Stephens holds a photo of Nelson from when he was in the Boy Scouts.
Stephens holds a photo of Nelson from when he was in the Boy Scouts.

David Nelson milked dozens of cows as a boy before and after school to help his family get through the Great Depression.

He also worked on his neighbors’ farmlands and logged acres of vast forest that surrounded Monroe in the 1930s with his father, who would occasionally sell illicitly fermented spirits for extra cash. It was all about making money in those days, he said of his adolescence.

His stepdaughter, Lana Stephens, speculates all the hard work is one reason Nelson has reached such a ripe age.

The Monroe resident turned 95 years old this month. Family and friends celebrated with Nelson at the Brookdale Assisted Living memory care unit, which he has called home for more than a year. Stephens said one of her father’s best friends Alve Johnson, whose son Derrel is a retired Monroe Police sergeant, was another Monroe native who came out for the occasion.

The day after the party, which was a sunny Monday, Nelson sat outside on the patio soaking up fall weather with his daughters and son-in-law. His feet were covered in worn cowboy boots, and a novelty belt buckle rested at his waist.

Despite his age, Nelson appears spry and has retained his wit. While his memory is sometimes foggy, he can still recall vivid snapshots of growing up in the Sky Valley, decades of Navy service, raising a family and starting his own business.

Nelson was born Oct. 9,1922 in Redmond, Oregon, Stephens said. His parents loaded up a covered wagon when he was a few years old and headed north to a property his father rented from the Steffens, one of Sky Valley’s pioneering families, she said.

Stephens said the plot was about 50 acres. Nelson’s father raised beef, chickens and vegetables. It was largely rural farmland at the time. Families hunted and raised their own food to get by, she said.

“My grandmother did lots of canning,” Stephens said. “They did lots of hunting and fishing to supply the larder there.”

Monroe was started as a settlement called Park Place in 1864 by Henry McClurg in the foothills of the Cascades, according to the Monroe Historical Society. Its size grew rapidly in the early 1900s, thanks to robust farming and timber industries, and its proximity to the Great Northern Railroad.

Stephens said her father was “never lazy and always industrious.” She said he has been very loving to his family. He was also stubborn and determined, she said.

Nelson said Main Street only had businesses on one side of the roadway when he was a kid. He bought pogey bait — a U.S. military term for candy — at the sweet shop, and said it was always a fight for the soft seats at the town’s first movie theater.

The Monroe Theater, later the Avalon Theater, was open from 1929 through 1966, according to the historical society. The first “talkie,” or sound film, was shown locally in 1930. A parking lot now sits over the old site.

Nelson wracked up a hefty resume in those days, Stephens said. He worked at Charles Frye’s Frye Lettuce Farm. The roughly 1,200-acre farm was near a train depot and one of the largest employers in the area at the height of its production. The harvests were loaded up on trains and sent south to Seattle, she said.

The nearly two dozen cows Nelson milked twice a day didn’t belong to his family. They were owned by the Hewitts, who had a dairy where Albertson’s used to be in Monroe.

In addition to his time at the facility, Nelson also helped his family grow vegetables, Stephens said. His mother would prepare more than 1,000 jars of preserved homegrown foods every year. They also smoked their own meats, she said.

Nelson attended grade school in a small schoolhouse and high school in a larger, three-story building called Union High School, which used to be on Kelsey Street. When he was 17 years old he became an Eagle Scout. His troop leader, Mr. Schimke, was a staff member at the high school.

Through the Boy Scouts of America, Nelson did work for the city, county and state. Projects included forestry work, road building, and he helped build a bridge as an Eagle Scout.

Dave LaDuke, Nelson’s son-in-law, said Nelson would tell tales of the his father’s illegal kegs that were hung up in trees, and about the 6 1/2-foot-wide giants he and his father would work to fell during the day.

Becky LaDuke, Nelson’s youngest, said her father also had a job in a mill. He would continuously have to pour oil on the massive saws, so they would succinctly slice through the thick trunks. It was also so the blades didn’t overheat, Stephens said.

At 18, Nelson and other young men in his town signed up to serve in the military. It was a common trajectory for young men back then. The decision was often based on a need for income and lack of paid positions in their hometown. 

The job ended up taking him to California for training, Stephens said. Not long after, he was shipped off to Hawaii. Once the war had broken out in the Pacific Ocean, he was stationed near Japan on a minesweeper. Dave LaDuke recalls hearing stories of his father-in-law being bounced feet off the deck by the resulting blasts.

Nelson preferred not to talk about some of his experiences up until a few years ago, Stephens said.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Nelson found himself shoeless and in his skivvies on the deck of the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender stationed in Pearl Harbor. He rolled out of his bunk and jumped on a gun so large it took multiple men to operate. He kicked hot shells over the side of the ship with his bare feet.

About fifteen minutes after the attacks began, Nelson watched as the USS Arizona was bombed.

Nelson was sent back home once the war ended. The next 20 years were spent at the former Sand Point naval base in Washington, including  a stint in Michigan. It was where he met his wife Ruth, although this month he joked their first encounter was when “I probably tripped her on the streets of Monroe.”

Together the couple raised three girls. He affectionately referred to the female-dominated household as his “heifer farm,” which still makes both his daughters laugh. Nelson has always been a family man, Becky LaDuke and Stephens said.

“I got three meals a day, so, I guess I took care of them and they took care of me,” he said.

After retiring from the Navy, Nelson moved the remaining members of his household, Ruth and their second youngest, Julie, back to Monroe. It was then that he started TriValley Realty in Snohomish. Ruth became a licensed real estate agent and worked as his bookkeeper for many years.

Nelson sold the business to Century 21 in Monroe about a decade later. Ruth died in 2004. He went right back to his old ways during retirement.

Nelson raised beef, chickens and had a large vegetable garden he tended to on the 10-acre property he had moved to above the Evergreen State Fairgrounds. He cut timber for other locals in his small setup, which he called the Lucas Mill.

“He kept real busy, let me tell you — he never sat still,” Stephens said.

Brookdale is where one of his schoolmates from grade school is also staying. He and Katherine Olson have lunch every day, she said.

“I’m pleased with what I ended up with,” Nelson said.