Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Quackenbush Sisters - Lady Entrepreneurs And Telephone Pioneers

Two locally known and enterprising females decided that they would help bring Concrete, Washington into the 20th Century in a before-their-time fashion.

Sisters Kate Quackenbush Glover and Nell Quackenbush Wheelock were born in Clay, New York in 1866 and 1877, respectively. They both arrived in Skagit County in 1908 and shortly thereafter. Nellie Quackenbush Wheelock relates, "When I came to Washington State I weighed but ninety-eight pounds. I was so weakened by diseased lungs that I barely lived the trip thru the high Rockies". Nellie Quackenbush, a registered nurse could not practice her trade in her home state because of her health, thus she had two reasons for coming to Washington- her health and because her sister Kate lived in the Skagit Valley. She was married to a Frenchman named Jack Wheelock, a quiet, neatly dressed man who owned and operated the Commercial Hotel near Old Hamilton Depot.

Kate and Joe came to Concrete to cut shingle bolts on a claim they filed on up near Mt. Baker National Forest, and hauled the bolts into the Concrete mills.

Joe would take the bolts to town and spend the money in the saloons. The last time, two days passed, and Kate got mad. She walked to Concrete and sure enough there was Joe in the saloon. Kate picked up a ring used to tether horses on the street, walked into the saloon and beat the snot out of Joe, then loaded him across the saddle and walked on home. Anyone could see this set-up just wouldn't do.

Kate was hired by the Superior Portland Cement Company to manage their telephone exchange. Initially, Kate lived at the exchange building until the phone company became incorporated. Investing her wages over time, Kate was able to purchase controlling interest in the company, renaming the telephone system, "Skagit River Telephone Company". Kate and her younger sister Nell bought the existing telephone exchange building from Portland Cement as well – remodeling it to house the phone system on the entire lower level. After building an outside stairway to the upper level, Kate had the second floor converted to rooms they could rent, charging 50-cents a night.

Set on expanding their phone service to the areas east and west of Concrete, Nell climbed the poles and strung the lines. By 1918, the upriver phone lines extended to Hamilton and connected the Skagit River Telephone Company to the national phone system through Sedro-Woolley. The large logging camps and all government operations such as the local ranger stations and fish hatcheries had lines installed and served by the sisters' phone operation. Nell was also in charge of the work crew that dug and set all the company poles. She had a team of horses she drove to drag the poles into position, directing the pole setting, and she would then finish the job by installing the telephone wiring.

Kate was in charge of the switchboard operation (with the assistance of a young girl they had taken
in, Ethel Thompson). The phone service was equipped with hand-crank-style phones that would ring into the switchboard by a live operator and the telephone service these women gave was quick and often personal. In the event that no one answered the line being rung by the operator, Kate or Ethel would often promise to find them as soon as possible and have the call returned. When there was a problem with a line down, or a phone not operating properly, Nell would rush to service the problem. Beyond their telephone enterprise, the Quackenbush sisters were known in Skagit County for their ability to do almost anything they put their minds to. As a trained nurse, Kate sometimes assisted in childbirth as a midwife. Additionally, when she first arrived in the county from the east-coast, Kate worked on the homestead she shared with her then-husband (and later Concrete City Marshal), Joe Glover, helping to "prove up" on their timber claim on the upper Baker River, near Bear Creek. Together, Kate and Nell claimed the vacant lot between their home and their telephone office and built a chicken house – raising thousands of chickens and selling the eggs as well as some of the chickens. Nell and Kate also purchased a large tugboat in order to tow logs to a lumbermill on Lake Shannon and operated a fishing-boat franchise. Building a large float on Lake Shannon (just above the town of Concrete), they had approximately fifty fishing boats available for rent. Nell ran the tugboat for the mill-operation and Kate ran the fishing boat operation on the weekends, allowing them to still run the telephone company during the week.

1916 Pioneer picnic of upper-Skagit settlers

On the Fourth of July, 1916, families came by canoe, wagon and buggy load with their children to spend the day visiting with friends and neighbors and making new acquaintances at the Jesse and Matilda Qualls Cary farm. Some old friends and relatives came by train to Hamilton and stayed over, while others from distances came and camped out.

Long tables were placed in the big orchard to be covered with a variety of colored tablecloths, some with fancy linen. The tables were soon loaded with fried chicken and wonderful-smelling roasted meats plus breads, pastries and fresh-cooked garden vegetables. Large crocks of lemonade and big kettles of coffee over an open fire smelled very inviting to hungry kids that had been up early and traveled rough roads behind a team of horses. After dinner we had speakers that stood on a milk stand covered at the bottom by bunting. After that came the games for kids, gunny-sack and three-legged races, baseball and much more.

The picnic described above became a yearly event for a few years. We often saw at least a hundred people; sometimes more attend. Other popular events during this same time period were the barn dances when someone finished a new barn. The old settlers had

many old time musicians even before the later, better known music of Nellie Quackenbush Wheelock and her sister, Kate Glover. Capt. L.A. Boyd and his brother-in-law George Savage played their fiddles for many dances at Birdsview. The Savages built a rather large dance hall on the south side of the river near the Birdsview ferry landing. On Sunday this same hall served as a church and community meeting building.

With modern progress and some personal hardships came change for Kate and Nell's businesses. In July 1935, due to faulty business-dealings and technological modernization, the sisters were forced to
sell their communication enterprise to the Skagit Valley Telephone company (later known as Continental Telephone) with service based out of Mount Vernon, Washington – 30 miles (48 km) "downriver". To add insult-to-injury, the bookkeeper the sisters had hired and trusted with Power of Attorney and managing their finances was discovered to have been embezzling funds for quite some time. The bookkeeper was tried and sent to prison, but irreversible damage had been done to the company's finances as the greater portion of the company's bank account had been stolen, forcing Kate and Nell to sell. Following the sale of the telephone company, the sisters moved to an unimproved property near Birdsview, building a small house for themselves along with a barn and chicken houses. Later, with their chicken houses having burned from an electrical short, their debt increased from a lack of fire insurance. Then, having been in poor health since the 1930s, Kate died on November 21, 1944 at the age of 78, deeply in debt. Still suffering from her own mounting debts, Nell now was left with the burden of Kate's debts as well. In order to help pay off their combined debt, Nell bought an old tractor and worked wherever she could and long into her elderly years. Nell stayed in Skagit County up to her death in April 1969 at the age of 93.

Source: Concrete, Washington - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Skagit River Journal,

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