Jim Ellis on Dorm Braman: Leadership, Service, and Boy Scout Troop 511

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 7/19/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22510

As Chair of the Metro Council Finance Committee, Mayor of Seattle, and later as assistant secretary for Urban Systems and Environment in the Nixon administration, James d'Orma "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) worked closely with Jim Ellis (1921-2019) from the 1960s into their later years as tireless civic leaders, including work with the Metro Council, the Forward Thrust Committee of 200, Freeway Park, and other civic adventures. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Ellis writes about Braman's life and his commitment to helping others.

Raised in Eastern Washington 

[Editor's note: Braman's son Jim Braman wrote the book Where the Fuzzy Marmots Grow about his experience becoming an Eagle Scout in Troop 511, and later wrote a biography of Dorm called Sawdust, Brass and Laurels, which is the source for much of the material in this section about Braman's early life.]

On December 23, 1901, James d’Orma Braman was born in Lorimor, Iowa, to Jacob Wesley Braman (Wes), a strong 45-year-old storekeeper of Dutch descent, and his much younger wife, Susan Huntsiger Braman (Susie), from a Scotch-Irish Christian Science family. Dorm said the middle name d’Orma was the brand name of a line of French dry goods in his father’s Lorimor store, and his mother liked the sound of the name. In adult life he often signed his name J. Dorm Braman.

In 1906, Wes moved the family to a ranch in the Pend Oreille Valley in Eastern Washington. The ranch was not the life Susie wanted, so two years later they moved to the town of Manette on booming Puget Sound, where Wes purchased a small lumber mill in nearby Bremerton. After a year, Wes sold the mill to the Port Blakely Mill Company and stayed on to manage it. Wes commuted in his small motorboat across the little bay to the mill and Dorm would hitch a ride and walk from the dock to high school.

Dorm attended Union High School from 1916 to 1918, dropping out at the end of his sophomore year to deliver lumber and work in a nearby mill and cabinet shop on the Bremerton waterfront. Dorm’s manual arts teacher had praised him as a natural for cabinet work. Bright, hardworking, and ambitious, he and school chum Ross Carty rented the old mill building for fifteen dollars a month when it became empty following a change of ownership. Ross and Dorm operated a modestly successful mill and cabinet shop for the next several years until Ross left to be on his own, at which point Dorm became sole owner of Braman Mill and Manufacturing Company.

In 1920, at age 19, Dorm married a beautiful 18-year-old girl who lived on a farm about a mile from the Braman home in Manette. They had met one another in school, and he once took her on a hayride to a dance in Port Orchard. Margaret Veroka Young (Margie) worked in the shipyard after high school. She possessed a sparkling personality, liked bashful boys like Dorm, and hated living on a farm with all its animal smells and chores. After a brief courtship, they were married in an economical double wedding with another young couple from school. Dorm borrowed a car for a "big city" honeymoon night in a Portland hotel. They camped out for the next three nights and came home to settle down in a small Bremerton apartment.

In a couple of years with help from Dorm’s father, they bought an old frame house on a large lot at 6th and Highland [in Bremerton]. In 1925 and 1927, their sons Jim and Bob were born. The Braman’s next-door neighbors were the William H. Gates family, whose only son Bill (William Gates II, father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates), was born in 1925. The three boys grew up together and became close friends. The marriage of Dorm and Margie lasted for almost 60 years. until Dorm’s death in 1980.

In 1930, Dorm moved his mill and cabinet shop business to larger quarters built for him at Pacific Avenue and 7th Street. The new plant was designed to accommodate upwards of 20 workers, but the Great Depression occurred right after the plant opened and Dorm soon became the only employee. As conditions slowly improved, he built the company up to eight employees and although he had no formal training as an architect, he designed and built a large Tudor-Norman Style house for his family on the existing lot. The 12-room home was locally known as "Bremerton Castle" and was eventually designated an historic landmark.  

Braman ran for and was elected to the Bremerton Port Commission at the urging of the Bremer family, descendants of the original founding family of Bremerton. He was active in the Masonic Lodge and Lions Club. His close family and active civic life led Dorm to Boy Scout work, and in 1937 he became the Scout Master of his son Jim’s famous Troop 511.

Boy Scout Troop 511

The most revealing example of Dorm’s commitment to helping others was his six-year experience with Troop 511. The Lions Club was the principal sponsor of Boy Scout activity and one of its members had persuaded Dorm to help their local scout troop earn merit badges for woodworking. He agreed to take on the challenge for about a year and a half and found a lot of satisfaction working with boys the ages of his two sons. The boys enjoyed his leadership and the opportunity to work in his mill using all its machinery.

Two years later, Dorm accepted the job of Scout Master of Troop 511, headquartered in the adjoining small town of Charleston. Dorm set a goal to increase the Troop’s declining membership and enlisted an assistant, Bill Juneau, an energetic and capable Lions Club member who worked in the Navy yard. Together the two men began to think seriously about what the troop needed and concluded, "What we really need is our own Greyhound bus to take these boys on trips." After laughing about it, they decided to work on making it happen and looked around for several weekends before obtaining a $200 donation from the Lions Club for an old Fageol bus. One of the dads in the troop was an accomplished mechanic and managed to get the old engine going and kept it in good running order during their subsequent long trips. 

The most exciting trip on this old bus came in the summer of 1939, when Troop 511 traveled to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. This was a two-week journey covering some 2,500 miles. The boys decided they would camp out every night and all meals would be prepared on the road. A price of $10 per person was set for the trip. To help the boys who could not afford it even at that price, the troop took on a major paper drive. Enthusiasm was heightened by Dorm’s promise to take the group that collected the most papers to the state capitol to visit a session of the legislature and have dinner in Olympia before returning home. 

Prior to the national park trip, fold-up jump seats were built to put in the aisle of the bus and increase the seating capacity to accommodate 40 boys. The park trip was filled with memories of spouting geysers, pools of colored water, singing songs around the campfire with National Park Rangers, seeing bears in Yellowstone and soaring mountains in Glacier. But the best memory was of the close camaraderie and bond that formed between the other scouts over the 15-day trip. As Scout Master, Dorm happily took on the task of preparing 42 meals, three times a day for 40 hungry boys. These meals often included baloney or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches eaten along the roadside at noon. It was all part of the adventure. 

Juneau could not leave his job for the two weeks, so Dorm took on the task of driving the bus the entire trip. Wrestling the big steering wheel before power steering proved to be hard work. He also managed the difficult task of changing huge tires after three flats while trying to keep a busload of teenagers peacefully occupied. For more adult supervision, Dorm invited Reverend Pyle of the Charleston Baptist Church to join them.

Driving up the long grade of Little Belt Mountain in Montana, Dorm heard a snap at the rear of the bus. The engine revved and the bus stopped moving forward. Dorm was sure it was a broken axle and allowed the bus to slowly roll backward down the grade into a national forest campground they had just passed. Once parked, he discovered the hub of one wheel had been sheared off from its axle. Dorm and several older boys hitched a ride carrying the broken axle to a nearby mountain hamlet, where a mechanic welded the hub back onto the axel. This repair immediately failed and forced a small group to hitchhike the long distance to Great Falls. A truck axle of the proper size was located there and two days after the accident the bus was on its way, once again rolling along on its new makeshift axle. There wasn’t one boy who took that trip that didn’t come away with indelible memories of a great experience. 

Building Sundown Lodge

Another example of Dorm’s leadership was a two-year effort to build a 25-foot by 50-foot log building on 809 acres of land along the Tahuya River purchased for the Scouts by the Lions Club. Dorm organized and led the boys of Troop 511 to cut down trees with crosscut saws, peel them, flatten two sides for snug fitting, and drag them to the site with a pick-up truck. It took two summers of hard work on weekends to complete the project. But in the end, Sundown Lodge at Camp Tahuya came out beautifully, and building it proved to be a classic demonstration of what can be accomplished with teamwork. Living and working outdoors building a lodge for their troop turned out to be an extremely successful scouting experience.

Dorm inspired the boys to believe anything was possible. Watching them develop into responsible and creative young men gave Dorm immense satisfaction. Bill Gates Sr. (II) lived next door to the Braman boys and was also a member of Scout Troop 511. In his book Showing Up for Life, Bill describes his experience in Troop 511 as "life shaping."

Seattle Years

During World War II, Braman was too old for the draft, so he volunteered and was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. He and Margie sold the Castle and his business, and in March 1943 he was assigned to procure lumber for the Navy from an office in Portland. In 1945, he was transferred to Washington, D.C., and was promoted to Lt. Commander. After three years, Dorm left active duty with the rank of Commander.

After the war, Dorm and Margie moved their family to Seattle, where he purchased a lumber and building materials store in the Lake City area. Braman Lumber and Hardware became a full-service supplier for home builders in this fast-growing suburb where Dorm also helped found the Shoreline Savings and Loan Association. In addition to his memberships in service clubs, Dorm became President of the Chief Seattle Council of Boy Scouts. When the Lake City area was annexed to Seattle in 1954, he was urged to run for Seattle City Council, was elected three times, and for most of the next 10 years served as Chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, where he became a legend and watchdog of public funds. 

In 1958, Dorm became a member of the Metro Council and was appointed by Carey Donworth to chair the Metro Finance Committee. He also served on a City-County committee appointed by Mayor Clinton to study the feasibility of Metropolitan Rapid Transit and became a city representative on the 1962 World’s Fair Commission. In the middle of his third term on the City Council, Dorm successfully ran for Mayor, defeating popular football coach and incumbent Lt. Governor John Cherberg. The vote was Braman 95,699, Cherberg 83,205. Cherberg served eight terms as Lt. Governor of Washington.

Dorm was a determined and dogged pursuer of his public goals. He knew that his public service motives were pure and became "thin-skinned" if these were unfairly questioned. He was a strong leader of the city and an exemplar for his sons. Dorm was a much-loved husband and father through a long and solid marriage.

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