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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Charles and Mary Nelson, Olalla Pioneers

Charles and Mary Nelson, Olalla Pioneers

Olalla has had throughout history as very close relationship with Gig Harbor and I want people to know Olalla for more than just Starvation Heights.  Or the Polar Bear Plunge on New Years morning which is very popular.  Or the Bluegrass & Beyond Festival in August.   Besides Olalla and Gig Harbor are only separated by 10 miles via Crescent Valley Road.  Doesn’t that suggest both communities were linked in more than one way?

I noticed in his biography, Charles Nelson had the only telephone in Olalla when the telephone line was strung between Gig Harbor and Burley in 1906.

The connection in this sense is the fact Leander Finholm and his cousin Hugo had moved to Gig Harbor from Olalla when Leander purchased 80% of the stock in the Inland EmpireTelephone & Telegraph Company in 1926.  

The Kitsap County Historical Society, 280 Fourth Street, Bremerton, WA 98337, has given me permission to reprint Charles and Mary Nelson’s biography as published in their Kitsap County:  A History.   

All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any mechanical or electronic means, including photocopying, scanning, digitizing, or any other means, without written permission from the publisher, except for purposes of critical review.  ISBN 978-0-615-19687-0.  QuarkXPress.  Prepared by: AlphaGraphics, 3131 Elliot Ave., Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98121

Charles and Mary Nelson
Janet Nelson

Charles Frederick Nelson was born in Goteborg, Sweden, in 1868.  In June 1869, his family came to the United States and settled in Watauga, Ill., already a fairly settled farming community outside Galesburg.  After his father’s death, his mother remarried, and there were more children added to the already large family.

At age 11, he went to stay with an older brother, John, in Macpherson, Kansas, where he stayed three years, then returned to Illinois to work on farms during the summer and attend school in the winters.

In July, 1889, Charles Nelson came to Olalla at the suggestion of his brother, Gust, who had come in 1883.  He bought 40 acres and started life on his own.  According to a brief self-written memoir on his life, he said he ran for sheriff in 1892 and was defeated by 17 votes.

From 1892 to 1897, he was a “steamboat,” working on the Fairhaven where he was fireman.  He also worked on the Clara Brown, Monte Cristo, Wanderer, and was purser on the Blanche, a boat owned by the Olalla Improvement Company.  Later he owned the Erling, that he used for towing scows of freight.  The boat was also used for pleasure trips such as excursions to Point Defiance for picnics.

On March 25, 1897, he left Seattle for Alaska.  His well-worn, pencilled notebook records some of his expenditures: “Ticket, $14; tent and stove, $7.35; medicine, $2.25; gun, $7; clothing, $42.60; hardware, $8; and one shovel, $1, plus other miscellaneous.”

He traveled north on the steamer Mexico the Yukon where he had claims on Sulphur and Bonanza Creeks.  In 1898, he came home but went back for another four years and owned a store in Dawson, Yukon Territory.

In 1904, he bought the Olalla store from John and Kate Martin and was appointed postmaster.  The building had been built a few years before in front of Lind’s store, which then had the only good access by water, and finally closed.  This second business was destined to survive.
iPhone picture of store 6/15/16

iPhone picture of store6/15/16


As a manager of a general store, his work days were long.  In 1906, a telephone line was strung from Gig Harbor to Burley and then to Olalla.  The only instrument was in the store.

This meant that all messages had to be delivered by somebody, and it is easy to imagine how neighbors who dropped in at the store would be asked to help.  If there was no one else, Charley would do it himself.  As late as the 1940s, he was still delivering messages to people without phones.

Charles Nelson was known as a shrewd businessman, but also a compassionate one.  His pocket notebook records many loans to early people, and he became a dealer in real estate, partly because many of the loans were paid off with deeds to property.

Pioneers testified to his impact nearly Olalla.  Rose Willock described him as “a gay young blade who had a spirit of camaraderie.  It was boosting the whole neighborhood, I think.”  In 1907, Nelson went back to Illinois to see his family and met a young school teacher, Mary Isaacson.  Her letters to Charles during the following school year show the change from friendship to an actual commitment.  Still, there must have been many doubts as to the kind of life she might lead if she went to Olalla to be Mrs. Nelson, and the date of a wedding was postponed to the end of the school year, the end of summer, and finally, with much urging from Charles, an October date was set.  He arrived in Watauga, and they were married Oct. 8, 1907.    He was 39 and Mary, 26.

The store in Olalla had living quarters, and Mary Nelson was soon more than a housewife as she helped with the storekeeping and opened a boarding house for drummers, mill workers, and others without a place to stay.  Her small record book recorded meals at 25 cents each and overnight charges at 50 cents per night.  She often had a hired girl to help.

Charles and Mary Nelson were musicians.  Charles had played his violin for programs and dances from the time he arrived in Olalla, and with his wife as pianist, they continued, joining Emennuel Lind, zither player, making a long-remembered threesome.  The three had a weekly Thursday night practice for many years.  Before he married, Charles allowed the upstairs of the store to be used for dances.  To steady the building and be sure the weight of dancing feet would not be too much for the floor, heavy beams were brought into the store to brace the upstairs each time.  After Mary arrived, the dances had to be held elsewhere.

In 1913, two important things happened.  Their son was born Aug. 29, and their big new house was finished.  Charles had acquired the property known as Nelson’s Home Tracts, which was located above the Olalla dock and facing the water.  He and his wife planned their new home to be called “Buena Vista.”  They employed Wesley P. Bradshaw, local carpenter, to help them.
iPhone picture of house facing view 6/15/16

iPhone picture of east side of house 6/15/16

He drew up plans for the house, and with the help of local laborers, he saw that it was built.  When asked why he built such a big house, Charley used to say it was one way of people working out their bills to the store.  When it was done, it was a tribute to the craftsmanship of the time.

In 1963 when the home was restored by Carl Nelson, son of Mary and Charles, the workers, carpenters and painters were amazed by the excellent way it had been built.  The new house had a Delco electric lighting plant and a wood-fired hot water heating plant.  The original plans, along with many of the construction bills, were found in the house.  In 1973, Charles Nelson’s house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Charles and Mary Nelson were involved in community activities all their lives.  Charles, besides his musical contribution, was active in the Baseball Club and was ready to help with any project for the good of all, if not with his labor, then with his money.  He is said to have given the money to finish the inside of the church about 1912.  Mary was pianist for many funerals and church activities.  She gave piano lessons to many young people and promoted musical activities generally.

Their big house contained every variety of musical instrument and many small instruments that didn’t require much musical knowledge to play.  One can easily imagine that a young person attending one of their musicals on Friday nights was asked to participate by holding a tambourine, cymbal, or other noise maker and told to “just keep time to the music.”

Charles Nelson was a voter registrar for over 40 years and for many of those, a notary public.  Mary became postmaster in 1915, and the two of them alternated at the job with other assistants until they retired from the store in 1946.  Through two World Wars they managed rationing and selling war bonds, in addition to their usual post office and general store duties.

Just the bookkeeping staggers one’s imagination when one considers that the store hours were never set at 8 to 5 or 6, but more apt to be until 7 or whenever the last customer would leave.  Often they were down at the store on Sunday morning.  They still had to go home and keep the books, write letters and keep up on the problems of their real estate.  Charles had built some houses in Bremerton and Tacoma between 1900 and 1910, and these they rented for the rest of their lives with the accompanying problems.

For a few years after retirement, the Nelsons had time to enjoy their family, which included two grandchildren, Robert C. and Marianne R. Nelson.  In August 1952, Charles suffered a heart attack and died.

Mary continued to live in the big house until 1960 when she had to be hospitalized.  She died in January 1961.

When their son Carl and his wife went through the many collections of papers in the house, they found evidence that Charles and Mary Nelson had been compassionate people, dear to the hearts of many in the Olalla community.  Countless letters testified to this and many were “thank you” letters for favors extended.

Janet Nelson


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