By Polly Keary
Dexter Taylor was better situated than most would be to write a history of Monroe. He is the president of the Monroe Historical Society, and he is also one of the curators of the Monroe Historical Society Museum.
So when Arcadia Publishing, a company that specializes in hyper-local history books, approached the Monroe Historical Society about doing a book on Monroe, he dove into the project. It would only require a couple hundred old photos and about 18,000 words of copy. How hard could it be?
That was in November of 2011. Hundreds of hours of research and photo sorting later, the slim volume of history is complete, meticulously researched and exhaustive, and it will be available this week.
Writing the book
It turned out to be a grueling project, and Taylor last week scanned through a preview company with some surprise; he’s been working on the project for so long, he forgot about some of the pictures with which he began the project.
Originally, he said, the historical society decided to take Arcadia up on their offer to make sure the subject was handled well.
“We decided to take it on before someone who knew even less than we did wrote it,” said Taylor.
Soon Taylor found out his team was smaller than he’d thought.
“‘We’ turned out to be ‘me'” he said.
It didn’t seem like that onerous of a project at first.
The publishing company has a very strict format for their books, and they consist mostly of photos.
“They wanted about 250 photos,” said Taylor.
So he began going through the 2,000 or so photos that the museum has, looking for images that would capture the story of Monroe, from its beginnings as a logging town, through its growth as a farming community and into a more civilized town.
That, it turned out, was a lot more difficult than it sounded. Arcadia needed a caption for each photo, including the correct full name of each person pictured, as well as all the buildings and streets.
That meant many hours of research. If it wasn’t for the previous work of a couple of other local historians, the project could have been overwhelming.
“A lot of the work had been done by Howard Voland (former Monitor owner and editor), who put in hundreds and hundreds of hours digitizing photos and writing captions,” Taylor said.
He also relied on the books written by historian Nellie Robertson.
“So much of the history I got referred to her work,” he said.
As Taylor worked, editors from Arcadia stayed in close contact; although the company went through about five editors during the project, Taylor said.
The pressure of timelines was the hardest part of the project.
“Most of the time it was fun, until it got close to a deadline,” he said.
When the book was done, the historical society picked a photo for the cover, an image of the Monroe Juvenile Band, complete with comical tiny hats, standing jauntily in the mud of Main Street.
The story of Monroe
The cover photo does seem to epitomize the freewheeling optimism of the early days of Monroe, when town boosters promoted the ragtag little town with great enthusiasm; although at the time it was barely a clearing in the forest.
The first images in the book are of the town’s original inhabitants; surviving members of the Snohomish Tribe, which had been decimated by disease. The book starts with a picture of Snah-Talc, also known as Bonaparte, a dignified and widely respected tribal leader who died in 1874. Also pictured are members of the prominent Native American Jimmicum family, who earned some income ferrying people up and down the river in canoes, as roads weren’t practical on the densely forested land that settlers encountered on arrival in the 1850s.
A fascinating glimpse of settler life is included in the early images from Monroe’s history in the form of a page from a meticulous and massive journal kept by settler Charles Stackpole, in which he noted everything from the weather to the loneliness of his wife, Libb, as they settled far from friends in 1871.
The entire journal, all nine volumes, is at the museum.
It is possible to learn the faces that go with the names of lakes and roads in the area, such as the Tester family for which Tester Road is named. The family once had a 500-acre farm in the area.
Monroe’s rough beginnings are on display, with a small crowd of people pictured in front of one of the town’s few businesses, the Halbert Store, advertised as Notary Public/Cheap Cash Store. Another, perhaps more popular business, was a saloon. The town was called Park Place in those days, and wasn’t renamed until the town was moved, mostly on skids towed by oxen, to a new location. The post office wasn’t accepting new town names of two words, so the town was renamed Monroe after President James Monroe.
Amusing are some images of early logging trucks, each containing a single massive length of old-growth timber, a favorite subject for photographers of the era.
Some of the scenes depicted are hard to imagine today, such as milk boats dropping off cases of milk jugs on the shore of the river, or the giant milk condensing factory that once covered the land now occupied by Grocery Outlet.
A fire destroyed the factory, leaving only the smokestack, which is a landmark today.
A vast sea of orderly rows of lettuce once covered the Fryelands, now covered by houses and an industrial park.
And a 1906 image shows a town comprised of scattered buildings amid the ragged stumps of trees, oriented almost entirely toward the railroad.
There are many pictures of early businesses, once quite prominent regionally, that have vanished nearly from memory. Among them are a large candy factory and a grocery-delivery service consisting of a painted wagon.
As the town grew, so did the buildings, and imposing schools of brick share pages with handsome community halls and public edifices.
Early town amusements included a chained dancing bear, but many diversions were more benign, including parades, plays, logging contests and races.
And the prison merited its own chapter in the book, from the clearing of the land to the building of what was dubbed “The University of Another Chance.” In early days, inmates interacted heavily with the townspeople, playing a team against the town baseball team and giving plays for the townspeople.
The book includes images up to about 1931, with the last image a rather grim newspaper headline telling of a prison riot that took place in 1953.
But despite its sobering final picture, the 126-page volume manages to condense the hopes, dramas, vigor and struggle of a growing timber town quite neatly, said Taylor.
“It’s a microcosm of a small town,” he said.
Buying the book
The book went on sale on Sunday, and can be found at the Monroe Historical Society Museum. The proceeds of sales will go to support the historical society.
“It’s a good fundraiser for a while,” said Taylor, who said that other societies have found that the first year it is a very good source of funds, and it tapers of through the following two years.
That will be very useful; the insurance on the old City Hall building that houses the museum just went from $2,100 to $3,200 a year.
Although it’s still barely a week into summer, Taylor said it’s not too soon to start thinking of the holidays.
“I think the book would make a great Christmas present,” he said with a smile.