Shafer Historical Museum, 2009
Hardcover, 228 pages
Over 300 photographs
Authors Kit McLean and Karen West have completed a tremendous project with Bound for the Methow, a stunning visual log of early settlement in the Methow Valley, located in the north Cascades. In 2003, McLean initiated the Shafer Historical Museum’s Historic Photograph Recovery Project. West soon joined her and they realized that this burgeoning collection would lend itself well to an illustrated history of the Methow. Since the valley was part of the Moses Columbia Indian Reservation until 1886, this was one of the last parts of the United States to be settled by non-Indians. A relatively late pioneering period is undoubtedly one of the reasons that this collection, remarkable for its breadth and depth, is even possible.
Bound for the Methow is organized thematically, with chapters such as Transportation, Schooling, Amusements, and Hunting and Fishing, each of which starts with a summary of its subject and a timeline of relevant events. Then come the gems: full-page reprints of black-and-white photos that McLean and West gathered together from long-standing Methow valley families. Each photo is accompanied by lengthy captions and quotes selected from interviews or published remembrances. The place, people and animals in the photographs are named. One can’t help but marvel at the amount of research that went into putting this together. The authors have chosen well. The eye is free to wander over the page, examine the grainy image and rest on a short story.
A few snapshots: There is a spectacular shot of Twisp in 1910 with a cluster of Indian teepees across the river from the pioneer settlement that clearly illustrates the intersection of cultures. There are portraits of sprawling families and their farms: “During their 74-year marriage, the couple raised five children, built two flocks of sheep, each with 5,000 animals, and enlarged what became Moccasin Lake Ranch from 15 cleared and irrigated acres to 1,100” (92). The adjustment to a new and lonely way of life is exemplified by this quote from Lora Thompson: “Sometimes I’d get so lonesome and scared when Fred was gone that I’d climb up on the roof and scream. But it didn’t do any good. There wasn’t anyone to hear me” (84). This coupled with an image of an austere house nestled into a vast landscape is enough to send shivers down your spine. Throughout, the hardiness of the people is emphasized. These are stories of life at the edge and everyone – men, women and children – worked hard and endured much suffering, hoping of a better life. But the sheer amount of work is counteracted by the fun times, exemplified by photos of swimming expeditions, rodeo festivities, and all night parties with food and dancing.
Many of the photos are under-or-over-exposed, giving them a rough look that feels appropriate to the subject matter. The scenes depicted seem exotic to a modern urban-dweller and call to mind the photos of Diane Arbus or Robert Frank, photographers famous for documenting American life as fine art. The identities of these Methow valley photographers are mostly absent, but one presumes that they did not have strictly artistic intentions, that they meant to document their way of life, to capture memories and preserve them for future generations. They have most definitely succeeded, but even so, the stand-alone merit of the photographs is striking.
The authors have compiled an invaluable resource in Bound for the Methow. All places would be lucky to have such thorough documentation of its early settlement and such dedicated chroniclers as Kit McLean and Karen West, people who are obviously attached to the land and its people.
By Elise Fogel, June 16, 2010