Gail Bertsch Chism -- Lowell (Everett) history collector and activist

  • Posted 11/25/2012
  • Essay 10251

This People's History was drawn from an interview recorded on June 2, 2012, with Gail Bertsch Chism (b. 1945), a resident of Lowell, Everett's oldest neighborhood. At the time, Chism was helping to plan for Lowell's 2013 Sesquicentennial celebration, reflecting back to the community's beginnings in September of 1863. Introductory material was provided by staff historian Margaret Riddle. Gail Chism  moved to Lowell with her husband, Ron, and daughter, Michelle, in 1964, two years after Lowell's incorporation into the city of Everett. They wanted to buy a home and Gail was drawn to the neighborhood because its small-town feel reminded her of her early life on a farm. Gail knew nothing about Lowell but began listening to longtime residents. This led her to collecting, preserving, and celebrating Lowell's history. The Chism's also had two sons, Ron Jr. and Todd. Following a divorce, Gail worked for the Department of Social Health Services (DSHS), raised her three children and, as a caring citizen, became a neighborhood activist working for community change. Off and on for more than four decades she has served as chair of the Lowell Civic Association.

A Farm Girl

I was born in Everett General Hospital, as were my children and two of my grandchildren. I was raised on a dairy farm between Hartford and Lochsloy. I just came across a note that I wrote to my mom on an envelope saying, "Mother, dear, please wake Joan and I up at 6 a.m. for berry picking. Please make our lunch." I was 9 years old.

We used to have a field that was our garden and us kids would take fruit down to SR 92, on the way to Lochsloy, down our Lemon's Hill Road, and set up a vegetable stand and sell vegetables. And I would go around with my wagon and sell door to door and pick all the wild blackberries along the side of the road. By the time I got back, they would be all soggy.

We bought our farm from Peter Thanum, our school bus driver, and he was a member of our Hartford Community Church. I have the original contract (for the farm), although I loaned it to the lady who now owns the farm and she hasn't given it back, but I think it was $3,000 for 40 acres and then X amount of dollars for machinery and a hay wagon and all that kind of stuff. (Gail's siblings disagree on the price and size of the farm). One of my favorite memories is gathering the hay and putting it in the barn. Then we'd jump from the hayloft into the fresh hay.

The farm is gone now. We originally bought 40 acres and then 40 adjoining acres. So one day my dad said he was going to sell it for $1,000 an acre and we thought he was crazy. Well he DID, and part of the farm is now a mobile home park, but the farm house is still there and the stream too. I couldn't believe that my stream was still there.

Part of our other field was wetlands and at both places we would take walnuts and make ships out of them and we'd watch the fox with her babies going across the road. We had rabbits and my dad said he was tired of raising rabbits, so he let them loose one night. They soon multiplied and at night we could see their eyes glowing in the dark.

Becoming a Lowellite

I came to Lowell in 1964 so I never saw the old Lowell School, but I remember the post office. We had a freezer in a grocery downtown and there was Al Beilfus's Confectionary and Soda Shop and we'd buy fireworks and everything in Lowell, and go through the car wash. On certain days the mill smoke would come through and the city dump would start burning and then there was a rendering plant between Everett and Marysville -- a horrible stench. So we got it all. But most of the time, the smoke went up into the nicer homes, on View Drive.

But a lot of people had homes here and walked to the mill. That's how you did it in those days. Families lived in Lowell and worked at the mill. It was like a company town. And it was very sad in one way when the paper mill closed (1972), but I also look at it as the start of the rebirth. Lowell in the '60s was redlined because of the mill and that type of thing, but if you really looked around, the houses were in very nice shape. After the mill closure, many homeowners turned them into rentals and moved away. And I shudder because, in the early '60s, people took great pride in tearing down derelict houses and those houses were probably some of the most historically significant ones at that time, but that's how you looked at older homes then.

When Lowell was annexed into the City of Everett (1962), the first big thing they did was put in a park. And they held a contest and Rob O'Brien, a local Boy Scout, won an award for naming it Candy Cane Park. Later the name was changed to Lowell Community Park and then someone had the bright idea to name it Harriet Olson Park (after a Lowell resident). But Harriet never wanted the park and didn't want it named for her, so another neighbor and I picked up Harriet to take her to the City Council meeting. This was the first time I ever spoke at City Council and Harriet said, "I don't want the park named after me." That's just how she was. The story goes -- and I don't  know whether it is true or not -- that City Councilman Pete Kinch had a Harriet OlsonPark sign already made. So that was my first talk. I said if you really want to honor Harriet Olson, you know they had just torn down Miller's (the Colby Building). Make that Harriet Olsen Plaza, do something like that. And City Councilman Moe Michelson came over and shook my hand and said, "That was a good job, young lady."

After the Paper Mill

We worked with Simpson (Lee Paper Mill) after their closure. And in 1980 we did what was called The Lowell Plan. We all made concessions. Simpson wasn't happy with the Lowell Plan. We weren't really happy with it either, especially at that time when we were starting to think about industrial vs. wetlands and the environment. But the City never adopted the plan. Earlier than that, in the late '70s, Simpson wanted to develop the property and make the Lowell Junction their main entrance, with a 4-lane road, and the neighborhood objected. I was interviewed on the radio then and I remember one lady telling me, "When I heard your name, I knew it was the truth." That's what she said. It made me feel good. And the Council for a Greater Everett was involved at that time and we had a big meeting up at the school and over 50 people came.

But out of that effort to make a plan came a sense that we really wanted to save our unique neighborhood, save our history and learn to appreciate it more. There was a strong push to document that history, so we hired Don and Kajira Wyn Berry and they met with our group down in the church annex and we went around to all the houses and surveyed our properties. We were taught about the Bungalow and Craftsman styles, and then we went around and documented the housing types. We also did oral history interviews, although no one knows what happened to those tapes. And we did the book, Lowell Story (authored by Don Berry) and the survey, which is at the Everett Library.

Duplexes and Dumping

There were so many issues that were happening. There was the Board of Adjustments, a committee of people appointed that could give adjustment to property size because there was X amount of square footage, like R2, and if it didn't fit in that, you could go to the Board of Adjustments and they could say, "Fine, I've got lists of duplexes that were built that way." And I always thought I didn't like duplexes because they were taking over our neighborhood, but one time I said, "For example, there is one duplex next door to me and it fits perfectly into the neighborhood. It's nicely kept." And the property owner was in the room, so I was really glad. I became friends with her and she started attending our meetings and was on the committee. Home ownership, as far as duplexes, is a big issue.

In the 1980s there was illegal dumping here in Lowell and it started on a Friday night. We got that stopped, with the help of Larry Crawford of Public Works. I called him at home and he was in the process of moving out to Lake Stevens. The next morning we're going out for breakfast and we see this big truck loaded with dirt, so we followed it, and, lo and behold, it was dumping in Pigeon Creek, by Forest Park. They didn't have a permit and so we made phone calls and a group of us stood around joining hands and the driver said, "I thought I told you housewives to go home." And I yelled, "I'm no housewife!"

They used to dump on the Simpson property all the time, so we had lookouts all the way along South 2nd. They dumped everything imaginable, old telephone parts and just garbage, straight into the wetlands. They always went for the wetlands. And I got a call, "They're dumping." So I went down there and said, "You can't do this," and so he left. I got another phone call that they were dumping again. Larry Crawford at the City came and put a Stop Work order sign on the locked gate. I was watching with my binoculars and I raced down there and saw a guy throw the sign in his truck, unlock and go in. So the third time he dumped, I called Larry again -- another Stop Work order -- and this time when the guy came back, I took a picture of the truck. I said, "Oh, this sign says if there's any illegal dumping, there's a reward for the conviction of the perpetrator and oh, the number to call, let me see, is on your truck." And I took a picture of it because it was the caretakers of the Simpson site who had been dumping.

Then There Were the TIRES

The City contracted to collect and recycle old tires on City property near Lowell. When we found out that the contract was coming up for renewal, we had Craig Fullerton from the City come down and I said, "This is not what we're trying to do. We're trying to clean up the land." Let me back up here. When we became a block grant neighborhood, we asked why one of our neighborhood boundaries was Pacific Avenue and were told everything south of there would affect the neighborhood. So we said "OK" and we brought up the problem with the tires, since we were starting the Lowell Plan and that was not a good thing for us.

We thought of the possibility of a fire and a small one started (1983) and then the second fire, which was huge, (1984) and the City didn't tell anybody to leave. One morning the brilliant sunshine woke me up and I looked out. I don't know why I had my camera upstairs but I took a picture and called it "Sunrise over the Everett Tire Fire." It was taken from my bedroom window and you can see the valley with the trees peeking out. (Friend and Lowell resident) Karen Williams and I we went down there and took pictures. You know, it wasn't blocked off and of course the fire department was putting I don't remember how many billions of gallons of water on it, until the Department of Ecology told them to stop. The runoff was going into the Snohomish River and into the wetlands.

More Issues

I had first become really involved and an outspoken critic gung ho for Lowell in 1979 when the City was going to have a growth-management committee. I applied for it and got it. And I always said they put me on it to shut me up. But instead I organized the Everett neighborhoods. And that was when I first met David Dilgard (Everett Public Library historian). I was interested especially in Colby Avenue development and all the older homes being taken out and horrible buildings being put up in downtown Everett. So he gave me the wording I needed. It said if a building is built next to a historic structure, the new building should reflect the character of the historic building.

Then I advocated for a committee on human environment, because it affects us all. And that led me to meeting a lot of Everett's movers and shakers, like planner Reid Shockey and city councilwoman Judy Baker. I just saw Reid Shockey recently and when they built the 41st Street Overpass, he supported making that the gateway to Everett, up on Colby Avenue, and a lot of houses would be removed. Reid was the attorney for the owner of the properties, so he and I were at odds. I had called him and he said, "Someday Gail we're going to be in an old folks home, sitting out on our porch in our rocking chairs, still disagreeing. That's how it will be; we'll be poking our canes at one another!" I said, "Yes, but I always liked you," and he said, "I always liked you too."

But Judy Baker did her homework. She didn't always agree with the "powers that be." I door-belled for her when she ran for city council against Ray Stephenson (city councilman and later Everett mayor). And for our annual Lowell Days celebration that year, Judy was in our parade. We loved her and she was sitting on a convertible and waving. And there was Ray Stephenson putting flyers on all the car windows.

The Getchell House

Well, we heard that there were plans to tear down the Getchell House (built 1892) and put in a duplex and we didn't want it. It was the last remaining link to the E. D. Smith era, one of the Getchell family homes and the Getchell family was important to Lowell's origins. The house was in pretty bad shape but we had strong community support for it. Our neighborhood wanted to use block grant funds to restore the house. Other neighborhood organizations used this money for infrastructure projects. At the time, Bill Moore was mayor and his priority was always infrastructure. He wanted us to spend our allocation on sidewalks and drainage and I remember (Lowell resident) Hazel Clark saying, "We're a small rural community with our winding roads and we need to leave it that way." And we all stood up and agreed and I talked about speeders. Speeders were a big problem in Lowell at that time. So the City said, "You haven't had any (neighborhood organization) elections in three years" and asked us to reorganize. And they set up the meetings at Lowell School. So some of the city workers that lived in Lowell showed up at the meetings because, you know, it was sanctioned by the mayor at the time so we voted in a slate of officers. And we had voted before on the Getchell house and it passed and we voted again and it passed.

So the City devised a plan for us to choose priorities: one was the Getchell House, one was drainage and one was sidewalks. A flyer was made that confused the voters and everyone said, "What do we do?" So we decided to not vote for a second or third choice because that would dilute (support for) the Getchell House. Someone later confessed that someone in Lowell had helped write the flyer. So you could vote, with a locked ballot box, and you had to sign in while they physically watched you put one vote in. I went down there to see how it was going and I was accused of stuffing the ballot box for the Getchell House. I had to go to a graduation that same night and I was a nervous wreck because I knew they were going to be counting the votes. Then my friend Karen called and said, "We won, we won!" And there was a guy from Germany visiting -- the parent of an exchange student who was graduating -- and he couldn't understand my excitement. Of course back where he came from, he lived next to a castle and he couldn't understand the importance of this little old Getchell House. So I went down to Karen's house and the city block grant coordinator, Faheem Siddiq, said, "Well, there's nothing they can do to you now." That was the beginning of the end of it. Faheem was put into a horrible position. The president of the Lowell Civic Association had a bottle of champagne in the back of his truck because he was sure that "sidewalks" were going to win and he went off in a huff and never celebrated the Getchell house victory.

It was a short-lived victory since, in the end, the Getchell House was condemned and torn down. I wrote a poem in its remembrance and read it at the Everett Historical Commission's annual William F. Brown Awards: "Who am I, this lonely house/so high up on the hill/What's the fuss to cast about/If the future were only mine/To feel the touch of a workman's hand/Oh do I dare /I only sag because I thought no one cared/ to release the secret of my heart-shaped trim /It was only my smile/waiting to be appreciated again." Anyway, I wrote a whole page and the last part of it was a decree to save the house so it will go down in history.

Sharing Lowell's Past

I've been interested some in history from a very young age and so, when I moved to Lowell, it was just a natural thing for me to search out Lowell's past, and the more I learned from oldtimers, the more I realized the value of our history and who we are as a community. We've always been fiercely independent and stood up for ourselves and that's the only way we have remained a viable neighborhood. If you go down to Smith Street and look (along the river, north of Lowell), that used to be a viable neighborhood and now what's there?….nothing, all the homes are gone. And so bringing attention to Lowell's history and values is very important to us, especially as Lowell turns 150 years old, and my hope is that in the next 150 years, people can look back and thank us for what we tried to do at this time.

I feel it's very important to educate our youngsters. I just learned that mostly old people go to the National Parks now. The youngsters don't have that pride and we need to create it again. I talk about Lowell everywhere I go and people say, "I didn't know that. That's so interesting." We have the oldest continuing industry in Everett; we have the Lowell Park that was done by volunteers; we have the only pesticide-free park in Everett; and we have the oldest church structure in Everett, which suffered a devastating fire in 1984. We all pitched in and gutted it to the outside 2 x 4s.

My kids grew up here and they loved it. They have their stories. My son and his friends hopped freight cars all the time. Kids would go up in the water tower and throw fireworks and they loved the wetlands and the wildlife. One reason I picked Lowell to live was that I was raised in the country and I wanted my kids to have the same kinds of things I had. There was undeveloped property across the street and the kids made their camps there and they made lifelong friends. Donna (Ransopher) Wirt's grandfather built this house and I met her at one of those home interior parties in the '60s. She lived in the Prudden house down on Main Street and our kids were raised together and we're all still friends. And their kids are like my kids and just so many memories of so many kids came through this house. My kids made lifelong friends here and they all still keep in touch on Facebook, and they're starting to realize Lowell's importance. They used to say, "Mom, we've heard it all. Don't tell us anymore." But they're starting to appreciate things about our community, especially my son Ron, Jr. He wants this house. I had surgery in 2009 and, in making out a will there was a big fight between my grandson and my son over who wanted this house. Ronnie always dreamed of moving back to Lowell. He loves Lowell. And when I was recently in the hospital, some of the old Lowell kids came up to see me. By the way, Joyce Ebert lived across the street and she was pro-tem Everett mayor for a time. And Stan Boreson lived in Lowell. We've had our celebrities.

Celebrating Lowell's Sesquicentennial

I'm not a writer but we are planning to link stories with pictures to make a new book. There is one person whose father bought a house on 52nd Street in the 1920s and she brought a picture of it. And it still looks the same today. There's an old Model T with her mom and some friends in the photo and there's a caption that says they sometimes would have to back the car up the hill to get the gas to the carburetor, in order to start the car. Thornton Sullivan -- the park's named after him at Silver Lake -- lived in Lowell in the Sumner house (Sumner Iron Works) and we're going to include stories about Lowell's Volunteer Fire Department and the businesses, the oldtimers. It will be the best we can do, given our time and abilities. And it all takes time. But lots of new things are coming forward and it's exciting to us. We just got a 1932 Lowell School graduation commencement program that lists all the teachers and students. The class flower was the Iris and they had a class color and I want to adopt the Iris for Lowell. We're hoping that this again is a jumping off point. We don't see this as an end but the beginning of a future, what we've accomplished today and what we hope to accomplish.

Looking back, I'm proudest of myself and others of like minds for standing up for ourselves and for celebrating our accomplishments and educating other people to it. I think that's the main thing and the part I want people to remember is that we are always together in life, what impacts one impacts another, even if you don't realize it at the time. One hundred and fifty years ago, E.D. Smith began Lowell and set a tone of independence for what he hoped would be a town and because he did, I'm sitting here today, in this wonderful house that I just had redone. So you learn and grow.

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