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Those Blair girls: An adventurous bunch

By on February 22, 2021 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

George and Margaret Blair rolled into the Wenatchee Valley in October of 1883 with a four-horse team, Margaret’s 15-year-old son, Charles Davis, and a wagonload of little girls. 

The gaggle of girls included 9-year-old Mary Irene (Mamie), 8-year-old Grace, 7-year-old Pearl and Alice who was 2 years old. They had reached the end of a yearlong journey west from Nebraska. 

Seattle was their original destination but in Ellensburg, where they rested for five days, George Blair heard stories about the Wenatchee Valley to the north. 

He crossed Colockum Pass to have a look and liked what he saw. When he returned to Ellensburg he brought fresh apples and grapes, persuasive arguments for changing destinations.

During the five-day layover in Ellensburg the girls discovered someone who taught them some Chinook Jargon words. Chinook is a melting pot language that combines English, French and Native Indian languages. The girls practiced the words during the five-day slog over Colockum Pass and continued using Chinook as they grew up on the Wenatchee Flat.

The Cooper/Blair/Stevens families around 1907. Photo courtesy of the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, 012-51-4095

Mamie recalled later that by the time Alice was four or so she spoke Chinook better than English. Alice was also dark complected with brown/black eyes and “raven black” hair. 

Family lore includes the story that George and Margaret feared that Indians might take Alice because of her appearance and Chinook skills. George once hid her under a turned over cauldron when he saw a group of unfamiliar Indians riding towards their home.

The Blair girls were an adventurous bunch and none more so than Mamie, the oldest. As a young girl she loved to dance and would ride horseback with friends to the Saturday night dance at a home high on Stemilt Hill. They would dance through the night then ride back home at dawn Sunday morning.

The girls made up nearly half the student body of Wenatchee’s first school, a one-room log building at the corner of what are now Washington and Miller streets. It opened in 1885 as a “subscription” school funded by the student’s families. 

A year later it became Wenatchee’s first public school and was taught by the Blair girl’s half brother, 18-year-old Charley Davis. 

That was good for a start but George Blair, a member of the first school board, wanted a “real” teacher, someone who had a state normal school degree. He found that teacher in Ellensburg, a young man named Charles Cooper. Blair convinced him to come to Wenatchee. 

Twenty-three-year-old Charley Cooper took over a school room that included all four Blair girls; Mamie, age 12, 11-year-old Grace, 10-year-old Pearl and 5-year-old Alice.

In 1885, George Washington Blair partnered with his neighbor, Christopher Columbus Rickman, to run a stagecoach line from Ellensburg to Waterville, a distance of 150 miles. They made two round-trips a week. The Blair home in Wenatchee was the halfway rest stop. Margaret Blair would cook a meal for the passengers served by Grace and Pearl. Mamie washed the dishes.

The Wenatchee Valley was full of bachelors. In 1888 Deak Brown told the unmarried Bromiley brothers to look for homesteads someplace else because the Wenatchee Valley already had too many bachelors. 

In the valley of bachelors, the Blair girls got a lot of attention.

In October of 1890, at age 16, Mamie married 33-year-old Orpheus (“Si”) France. Their wedding present from George and Margaret was 20 acres from the family homestead fronting on Western Avenue between Fifth Street and Orchard Avenue. 

Si and Mamie built a house (still standing) and developed a fine apple orchard. 

Si was a self-taught horticulturalist and Mamie did some fruit growing research on her own. When the codling moths were filling everyone’s apples with worms Mamie consulted a grower who was experimenting with spraying techniques. Mamie brought the science home. 

Si objected to the “new-fangled notions.” Mamie insisted and Si finally gave in. The new crop of Winesaps was “vastly improved.” Along with the apples Mamie and Si France raised three sons: Herbert, Joe and Pete.

Wendall Stevens, also in his early 30s, was a friend of Si France from the east. In 1889 he opened a mercantile store in “Old Town” and claimed a homestead on Lower Sunnyslope. 

The next year, a month after Si and Mamie’s wedding, Wendall Stevens married 15-year-old Grace Blair. They also were given 20 acres, probably on the north side of the Blair homestead facing Fifth Street. 

It’s not clear if they built a home on that land. They might have lived on the Lower Sunnyslope property where Stevens raised alfalfa. Wendall and Grace raised a son, Wendall, and two daughters, Ruth and Vera.

In 1892, 29-year-old Charles Cooper married his ex-student, 16-year-old Pearl Blair. 

When he wasn’t teaching school, Charley Cooper worked for Sam Miller overseeing Miller’s ranch, cattle and crops. 

In 1898 Pearl and Charley began developing their 20-acre wedding present fronting on Washington Street. They cleared sagebrush, planted an orchard of Winesaps and built a fine home. 

Lindley Hull said the mature orchard “was a showplace of the valley.” 

Over the years Rachael, George and Charles Jr. joined the family. Charley and Pearl also owned the first automobile in the valley, a Reo.

The orchard business was productive and profitable for the sisters and their families. 

Si and Mamie were, likely, the valley’s first “snow-birds” spending most winters vacationing in California. Some years they were joined by the whole family, including George and Margaret, the Stevens and Coopers and Alice. 

They all did a multi-car drive to Yellowstone in 1912, the subject of family stories for years.

Sometime, probably about 1900, Alice Blair married Ed Ferguson. It did not go well. 

They had met as students at Stevens School. Ed came to Wenatchee in 1894, the year of the monstrous flood and enrolled in school. He was 15 years old. Alice was 13 that year and the only Blair girl still unmarried. 

When Alice and Ed married they got their 20-acre wedding present. It’s not clear where their land came from on the homestead but it is clear that Ed had no interest in farming.

Ed had a small house on the corner of King and Cleveland streets. His primary interest was the entertainment business. 

By 1905, he was operating the Wenatchee Theatre and by 1910 Ed’s theater was showing the first versions of silent films. By then crowds were filling the theater. 

Ed and Alice were divorced and Ed had married Louise Hollenbeck, a classically trained pianist from New York who accompanied Ed’s silent films.

Alice moved to Seattle and remarried. She returned occasionally to Wenatchee for Blair family celebrations as Alice Fry.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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