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Leaving The Homestead
The following blog was written by Marv Waschke, the current owner and seller of a homestead that has been in his family for over a century. He describes the history of how the homestead came to be in his family, beginning with his great grandfather's arrival to Whatcom county, and how his grandparents came to own the plot that is now up for sale. You can see photos of 5438 Waschke Rd located in Bellingham, WA & read more blogs on his website. To see a video "walk-through" tour of this property, click here.
Leaving the Homestead
You may know that I live on a road named for my family and in a house that was built by my grandfather and that both I and my father grew up in. Every so often, I meet someone who is like me: stubborn, lacking in creativity, or otherwise inclined to remain sessile in a country where no one lives in the same place for long. All has changed. This spring, I left that motley clutch.
My wife Rebecca and I decided early this year that it was time for us to leave the Waschke homestead. The property has been in my family for well over a century, passed on from my grandfather, to my father, and finally to me. We have a deed tucked in a safe that has Ulysses S. Grant’s signature at the bottom, although I understand those deed signatures were all copies.
The decision was difficult and part of me still disagrees vehemently. Sadly, I am no farmer. I was raised on the farm, but my interests have ranged from mathematics, to classical Chinese history, developing and writing about computer systems, libraries, and writing mystery novels. Although I stayed on Waschke Road and the homestead my entire life, I never wanted to farm. Too much experience has dulled my appreciation for the work on the farm that many find renewing and fulfilling. In recent years, a congenital heart condition and diabetes have made maintaining the farm more difficult and my wife Rebecca had her third back surgery last summer. My city wife is the gardener on our team, but what she enjoyed and I dreaded as stoop labor, is now impossible for her. Our children are not interested in the farm. The inescapable conclusion was that we would live longer and happier if we relinquished the homestead.
We decided to sell the old place. Our first step was to buy a house in town, Ferndale where I went to high school. I move, but not far. Although we remodeled the old farmhouse ten years ago, we both much prefer this smaller and more easily maintained new house. I am happy to spend my days researching and writing instead of fretting over the aches and fatigue that almost put me to bed after a few hours on the tractor or maintaining the farm. We still live from packing boxes—the effort of moving from a house and grounds in which three generations lived without ever moving out was tremendous. We are sorting three generations of accumulation. We found a pair of trunks, which we think traveled to America from Germany when my great grandparents emigrated. One of the trunks contained the chrome plated name plaques from the coffins of my two aunts who died shortly after birth on the homestead before my father was born. The trunks now sit in our new foyer. We’ve cleaned them up and are thinking about whether to let the years show or to restore them.
The homestead is now on the market, waiting for the right buyer. I don’t expect the place to sell quickly. It is not for everyone. Only a certain person in the right circumstances will appreciate it. You can see pictures here.
From Prussia to Minnesota
My great grandfather, Gottlieb Waschke, was an orphan. His parents died when he was twelve, leaving him and his younger brother to fend for themselves. As orphans, Gottlieb and his brother John trained as a builders and craftsmen in the public vocational school system established by Otto Von Bismarck in 19th century in Prussia. He built sugar mills, which boomed in northern Europe after the American civil war interrupted the supply of sugar from the Gulf of Mexico. My great grandfather emigrated from Germany, I believe entering the U.S. through New Orleans. He went up the Mississippi and used his training and experience to become a railroad car builder in Detroit and later Stevens Point, Wisconsin, near Green Bay. Later, he brought his younger brother from Germany, who was also a craftsman. The younger brother was soon recruited to Whatcom County to help with the late 19th century Bellingham Bay real estate boom.
Arrival in Whatcom County
My great grandfather Gottlieb saved enough in the car yards to buy farm land near Wells, Minnesota. He apparently did well, but the frigid winters and broiling summers of the upper Midwest were not to his taste. His brother wrote about the mild climate and opportunities in Whatcom County. My great grandfather decided Washington would be a more hospitable to a family farming operation and made the move to Washington state.
Gottlieb leased a railroad stock car, loaded it with machinery and livestock and sent it to Bellingham with his two oldest sons riding along, tending the cattle, horses, and a few chickens. The railroad allowed only one rider to tend the livestock. My grandfather, only thirteen or fourteen, hid in the cattle bedding when the railroad officials came around. Gottlieb, his wife, daughters, and younger sons rode on a passenger train. On arrival, my great-grandfather bought a quarter section of land on the northeast corner of Aldrich and Smith roads in south east corner of Ferndale township.
The Matzkes, my grandmother’s family, were from Pomerania, near Prussia. They were also mill builders and had ties to my great-grandfather’s family. They also emigrated from Germany to Whatcom County, arriving a few years after my great-grandfather and settled on the west side of Aldrich Road close to my great-grandfather. Romance soon blossomed between my grandfather and grandmother. They married and planned to start their own family.
Buying the homestead
With the help of their parents, my grandparents, Gustave and Agnes Waschke, purchased forty logged acres in 1906. This plot became the Waschke homestead. Gus was born in Minnesota, but working on his father’s farm, he soon learned enough about Whatcom county to decide exactly the kind of land he wanted. The loggers who harvested the Nooksack plains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took only prime timber— mostly Douglas Fir and Red Cedar—leaving behind brush and trees they considered trash like Big Leaf Maple, Alder, and Birch, and, perhaps surprisingly, a few firs and cedars too big to cut by hand. Gus’s father’s farm was part peat bog, plagued with bog iron, and uneven, which made cultivation difficult.
Gus looked for a parcel that was flat with rich, neither waterlogged nor, dry soil. Not too many cedars—that signaled wet ground that could not be planted until late in a wet year like his father’s bog ground. And not too few cedars either—that meant dry ground that would not yield a good crop in a dry year. He also looked for big fir stumps, tough to clear with a team of horses, but a sign of fertility that would yield abundant crops. He found the mellow loam he wanted on the high ground on the verge Silver and Deer Creek watersheds and north of the skid road that paralleled the Smith Road. In those days, oxen still trudged the skid road pulling strings of logs cut on the Deer and Silver Creeks to the Nooksack river at Ferndale.
Gus and Agnes built a one room cedar shack in the northeast corner of the property, close to Agnes’ parents’ house on the Aldrich Road, where they lived for their first ten years together. Early in their marriage, a dry August northeast wind blew a brush and forest fire through the area. Gus and Agnes defended their home, beating out the flames with wet burlap sacks and shovels. Agnes recalled that they fought the flames until dark. Then they went to bed. She shook her head when she told this story, wondering that they survived, but they were young and life was an adventure.
I plan to write more about the homestead and its history in later blogs.