The Pfisters: founders of my Seattle family, by Dorothea Nordstrand

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 2/17/2007
  • Essay 8094

This is the story of a "working man," Joseph Pfister (1883-1947), born in Wisconsin to immigrants from Switzerland, and his wife, Mary (Gierhofer) Pfister (1888-1962), born in Austria and brought to America at the age of 5. Joseph and Mary  married in Wisconsin in 1905  and arrived in Ballard (now a neighborhood of Seattle) around 1907, and then moved to Everett. They stayed until 1911, when they moved to Tiger, Washington, to homestead for a few years. They returned to Seattle in 1919. Their children were Jack Pfister (1907-1973), Florence (Pfister) Burke (1909-1998), and Dorothea (Pfister) Nordstrand (1916-2011). This acount was written by Dorothea Nordstrand (1916-2011). In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including's People's History library.

Seattle and Everett

Joseph Alois Pfister and Mary Annie Gierhofer, my father and mother, were married in Merrill, Lincoln County, State of Wisconsin, September 20, 1905, in St. Francis' Church, by Reverend Father J. B. Scheyer.  They were 22 and 19 years old.  Their attendants were John Gierhofer, my mother's older brother, and her best friend, Martha Oczkewicz.      

Dad was born in Wausau, Wisconsin, to parents who had both come from Switzerland.  Mother's family had come to America from Austria when she was 5 years old.      

Daddy was only about 5 feet 8 inches tall, but was powerfully built, with very broad shoulders, thick with muscles across his back.  His hair was quite dark and his eyes were hazel, and could twinkle with mischief.  He loved to tease, but was never unkind.  His sense of humor was his great gift.        

Mother was brown-haired, hazel-eyed, and always seemed beautiful to me.  Her skin was fresh-looking, with blush rose coloring in her cheeks.  She was 5 feet 4 inches tall, and her weight stayed at about 120 all of her life.  She was gentle and one of the most completely honest people I have ever known.  If she said something, you knew it was true.   All their lives, they cared for each other.  Through good times and bad, their affection was unchanging.  Their marriage was solid as a rock. They were secure in each other.      

Uncle John was Dad's close friend,  and Mother's, too.  John was about the same height as my Dad.  He was brown-haired and stocky.  He had what we call in our family, the Gierhofer nose.  It could be described as rather large, with a prominent bump about half-way down its length.  Several of the family owned this nose, although, among the girls it was a much daintier model.      

On November 5, 1906, my brother, John Joseph, (named for his uncle and father,  but always called "Jack"), was born in Merrill, Wisconsin.                                  

Dad always gave his occupation as "working man."  He used to tell about working in the woods; in a sawmill; on a railroad gang; and doing construction work.  Sometime in their Wisconsin years, Dad worked at laying track for the Great Northern Railroad.  There was a massive scar in the palm of his left hand which came from tearing it on a big railroad spike.  As first aid, someone poured whiskey into the wound to cauterize it, and he went back to work!  He was never able to flatten that hand, but it didn't seem to bother his dexterity with tools.  All of his life, he enjoyed fashioning something from wood.     

Mother worked as "nurse-girl" for the children of wealthy families, from the time she was nine years old.  Times were hard for newcomers to this country and this was a way to take care of her while lessening the burden at home.  She lived in the homes of her charges.  Sometimes, things were very good, and, sometimes, very bad, depending on the kindness of her employers.  She remembered with affection some of "her families" and thought of them almost as blood relatives.  There was one place, however, that must have been really hard for her.  She told of being hungry while watching her employers living in plenty.  I remember her saying that she would have stolen food from the kitchen, but it was kept under lock-and-key.  I hope she did not have to stay in that place for too long.  Later, in her teens, she and her friend  Martha Oczkewicz were chamber-maids in the town's finest hotel.      

Her formal schooling didn't go beyond the third grade, but she was one of the best-informed people I ever knew.  She read everything she could get her hands on, and remembered what she read.        

Dad must have worked on the Lincoln County Courthouse in Merrill.  When my husband and I were there in 1981, we were taken up into the tower by Dewey Pfister, a reporter for the Merrill Daily Herald, who was trying to gather information about a mysterious signature scrawled onto the back of the casing for the tower clock.  Sure enough, the signature was Daddy's -- Joseph Alois Pfister -- and the date was  February l8, 1907.  Dad would have been 23.  It must have been shortly before the family came west.  The feeling I got as I looked at this message from the past was something I can't describe!  Chills and thrills!  It was like Dad was there.  I could almost hear his chuckle and see his brown eyes twinkling!  I'll never forget that day!      

Most of the time, he worked at logging.  When work in the woods in Wisconsin became scarce, the little family decided to move west, where trees were still in good supply. Uncle John Gierhofer came with them. They settled in Ballard, Washington State, which was, in the early part of this century, a flourishing, little town. Now, it is one of the many neighborhoods that make up the city of Seattle.       

Mom used to tell a story that, even many years later, made her shudder.  Dad was desperately searching for work.  Mom had $400, all the money they had in the world, tied into the corner of a handkerchief.  This, she held in her hand, while she pushed the baby buggy holding Jack, as she searched, street by street, for a house they might rent.  Suddenly, to her horror, she realized that money and handkerchief were no longer in her hand!  She ran, terrified, several blocks back along the way she had come, and nearly fainted with relief when she found the handkerchief (and its precious contents) lying on the sidewalk where it had fallen!        

Mom's family, the Gierhofers; her mother, Frances, her father, Francis (called Frank), sisters Ida, Rose, and Anne, and the baby brother, Eddie, came west from Merrill, Wisconsin, to Everett, Washington, in about 1908.  John, who had come earlier with Mother and Dad, was the oldest child, then Mary  (my mother),  Ida,  Rose,  Anne,  and Eddie, who was only two years older than his nephew,  my brother,  Jack.       

By this time, Uncle John was working as motorman on Seattle's streetcar system, in the Rainier Valley district, and Dad had found employment in one of the numerous shingle mills that were located along the waterfront of Ballard.  Their house was near the mill.  The fleas that lived in the sawdust nearly ate my mother alive.  She was always very susceptible to insect bites.  She used to joke that if there were 10 people anywhere, she would be the first to get bit, be it flea, spider, or mosquito.  Daddy would joke right back that "even bugs knew a good thing when they saw it!"  Anyway, it was evident that Ballard was not a comfortable place for her.      

Since her family, the Gierhofers, had settled in Everett, Dad, Mom, and little Jack also moved there, and the second baby, my sister, Florence, was born there, January l, 1909.  Daddy found work in a sash-and-door factory. They were living in a little house on Broadway when Florence was born.      

Sometime in that year, 1909, Dad's mother, Josefina Regina Pfister, who had remarried, and was now Josefina Schuman, got mad at her new husband, hit him on the head with a block of wood  (I wish I knew the rest of that story)  and came west to be with her son.  This was probably not the best news in the world to Mother.  Her mother-in-law was the only person I ever knew that didn't love Mom, and the feeling was mutual.  Aunt Anne told me that Grandma didn't want her son to get married.  When they heard that Grandma was coming,  Mother prepared a room in their tiny house for her, scrubbing and cleaning, so that everything would be nice.  When Grandma arrived, she re-scrubbed the clean floor!       

Shortly after Florence's birth, Mother came down with diphtheria, during an epidemic of that dread disease that took so many lives. There was no cure for it at that time.  Five doctors had given up trying to save her, prayers were being said for her in the churches, and the priest was there to administer the Last Rites. One of the doctors,  as a last resort, got permission from Dad to try a brand-new,  unproved serum, and, miraculously, it worked!  However, the doctors warned that she could not live in the damp, coastal area, so they were, again, of necessity, up-rooted.  To save her life, they would have to move to a high, dry climate.  They bravely decided to become homesteaders in the newly opened lands near Spokane, and, thus, opened a whole, new chapter in their lives ... the time of homesteading near Tiger, Washington --  1911-1919. 

After many adventures in Tiger, the family returned to Seattle in 1919.                   

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