Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lamont, Washington, the birthplace of my mom, both different and the same

Thursday, October 10, 2013
My mom's city of birth
For as long as I can remember, I have strongly embraced my “Italian-ness.” In reality, I am only half Italian, though I often say that because Italian blood is so rich, I am actually more than 50 percent Italian. My great-grandparents on my maternal grandmother’s side emigrated from Holland, and Mom’s dad was Swiss-German with some British and a few other nationalities thrown in. But when my mom married my dad, she moved into his household and lived with the Spadoni family for eight years. During those years, she picked up a keen appreciation for Italian culture and cuisine. She learned to cook my dad’s favorite meals from Nonno, my dad and his sisters, and I really believe I learned part of my Italian pride from her. There is also the fact that my surname is Italian and I look Italian, as do my sister and brother, and these factors contributed to my choice to focus most of my attention on my Italian heritage. Another reason is that others in my extended family have already done considerable research on my mom’s family tree and have traced some lines back to the 1600s. Up until I started traveling to Italy, we could only trace our Italian family back to the late 1800s, and I was curious and eager to extend this knowledge.

Lamont Community Church, the only church in town.
That being said, I have not completely ignored the maternal side of my family.  My grandmother lived until I was 31, and by that age I was astute enough to realize the importance of family history, and I conducted, recorded and transcribed a two-hour interview with her. In this interview, she related that she and John Ernest Wagoner married in March of 1918, spent the summer on her dad’s ranch in Chewelah, Washington, and in the fall returned to Lamont, Washington, for John’s teaching job. They had expected John to be called into the military in 1918, but that fall the war was nearly over. He received two official letters on the same day, one telling him to report for military service and another telling him to ignore the letter that told him to report.

“We packed up what we had, which wasn’t very much, and we moved into a little cabin on the school grounds,” she said. “It had been the former school house, but they’d fixed it up for teachers to live in, a little three-room house. That’s where both our girls were born.”

Her explanation that they “returned” meant that John taught there as a single man at least in the 1917-18 school year. Then she said they were there for six years, so they would have left in the spring of 1925. During those years, Vera Beryl Wagoner was born January 12, 1920, and my mom, Margaret Merle Wagoner, May 24, 1921. Though it is only about four hours from Gig Harbor, up until yesterday I had never gone to the town of my mom’s birth. Lucy and I had spent a couple of days in Leavenworth, and we decided to take a side trip to Lamont before going back home.

This photo was taken long after my grandparents left
Lamont, but it was the only one I could find
that showed at least part of the school.
I learned a little about Lamont from Wikipedia. It was incorporated as a town in 1910, named for Daniel Lamont, former vice president of the Northern Pacific Railway. It was initially founded as a terminal of the Spokane Portland & Seattle Railway, a joint venture of Northern Pacific and Great Northern. In its early years, the terminal included a depot, yard, 22-stall roundhouse and locomotive servicing facilities. These facilities included water and oil tanks for SP&S steam locomotives, and a six-pocket coal dock for Northern Pacific steam locomotives. Crews from Spokane and Pasco would work to Lamont and lay over before working back home again. But the railroad shortly reconsidered the remote outpost of Lamont as a terminal, and when the roundhouse burned in 1913, crews started working through between Pasco and Spokane.

Trains continued to stop at Lamont for fuel and water. During World War II, a steel coal dock from Great Northern in Montana was moved to Lamont to replace an aging wooden dock in 1944. In 1956, steam locomotives were replaced with diesel-electric locomotives. Fueling facilities for the diesels had been constructed at Lamont after WWII but were abandoned in 1957 when trains began to fuel in Pasco. In the early 1980s, BN began to look at ways to reduce the amount of its tracks. In 1991 the track to Lamont was removed, and the State of Washington obtained the former railroad line as a trail.

Statistically, Lamont reached its peak years during the time my mom was born. The 1920 census showed 165 residents, and the population has decreased slowly but regularly since then. It dropped to 101 in 1950 and held steady until 2000, when it still had 106 residents, but that dropped to 70 in 2010, the lowest it has been in the last 100 years.

One positive aspect of the declining population, I felt, is that the town would not have changed dramatically since the time my mom was born. Perhaps their house or the schoolhouse where my grandfather taught would still be standing. On these assumptions, I was only partially correct.

We exited Interstate 90 at Sprague and went south about 10 miles to Lamont. Driving down Main Street, we first saw a fairly modern looking school, surely not where my grandfather taught in 1920. We could see large grain warehouses near where the train station used to be. It looked like some of the warehouses are still in use, but the grain must be hauled with trucks instead of trains. Some remains of the roundhouse and service facilities still stand.

We parked outside a new community center. I learned later it was supposed to be a library, but the community ran out of money to complete that part of the project. According to a sign on the bulletin board, the center is only used once a month, for a community potluck dinner. We walked around nearly all of the 12 neatly laid out streets, 10 of which were gravel. Many of the houses looked to be around 100 years old, so the streets and houses likely have not changed much. A few manufactured homes have been added, and a couple of older houses looked ready to collapse. There is a small community church that likely existed in the 1920s, but no one was inside. We found not a single store, shop or restaurant.

We saw an elderly man planting trees in his yard and talked to him for a couple of minutes. He said he moved here eight years ago because he liked small towns, but he has since found it too small and quiet for his tastes. “It’s the second smallest town in Washington,” he said. “A lot of people have moved out since I’ve been here. I’d like to move, too, but I’m sort of trapped here.” He also said he didn’t know many of his neighbors, which struck us as odd in a town of no more than 70. He did, though, know where the remains of the old school were—two blocks east and another block north.

The sidewalk and stairs are about all
that is left of the school. However,
these do not seem to be the same
stairs as in the group photo.
We found the site without a problem and met the owner, Julia McDaniel. She has a manufactured home behind the crumbling foundation of the old school, which has been nearly completely dismantled. Julia said the school, which once had a basement and two upper levels, began to fall apart in the 1940s, and when it was replaced in the early 1950s, only the ground level was being used because of safety concerns. All that exists now are the front stairs and parts of the stone foundation. Next to it are even harder-to-find signs of the foundation for the old gymnasium. The sidewalk between the two buildings is still intact, though. We find no signs of an older schoolhouse, where my grandparents lived and my mom and aunt were born.

This rock wall foundation still stands
Julia doesn’t know much about the school’s history and is not sure who does, but she suggested we ask at the new school, where there might be photos of the old school. She has only been here for 10 years, but she is as active in the community as anyone. She is on both the town council and the school board. People in the town are unusually reclusive, she said, explaining that the church sponsors monthly potlucks at the community center, but she is the only one from within the town limits who attends. The meals are a lot of fun, she said, but it is only the farmers from the surrounding region who come.

“People come to Lamont to hide,” she said. “They don’t get involved in each other’s lives. We have five positions available on the town council, and we only have three of them filled.” She asked another woman to join, explaining that the only requirements are residency in the town and being a registered voter. The woman told Julia she did not want to become a registered voter because “that’s how people find out where you are.”

Our next stop was the new school, where students were climbing on the bus at school day’s end. On the walls, we found photos of Lamont’s graduating students starting from 1925. We also found a group photo of the school orchestra from 1921. It includes about 15 students and two adults, but my grandfather isn’t among them. We assumed that prior to 1925, the school did not have any seniors. Some classes of the 1920s and 1930s have only one or two seniors; large classes have as many as nine. The school secretary gave us the name and phone number of Jean Stromberger, who attended the old school and lives outside of town. She might have some photos of the old school, we were told.

In the school parking lot, I phoned Jean, who invited us to her house to talk about the school, and we took a two-mile drive to her house, just southwest of the town, where she lives with her husband Dan. Jean was born in Lamont in 1927, so she is 86. She went to the old school from grades 1 through 10, and then she had to move to nearby Sprague to take care of her grandmother; thus she graduated from Sprague High School. She did not want to change schools, but it was something that had to be done for the sake of the family, and she made the best of it. One nice benefit of the move was spending more time with future husband Dan, who grew up in Sprague and went to school with her there.

Jean and Dan remember Lamont as a lively town with two grocery stores, a hardware store, a hotel, ice cream store, auto repair garage, post office, bank and pool hall.  “I used to know everybody who lived in town,” she said. “Now I hardly know anybody.”

Most people in Lamont were either farmers or worked for the railroad. Her family grew wheat. “We’d charge our groceries most of the year, and when the harvest came in, we’d pay our bill. The store would give us a big bag of candy when we paid the bill.”

Fires in both Lamont and Sprague contributed to the loss of some business from the railroad companies, perhaps hastening the demise of the towns. Jean said that there were rumors that the towns were burned on purpose by outsiders so the work performed in the two little communities would be done instead in Spokane or Colville. “I’ve always heard that all my life,” she said. “If that’s what they wanted, I guess it worked.

“I always loved the trains. I still do. We use to play house over by the tracks. When a train would come, we’d run like crazy to get to the tracks and watch it go by. We’d wave, and the engineer would blow his horn for us. I miss the trains. I’d love to hear a train on that track now.”

As for her time at the school, she has a couple of group photos taken on the front steps. Some of the school can be seen in the background, but she has nothing that shows the entire front of the school or any of the classrooms. She recalled that there were four classes, for grades 1-3, 4-6, 7-8 and high school. I do not know what age level my grandfather taught, and Jean did not start school until around 1933, so their paths never crossed.
There is a good chance this was my grandparent's house in Lamont. It is no longer standing.

Just as we were about to leave, Jean showed us a photo of her mom, riding side saddle on a horse, outside the Lamont school. “But that’s not the same school,” she said. It was even older than the school Jean attended—and then I recalled my interview with my grandmother. Grammy had said that she lived in “the former schoolhouse.” Now we were quite certain that we were viewing a photo of the house where my mom was born, quite a prize.  I also feel that our conversation with Jean has been an additional prize. Mom passed away much too long ago, in 1978 at age 57. I wish so much I could still have her with me; I miss so many things about her, and I have much I’d like to talk about with her. Chatting with Jean, born in the same town and in the same decade, is obviously not nearly as good—but it’s about as good as I can get now, and I left our encounter feeling satisfied that I have come a little closer to understanding my roots.


  1. Paul, remember a Dennis Franklin, Baseball, Peninsula High'69? My wife and I have lived in Ritzville for 13 years now. We recently finished 10 years pastoring at the Ewan Nazarene Church, 10 miles from Lamont. Thanks for the complete article on Lamont. (Check out your '69 Seahawks yearbook) Dennis,

  2. Dennis, I remember you. In fact, it was because of senior outfielders like you that I, a sophomore, spent most of my time playing outfield for the junior varsity that year. I only got two varsity at-bats. After that year, I played with your brother Duffy. Good to hear from you!

  3. I think you meant that you took the exit from Interstate 90 into Sprague, not Interstate 5.

    1. Good catch! I have changed it to 90. Thanks.


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