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“Nah, well …”
By Donna Barr
Karolyn Hamerquist Burdick can spin a yarn, especially when she has a subject as fascinating as Gertie Fernandes.
She offered proof positive with a presentation on her newly published book, “The Last Pysht Valley Pioneer — Gertrude Stange Fernandes,” at the Clallam Bay Library on April 17.
The show included photographs from the life of the longest-surviving Pysht Valley homestead settler (1880-1987), and trail maps drawn by Burdick, based on her research of the most probable routes of three pack-horse trails out of the valley into the surrounding homesteads.
Known as “Gertie” to west-enders, the bent old woman with the limp spent most of her life as a resourceful homesteader.
Born Gertrude Stange in Breslau, Germany, she came to the Pysht Valley as a small child with her parents Joseph and Hattie, older sister Margaret and Aunt Margarethe.
The German name Stange (short a, hard g, meaning “bar”) became anglicized over time and is now pronounced locally as “Stan-jee,” with a long American English a.
At the time Pysht already boasted a post office and two hotels. The book covers Gertrude’s life from 1890-1915, including her experiences walking to school — the distant Burnt Mountain school.
Gertie’s limp was the result of a kick received in her later years from a cow — and kicks don’t come to people unwilling to work with big beasts.
As a young woman, Gertie was a fearless horsewoman, trail-riding deliveries for the Pysht post office with her husband Tony Fernandes (1883-1963). Fernandes’ family, also homesteaders, were of Portuguese descent.
Remembered as a tall, vigorous, long-striding woman, Gertie could haul a heavy bag of potatoes up the pasture trails and handle a weapon when she crossed the paths of resident predators. She loved to trap, adding cash harvested from animal skins to the farm income.
Burdick said most of the book is based on tape recordings taken during Gertie’s lifetime. The author said Gertie’s memory of her girlhood was still alive to her. Time and again, while remembering people who were gone and places that had changed, Gertie sighed, “Nah, well …”
One of Gertie’s memories included her aunt’s culture shock and exclamation as their ship coasted into what was described as Pysht’s “indifferent harbor,” when — standing on the deck of what was probably the steamer Garland — she first caught sight of the slim, fast canoes used by people of the original native village to ferry passengers from shipboard to sand:
“Mein Gott im Himmel — What have you done?”
Joseph Stange was the last homesteader to file for land in the Pysht Valley. The women originally stayed at the Gordon Hotel, whose Chinese cook reportedly received “negative reviews” (culinary culture clash?). The civilized European family survived some primitive, cold winters in tiny, cramped cabins before building better quarters, outbuildings and a barn on their farm.
Pysht Valley homesteaders enjoyed a building advantage because the timber company Merrill and Ring already had cleared the trees. Their offices on Highway 112 stand on Harry Martin’s former farm.
Burdick’s book contains interesting early photos of the Stange family in their cabin and later home, and even a photo taken back in Germany when Gertrude and Tony traveled back with her whole family on the couple’s honeymoon trip. Many of the figures in the photos are unidentified, except for those that can be named from other photographs. Burdick surmised the numerous, well-dressed people in the honeymoon photo are Gertie’s German relatives.
The Fernandes couple returned to build what at the time would have been viewed as a palatial two-story home.
Burdick said Gertie remembered the Fernandes family reporting they had arrived directly from Portugal, but said the actual route followed the fortunes of the sugar-cane industry through the Azores and Hawaii.
Gertie and Tony had five sons, George, Walter (whose twin sister died), Albert, Ernest and Paul. Albert’s son Gary today runs the successful Fernandes Enterprises, repairing, detailing and selling cars in Clallam Bay.
Burdick’s own life intersects with the stalwart homesteader’s. When the Fernandes home became a refuge for her family during the economic depression of the early 1930s, Albert wanted to go to South America to photograph exotic hummingbirds, but instead, Burdick said, he stayed and adorned his home’s walls with snaps of the local Anna’s and red-throated species.
Burdick self-published, funding the book from her savings and using the formatting services of the online site, www.BassettStudio.com. She has handled distribution on her own distribution through self-placement, making sure local booksellers have copies.
Many more stories of early settler life on the peninsula await the reader who asks for the book — at $15 a copy — at the Sunsets West Co-Op in Clallam Bay; and Port Book and News and Odyssey Book in Port Angeles.
Asked if she thought about distributing the book to a larger audience, Burdick echoed what she’d said early in her talk, much to the west-enders’ amusement: “This is probably the only audience anywhere that would know where the Pysht is — and how to pronounce it without giggling.”
The lively presentation and the refreshments were prepared and supported by the tireless Friends of The Clallam Bay Library. Burdick, who humorously referred to herself as the the Friends’ “President for Life,” donates all her book’s profits to the group.
Reporter’s Note: Many of the memories recorded on the peninsula can be classed as undocumented oral history, often with educated guesses filling in the holes or reasonably attempting to reconcile contradictory stories. But this form of writing has its value to historians. Cross-referenced and researched, oral histories can be the basis for hard historical verification, as when the legendary four-century beeswax trade on the Oregon coast led to the discovery of the wreck of the 17th-century Spanish ship hauling the cargo of beeswax.