Schoolteacher Blanche Shannahan, granddaughter of Snohomish County pioneer Robert Smallman, left a written account of life on the Smallman-Shannahan farm located at Tualco near Monroe, a farm owned and operated by her family for more than a century. Drawing from Blanche's book, Louise Lindgren wrote this account for publication in the September 2000 issue of Third Age News. She updated it in 2018 for HistoryLink.org.
Schoolteacher, Caregiver, and Story-teller
On August 24, 2000, descendants of Robert Smallman were among nineteen farm families honored as owners of Snohomish County Centennial Farms, those operating under their same-family ownerships for 100 years or more. Mr. Smallman established his homestead on 160 acres at Tualco, south of Monroe, in 1870.
All Centennial families were asked to submit a short history of their farms, and one of the most impressive offerings was the privately published history We Are Eight by Blanche Shannahan, a granddaughter of Mr. Smallman. Not only is the book a full inch thick, but it is packed with documents and stories that give a human face to what could otherwise be a simple recitation of facts about families who homesteaded in the Tualco valley in the 1860s and '70s.
Blanche Shannahan was a schoolteacher and caregiver for her wheelchair-bound brother throughout most of her life. She was also a true story-teller, a talent that few writers possess. Her preface to the book sets the tone:
"I am proud that I am I, Blanche Shannahan, not because of wealth, for I have none; not for beauty, for if I ever had it, it is long since been erased by the ravage of time; not for fame, for that I have not attained; nor am I proud of my accomplishments, though they are nothing to be ashamed of. ... I shall never have worldly goods to pass on, but somewhere along the line there may be descendants of my parents, in some cases children not as yet born, who will appreciate the effort I have made to preserve our family history; the incidents of courage shown, of strength of character, of service to their fellow men, of integrity and good-fellowship as exemplified in the lives of our ancestors" (We Are Eight).
These words about courage, service, and integrity are then illustrated by story upon story of the men and women of the Smallman and Shannahan families. (The Shannahan log cabin, built by Blanche's father, John Shannahan, has become a landmark at the Evergreen Fairgrounds in Monroe, Washington.)
It is the stories of the women of that family that seem most compelling. For instance, there is one about Louisa Smallman, who came to Snohomish from England by boat in 1866. Standing 4 feet 10 inches tall but appearing much taller because of her dignified bearing, she had a strong desire to hold land of her own, an impossibility for her in England. So when the adventurous Robert Smallman, a veteran of the Queen's Navy and the United States Indian Wars, promised her a homestead in America if she would marry him, she accepted. The long voyage by ship to Panama, train ride across the isthmus, and turbulent steamer ride up the Pacific Coast was physically devastating, but nothing to the surprise on arrival of finding that her new husband already had a three-year old daughter who would be living with them. Welcome to a life of adapting to pioneer challenges.
By the following year, Louisa was the mother of another little girl, Elizabeth, who would grow to marry John Shannahan. A short time after that her husband, Robert, suffered a devastating accident while logging. A severe cut on his leg developed into a dangerously infected wound. The result was amputation at the thigh. This accident thrust the family into poverty, yet Smallman continued to do what work he could with a crutch and a cane. Sometimes he would clear brush by lying on the ground, making the cuts as his wife and young daughters hauled away the debris.
The dream of land ownership seemed impossible until an incident with a neighbor's land, and the squatter who was taking possession of it, turned the Smallman fate. It was Louisa who, having gone out to earn wages for the family through domestic work, had the forty dollars in hand to buy legal title to the neighbor's property. The neighbor was happy to sell, for the squatter had been aggressive and chances seemed slim of running him off. Louisa confronted the squatter on her own, showing him the legal title she had purchased and demanding that he leave. He tried to ignore her but when she grabbed his rifle and aimed straight at his unbelieving eyes, he left the place in humiliation, having been run out by a tiny woman.
Elizabeth and John Shannahan
Another story, involving the Smallmans' daughter Elizabeth, is poignant. She reared a bull ox calf with great love and attention, naming him Cap and considering him part of her family. However, at age three, Cap was due to be sold to a logging company. It was the natural order of things to everyone but Elizabeth. One day Elizabeth's three-year-old sister Adelaide ran off exploring and failed to return. The parents were distraught for the river was nearby, an attraction and a threat. The two older girls, Ellen and Elizabeth, were sent to find her and to find Cap who had also disappeared. After much searching in waning light, they topped the crest of a hill and couldn't believe the scene before them. Blanche described it:
"There lay Cap, perfectly still, and on his shoulder lay the little child fast asleep with one arm curled around one of his forelegs. He raised his head but did not move till Ellen reached over and lifted the child from his side. Then he lumbered to his feet."
Cap's sale went through in spite of that, but his small mistress was assured that he would go to a kind master.
Elizabeth Smallman grew to meet and marry John Shannahan, who had served his time in logging camps where he was known as the only man who could drive oxen without cussing. He also had the reputation of getting more logs to the river than any other driver. John was kind and thoughtful of the animals and spent much time after work and on Sundays caring for their feet and currying them. Elizabeth did not want him to suffer the fate of her father, so continuing to log was not an option in her mind. Instead, Shannahan farmed, built and managed brick and hop kilns, and was for many years the road supervisor of District III in Snohomish County. He bought a pile driver and spent much time in bridge construction and riverbank protection, earning kudos from families in the area.
Blanche wrote that he had one eccentricity for the time: he did not believe in physical punishment for his children but maintained discipline by listening first to their side of a dispute and then pointing out the practical reasons for them to do as he said. Often he would suggest to an upset child that finding a hollow log to live in would eliminate the need to get along with others. The very idea made that child think seriously about cooperation.
The book Blanche Shannahan wrote is available for reference at the Monroe Historical Society Museum, serving as a source for those who want to understand the human stories behind the sometimes dry facts of history.