My little log cabin is on the East side of Vashon, looking across Quartermaster Harbor into Dockton on Maury Island. Both doors were open a couple inches to allow the heat to escape as the fireplace was going full bore, too much heat for a rainy but warm fall day. I asked my old friend John Sweetman about the many fires we had in Republic. “We had four or five fires over a two year period, some of questionable origin,” John replied. “We even had one in the basement of the Presbyterian Church that burnt the whole church down.” I was mad as a wet hen when it happened as I had cut twelve cords of wood for the Presbyterians that year. “Weren’t you paid for the wood,” John asked? “Of course,” I replied, “It was just the idea of all that work going up in smoke.” “How about all that burnt whiskey from the green room fire,” John asked?
The fire started in a place known as the Green Room a dark and disreputable part of the Republic Hotel where much of the shady and occasionally underhanded real estate deals were conducted. It was the only bar in Republic that served hard liquor legally except for the Eagles, Aerie 68, which was at that time was located in a broken down assay shack in a much less accessible part of town.
At the time the fire started, my wood cutting partner and I were having a beer at the Hitch’n Post tavern down the street, a block from the fire. Peter-Stabs-by Mistake was his name; a Blackfoot Indian who had a cousin called Agnes-Mad-Plume. The reason for these names is lost in the smoke of history. Peter and I were good friends as we had cut many cords of wood together. He was tall and lanky and lived in a trailer at the bottom of town.
Tatlow, the owner, had used rough-cut green pine boards for his new bar. His stairs to his basement hideout were covered with guns he had taken in for loans; both sides of the stairs. The green pine boards in the bar had dried and left big cracks. Since beer was only 75 cents and folding money was rarer in those economic times, there was a lot of loose change on the bar at any one time. On bad days, when people didn’t have enough money for a beer, they could scrape enough change out of the cracks to buy one. I did it too when I couldn’t get up the hill to cut wood because of the snow.
We had lots of fires in Republic, at least for a small town. The ‘origin’ of the fires… friction of course (the rubbing of insurance and mortgage papers…) and the fact that all of the fires except the Presbyterian Church were failing bars… there might have been a clue there. When the Church burned down, it took twelve cords of my hard earned wood which they had in the basement and had paid for. It made me sick to think of all that wood going up; let alone the Church burning down.
Anyhow, Peter and I had cut our cord and a half for the day and were having a beer on the green pine boards when the fire siren went off and the tavern flowed out onto the street. The hotel across the street was on fire and spreading to the liquor store and within minutes, the newspaper office was on fire too. Lots of unemployed in the area, so there were a lot people there to watch her burn. It got quite hot, so Peter and I went back into the tavern to quench our thirst and plan our move to rescue the liquor from the fire.
Our plan was that I would drive down the steep back alley to the liquor store. The backs of the main street buildings were on shaky posts so the inventory of booze tumbled out and was saved by unusual deep snow and intense cold. The liquor was mostly burnt and we could see firefighters on the street in front of the store. The storeroom was in back and we had all that half-burned liquor to ourselves.
The authorities showed up later to take what remained to the garbage dump to crush the bottles and kegs of beer with a D-8 cat. We couldn’t see any harm in liberating the liquor that was left. I think we had fifty bottles, mostly R&R, a cheap bourbon. Republic was so economically distressed that there were no “top-shelf bottles” above Old Forester. Some of the bottles had evaporated down to the neck from the heat.
We had plenty of liquor, but went back to the tavern to revise our plan. The state liquor inspector was sitting right beside us taking notes; I didn’t know, until someone told me later. Nothing came of it and Peter took his liquor to the trailer park to share with the people who lived there. He left it in a wheelbarrow in front of his trailer in the snow. All the liquor was gone in the morning.
I gave several bottles to John Sweetman, the Ferry County Assessor, as a donation to the Christmas party coming up. It seemed like the right thing to do…after all, it was fifty miles to the next liquor store and the passes were snowed in and time was short. At that time, there were no regulations forbidding guns, liquor, smoking or horses in the courthouse. Although later on, the courthouse banned smoking. John set out an open bottle for sampling which was welcomed by the sheriff, the prosecutor and the judge. He also raffled off bottles as “keepsakes” at the courthouse Christmas party. The liquor was won by the road department secretary and sat on a mantel for at least a decade. The labels were charred and a distinct drawdown in actual content was visible, so John made new labels: “Genuine Republic ‘fire water’ vintage 1982,” and a guarantee of ‘authenticity’ plus a disclaimer of the actual alcohol content.
There was a belated investigation of the heinous crime and various interviews…”nobody knew nothing” and the investigation went down the traditional ferry county rabbit hole.
Brother Mike lives in the actual Elisha P Ferry house on Capitol Hill. Ferry was the first governor of Washington and Ferry County was named after him, though he had never been there. I took a bottle to Brother Mike, thinking it would restore a vague sense of karmic balance.