We used to have lots of fun, sleigh rides and hayrides and everything like that.


None of the glowing publicity enticing newcomers to Spokane Falls acknowledged the rawer side of the city beyond the elegant Victorian homes, cultural entertainment, and a conservative, highly educated populace. Helga soon realized that the Spokane Falls of the late 1880s and early 1890s seemed more like two cities, a town with a split personality. The town leadership encouraged the emphasis on churches, libraries, schools, colleges, and literary societies, while simultaneously catering to a large population of transient men. They allowed what westerners called an “open” town, a description determined by how strictly police enforced laws against prostitution, gambling, and alcohol.

The growing city included many self-employed craftsmen like Ole, working men who planned to set roots in the community and raise their families. Known as “homeguards,” they often joined the early unions, wanting to better their lives. However, another large group of men were known by locals as “blanket stiffs,” including seasonal miners, loggers, and ranch and farm hands.1 These men lived a migrant lifestyle, constantly on the move looking for better jobs offering good pay or new adventures. Now that the railroads in Spokane Falls provided a means of national distribution, companies hired these men primarily for their muscles to help extract the vast resources of timber, grain, and ore.2

Although Spokane Falls was becoming known for beautiful residential neighborhoods, these were not the neighborhoods in the Estby’s backyard. Within a few short city blocks from their home existed all the lures of a brawling western town, created by greedy businessmen for workers passing through. The city catered extensively to the drinking, sexual, gambling, and entertainment desires of the hungry miners, loggers, and farm hands carrying cash to spend. Saloons, gambling halls, boarding houses, billiard halls, Turkish baths, Chinese opium dens, and brothels openly operated in a downtown area that reached over to Division Street. The Estby home on Pine Street was just one block east and a few blocks north of the active downtown. Although city ordinances outlawed prostitution in 1889, the police department, under the orders of the city council, was lax in how they enforced the antiprostitution laws. Instead of eliminating prostitution in the city, these laws allowed the city to collect fines systematically—rich revenue for the city coffers. Once a month, prostitutes came to city hall to pay their fees.3 Nor was there only one identified red-light district; rather, these places were scattered throughout town, with some not too far from Helga’s home. A prostitution hierarchy existed, with the lowest-ranking working in “cribs,” which were easily observable small shacks built in city alleys.

Spokane businesses catered to a large group of itinerant male miners, lumberjacks, and farm laborers who passed through the city during the years the Estby family lived near downtown. Smith Cigars on Riverside Avenue in 1888.

Courtesy Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State

Historical Society, Spokane, Washington, L94-19.123.

Detail of this photograph on this page.

A prevailing frame of mind justified allowing the vice-regulation policies of the city. Some city leaders believed that the prostitute was a necessary guardian of virtue who kept innocent moral women from being raped and ruined by men fulfilling their natural sexual needs. This doctrine of sexual necessity, supported by some medical physicians into the 1910s, asserted that men periodically needed to obtain sexual release for their health’s sake.4 “We could do it; it is within our power to drive those women out,” admitted Spokane’s mayor to inquisitors who questioned the city’s open policies. “But, speaking frankly, I question the advisability of doing it. Reputable physicians say the social evil is a necessary evil—that without it the number of shocking crimes would increase greatly.”5

By 1890, the oldest children in the Estby family were nearing their teenage years and inevitably needed to walk through the rough edges of the city to attend school, visit friends, or go shopping. Even if the Estbys could prevent their children from wandering into back alleys and encountering prostitution cribs, Spokane Falls’ lively street corners fascinated them. Palmistry readers, Chinese grocery-cart peddlers, “fire-and-brimstone” preachers, tinhorn street gamblers, and clairvoyant mediums all sang their songs of invitation. Drunken men and vagrants commonly loitered or roamed the streets and violence and disorder could erupt any night—hardly the ideal environment that the Estbys desired.

Helga’s nervousness in having the children out on these streets caused her to restrict the children’s activities outside the house, becoming extra protective as she worried over their moral and physical well-being.6 When she first came to Spokane Falls, Helga also brought her Midwest settler’s prejudice about Native Americans with her, an anxiety she passed on to her children. Peaceful Indians from the Spokane Tribe often came to the city, and Helga hired an Indian woman to help wash clothes in their yard. However, the children were “deathly afraid of her,” and Helga kept them indoors during the wash-woman’s visits.7 One day, while six of the children were walking in the city streets, a large Indian chief, dressed in paint and wearing feathers, noticed a glass-bead necklace that Clara was wearing. Interested in this jewelry, he reached out to touch it, and the family assumed he wanted to grab Clara. All the children screamed. Speaking in English, he assured them he wasn’t going to take her. He just wanted “to pat the pretty beads.”8 But in Helga’s eyes, the former farm children’s primary source of vulnerability came from their lack of experience in living in an unpredictable urban environment.

Although Helga appreciated the benefits of the city, the open city’s flagrant problems contributed to her desire to return to the countryside where she perceived a simpler and more moral life prevailed. She knew her growing children needed to be free to roam and explore without her constant worry about corruptive influences. Restless once again, the family began to think about moving outside the city, but near enough to be accessible to the advantages of Spokane. About this time, only twenty-eight miles southeast of Spokane Falls, the small town of Rockford actively encouraged settlers to come to the beautiful Rock Creek Valley. Rich agricultural farmland, situated near the foothills of the Coeur d’Alene mountain range, was available through the railroads and government. In 1892, Helga and Ole paid $600 to the Northern Pacific Railroad for 160 acres in Mica Creek, a Scandinavian enclave of farms known as “Little Norway.” Their funds most likely came from money seeded in their two apparent misfortunes: the town’s fire and Helga’s fall.9 Once again their family enjoyed the comfort of rural values in a Scandinavian community and the freedom and fresh air of the countryside.

Helga, now thirty-two, finally found a place where she believed their children could flourish. She took pride in Ole’s carpentry skills when he built an attractive three-bedroom farmhouse and pine furnishings. Two bedrooms upstairs gave the boys and the girls separate spaces. Clara, Ida, Bertha, and later, baby Lillian, shared one room and the five brothers, Olaf, Johnny, Arthur, William, and Henry shared the other. Ole and Helga finally had a private bedroom and a dining room on the main floor.

It made the constant work of taking care of her family far easier than their days living on the remote Minnesota prairie. A nearby pump provided easy access to natural spring water. Ole added an all-purpose building and furnished it with an old wood cook stove for heating water. Here Helga washed clothes and gave the children summer baths, ground wheat, and dressed chickens and other wild game on a wooden table. Their root cellar stored potatoes and one-gallon crocks that Helga covered with lard in the winter, or filled with cherry and dandelion wine or root beer for the children.

They soon cleared part of the land, planted an orchard and garden, and then built a barn with stalls for horses and small calves, an outbuilding for pigs and cows, and refurbished an old log chicken house that came with the land.10 For a woman who started raising a family in a one-room dirt-floor sod house on the prairie, this home seemed almost luxurious. Even during hard times, the children could always be fed. Plus, with all the responsibilities in developing the farm and caring for the animals, her children were gaining important work habits. Watching William’s and Arthur’s delight as they played with their first litter of squealing piglets or remembering Bertha’s pride in bringing her father a wildflower bouquet brought Helga a quiet pleasure over their choice to have moved once more.

The Estbys enjoyed the wholesome family atmosphere in the small town of Rockford near their Mica Creek farm, like this chilly Fourth of July community celebration at the turn of the century.

Courtesy Frances E. Hurd Collection.

Although Helga wanted the children to concentrate on English when they moved to Spokane Falls (which gradually changed in name to Spokane in the 1890s), she still desired for them to know the friendship of a Scandinavian community. The Mica Creek neighborhood, with its many Norwegians and Swedish immigrants, had a reputation for common decency, neighborliness, and support during difficult times. Even better, these Scandinavians knew how to have fun. In Minnesota, many of the religious Norwegians came from the “Haugian” Lutheran faith background, part of an earlier pietistic revival movement in rural Norway in the 1800s. One outgrowth of this movement included a legalism that deemed certain actions sinful and made some Norwegians fearful of life’s simple pleasures. But in Mica Creek, their neighbors visited for card games, sleigh rides and hayrides, and Ole could drink his daily beer without criticism from the community. “We used to have lots of fun,” recalled daughter Ida.11 Nor did Helga feel the isolation that permeated her days on the prairie in Minnesota.

The local community around Mica Creek, centered in school and family life, offered rich everyday moments. The schoolhouse became the neighborhood gathering place for harvest dances, box socials, a literary club, baseball games, eighth-grade certification days, pie socials, fairs, and the election polling place. The school was right near the Estby’s land, allowing the family convenient access to school-sponsored social events. Helga appreciated that their Mica Creek community placed a high value on education for daughters. At times, more girls attended the Mica Creek schoolhouse than boys because families needed boys at home for clearing land, planting and harvesting crops, cutting wood, or tending livestock.12 When daughters outgrew the eighth-grade local schools, many families encouraged them to attend high school in the city, where they often worked as maids in exchange for room and board. This practice allowed Clara to attend a Spokane high school.

Beyond their home and fields grew magnificent ponderosa pine forests to wander through, a mountain to lift your eyes and spirit each day, and a mild climate that brought an early spring and a dry summer. The family gathered wildflowers and created bouquets of Indian paintbrush, ladyslippers, bluebells, trilliums, and wild roses to grace their polished handcrafted furnishings. On snowbound wintry evenings, Helga enjoyed crocheting delicate lace for tablecloths, an art she learned as a child in Christiana.

Less protective as a mother now, Helga allowed the older children to take trips to the nearby town of Rockford, a six-mile walk that Olaf especially liked to do.13 The entire family enjoyed visiting the town’s general mercantile store where barrels of apples, prunes, apricots, and a showcase full of candy appealed to the children. Hardware supplies, barrels of molasses, and coal oil, as well as the bank in the back of the store, drew in the adults. Helga bought fabrics to sew the children’s clothes and enjoyed conversations with local women. Sometimes the family joined the crowd at the train depot waiting for mail delivery, always a favorite event in the city. The trains brought memories of their own adventures riding across the continent from Minnesota.

They shopped at George B. Hurd and Company’s General Store, which was kept well stocked for farm family’s needs.

Courtesy Frances E. Hurd Collection.

The Estbys still traveled to Spokane for cultural events. “They had lots of operas and things that would come,” recalled daughter Ida. “But that was too expensive for our family because one couldn’t go unless we all went.” They especially enjoyed seeing live musical performances of the Jessie Shirley Company and theater performances. However, these excursions were extremely rare.14 Just the train fare for a family of eleven could be prohibitive. Each year though, they did take advantage of the special one-cent-a-mile railway excursion rates aimed to bring surrounding citizens into Spokane to enjoy the annual parades and Fourth-of-July Food Fair. Enticing displays of sun-ripened pears, peaches, cherries, giant squash and potatoes, red-cheeked apples, and wheat and sunflowers encouraged settlers like the Estbys to develop their farms, offering proof of what good earth and hard work could produce.

When the Estbys bought their land in 1892, Ole built their comfortable home and planned to continue making his primary earnings as a carpenter, not as a farmer. He expected to hire out in Rockford, help nearby farmers build barns and outbuildings, or ride the train to work in Spokane. While they built up the farm to meet their family needs, Helga occasionally hired out as a seamstress to augment their incomes.

However, just one year after Ole built their new home, national events shattered the Estby’s assumptions about America’s ongoing prosperity and their personal ability to keep their farm.

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