By Verne Alexander
Above, the north porch of 2124 North Fancher, with a group visiting on the lawn, circa 1927. Bertie can be assumed to be one of the adults on the lawn; the rest are guesswork. Note that the side street is Union at this time, becoming Mansfield in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Alexander Family Archives.
There is no one currently drawing breath anywhere on the planet who, if he had any connection with Spokane, would not have had the opportunity to view the kit-built house at 2124 North Fancher. It is old! It has seen a lot of birthing, living and dying, and has many stories that it could tell. I know many of these stories, and lived a few myself. I hope you enjoy them in this issue and the issues of Nostalgia that follow, as I share them in pictures and print.
The story begins with my grandfather, Elmer E. Alexander, who left his home in Wisconsin in 1882 at the age of 21. He and one of his four brothers ended up in Central City, Colorado. Elmer worked for the fire department and did some community theatre, but soon left the area for Washington Territory to seek his fortune in the mining industry.
In April 1886, he was prospecting in the Chewelah-Colville area and was running out of food. He borrowed a gun from a group of four other prospectors, shot three deer and gave one of the deer to the men who had loaned him the gun. He decided to throw in with them, and they found success. They had to weather a claim-jumping attempt by Wyatt Earp (or Warren, but that’s another story), and brought in the Old Dominion mine in Colville. Elmer was given an eighth interest, which he held on to for a year or more before selling it to Major Sidney D. Waters for $12,000. In that short time, Elmer had earned $5,960 in dividends. But Elmer envisioned yet greater wealth, and in pursuit of that next great strike he lost his money through making unwise investments. This became a sort of paradigm of his life. He thought himself to be special, and embarked on many pursuits of wealth and fame, but he never attained what he thought to be his rightful destiny.
Elmer believed in owning land. When he came up from Colorado to Washington Territory in the early 1880s, he took out a homestead north of Waterville, where two of his brothers had been living. He never developed it. In October 1886, he occupied the land near Spokane on which 2124 North Fancher was ultimately located. On July 31, 1888, he applied for a Preemption Act entry for 160 acres between the Spokane River on the north and Broadway Avenue on the south, and Eastern Avenue on the east and Western Avenue (later renamed Hardesty and finally Fancher) on the west. Eighty acres of Felts Field occupies land originally part of the Alexander Preemption. Elmer received his Patent on the Preemption Act grant on September 4, 1890. Western/Hardesty/Fancher represents the eastern city limit of Spokane, so Elmer’s Preemption was just outside of the city, and remains so today.
My grandmother, Bertie Lewis Alexander, was a California girl who came north by boat with her mother, Emeline, from the San Francisco Bay area to Portland, Oregon. The cause of this northern migration was Emeline’s desire to remove herself and her daughter from the abusive behavior of her husband, Thomas Lewis. From Portland, they took the OWR&N train to Ainsworth Junction in Washington Territory. They then boarded a Northern Pacific construction train up to Sprague, which was more or less the end of the NP line at that time. They completed their journey to Spokane by stage coach, there joining Bertie’s mother’s brother, uncle John Lewis. John was in the construction business, and had the contract to build the depots and water towers on the Northern Pacific’s new Palouse and Lewiston branch line. He also built a house in Spokane for himself and his children, his sister Emeline and her daughter, thirteen-year-old Bertie.
Bertie completed her education at Old Methodist College at age sixteen, and at seventeen taught at a one room school on Wild Rose Prairie. This was a difficult assignment, as she had about five students who could speak English, along with perhaps six Indians and four French Canadians who could not. Some of her students were as old as she, or older! I haven’t been able to discover how her path crossed that of Elmer, but the two found each other and were married February 22, 1888, at Bertie’s mother’s home on Third Street. Elmer was a very handsome man, and Bertie was known for her energy and vivacity. I believe that for a time they lived with his brother Spencer in Spokane.
It is unclear when the newlyweds went to live on Elmer’s preemption land. A letter from the Bureau of Land Management indicates that they had knowledge that he had been on the site in mid-October of 1886. Whether there was a structure there at that time, and if there were, by whose hand it was built, is unknown. What is known is that Elmer and Bertie went into production a few months after being married. Daughter Inez arrived October 25, 1889, followed by Ruth on April 23, 1891, then by Blanche on December 2, 1892, Vesta on August 28, 1897 and Dora on July 25, 1899. These five girls were known as “the big kids.” Erma, the first of “the little kids,” was born on July 17, 1901. That is a total of eight people, so if there had been a structure on the land in 1886, it would surely have had to have been enlarged to accommodate a family of this size.
There are no known pictures of this original house. It was located near the river somewhere between the Felts Field wind indicator and Upriver Dam. My sister and brothers and I have searched the area, but were unable to determine with any certainty where that house had been. We found some foundation fragments and remnants of an orchard, but no clear resolution as to where the house had been. What is clear is that this house burned to the ground on January 10, 1903. The Spokesman Review article the next day described the structure as a “cottage,” further characterizing it as “small” and noted its owner to be “E. E. Alexander, a mining man with an office on First avenue.” The cause of the fire was listed as a fallen stove pipe. Just how two adults and six girls can live together in a small cottage strains one’s imagination.
I know of but one story reflecting life in the house by the River. One day in the mid-1890s, Bertie was outside with Inez, Ruth and Blanche when two Indian women came by on their way to the wooden footbridge across the river. They had been picking berries on the slopes of Mica Peak. Blanche was about three or four years old at this time, and she had white hair all of her life. The Indians took notice of Blanche and her white hair, apparently liked it and made Bertie an offer to buy her! Well, Bertie wasn’t in a selling mood, and told them so. The Indians were affronted. They pointed out that Bertie had three daughters, so she would still have two if she sold them Blanche, and two should be quite enough. The Indians pointed out that they had none—a kind of appeal for fairness, I guess. That is all of the story that I was given. Apparently the confrontation ended peacefully, but I can just imagine the Indians tramping off in a huff and Bertie and the girls left shaking with fear!
A brief historical reminder is in order here. The Alexanders were a pioneer family in this area. Spokane Falls was just the Muley sawmill in 1873 when James Glover purchased it from J. J. Downing and S. R. Scranton, the latter part of the purchase being concluded in the bramble thicket where Scranton was hiding from Colville constables seeking to arrest him (wrongfully) for stealing horses.
There were non-native people in Washington Territory, but not in the Spokane Falls area. The city of Spokane Falls was incorporated November 9, 1881, in anticipation of the coming of the Northern Pacific railroad. Bertie arrived on a Northern Pacific construction train just two years later, and Elmer a couple of years after that.
When Elmer and Bertie married in 1888, it was just 15 years since the population of the area was almost entirely Indian. This was the Indians’ home ground, and their presence was quite manifest. It had been only 25 years since Colonel George Wright and his soldiers brutally broke the Indians’ ability to protect their land by stealing or killing all their horses, burning all their granaries and killing many, both in battle and by hanging. Thus, while there were no more open hostilities, so also was there little trust between Indians and Whites. In all probability the two Indian women who wanted to buy Blanche were not a physical threat, but Bertie and the girls could not really be confident of that.