An Indestructible Legacy Left in the Footsteps of our Fathers
A Black Bear Story
By Flint Benson
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Read UNEARTHED: A Black Bear Story below.
My Grandfather, Robert Benson, was born in 1910 in the Swedish Dairy farming community of Cedardale. The farm ground, east of present-day Interstate-5, ran parallel with a mountain range in the area between Mount Vernon and Conway in Washington State. Having been raised at the base of these mountains, he witnessed the operations of the English Lumber Co., which was the area’s largest player in the logging industry. In 1914 the English Co. began construction of a bridge along what was known as the “English Logging Railroad.” The bridge, which the company claimed to be the tallest of its type in the United States, spanned Sandy Creek at a height of 119 feet. As a boy, my Grandfather watched the locomotives transporting Fir and Cedar across the trestle from the Mount Vernon area. The sights and the sounds of this magnificent era must have made quite an impression on my Grandfather who, at the age of nineteen, decided to become a railroad logger for English.
The Great Depression made getting a job with English a stiff competition. Loggers were expected to work hard, because if they didn’t, there were about two hundred other men ready to take their place. My Grandfather often spoke of his first day at work.
...The foreman took me out to a railroad grade, as we rounded the corner I saw five men pitching gravel at a frightening pace. The Foreman handed me a shovel and said, ‘get to it, boy!’
He joined the men and matched their effort. Ten minutes later, sweaty and near collapsing with exhaustion, the men threw down their shovels and shared a hearty laugh. Grandpa explained to me that they were testing his work ethic along with his sense of humor, because to work that hard, you needed both.
My Father was born in 1948 and spent his youth exploring the same mountains where his father was raised. He sometimes recalls having lunch with my Grandfather on what remained of the old trestle bridge. He never forgot the stories my Grandfather told of an old English Logging camp where 14 bunkhouses had been destroyed in a fire sometime during 1913. Grandpa also mentioned a cousin, Uncle Edgar, who used to hike up to these camps in search of colored bottles. As a young man, my Father used the old Railroad grades in the area of the old camps to access higher elevation while deer hunting. One day on a deer hunt my father spotted the signs of a bottles dig high on the mountain side and quickly realized that he had found the old burned down camp.
I was born in 1979 and grew up in a mountain house built roughly 200 yards from the old trestle bridge that the English Co. had constructed over Sandy Creek. Only one piling remains of the bridge which, like the mountains, hadn’t experienced much industry following the glory days of the English Logging Company. That all changed when the Scott Paper Co. came to town and reignited the logging industry. After nearly 70 years the mountain roared back to life with the whistle blows of the log yarders and the constant flow of Fir and Cedar down its side. Eventually, the clear-cut land came for sale in 40 acre parcels. My Father thought that we could buy some acreage if we supplemented the cost by cutting and selling firewood from the slash piles. We cut hundreds of cords over the next two years to make ends meet. I remember cutting on a new logging road when my father pointed out the location of the old English Logging camp. He explained to me how the trains brought the buildings in and took the buildings out, all except for those 14 bunkhouses had burned down long ago.
My grandfather passed away in 2007, he was 97 years old. The last years of his life the family took turns caring for him in his home on the mountain across Sandy Creek Canyon. I found that the book, "Logging Railroads in Skagit County" took him to a place where he could recall with confidence the stories he treasured the most. In the following year, I found myself as a self-employed Tile setter in a struggling economy. In my spare time I was drawn to the woods much as I had been as a child. My yellow lab and I wandered the mountain and creeks looking for antler sheds or an arrowhead, while unsuccessful on the latter, the times coming home empty handed taught me patience. I learned the native flora and fauna and hunted the black-tailed deer and migratory waterfowl. I walked the old railroad grades like my fore-fathers and, with a new appreciation for the mountain, I slowly became drawn to the logging camp.
In 2011, armed with a metal detector and my yellow lab, I entered the alder flat that would consume me for the next 3 years. I started finding parts to wood stoves and bed frames, within the first week I felt I had the footprint of the fourteen burned bunkhouses...a 30'x200' sea of nails. I was still learning the metal detector when I got the surprise of a lifetime, out of the ground came a Winchester model 1896 saddle ring carbine! I decided that with the large amount of nails in the ground I would need to set up 5'x5' areas and pull each and every nail, one handful of dirt at a time. The first finds to come were mostly all clothing related. The most common find among the nails were metal buttons from work pants and coats. I was delighted to find the buttons were stamped with the name of the manufacturer. A set of ten buttons were usually accompanied by a set of suspender buckles. I remember the buckles and buttons to be far more ornate than I had ever imagined. The designs were classy and well made. Traces of gold gilding or nickel plating still remained in places inside the buckle and within the recessed stamped designs and lettering. With each new brand discovery a new opportunity arose to research the brand’s history. The closest company to my hometown was the "Black Manufacturing Company" in Seattle. They produced garments using the "Black Bear Brand" as their line of work wear. A search of their history provided a picture of a massive painted mural advertisement preserved on the side of a brick building in Seattle. I had seen that sign before!
The most thrilling day for me was April 12th, 2012. While digging under a rotten stump I hit a pocket of buttons. It seemed every handful of dirt produced at least one button. "Buffalo Brand,” "Rose City,” "Chester Make,” "Capitol Make,” 45 buttons and four suspender buckle sets came out of the ground. I recorded my first coin, a 1906 Liberty Head Nickel and a "Good for five cents" trade token from the "Viaduct Saloon" in Everett, Wash. The following year I learned that early plastic was prized among loggers; combs, smoking pipe mouth pieces, and even a men's ring was found from materials ranging from Baleen, Celluloid, Bakelite, and hard rubber. The next two years produced a total of sixteen manufacturers of work clothes and suspenders of thirty different designs from at least a dozen suspender makers.
In March of this year, my fiancé and I were walking up our creek, about a half mile from Sandy Creek. We had been finding antique fire brick on our journeys up the creek and this particular day lead us to the source, a large fire brick lined kiln. On the next trip up we found a patch of daffodils and a wrought iron bed frame. A week ago I took the dogs back up the site and below the bed frame I started digging. To my surprise a couple of buttons came out of the ground, but they were rusted beyond recognition. The best find of the day was a "Black Bear Brand" button, I instantly knew what it was. With excitement about the find in a new location I continued to dig. Some 15 minutes later I heard a grunt, I looked up to see a full grown black bear 20 yards away walking towards me on the railroad grade. I stood up, and the dogs ran the bear off, but I remember thinking the coincidence was more than astounding. The events of the day lead me to research Black Bear Brand again, and that is when I saw the brand had been revived. I was impressed with how much research had been done, and that the company honored the late clothing manufacturer in preserving its story, history, and the designs of the old workwear and buttons. I sent an email to the company to inform them that I had 4 different designs of "Black Bear Brand" buttons found in a 1912 logging camp. My email was answered immediately and within a week I was meeting with brand curator, Josh Sirlin, and photographer Chad Lyons at my home in Mount Vernon. We visited and drove up to the logging camp. I was very pleased to see a company take so much interest, Josh and I share a passion for early 20th century workwear and while I was never able to share these finds with my Grandfather I am so pleased for this opportunity to tell his story.