By Bob West
May 18, 2000
All the activity in downtown Palouse these days – the demolition of three buildings, the improvement of the railroad crossings and the upcoming Main Street project – is bound to trigger some memories for some of us old-timers .I recently visited with Dwight (Swede) Parrish, and he told me that when the Texaco gas station was built, a tunnel was dug under the street at the intersection between the former Williamson building and the station building site, to accommodate water and sewer lines to the new business. Swede was working on the crew that dug this tunnel, and about halfway across the street they encountered a wooden structure that had to be removed before the job could be completed. This was no doubt the large watering trough that had been built when the city moved to this present location, from the South Hill, and became part of the fill when the street was raised to its present height.
I can remember a tall wooden fence, painted yellow, running the entire length of the alley, along the railroad tracks, which are still behind the buildings, of the Powers block. Four-by-four poles had been set, holes drilled near the top and chains draped between the posts. This was the hitching post for the city. In this time period (the early 30s); many farmers used horses and wagons to haul their seed, feed and other supplies to and from town. In the winter, wheels of the wagons were replaced with sled runners for travel over snow and ice. The fence had been built to protect the horses from the sight of a large steam engine bearing down on them on the nearly railroad tracks.
When I was in the second grade an older boy told me and a friend that if we floated hairs from a horse’s tail in the water of a horse trough, the hairs would turn into snakes. We then pulled several hairs from the tail of a horse tied there (with some objections from the horse) and trudged up the steep hill and to the far end of Mill Row, to the only watering trough we knew of. We checked every day for several days. No snakes. Perhaps it was the wrong kind of horse.
When I was a kid the finding and selling of pop and beer bottles was a good source of my income. All but two of the buildings in the Powers block had apartments on the second floor, and also the Congress Hotel had several apartments to rent. The druggist in Mecklem’s Pharmacy learned that I was hunting bottles and agreed to save bottles for me and also talked most of the tenants in the apartments into saving me theirs. This was by far the most moneymaking area of all my routes. This same pharmacist had nicknamed me “The Colonel” as at that age I couldn’t pronounce my “R’s” and they came out “ows”. That title remained with me for several years.
I have always liked to read, and this same alley supplied me with a small portion of my reading material. The Oasis, then owned by Marion and Jenny Sligar, did a large magazine business from a rack in front of the building. When a new shipment arrived, the old magazines were replaced and the covers torn off. The coverless ones were taken to the back alley to be burned. Everyone knows how difficult it is to completely burn a magazine, and many times I could recover some of these publications that were singed but readable. Of course they had that burned paper smell. One day I found the magazine of all magazines, in mint condition with no burned or singed pages. It was the summer edition of “Sunshine and Health”, a nudist periodical. Page after page of people of all ages doing various outdoor activities in the nude. I knew I would be in deep trouble if my parents found this in my possession, but I had a perfect hiding spot. At this time there was a large wooden building north of our house. It was built as a barn but had been remodeled for a garage and woodshed. Dad had let me build a “clubhouse” in the rafters in one corner of the building. While putting down the floor of my corner, I built a secret compartment. On one of my many trips to the city’s dump ground, in search of possible treasures, I found a metal safety box. The lock had been broken, but a band cut from a rubber inner tube kept the lid closed. I added this precious magazine to my other treasures, and hid the box in the secret compartment.
For a few weeks that summer I was the most popular kid in town. I made many trips to the “clubhouse” to dig out the magazine to show the boys (and a few girls). If I had been smart I would have charged 5 cents a showing, making a small fortune. After a few weeks though, interest waned and the magazine was almost forgotten, although I did take a peek once in awhile. (This was no doubt a very moderate magazine compared to today’s standards).
By the time I was in high school I had forgotten about the clubhouse and the treasure box. In 1950 Dad told me he had hired a man to tear down the building. That night I woke up and began reminiscing about this old structure. Like a bolt of lightning the thought of the metal box appeared. Was it still there? At my lunch break the next day I climbed the ladder to the hiding place, uncovered the secret compartment, reached in and removed the almost forgotten box. Opening it I found the magazine was in the same shape it was when I put it there many years before, but the pictures had lost their glamour and appeal. There were other items, other forbidden pictures, Indianhead pennies, half a package of Camel cigarettes, a plug of Star chewing tobacco and other items. On the bottom was a note from a girl reading, “Hi handsome. I want to meet you at the tree house after school this afternoon. We can hug and kiss, and maybe I have a surprise. Don’t be late. Carla” (Name has been changed because I can’t remember what it was).
The note was from a girl that had been living in town for a short time, was very attractive and was in my class. All the boys in the freshman class and 8th grade had tried to make points with her, and now she was asking me to meet her. The best part was the fact that the tree house was in an empty lot about a block away from my house. As important as this was to me, I knew if I didn’t change my clothes after school I would be in trouble with my mother, so I lost precious time while I changed. I ran out the back door, across the street, up the alley only to see her climbing the ladder to the tree house with someone else! I couldn’t believe it. I was crushed, and quickly left the area broken-hearted. Over the next few weeks many of my classmates bragged about being asked to the tree house. I was never asked again. No doubt for the best.
About the only thing left of this tale are my memories. The hitching post, the building and the wooden fence were torn down many years ago. Three of the buildings have been demolished. The café is no longer in business and the hotel building is falling down. The lot where the tree house was located sold many years ago, the tree cut down and a house erected. It is now the home of Loren and Mary Estes. Sometimes when I pass this house I can’t help but ask myself, “I wonder what Carla meant when she said, ‘And maybe a surprise?’”