A beautiful home on a pastoral Cowlitz Prairie knoll gives a panoramic view of both Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens.
Nobody could ever guess that a small cemetery used to lie in the front yard. Or that two pioneer schoolhouses once sat to the northwest of the home on Schoolhouse Lane.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Pauline “Polly” Herren Sabin, a centenarian who spoke about the schoolhouses she attended and the cemetery nearby. I envisioned them on the east side of the road, where the local Cemetery District owns property at the northeast corner of Tucker and Schoolhouse.
But Loretta (McQuigg) Ray, who lives in Spokane, sent a message pointing out my error. She and her sister, Joan (McQuigg) Titus of Lyle, Washington, grew up in the Toledo area and agreed to show me and fellow historian Johanna Jones the location of the old cemetery and schoolhouses. Joining us for the meeting last spring was Marlene Hampton, who with her husband, Bob, sold their dairy farm in Rochester and bought nearly three acres at 216 Schoolhouse Lane in 2016. They lived in a fifth-wheel trailer while constructing their home.
She doesn’t worry about living where bodies were once buried. As a strong Christian, she prayed over the property before they built. She’d heard the land might have been a cemetery at one time.
“When they dug the septic,” Hampton said, “they never found a bone.”
In the first half of the 19th century, the expansive Cowlitz Prairie was home to Cowlitz Farm, 5,000 acres farmed by the Puget Sound Agricultural Company for the Hudson’s Bay Company. After the British ceded land south of the 49th parallel to the United States in June 1846, Cowlitz Farm became prime property for homesteaders seeking to stake a claim.
Two of those homesteaders, described by former Cowlitz Farm manager George Roberts as “squatters,” were Thomas M. Pearson, who claimed 640 acres on the west side of Schoolhouse Lane, and Jackson Barton, whose donation land claim was on the east side.
According to “The Toledo Community Story,” Pearson in 1871 donated land for both a schoolhouse and a burial ground. Eventually, two schoolhouses were erected. Sabin, who died Sept. 13, 2018, told me that the younger students gathered in the smallest building, the older in the larger one. They used an outhouse in the old days.
The first Upper Cowlitz schoolhouse, though, was described by descendants of Samuel M. Spencer, who crossed the plains in 1851 and settled on Cowlitz Prairie after stays in Portland and Tumwater, as a building made of logs with a puncheon floor “with cracks wide enough to spit tobacco juice through (and they did),” according to “The Toledo Community Story.”
One of Samuel and Mary (Carter) Spencer’s sons was Tracy Thomas Spencer, the father of Clarice Spencer and grandfather of Titus and Ray. Both Tracy and his daughter attended Upper Cowlitz School.
Clarice, who died in 2006, graduated from Toledo High School in 1929 and married Henry McQuigg that December. Their children include Ray, Titus, and son Henry “Tom” McQuigg of Ethel.
The elder Henry, one of the sons of Minor and Adelaide (Balfour) McQuigg, attended Hopewell School near Tucker and Classe roads near where he was raised. When he was 21, his father died, so Henry cared for their mother and the younger three boys and a girl by farming on Tucker Road. He later worked in logging camps to support the family and operated a sawmill.
Ray and Titus grew up near their Spencer and Balfour grandparents, who lived three miles apart from each other on Spencer Road.
“Times were hard,” Ray said. “We never had an indoor toilet. We had an outhouse. We were raised on Spencer. The outhouse is still there.”
She said they didn’t tear down outhouses. “You might need it.”
Ray and Titus recall their grandparents, Tracy and Anna Spencer.
“I remember how hard my grandma worked, and my grandpa liked to fish and hunt,” Titus said.
Their McQuigg uncles hauled water from the creek across the road until a dairy was started upstream, when they hauled water from their brother’s place instead.
Back in the day, family members often were buried on the home place. The Balfours were buried on their property, but Ray said that in the 1980s her mother hired someone to move the graves to Salkum.
“When they dug up the graves,” she said, “all there was was a piece of metal off of one of the caskets because the caskets would have been wooden, and I think a bone or two.”
Ray and Titus remember only one schoolhouse, but eventually even that building vanished.
So did the cemetery. No headstones remain. Neither does the grove of towering fir trees that once graced the cemetery. As for the people once buried there — May they rest in peace.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.