A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

March 2006

Mary Olson Farm

by By Holly Taylor,
Past Forward Northwest Cultural Services

Few historic sites in the Puget Sound area provide such a tangible and evocative link to the past as the Mary Olson Farm on the east bank of the Green River in Auburn. This well-preserved farmstead, named for a pioneer woman who emigrated from Sweden in 1882, is one of our region’s historical treasures.

Nestled in a quiet canyon where Olson Creek flows into the Green River, the farmstead includes an 1897 hay barn, a 1902 farm house, and several outbuildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries including a weaving house, smokehouse, garage / ice house, and chicken coop. A year-round stream separates the farmstead buildings from a pasture to the south. To the north, an early wagon road meanders around a century-old orchard and climbs over a low rise to another pasture. To the east lies a steep wooded hillside, and to the west lies the Green River, giving the farmstead a rare sense of timelessness and isolation.

Thanks to the foresight of City leaders, this remarkable historic site was protected from development in 1994. The Olson Farm is owned by the City of Auburn, and leased to the Museum for long term stewardship and restoration. The Museum is hard at work raising funds to restore the farmstead’s buildings and landscape, develop visitor amenities, and interpret the Farm’s rich heritage. Interpretation will focus on stories of immigration, family farm economics, environmental history, and the indigenous landscape.

Olson Family portrait c1886, taken at a Seattle photo
studio, shows father Alfred, mother Mary, baby Anna.

A Glimpse of Early Auburn
When Alfred Olson left Sweden and came to the White River Valley in the 1870s, most of the prime farmland west of the river had already been claimed by homesteaders. The communities of Auburn (then called Slaughter), Thomas and Kent grew rapidly during the last decades of the 19th century, due to both migration from the United States to the Washington Territory, and immigration to the area from Europe and Asia.

An 1879 Bill of Sale records the transfer of farm property from Halvor and Juliana Nelson to Alfred Olson. In addition to 73 acres valued at $1,200, Olson acquired a sawmill and a ‘logging outfit,’ along with two cows, one calf, two steers, a yoke and two log chains, a set of blacksmith tools, carpenter tools, a wagon, an assortment of household furniture and utensils, one dozen chickens, fifteen head of hogs, one boat, the lumber in the sawmill yard, and the hay in the barn, in all valued at $150.

Mary K. Anderson left the village of Asmule Or, Sweden in 1882 at the age of 30, and went to Minneapolis, Minnesota. She married her childhood sweetheart Alfred Olson the following year, and moved to his farm. They had two children, Anna Suffield Olson (b. 1885) and Carl Alfred Olson Jr. (b. 1887). Alfred Sr. died in 1887, leaving Mary widowed with two very young children.

After Alfred Sr.’s death, Mary’s brother moved in with the family for a time, and in 1893 Mary departed with her children to visit her birthplace in Sweden. Two years later, in 1895, Mary married Eric Magnus Johnson, and they returned to Mary’s farm on the Green River.

Mary Olson Farm hay barn, south façade, from the 1939
King County Assessor’s records. Once restored, the barn will
become the farm’s major gathering spot for classes and l
arger groups. Courtesy Puget Sound Regional Archives.

Run-in with an Outlaw
One notable event in the Johnson family’s life occurred in 1902, with the arrival of the notorious Harry Tracy. Known as “the last horseback outlaw,” Tracy had escaped from the Oregon Penitentiary, where he was serving a 20 year sentence for robbery. For two months, Tracy managed to elude capture, moving north through Oregon and Washington, robbing farm families and holding them captive, and then moving on.

A newspaper article recounts the event:
One morning in July, 1902, while the Johnson family was preparing to do the morning ranch chores, a knock was heard at the door of their log cabin. [Mr.] Johnson said, “Come in,” and in stepped Tracy, brandishing two revolvers, Miss [Anna] Olson related. The outlaw was wet and needed a change of clothing, having swum Green River to escape a pursuing posse... After obtaining some of Johnson’s clothes, he ordered the Green river rancher to go to Tacoma and buy him two revolvers. Tracy said that if any trap were set for him, the two children and Mrs. Johnson would be killed. Taking what money he had, Johnson started for Tacoma while his family was kept prisoners in the lonely ranch cabin. Late that afternoon, the rancher returned with one revolver and Tracy took it and one of the Johnson horses and rode away.

Tracy later shot himself in Eastern Washington to escape capture. The revolver that Tracy was believed to have used for this final act was the one purchased for him by Johnson. The gun was returned to Johnson by a sheriff who led the posse, and was later donated to the Museum.

The farmhouse, with a non-original enclosed porch in 1939.
The front and back porches and windows will be restored
during upcoming construction and the house will eventually
be open to visitors. Courtesy Puget Sound Regional Archives.

A Quiet Farm Life
Details about the family’s life are few. Tax records show that ownership of the farm remained in Mary’s name throughout her life, which was unusual for a married woman of that era. A farmhouse replaced the log cabin in 1902, but the house had neither electricity nor plumbing. Light was provided by carbide lamps and kerosene lanterns, and a faucet out the back door provided running water from the nearby creek. The outhouse remained in use, and the family heated the house and cooked with a woodstove. Both Mary and Anna wove rugs on a large loom, located first in the house and later in a weaving house built in 1922, just outside the back door. The weaving house was built, friends recalled, because the lint from rug weaving floated down from the second story of the house like snow, covering everything. Moving the loom outside to the weaving house solved the problem, and gave Mary and Anna a dedicated place to weave. Their rugs were sold at J.C. Penney’s store in Auburn, providing one of the family’s few sources of cash income.

Mr. Johnson died in 1935, and Mary died three years later, at which time ownership of the farm passed to her two children. Anna and Alfred Jr. continued to live at the farm for their entire lives. In a 1999 oral history interview, family friend Doris Ramstead explained that Alfred never married because he said that he “couldn’t afford a wife. And Anna was too particular…” though they both attended community dances and other social occasions, traveling first by horse and buggy, later in an open touring car, and finally in a 1941 Packard.

Other visitors recall that Anna and Alfred Jr. had extensive gardens and an assortment of dairy cows, chickens and other animals which provided much of their food as well as farm products to sell. Alfred trapped small animals and sold the pelts, and he fished the two salmon runs which came up the creek each fall. Anna passed away in 1971 at the age of 85, and Alfred passed away in 1980 at the age of 93.

Anna Olson (on right) is shown in this c.1925 photograph with an unidentified friend, Ace the farm dog, and the barn in the background. Anna was
born at the Farm in 1885, and lived there her entire life, until 1971.

Conservation and Landmark Status
Following Alfred’s death, the farm was inherited by a cousin, who did some remodeling but left the place largely unchanged. As King County began to assess potential open space acquisitions in the Green River Valley in the 1980s, the Olson Farm property was noted for its healthy salmon stream, as well as its historical significance. Visitors remarked that seeing the farm is like “stepping back in time,” because so little had been changed through over a century of ownership by the Olson Family.

In 1994, the City of Auburn acquired the Farm along with 60 acres of surrounding pasture and woodlands, using Conservation Futures funding, a portion of real estate excise tax dedicated to preserving open space. The City and the Museum began collaborating to restore the farm property, a process that is ongoing.

A Master Plan for the farm was prepared by Boyle Wagoner Architects (now BOLA Architecture + Planning), documenting the site’s history and characteristics, assessing the condition of the farmstead, describing possible future uses, and proposing recommendations for stabilization and restoration of the buildings and the landscape. The plan was recognized with an Award for Excellence in Preservation Planning by the State Historic Preservation Officer in 2002.

Included in the Master Plan is a mission statement developed specifically for the Farm:
The Mary Olson Farm is a unique 60-acre farmstead dating from 1879, and located on a sloped and wooded site along the Green River. It includes an intact assembly of rural buildings, and a site shaped by agriculture and stream ecology with two indigenous salmon runs and wildlife. Through preservation of the buildings and historic features, and stewardship of nature, the Olson Farm will foster public understanding of its specific heritage, distinct environment, and the economic reality of a family farm. Particular emphasis is placed on natural history and ecology of the farm site, showing how the environment has shaped and been shaped by the cultures and people who have lived there. Olson Farm will welcome teachers and students for tours, workshops and other learning experiences. It will provide community entertainment through educational tours, festivals and living history events.

King County Historic Preservation Officer Julie Koler has called Olson Farm “the best preserved family farm in King County.” The Olson Farm was designated as a City of Auburn Landmark in 2000, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

Mary Olson Farm hay barn, south façade, from the 1939
King County Assessor’s records. Once restored, the barn will
become the farm’s major gathering spot for classes and
larger groups. Courtesy Puget Sound Regional Archives

Stabilizing the Farm: A Record of Accomplishment
In 2002, the Museum entered into a formal lease agreement with the City of Auburn to manage the farm and to take the lead in restoration efforts. Since then, the Museum has raised over $640,000 of an estimated $1.5 million needed to fully rehabilitate the farm’s historic buildings, and open the property to the public.

The first order of business was stabilization of the structures. A century of rain had taken its toll. The hay barn got a new roof made from 36” cedar shakes. New concrete foundations for the roof support posts were disguised beneath rocks and wood pieces which look like they have been in place for 100 years. Drainage problems along the back side of the barn, which caused the back wall to sink, were fixed by installing a series of swales and French drains.

New barn boards have been provided by a “lumber angel,” the kind of dedicated volunteer that all historic site managers dream of finding. Denny Swanson, a retired pilot who lives on the Enumclaw Plateau, has an antique saw mill and offered to mill cedar for use in replacing the barn’s wall boards. He harvested cedar trees from his property, and hand milled them to the original specifications of 12 inches across, an inch thick and 18 feet long. Denny’s first truckload of lumber provided replacements for the back wall, and subsequent truckloads of lumber are stacked in barn, air-drying for future use on portions of the front and side walls.

An excellent craftsman, Carl Schlittenhart of RSE Construction, has performed much of the stabilization work on the historic buildings. The farm house, built in 1902, has received a new roof, and a new foundation, and has been “weatherized” pending future restoration. The weaving house has been structurally stabilized and has also received a new roof, as have the garage / ice house, chicken coop and the smokehouse. The caretaker’s home has been relocated, and the entry drive reconfigured to reflect the Farm’s historic layout.

These projects have been supported by grants from 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax), Washington State’s Heritage Capital Projects Fund, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition, grants from the Army Corps of Engineers, the King Conservation District, and the King County WRIA 9 Waterworks Program are funding environmental restoration projects. This support is resulting in the removal of invasive species (including the clearing of blackberries by a herd of visiting goats), replanting of native species, and enhancement of salmon habitat.

An open meadow west of the Farmhouse contains an assortment of historic fruit trees. Varieties include Green Gauge and Italian plums, King and Northern Spy apples, Royal Ann and Lambert cherries, and an Anjou pear. Long-time area resident Arnie Galli Sr. identified these heritage trees as part of a 1994 oral history interview. The orchard trees are well over 100 years old and are unfortunately nearing the ends of their lives. The Auburn Soroptimists have generously “adopted” the orchard, and have supported the replacement of dying trees with the same heritage varieties.

Rehabilitation & Enhancement: A Work in Progress
New grants were received in 2005 from the Beardsley Family Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to support architectural design for the next phase of work. The barn will be rehabilitated for use as a classroom and public gathering place, and the farm house will be restored to its original appearance so that it can be opened to visitors. Fund raising is underway to secure an additional $960,000 in grants and donations. This funding will be used to complete all restoration work on the buildings, provide amenities for visitors including a restroom and parking area, and install interpretive exhibits and displays. Anyone interested in supporting this effort may contact Museum director Patricia Cosgrove at (253) 288-7437 or pcosgrove@auburnwa.gov.

Life on the farm can be reconstructed through a handful of primary source materials in the Museum collection, such as photographs, archival documents, newspaper articles, and oral history interviews. These materials offer an impression of quiet, thrifty people who maintained an old fashioned way of life as the 20th century brought tremendous change to nearby communities. What makes Olson Farm such a special place is that the buildings and landscapes can tell their own story, and will offer vivid experiences of history to 21st century visitors. V