“Buy Gum” Wilson: Early Spokane Street Peddler

By Jeff Sims

Above, a Spokane Press photo of Alvin Wilson in his wheelchair in the yard outside his cabin, 1910.

On August 18, 2018, a special ceremony at Riverside Memorial Park will commemorate a new headstone for Alvin Wilson, provided by Chuck King, Inland Monument, and with support from the Fairmount Memorial Association.

On a drippy Saturday in December, armed with a map locating a specific grave at Riverside Memorial Park, I started wiping away wet leaves on flat markers near where I thought the grave would be. After several minutes a backhoe drove down the lane and parked nearby. A caretaker hopped down and asked if I needed assistance. Alex, a pleasant and helpful guy, was able to find the gravesite after only a few minutes of counting off paces from the “hub” markers. The grave was unmarked, but he said the original temporary marker would probably have sunk below the surface. He retrieved a spade from the backhoe, and carefully dug down six inches or so. A clink of metal on stone indicated the marker. He dug it up and we brushed it off, an elongated brick-shaped piece of stone. The face revealed plain sans serif letters carved into it, reading ELVIN WILSON.

Above, the humble temporary marker for “Buy Gum” Wilson at Riverside Memorial Park shortly after being discovered by Jeff Sims with the assistance of cemetery staff. Photo courtesy of Jeff Sims.

Alvin L. Wilson was a familiar presence on the northwest corner of Stevens and Riverside in the first two decades of the 1900s. The bearded gentleman in a wheelchair called himself Shoestring Wilson, and was also known as “The Pencil Man.” He normally parked himself in front of the old Eagle Block, kitty-corner from the Paulsen Building. He spent his days making a living by peddling pencils, shoestrings, and collar buttons from a box mounted to the front of his wheelchair. Accompanied and assisted by his purebred Boston Terrier, “Spokane Belle,” he could be found on Riverside plying his trade except in the most inclement weather. On such winter days, he would run an ad in the newspaper: “Owing to the weather, I am long on shoelaces and pencils; short on coal and cash. If you need my goods drop me a line, enclose coin or postage stamps. Will send by return mail, prepaid. 1124 Riverside avenue.”

His home at 1124 Riverside was a 9×12 cabin, built to his specifications. The land owner gave permission for the cabin to remain, as long as the property was not needed for other purposes. His cabin was “a wonder of ingenuity,” according to an article in the April 24, 1910 issue of the Spokane Press newspaper; “a dexterous turn or two of his chair brings him to any part of the cabin.” Lit by electricity, it contained a bunk and a stove, and shelves for storing his pots, pans, and books. Four ropes and pulleys allowed him to open and close his door, and lock and unlock it from his bunk. From this home he operated his business empire, assisted by his accurate bookkeeping. In addition to street vending, he also tried his hand at breeding Boston Terriers, for which he had hoped to earn a little more than what he could eke out by selling shoelaces and pencils.

Wilson was born in Illinois about 1861. When the Spokane Press interviewed him in 1910, he said that he had been working as an electrician when he gradually lost the use of his legs. Pressed on the subject, he told the interviewer, “It is locomotor ataxia…. The affliction came on gradually. It has been 11 years since I have been able to stand. When it first begun to come on I was able to walk, but gradually it became worse and soon I was unable to keep on my feet, except in the daytime, when I could see my feet, but at night I was helpless. The disease was peculiar in this respect. Ordinarily people can tell where their feet or arms are without looking at them, by their subconscious mind, but locomotor ataxia deprives one of that sense in the parts afflicted. While my legs had feeling I could not tell where they were – in what position – and so at first was able to walk only when I could watch my feet. But soon I could not even do that and took to my chair for life.”

The Smith Funeral Home was built in 1912, about two years after the Spokane Press article appeared on Alvin Wilson. His little cabin was removed to make way for this iconic building. Photo courtesy of the Spokane Historic Landmarks office.

Wilson had come to Spokane sometime before 1906, and boarded at various spots near downtown before moving to 1020 Riverside about 1908, and to his new cabin at 1124 Riverside shortly after. In 1911, he had to vacate this site to make way for the new $130,000 Smith Funeral Home building. He moved to a house at 1327 North Division, where he lived until about 1916. For the next four years he resided at various places downtown and on east Sprague. In the city directories of 1918 through 1920 he is listed as a “confectioner,” a seller of candies. Around this time he earned the nickname “Buy Gum” Wilson. When he was no longer able to move about on the street, he operated a small store at 120 North Division. He had a sign on the store, reading “Buy Gum, By Gum!”

In early 1920, he was a regular attendee of Rev. James Moore Hickson’s faith healing services at All Saints Cathedral, seeking healing for his paralysis. But on June 6, 1920, he was found unconscious at his little store. He was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital, where he died that same day, the cause of death being listed as myocardial dilation. He was 59 years old, but his white beard and almost emaciated condition made him look much older. He had no family. At a cost of $54 for the plot and burial, he was interred in the Fraternal section of Riverside Memorial Park, the same spot where, with caretaker Alex’s help, I located him 97 years later.

Alvin “Shoelace,” “Buy Gum” Wilson, cheerful and smiling to all, explained his philosophy of life during his 1910 interview with the Spokane Press:

“There is a feeling of satisfaction that can come only to the man who is independent and can, when the day is over, realize that he has earned his right to live.

“Drink is one of man’s greatest enemies. It steals the mind and without that man is nothing – worse than the beasts.

“Dogs are the best of man’s friends. A dog knows when it’s master is crippled, and they learn to help an afflicted man with a readiness which is astonishing.

“No matter what your business, keep books. You cannot be successful unless you keep track of all your take in and spend, so that you will know where to economize when necessary and whether or not you are making what you ought to on the investment.

“I am better off than lots of men I see on the streets of Spokane. I am able to earn a living.

“I am always going to live in Spokane. It’s the best city I was ever in.”

Episode 9 of the King’s Guide features the life of Alvin “Buy Gum” Wilson

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