This month marked the passing of two under celebrated icons of West Seattle. They could not have been more different in scores of ways; probably attributing to their individual uniqueness. One a woman, the other a man; one sort of laid back, the other a type-A personality; one operating in a close circle of friends, the other erudite mixer in the broad community. If their paths seldom crossed, they surely ran raggedly parallel. Both had a vision and a passion for the value of history in their unique communities.
Elliott Couden, 93, when he died early this month, was a resident of West Seattle. Arriving in Seattle from the east in 1936, he was a stock broker and began a career in real estate in 1941. He set up shop in the north outskirts of White Center prior to World War II. The area was rustically devoid of sidewalks or curbs, had no bank or post office and generally suffered a unenviable reputation and the unearned title, “Rat City.” Couden sold auto license plate, insurance and real estate from his office.
Doing business in an area where few geographical boundaries could exist between ethnic groups and first generation immigrants, Couden was well aware of the discrimination rampant in the availability of affordable housing. In a real estate industry locked into a strict unwritten color barrier, he was among the first to entertain purchase offers and rental applications by ethnic minorities. Couden became a passionate champion of the Fair Housing Act embodied in the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1968.
During those years, I certainly was aware of his renegade status and alienation in the real estate business, but knew him personally, only as an occasional advertiser in the West Seattle Herald. It was always a treat to call on him.
Later, I became aware of his great passion for Southwest Seattle beginnings. He joined with others anxious to assemble memorabilia, publications, post cards, letters, documents, etc. which in aggregate, would preserve the rich history of the area. Together, they organized the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, which became the instrument for developing The Log House Museum: Southwest Stevens Street and 61st Avenue Southwest.
Built as a carriage house in the early 1900s the building was converted to a residence and finally became the museum in 1997 after an arduous effort on the part of volunteers and organizers.
The main house, a half block north on 61st was built in true pioneer log cabin style, which eventually became the Homestead Restaurant. The William J. Bernard family built and resided in the house from 1904 to 1907. It became an overnight retreat of the Seattle Driving and Auto Club until 1950 when Swend Neilson made it a restaurant and gave it the Alki Homestead handle. Adele Foote took over as proprietor five years later. She referred Doris to the Herald print shop when she sold the Homestead in 1960. Early on, Mrs. Nelson lived upstairs with her two children. She certainly added the crowning éclat which provided its world class reputation. Doris Nelson died earlier this month at 80. Her Alki Homestead had a world-wide reputation for the quality of its simple menu and unique ambiance supporting a glimpse of Seattle’s early history.
If the Historical Society bows out, the Homestead will be appraised and offered for sale. Its historical landmark status does restrict future use and changes. Acknowledging the value of the building as a top-rated restaurant, it is no surprise that it already has attracted more than a little interest by potential buyers.
The Historical Society worked closely with Doris Nelson since its founding in 1984, It helped develop landmark status for the Homestead. This relationship, certainly influenced Mrs. Nelson’s offer to the society in her will.
The memory of Doris Nelson’s classy appearance capped by the unique up-do of her graying hair will never be erased. She was a gracious hostess who knew most of the local guests by name and got introductions to their relatives and business associates from all corners of the world. When I met with her at the Herald and later at West Seattle Associates in her pink car and suits, she always knew exactly what she wanted in the way of printing and advertising and we were happy to deliver it . . . on time.
My wife Betty counted on Mrs. Nelson to provide a proper backdrop for all manner of family occasions—anniversaries, graduations, birthdays and friends from out of town. They shared a love of antiques and we always enjoyed the collection which adorned the Homestead entry. I happily participated in scores of Kiwanis dinners (wives invited), marking officer installations and other events. I especially recall our celebration of the late Oscar Weber’s 104th birthday. We had lots of company. Bottom line, Doris Nelson created a symbol for West Seattle as unique as the Space Needle or the ferry Kalakala.
Some of the information herein is enthusiastically attributed to great stories written by Providence Cicero and Judy Chia Hui Hsu for the Seattle Times.
The recent meanderings of the much-buffeted Kalakala reminds me of a special West Seattleite. Little known to the general populace; William “Wild Bill” Thorniley was a long time resident in a modest home about three blocks south of Jefferson School on 42nd Ave. S.W. In the 1930s, Thorniley worked as a PR guy for the Captain Peabody’s Black Ball Line. He later peddled it to the State of Washington.
His association with sloppy weather is immersed in a refusal to let it dampen his rosy outlook in the slightest. On the crummiest day, he would dip into the dumpster back of Nielsen Florists, appropriate a posy, push it into his lapel and barge in our door upstairs at West Seattle Associates with a hearty “isn’t it a wonderful day!” We provided his headquarters at the Junction.
After a long career with the “Y” . . . mostly in West Seattle . . . Normy became the Exec of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce. As such, he did the usual management chores and became the glue that stuck the organization together. Unwilling to erode his Social security pension by exceeding the earning limits, he worked for peanuts. When the limits were lifted at age 70, we reminded the Chamber powers that he deserved a raise sufficient to acquire a decent car and put his enumeration somewhat in line with the effort he was providing on their behalf.
Normy never took down a note that I was ever aware of. However, his weekly newsletter was long, wordy and inspirational. His pep talks at Chamber functions must have paralleled the exhortations he gave young kids to propel them to their greatest level of achievement. When he had had his say, you felt uplifted, but would be hard pressed to remember what he said.
Our early operations at West Seattle Associates included a string of newsletters for most local organizations, including the Chamber. When Normy arrived with “copy,” it was hand-written on whatever paper he was able to scrounge. You could read it, but just barely. After a half hour of pulling her hair out, my secretary would lean on me as an interpreter. What finally got to the members in the mail often bore little resemblance to Normy’s inspirational meanderings. Inexplicably, he never once said he had noticed any changes. It helped some that I had been to most of the same meetings.
Normy never once shortchanged the Chamber in performing his job. He was well respected and welcomed by every level of politician and bureaucrat . . . local state and federal. He was on top of anything that might affect or challenge the comfort-level of the West Seattle lifestyle and culture.
After his second retirement, Normy was declared a life member of the Chamber. He resided until his death at Wesley Gardens in Des Moines. It was standing room only at his memorial service which packed Fauntleroy Community Church.
Normy never sent Christmas cards. Instead, he just phoned a few friends and offered a cheery “Merry Christmas.” I was privileged to get a few of those calls, and I miss them. . . . and Normy, too.
The recent passing of an everyday hero, Lloyd Jeter, reminds me of a chapter of West Seattle history that bears refreshing. Every year on a Sunday during Hi-Yu Week, Lloyd and his buddies from the West Seattle Sportsmen’s Club staged the annual Kid’s Fishing Derby. Lloyd was Chairman and represented the Sportsmen at Hi-Yu meetings, too.
In the earlier days, Lloyd’s Boathouse (at the site of what is now Salty’s on Alki) was still in business and the kids, accompanied by adults, actually went out on Elliott Bay and competed for prizes in the Derby. There were quite a few categories — by age, size of fish and species. They were some really big prizes, too! It was an adventure for these youngsters just to get in a boat and be lowered by an elevator down into the water, or be plucked back up from the Sound.
Though my fishing skills were limited, I enjoyed rowing for a young nimrod or two during those derbies. One time, a little kid had a biteless day and we were making a doleful journey back to the boathouse. His bait and gear were trailing behind the boat and he had a long sad look on his face. Guess what? He got a whopping strike not 20 yards from the elevator and hauled in the second biggest fish of the day. I was as thrilled as he was.
The editor and publisher at the time was Rupert Hamilton who actually lived in West Seattle with his family and had an active interest in a growing community with historic beginnings. Hamilton View Point at the North end of California Ave., bears his name. He passed away a year later leaving the Herald in the hands of his partner Clyde Dunn.
An important presence at the Junction was the A&P Store (Great Atlantic and Pacific Grocery Store), located where “Petco” is now. The A&P drew its loyal patronage from a surrounding neighborhood of residences.
The store ran a weekly 2-column by 21-inch ad in the Herald. The ad was put together at the University Herald and someone, often me, did a ’round trip via streetcars to the “Ave” in the University District to fetch this 10-lb. lead jewel and return it to the Herald where it was locked into page eight.
Newspapers, including the Herald, began in the hot metal era, when typesetting was done on Linotype Machines. The Herald’s weekly run came off a Duplex, 8-page, flat-bed press which printed the eagerly awaited pages from huge rolls of newsprint imported from Powell River, Canada.
A replica of the Herald’s printing facility of those days, painted with some artistic license, graces the northwest side of the State Farm Building at 4727 44th Ave. S.W. It is one of the “Murals of West Seattle.”
- Editor’s Note: This is our inaugural column from Warren, and we hope you find it as entertaining a walk down history lane as we do. Warren is being modest, as his likeness also graces the mural he speaks of. The mural was funded, for the most part, by another long time Westside resident, Doris Richards. She also had a start at the West Seattle Herald.