Julie McDonald: Former Toledo man recalls family friendship with Mary Kiona


Every year during the first half of the 20th century, Upper Cowlitz native Mary Kiona and her friends set up camp for a week or so across Spencer Road from Frank and Maria “Mary” Chromey’s home on Spencer Road north of Toledo.

She and her friends picked berries and perhaps Camas roots in the swell on the Chromeys’ 80-acre farm. They traded salmon, woven baskets and other items with the Chromey family for store-bought goods.

The Chromeys moved to Lewis County in 1919 from Minnesota, traveled about a mile up Spencer Road to attend Mass at St. Francis Xavier Mission and raised their family on Cowlitz Prairie outside Toledo.

The family especially recalled Mary’s visit in the spring of 1924, when Mary Chromey gave birth to a daughter, Dorothy, on May 8.

When Mary looked at the infant girl, she told her friend, Mary, the baby’s mother, that something was bad with the infant. Sure enough, little Dorothy lived only 20 days. She’s buried at St. Francis Xavier Cemetery, which is also the final resting place of many family members, including her grandmother, Frank’s mother, Frances (Sladek) Chromey, a native of Austria who moved west with the family and died Aug. 16, 1934, at the age of 82. Frank’s sister, Anna Rakoz, also lived on Cowlitz Prairie, but their other five siblings remained in the Midwest.

In addition to Dorothy, Frank and Mary had seven children, three boys — Henry, Adolph and Alfred — and four girls — Lydia, Agnes, Irene and Elsie.

After I wrote about Mary Kiona in January, Jim Chromey, of Olympia, reached out to me to share his family’s connection to the iconic Taidnapam or Upper Cowlitz matriarch who lived to be more than 115 years old. We met at Dawn’s Delectables in Centralia, where he showed me a painting of Mary Kiona that his father commissioned in 1980.

Alfred Chromey, who lived most of his life in Toledo, recalled his parents’ fondness for Mary Kiona, so when The Seattle Times featured her on the cover of its Sunday Rotogravure pictorial magazine on Dec. 30, 1969, he kept the article. Years later, a cousin introduced him to artist Richard “Dick” Baerman, a Seattle native who lived in Peshastin, Washington, near Leavenworth, so Alfred commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of Mary Kiona using The Seattle Times photograph taken by Joseph Scaylea as a guide.

“The only thing that he changed was her eye was a little bit screwed up,” Jim Chromey said. Baerman, known for painting scenes from the American West and designing Leavenworth’s Bavarian village coat-of-arms, later moved to Livingston, Montana, where he died in 2009.

In the December 1969 feature about Mary Kiona, writer Archie Satterfield described her as 114 years old and “alert of mind,” noting she was born along the Cowlitz River in January 1855, during the Indian Wars.

“She has lived all her life near the river even though her original home lies beneath the backwaters of the Mayfield dam,” Satterfield wrote. 

Her great-grandchildren called her “Bummo” and spoke to her in the Taytnapam Ichiskiin (Sahaptin) dialect, although they primarily spoke English in the Mossyrock area home they shared with their grandmother, Joyce Eyle, who Satterfield said, “uses a combination of drill sergeant orders and tenderness to keep the five children happy and busy and Mary Kiona in good health and good spirits.”

In her native tongue, Mary Kiona sipped coffee and spoke of a time when no white men lived along the Cowlitz River and no dams blocked the river’s flow. She was about 8 when she first saw a white man at Cowlitz Landing downriver from Toledo. She remembered Hudson’s Bay Co. trappers, including one-eyed Pierre Charles, known by the tribe as Shiumkum. She chuckled as she spoke about drying salmon and flavoring meat with berries, which they ate like mush. They wore flat hats of woven cedar decorated with beaver or deer teeth and made dye from moss on old cedar trees. They built cedar plank houses, and she wove baskets for her use and to trade with others.

A car accident in about 1964 left Mary Kiona unable to walk, but she enjoyed her great-grandchildren despite being more than a century older than them. Joyce Eyle said her grandmother kept up with the times and thought Elvis Presley and Tennessee Ernie Ford were “really great.”

Jim Chromey, who devoted his career to the Washington State Patrol, loves history and treasures his father’s portrait of Mary Kiona. He grew up in a 1917 Sears Roebuck mail-order home on the old Simon Plamondon donation land claim outside Toledo.

His grandfather, Frank Joseph Chromey, was 80 when he died in 1960, and Maria Bernardina “Mary” (Heine) Chromey, passed away April 1, 1962, at 76.

His father, Alfred Chromey, dropped out of school after eighth grade to help his parents during the Great Depression. He worked for Gordon Egbert’s egg-producing plant in Winlock and later drove a fuel truck for Olson Brothers Garage in Toledo before becoming a partner in the business. He was 79 when he died in July 1998. His wife, Toledo native Maxine LaVelle (Jones) Chromey, a twin, was also 79 when she died in December 2003. They had four children: Janie Austin of Oakville, Jim of Olympia, Nancy Damewood of Chinook, Wash., and Debbie Oberg of Toledo. Both Nancy and Debbie died in 2021.

Jim Chromey attended grade school through eighth grade at St. Mary’s Academy on Cowlitz Prairie and then graduated from Toledo High School in 1966. He studied business at Centralia College but floundered so joined the Navy Reserve. Placed on active duty, he made two trips to Vietnam aboard the USS Bainbridge DLGN-25, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser. He started in the deck division and worked his way up to the signal bridge, which he described as “absolutely was one of the best jobs possible because I love being out in the open sea.” Chromey saw explosions when the ship pulled into Da Nang harbor, he said, “but our main purpose was to escort aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

After returning Stateside in 1970, he tried college again and, because of high unemployment, took the only job he could find, working at a service station. He married his first wife, Denise, at St. Francis Mission in Toledo, and they have a son and a daughter. Later, he found a job as a communications officer with the Washington State Patrol. He rode with troopers but couldn’t qualify as a cadet because he stood only five-foot-eleven — and troopers at that time needed to be at least 6 feet tall — unless they had a four-year degree. When that discriminatory rule fell by the wayside, he became a cadet, graduated from the State Patrol Academy on April 29, 1974, and served as a trooper at Connell in Eastern Washington in time for Expo ’74 in Spokane. He was promoted to sergeant and then lieutenant, started a motorcycle detachment, taught at the academy, and oversaw the ACCESS computerized program giving officers information during traffic stops. He initially retired in December 2002 but then worked for the Western States Information Network as a law enforcement coordinator, retiring again in 2012.

After 16 years of marriage to his first wife, Chromey married Wendy and adopted her daughter. After their divorce, he married Kristen, who had two children, and together they have a dozen grandchildren who live nearby.

“Third time’s a charm,” he said.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.