are planning to link stories with pictures to
make a new book. There is one person whose father bought a house on 52nd Street
in the 1920s and she brought a picture of it. And it still looks the same
today. There's an old Model T with her mom and some friends in the photo and
there's a caption that says they sometimes would have to back the car up the
hill to get the gas to the carburetor, in order to start the car. Thornton
Sullivan -- the park's named after him at Silver Lake -- lived in Lowell in the
Sumner house (Sumner Iron Works) and we're going to include stories about
Lowell's Volunteer Fire Department and the businesses, the oldtimers. It will
be the best we can do, given our time and abilities. And it all takes time. But
lots of new things are coming forward and it's exciting to us. We just got a
1932 Lowell School graduation commencement program that lists all the teachers
and students. The class flower was the Iris and they had a class color and I
want to adopt the Iris for Lowell. We're hoping that this again is a jumping
off point. We don't see this as an end but the beginning of a future, what we've
accomplished today and what we hope to accomplish.
Looking back, I'm proudest of myself and others of like minds for
standing up for ourselves and for celebrating our accomplishments and educating
other people to it. I think that's the main thing and the part I want people to
remember is that we are always together in life, what impacts one impacts
another, even if you don't realize it at the time. One hundred and fifty years
ago, E.D. Smith began Lowell and set a tone of independence for what he hoped
would be a town and because he did, I'm sitting here today, in this wonderful
house that I just had redone. So you learn and grow.
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Snohomish County Community Heritage Program
Getchell house, Lowell, Snohomish County, n.d.
Courtesy Jack O'Donnell
Photo by J. A. Juleen, Courtesy Everett Public Library
Joan (left) and Gail Bertsch on front porch, Snohomish County, late 1940s
Courtesy Gail Chism
Bertsch Dairy Farm, Snohomish County, 1950s
Courtesy Gail Chism
Joan (left) and Gail Bertsch in Valentine's Day costumes, Snohomish County, 1950s
Courtesy Gail Bertsch Chism
Gail Bertsch, Ron Chism, Lake Stevens High School prom, 1963
Courtesy Gail Chism
Gail Chism (front left), children Michelle, Ron, and Todd
Courtesy Gail Chism
First historic tour, Lowell, Snohomish County, 1977
Courtesy Gail Chism
Gail Chism (left), Jule Vandermeersch, landscaping Lowell Park, Everett, 1991
Courtesy Gail Chism
Gail Chism (left), Sue Ann Roberts, Everett City Council hearing, 1992
Courtesy Gail Chism
Gail Chism, charter signing day, Everett Centennial Commission, 1993
Courtesy Gail Chism
Woman protesting dirt dumping, Lowell, 1999
Courtesy Gail Chism
Gail Chism (center), brother John, sister Sharon, Everett, 2012
Courtesy Gail Chism
Mary Morgan and Gail Chism, hula-hoop contest, Everett Museum opening, 1992
Courtesy Gail Chism
Gail Chism in retro clothes, 1992
Courtesy Gail Chism
Four generations (l-r): Todd, Gail, and Taylor Chism; Pat Bertsch
Courtesy Gail Chism